John Birmingham, author, Writers+Ideas

Loss is the price we pay for being gifted our lives in the first place ...

Grief is an unavoidable emotion thanks to the nature of the human condition. Despite its universal qualities, grief and the notion of loss is something that affects people differently. In his latest novel On Father, acclaimed author John Birmingham digs into his own grief in the wake of the passing of his father. Throughout the book John examines what it is to be undone by grief and how the process of mourning took place, creating a gripping and heart-wrenching read. John will be discussing the book and its impact on his grieving process with Paul Barclay for the Writers+Ideas Festival at Brisbane Powerhouse on Tuesday April 16. Ahead of his appearance, we took the opportunity to ask John about the process behind On Father, and his thoughts on some of his other well-received novels.

The subject of On Father is extremely heavy but also universal – significant loss in our lives is unavoidable. At what point did you feel like you were ready to write about your experience of grieving for your father?
I wrote a column immediately after he’d passed. I knew I’d be giving a eulogy soon enough and I wanted to start getting my head around that. But the longer essay was a long time coming. For at least six months I wasn’t able to write much beyond emails and the occasional tweet because I was so depressed.

How did writing On Father help your grieving process?
I found myself undone by grief all over again, but the difference this time was that I chose to mourn. I wasn’t ambushed and destroyed by grief. And diving into the history and literature of loss was a great help in its own way. We all go through this, but writers do tend to write about it. It helped me, and as the essay unfolded I came to hope that I might be able to help somebody else.

What’s the best piece of advice you would give to someone who is grieving?
It is a long, dark night, but it will pass. The morning will come.

The book is unlike any of your long-form published work to date – how have your fans and readers reacted?
I was quite open about being depressed while I was going through it. People were supportive then, and they’ve been wonderful now that On Father is out. Loss is the price we pay for being gifted our lives in the first place. Everyone understands this in one way or another. Everyone has to walk the path.

That being said, you’re truly a chameleon when it comes to writing – people know your work across fiction, essays, autobiography and newspaper columns. What is your favourite thing to write?
I go back forth between fiction and non fiction, but the one element that ties both together is humour. I can’t help myself. I love to laugh and to make others laugh. It feels like a super power.

He Died With A Felafel in his Hand has become a touchstone for the generation of sharehouse living. Were there any (even more) unbelievable situations from your experience that didn’t make it into the book?
Yes. And there were reasons I didn’t tell those stories.

In contrast, Leviathan is a wild but true recount of Sydney’s history that uncovers some seedy truths of the past. What spurred your decision to take a deeper dive into the city’s archives?
Another book. Maximum City, by Michael Pye, about New York. It was a brilliant thematic history of a place I’d always found fascinating. I wanted to do something like that for another city, Sydney, which I loved truly, madly and deeply.

Your opinion column for the Brisbane Times switches between searing social and political commentary mixed with hilarious hot takes. How do you go about finding inspiration to write something fresh every week?
If the gigantic burning tyre fire of politics doesn’t throw off some scorching take, I’ll often just lurk on Twitter for a while until some bizarre passing comment takes my fancy.

You’re a bona-fide Brisbane local – what are your favourite hidden gems around our city?
Vine Restaurant at New Farm. They never promote themselves. They just do great work, and now they’ve opened a lovely little bar and diner, Mosconi, off James Street. If I’m not giving those boys my hard earned, I’m probably spending it at Snack Man or Happy Boy. Or having too many coffees at Pourboy.

You can catch John Birmingham discussing On Father with Paul Barclay for Writers+Ideas at Brisbane Powerhouse on Tuesday April 16. Tickets are available here.


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