Author John Birmingham.
Author John Birmingham. David Nielsen

He Died With a Felafel in His Hand

HOUSE sharing is something that just about everyone has done, with varying degrees of success.

And that is why anyone who has experienced the madness of it can identify with He Died With a Felafel in His Hand.

It is hard to believe now that John Birmingham's most successful book was conceived as a Christmas “stocking stuffer” to help kick-start a small publishing firm back in 1994.

Birmingham, who lived with 89 people before settling down, relates his wild experiences in 13 share households in various cities.

It remains one of the funniest Australian novels ever written with sales of around 300,000 copies and counting.

“That book did really well just because people recognised their own stories,” the St Edmund's College-educated Birmingham says.

“At the very most there are only half a dozen share house stories in the whole world - bad flatmate, mad flatmate, dirty flatmate…

“The book is organised around those archetypes or themes. People read it and say, ‘I lived with a guy just like that' - or in some cases, ‘I lived with that guy.'

“Sometimes they think they did, but they didn't. There was a guy in Adelaide who insisted that I'd lived with him down there for a year…but I'd never set foot in Adelaide at that point.”

The book was written basically as “a favour for a mate.” Birmingham had been freelancing for a magazine called Independent Monthly, a job he enjoyed because he didn't have to go into an office – except if he was broke or hungry.

“Then I'd go in and hit the biscuit barrel,” Birmingham chuckles.

“Like most magazines – it wasn't a sustainable business model… and eventually they decided to shut the whole thing down.

“Michael Duffy - who was the deputy editor – his escape hatch was to set up a company called The Yellow Press.

“He said to me: ‘Do you reckon you can write me a stocking stuffer for Christmas – a really funny, fast little book?'”

Birmingham, still house sharing at that point, went to work remembering all the crazed house mates he'd had, put together a sample chapter and Duffy liked what he read. The catch was he had five weeks to knock out his book.

“I made a list of all the people that I'd lived with who I was still talking to,” he recalls.

“I rang them up and said: ‘Pete, that time you p***ed in the fridge. Do you recall that story? Want to tell me about that?' I recorded their stories, typed up transcripts and cut and pasted the book together in about five weeks.”

At this point Birmingham has a look around River Bend Bookshop in Bulimba at all the books and authors that line the shelves – himself included. He almost wasn't one of them.

“I took a $4000 advance for it, which I'd mostly spent by the time it came out…and then it died in the arse,” he says.

“After six months nobody would stock it. The only reason that it survived was that there was a distributor up here, an independent bloke, who just loved it.

“He had a box of them in his old station wagon and he'd drive around shops like this and say: ‘You have to read this book.' He managed to convince enough places to take it so that enough people bought it – I'm talking a couple of hundred at the most.

“Word of mouth kicked in and it just exploded and went berserk. One month we'd distributed 80 copies. Then the next month…2500. And the next month after that…6000.

“This was in the days before the web. There was no Twitter. There was no Facebook. There were no viral You Tube campaigns – just punters talking to each other.

“But that took about six months to happen. But before it happened I was pretty much convinced that I had done my dash with book writing…. I had put one out by the age of 30, which was good, but I was going to go back and write magazine features.

“It is the book that I put the least amount of work into in my life but by far and away it has paid out the most money.”

It took off to the extent that ‘Felafel' became a word so closely associated with the author and his debut novel that Birmingham would write the Felafel Guide to Getting Wasted and the Felafel Guide to Sex.

The book was turned into a film, directed by Richard Lowenstein, and became the longest running stage play in Australian history.

“A bunch of unemployed actors who were on some dodgy government employment scheme approached me about adapting it for the stage,” Birmingham recalls.

“They intended to do it for a two-week run. For them it was to be part of their training.

“Like the book, in the first week nothing happened and no-one came. But word of mouth kicked in. It was being run in a pub – and it was the best environment for it.

“As a play, it was rough as guts. It is not a polished piece of theatre, but it is real funny. It gets funnier the more beer you have while watching it. It did really well in that pub environment and ran for years - becoming the longest running stage play ever.”

Birmingham has a highly successful blog at www.cheeseburgergothic.com where the real life characters from the novel can be found.

The dynamic between the author and the characters in the novel, whose names were changed for the book, varies depending on the relationship Birmingham shared with them pre-Felafel.

“Some of them are old college mates and they are on my blog every day.

They are blog buddies and Felafel doesn't even come up between us because we had a friendship that existed years before that book came out,” he says.

“Even though we are scattered all over the world, we can get together virtually every day.

“But for people who I possibly didn't get on with particularly well in the house – it was a big issue.”

Like the “chick down in Sydney” who appears early on in the book.

“She is the one who ran the credit scam out of my house in Darlinghurst with $36,000 worth of fraud,” Birmingham says.

“I ran into a ditzy friend of hers walking through the Cross one day bitching about all of the repo men and private investigators we had coming in the front door because of this person who had used our address for a scam.

She said: ‘She was very naughty doing that. She shouldn't have done it.'

“I had no idea it was her. She had a boyfriend who was a junkie. I guess we should just be grateful that she didn't steal our stuff and rack off with it – but it was a pretty good story and in it went.

“I ran into her in a 7/11 attached to a servo at three in the morning once.

"I went into get a chicken roll or something. In those days I'd probably been hitting the bong pretty hard, so I went in and there she was. She was getting a chicken roll as well. That was a frosty encounter.”



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