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John Birmingham is the critically acclaimed columnist, author & indie publisher of titles including the Axis In Time series, Stalin's Hammer, A Girl In Time and He Died With a Felafel In His Hand and the founder of subscription newsletter, Alien Side Boob. Subscribe to ASB for $4 a month on Gum Road: https://gumroad.com/l/aliensideboob.
The former Fairfax columnist has made a number of significant contributions to The Quarterly Essay, including A Time For War and Appeasing Jakarta.
He publishes regularly on Medium and on his website, Cheeseburger Gothic.
How do you spend your days?
I’d like to say I write, but realistically I spend a lot more time running around after kids and an ageing Labrador than I do at my keyboard. This is probably why I can’t afford that business jet I always wanted. Damned kids, ruining everything for me.
What drove you to focus on journalism and fiction writing? Was there a particular moment you can remember that led you to this field?
I always wanted to write, but initially I wanted to write fiction. Specifically horror fiction. I was a huge fanboy of Stephen King and as a teenager I filled my exercise books for school with really awful sub-King horror stories. Stephen King once made the point that horror and humour are two of the most difficult writing forms.
Done poorly, horror turns unintentionally funny. And badly written humour is just creepy. I never did find a way to make a living from ripping off Stephen King stories, but writing ten dollar features for student newspapers I did discover I could crank out jokes like a sausage machine. The first time I trousered ten bucks for doing that I knew I’d found my calling.
What drives you professionally?
Did I mention those kids? They’re really expensive.
In your opinion what are the three biggest problems facing the developed and developing world?
I really hope climate change isn’t real, because otherwise we’re all gonna die screaming. But I suspect it really is the problem 99% of the relevant pointy heads say it is.
And because its a problem, and we often solve our problems through violence, I suspect the inability of national states to deal rationally with climate change will feed into state on state conflict for decades to come.
Or until we all die screaming.
Number three? That’s easy. The trillions of dollars in tax that corporations and the super wealthy refuse to pay.
If you hadn’t become a writer what would you have done?
I trained for a while as a spy catcher. That was fun, except for all the public service rules.
If I could have been a spy catcher but without having to fill in all those forms, that would have been sweet.
What led us to this moment in history?
What are the lessons we failed to learn during and since the 2008 crisis?
The Australian banks complained for years that they weren’t allowed to get into the derivatives hot tub with all the other cool kids. And then the spa filled up with exploding piranhas and they went a little quiet.
But now, both here and in the US, there is a powerful lobby which wants to fill the hot tub again. With piranhas.
Can you list some ‘baby steps’ out of the current economic mess?
The Australian government’s recent win over Chevron is actually a very big step towards getting multinational corporations to actually carry some of the tax burden which has increasingly fallen on individual taxpayers.
Other revenue authorities in other jurisdictions will be examining it closely.
If you were a President or Prime Minister what would your first three pieces of policy be?
I think we all know who’d be paying more tax. I’d be using that revenue to fund basic education services, and then ramping up spending at a tertiary level down the track.
After that I’d be looking very closely at subsidies built into the fossil fuel economy and preferencing renewables by all means possible.
Tell us something you have been wrong about?
WMD in Iraq. Who knew? Besides all those stupid peace protesters.
You are stuck in a ski lift for twenty four hours - you can have one person (living or dead) with you who will it be?
As long as they bring a bucket, anyone will do. But I probably the blues legend B.B. King.
Name the book that changed you.
Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. I could feel it reprogramming the language centres of my brain as I read it.
What would you do differently if you were to start all over again?
I’d get out of traditional publishing five years earlier.
Give our readers, members and subscribers a piece of advice that has served you well.
The story you most want to believe is the story you should question the hardest.
Anything you would like to plug?
I run a subscription newsletter, Alien Side Boob, which is delivered directly to your inbox, twice a week, for $4 a month. My attempt to find a new business model before the media apocalypse hits. Coz clearly the old ways aren’t working.