Your novel Without Warning is about what happens when an area of North America, mostly the United States, is wiped out by an energy wave. What is the key to making a high concept idea like this work well?
The little things. No, seriously. I learned that from Stephen King. When you’re trying to get the reader to accept a pedal to the metal, balls out crazy idea as the fulcrum of a long novel, you really need to attend to the minor details. Little things like the sort of food which runs out early on the shelves of a 7-Eleven in the first days of the crisis. Or, for my readers, a description of the mechanics of a flash suppressor for an assassin’s pistol.
I also wanted Without Warning to be read as a true alternate history, so at those points where it intersects with real history, it has to be right, even though the narrative arc of the novel diverges wildly from what actually happened in the first couple of pages.
The characters reactions are important, too. Human beings are very adaptable, and one of the ways they adapt to difficult situations is through black humor. An issue I have with a lot of thriller writing is that the characters are all so serious and humorless. I don’t want to push them out to the extremes of a Joss Whedon-like ironic detachment (and there is a nice joke about that in After America) but there’s no reason they can’t have a bit of fun, just because the world is ending.
What works of fiction have had most influence on your fiction writing or do you admire most?
I suppose, most recently, the half dozen or so alternate history writers who own the field in the US, guys like Steve Stirling and Harry Turtledove and Eric Flint. I started reading their books at a crucial stage, when I was deciding whether to go down the path of writing nothing but serious nonfiction, or to embrace the idea of becoming a genre writer. Stirling and Flint in particular were both very supportive. Previous to that, way previous to that, I always credit the late Australian humorist John O’Grady, with opening my eyes to just how powerful words could be on a page. He was the first guy who ever made me laugh out loud just by writing something down, and I really wanted to know how to do that, so as a teenager I used to sit up late at night copying out his books line after line, paragraph after paragraph, trying to figure out how he had done it.
What makes a great first chapter, or what is an example of a great first chapter and what makes it stand out for you?
A great first chapter must move you from the mundane to the awesome without any sense of undue acceleration or dizziness. Unless of course you’re starting off in something like a Peter F. Hamilton novel, where the awesome just comes as part of the package. Alternate history novelists tend to do great first chapters, because they have to build in that point of divergence. Stirling does a great job in Island in the Sea of Time moving the island of Nantucket 3000 years into the past in the space of just a few pages. He totally nails the disorientation, and confusion, and eventual acceptance by his characters of the changed circumstances. Turtledove’s opening chapter from Guns of the South is another great study in how to introduce a reader to what is, in the end, a frankly ridiculous concept. Time traveling South African fascists turning up in Civil War America to arm the South with AK-47s? That’s gold. And he makes it work because he underwrites the scene.
Do you read much Australian fiction, and do you have some favourites (other than your own)?
I’m a big fan of Matt Condon’s work. I think every book he’s written since The Pillow Fight has been worthy of being stamped with a big fat Novel of the Year stamp. He is the best literary novelist working in this country today. Of the genre writers, I can’t go past one of Peter Corris’s Cliff Hardy novels without immediately placing it within my possession. He seems to have written hundreds of these things, but they never lose their freshness and sizzle.
Is there any specific kind of fiction you would like to see more of in Australia?
Zombie-First Fleet-Time travel-crossovers. I don’t know why we don’t see more of these. The field is wide open, people!
Many books about fiction writing neglect character, or treat the topic haphazardly or in an overly structured way. What is your response to the suggestion that the book How to be a Man, by yourself and Dirk Flinthart, could be a useful tool for writers to use for thinking about developing fictional characters?
My response is flabbergasterment! That is the first time anybody has suggested that to me ever. But I guess when thinking it, about the way we build characters for novels, yeah, why not. I might even do it myself next time. The character question is an interesting one though. A lot of literary fiction seems to emphasize character, and in particular internal character struggles, over story. That’s why I think, for the most part, literary fiction doesn’t sell very well. People like stories. Having said that, of course, one of the most frequent criticisms of genre fiction is that the characters are all wooden and two-dimensional. And look, often that’s true. But often it’s not. I just finished a book by Peter V. Brett, The Desert Spear, the second in his demon war series. And instantly people are rolling their eyes and thinking, oh God, not another sub-Tolkien sword and sandal marathon. But they’d be wrong to think that. Pete’s book is awesome, not just because of the really tight control he wields over a truly epic narrative, but because his command of character is every bit as good as any self-declared literary novelist.
What can you tell us about your upcoming novel After America?
After America was hell difficult to write for two reasons. First up, I loved Without Warning so much that when it came time to write the sequel I felt a bit flat at first. I had no idea how I was going to top that book, even though I had already pretty much plotted it out. And then, once I did build up a head of steam, I broke my arm! Let me tell you, that’ll slow you down when you have a 200,000 word manuscript to write.
In the end though, it came good. In fact it came better than good, it came awesome. It’s set three years after the Disappearance that, well, make everybody in America disappear. The world is pretty much gone to hell, and the relative handful of Americans left behind are having to resettle the continent, before it gets taken away from them. The first draft was written during some of the grimmer days of the global financial crisis, and has a real end-of-days feel to it. But at the same time, it is, here and there, probably the funniest book I’ve written since Falafel. That goes back to some of the questions you are asking before. I really tried to let the characters be themselves in this book, and they were strong enough to pull it off. My publisher, Cate, once described jokingly as the most violentest book she’d ever read, and it may well be. But some of the funniest scenes, and best lines, come during the most harrowing passages.
More on John Birmingham and his fiction can be found at www.cheeseburgergothic.com.
The Australian Literature Review