Over the years, John Birmingham has had his finger in many pies. He is an author that has penned over 30 books that run the gamut from humor to military science fiction. Recently he has released his second novel, The Shattered Skies, in his wild sci-fi space opera The Cruel Stars trilogy. In The Cruel Stars, a group of ragtag fighters come together and battle against fascists in space.
John was kind enough to sit down with me and discuss his writing career and his newest series, The Cruel Stars.
[BWGB] You have a degree in International Relations; if you had decided not to be a writer, what would you have done with that education?
Nothing good, I’m afraid. I started my working life as a researcher for the defence department. One of my flatmates and good friends from that time is now the secretary of the department. His fingerprints are all over that recent nuclear submarine deal. I imagine if I had stayed in my original lane that’s the sort of shenanigans I would’ve been up to.
[BWGB] When you were first published in the Semper Floreat at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, was that the moment you got the writing bug?
Oh no, I had it years before. I think I had it almost as soon as I learned to write in primary school, but I remember applying myself to the work of writing when I was in high school. I’d sit up late, like really late, on school nights, copying out huge slabs of text from books that I really liked. I was trying to reverse engineer them, to see how they worked. I learned later that Hunter S Thompson did the same thing with William Faulkner. So maybe I shouldn’t be too embarrassed by it.
[BWGB] You have stated that you started as a horror writer and were heavily influenced by Stephen King, and reading your catalog, you can see a lot of that in the Dave Hooper series. I have to ask about your first horror novel. What was the premise, and is your first horror book still located at the State Library of New South Wales?
Hahahaha. I can’t remember the exact premise of the book, but I do know it was a terrible and embarrassing homage to Stephen King’s The Stand. An end of the world novel with demons. I guess, given how the Dave Hooper series turned out, the rotten apple didn’t fall too far from the tree. But God, that handwritten first high school novel was hot, shameful garbage. Anybody who’s in Sydney can feel free to drop into the state library and read it in it’s original hand written form. Especially young writers. They would see then that there is nothing magical about being a published novelist.
[BWGB] Tell me a bit about your site Cheeseburger Gothic. I would love to know how it got its name and the story of how it started.
The origins of the name are lost to time, I’m afraid. But I wouldn’t be surprised if they had something to do with that old TV series, American Gothic. I quite liked it. And I really like cheeseburgers. So, you know…
It started as a diary on an old blog site called journalspace, and I do remember I started writing there because a guy called Steve Murphy had written a review of Weapons of Choice on his journalspace blog. He picked me up on a couple of egregious technical errors, which was fair enough. But otherwise the review was really nice. I guess it drew me into that community.
[BWGB] I have a friend from Sydney who introduced me to Falafel, the play, and the movie. Could you talk a bit about He Died with a Felafel in His Hand and how that came about?
I was working at a magazine called The Independent Monthly, and we were quickly going out of business. The deputy editor took me aside one day and said he had this plan to spin up a publishing company. He wondered if I could write him a funny book as a stocking stuffer for the Christmas market. I shrugged and told him that I had a few flatmate stories, and we were off to the races. It was weird, really. I took it on like a magazine commission, rather than a book. And it totally died in the arse when it came out. Nobody bought that fucking thing for about six months, but there was this one guy an independent book distributor, who really liked it and who kept a box in the back of his car, forcing it onto bookstores everywhere he went. After six months it took off. I reckon that guy was the reason.
[BWGB] How has your writing changed from the days of Falafel to now? Is it the same process?
My process has been, er … refined. It had to be. I had no process when I started. I wrote Felafel in five weeks, mostly after midnight, on cheap red wine, hot chips and amphetamines. It sounds cool, but it wasn’t. It was stupid and unsustainable. I’m all about the time management now. Pomodoro technique, Cal Newport’s deep focus, all of that shit. I try to write, and I mean write, not ditz about on Twitter, for at least four hours a day, every day. I track my time. I block my access to social media. I try to know what I’m going to write before I write it, and I execute on that plan like a motherfucker.
[BWGB] Reading Falafel and Stranger Thingies, you seem like a man who can find the funny in every situation—even dark ones. How do you approach comedic writing? How do you take something dark and see the humor in it?
