John Birmingham grew up in Ipswich, Queensland and was educated at St Edmunds Christian Brother's College in Ipswich and the University of Queensland in Brisbane. His only stint of full time employment was as a researcher at the Defence Department. After this he returned to Queensland to study law but he did not complete his legal studies, choosing instead to pursue a career as a writer. He currently lives in Brisbane.
While a law student he was one of the last people arrested under the state's Anti Street March legislation. Birmingham was convicted of displaying a sheet of paper with the words 'Free Speech' written on it in very small type. The local newspaper carried a photograph of him being frogmarched off to a waiting police paddy wagon.
Birmingham has a degree in international relations.
Birmingham was first published in Semper Floreat, the student newspaper at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, writing a series of stories featuring a fictional character named Commander Harrison Biscuit. He won a young writers award for the Independent, which was edited by Brian Toohey and wrote a number of articles for Rolling Stone and Australian Penthouse magazines.
Birmingham is most notable for the memoir He Died With A Felafel In His Hand (1994), which has since been turned into a play, film and a graphic novel. The sequel is The Tasmanian Babes Fiasco (Duffy and Snellgrove, 1997). The play was written and produced by thirty-six unemployed actors. It went on to become the longest running stage play in Australian history.
Other works by him include The Search for Savage Henry, a crime novel featuring the character Harrison Biscuit, How To Be A Man, a semi-humorous guide to contemporary Australian masculinity and Off One's Tits, a collection of essays and articles previously published elsewhere. He also spent four years researching the history of Sydney for Leviathan: the unauthorised biography of Sydney (Random House, 1999, ISBN 0-09-184203-4). It won Australia's National Prize For Non-Fiction in 2002.
He has also written two small pocket books The Felafel Guide to Getting Wasted (2002) and The Felafel Guide to Sex (2002) which feature advice Birmingham has received over the years regarding those two subjects. He also wrote the non-fictional book "Dopeland" which examined Australia's cannabis culture.
Birmingham has written two Quarterly Essays (Black Inc. an imprint of Schwartz Publishing Pty Ltd) Appeasing Jakarta: Australia's Complicity in the East Timor Tragedy and A Time for War: Australia as a Military Power. He is also a regular contributor to The Monthly, an Australian national magazine of politics, society and the arts.
In September 2006, Birmingham wrote a piece in The Australian lambasting Germaine Greer for an allegedly tactless article she'd written in The Guardian about Steve Irwin shortly after his death.
In Birmingham's response he attacked her as "childless", a "poorly sketched caricature of a harridan", a "feral hag", a "wretched bag lady" with a "redundant fright-mask" and a "creepy sexual consideration" for "hairless boys". It was subsequently criticised in a number of blogs and national newspapers for its alleged misogyny. Birmingham agreed the attack was personal, but denied that it was misogynist.
In 2004 he published the alternate history Weapons of Choice, the first in the Axis of Time trilogy, a series of Tom Clancy-like techno-thrillers. Many writers from those genres appear as minor characters. It was published by Del Rey Books in the US and by Pan Macmillan in Australia.
The series tells of a multinational peacekeeping force from the early 21st century being taken back in time to 1942, where its presence completely changes the course of the Second World War. In August 2005, the second book, Designated Targets was published in Australia. US publication followed in October.
The third and final book in the trilogy, Final Impact, was released in Australia in early August 2006, and was released in the US in January 2007. The ABC reported in 2006 that there were two new Birmoverse books in the works, one set shortly after the end of the war, and another in the alternate 1980s, said to feature a dashing young RAF pilot: Richard Branson. Articulate: John Birmingham's alternative history. 25 August 2006. ABC News (Australian Broadcasting Corp) One of these books was originally set to be released in Australia in 2008, but Birmingham instead wrote Without Warning.
Without Warning, the first book in a new stand alone universe, was released in Australia in September 2008. The novel, separate from the Axis of Time Trilogy, is a thought experiment which is set on the eve of Operation Iraqi Freedom in March 2003. It deals with the disappearance of the bulk of the US population as the result of a large energy field that becomes known as "The Wave." Without Warning deals with the international consequences of the disappearance of the world's only super power on the eve of war. It was released in the US on February 3, 2009. A second novel, titled After America, was released on July 1, 2010 in Australia and August 17, 2010 in the USA.