To be honest, I don’t know. I don’t know why I see the humour in things, or maybe that I can simply extract the humour in things and put it on the page or the screen, when others can’t. When I realised that I could do something that would earn a bit of money I even tried studying it, buying how-to books by comedians and comic authors. I can tell you mechanically why something is funny, but not why some people are able to engineer those lulz on the screen or onstage and others aren’t.
[BWGB] Is it true that you wrote your David Hooper series because the Movie Reign of Fire pissed you off so much?
Yes. Yes it is. I was promised helicopter gunships versus dragons, and I was really looking forward to seeing some dragons get their asses kicked. I was gravely disappointed.
I first started training in my early 20s, for a very sad reason. A friend of mine was murdered. I felt bad I hadn’t been there for her, but I also knew that if I had, I probably would have been killed too. I’ve been training on and off, ever since, whenever I can find a good Dojo. I went about 12 years in Sydney without training at all because the nearest Dojo was four hours away. I got back into it when my kids were old enough to train, about 4 and 6 respectively.
And yes, it really does help with writing fight scenes. A lot of the training we do in our school is scenario based. Fights in stairwells. Attacks in train carriages. That sort of thing. It’s nice being able to understand how the angles work. Although, to be honest, most fights in real life are over within two seconds. And they’re not particularly pretty to look at. But that’s not the sort of thing which sells books or movies.
[BWGB] You have many strong female characters in the Cruel Stars. Women who kick-ass, have swagger, and lead teams of warriors. I also read you have a daughter you are training to be “an unstoppable killing machine of death when she leaves home.” In science fiction, women used to be portrayed as insipid and weak. They would rather scream than beat the monster. Are there any female characters you thought were watershed moments for science fiction? For me, it was Ripley’s “get away from her, you Bitch.”
Yeah, Ripley is acknowledged as occupying an inflection point in popular culture. She is hugely significant. But there were female characters before her, and obviously there have been plenty since. It’s almost a whole genre now. I think the Doctor Who companion Leela was really important in her own way. And obviously Buffy the Vampire Slayer wrote a whole new rulebook. Pity about Joss Whedon, though, innit.
[BWGB] The second book in the Cruel Stars series drops this month called Shattered Skies. Can you explain a bit about the series for the uninitiated and some things we get to look forward to in Shattered Skies?
Hmm, lets see. There are space Nazis, space zombies, which the space Nazis created, to overthrow the ruthless corporate space empires. There’s space lesbians, space marines, angry robots, a Princess, a 700 year old foulmouthed Scotsman, and a young woman called Lucinda who’s in over her head. Until she starts shooting people, and then she’s way more chill. The space Nazis turned up in The Cruel Stars, and they broke a lot of things and hurt a lot of people, but the lesbians, the Princess, the Scotsman, the angry robot and Lucinda opened a whole can of whoopass on them. There’s more whoopass in book two. And consequences. So many consequences.
[BWGB] Was it a unique challenge to write The Cruel Stars with characters who lived such long lives due to recorded consciousness? A character now might not have been the same person 400 years ago.
That was less the challenge than a provocation. This particular trope has been worked over a couple of times now by authors as good as Peter F Hamilton. So I didn’t have to reinvent the wheel, I just wanted to gaffer tape some really wicked blades to it.
[BWGB] You do highly detailed research in your books. What are some technology rabbit holes you went down in researching Cruel Skies?
Machine intelligence and neural nets. Like, actual wiring in the brain. Elon Musk is deep into that shit, and with good reason. He’s worried about the machine singularity. At one point I found myself reading, re-reading and taking notes on this insane 45,000 word essay deep diving into Musk’s Neuralink project. And then I would remind myself, dude, just write the book.
[BWGB] What are you writing or have going on at the moment?
The third and final book in the series, natch. The Forever Dead. And some screenwriting, which I can’t talk about, because screen guys are really uptight. But for my own amusement, I have been playing with a TV adaptation of The Cruel Stars. I’ve also been working on a new Axis Of Time series, over on my Patreon page. That should start coming out on Audible sometime in the next six months. And I have an idea for some crime novels. It’s enough to be getting on with.