About 3.5 weeks ago, I had the pleasure of ringing up Mr Benjamin Law at 6.20pm and having a little chat.
I would be lying if I said that I was cool, calm and collected.
I was excited, in awe and a little tired after hurrying home after flamenco class, kicking off my heels, grabbing the phone, peeing (in the toilet) in a state of nervous excitement, before jabbing Law’s mobile number into the ‘Interview With A Great Writer and Awesome Human Being’ virgin device.
The warm, friendly and husky voice that is unmistakably Ben Law answered and I somehow managed not to drown in a state of excitement, nausea and utter admiration. I – an English-loving fifteen year old – was about to interview Mr Benjamin Law. I am unashamed to say that I have somewhat made sweet love to the pages of his words in a completely non-sexual way.
Did that sound creepy?
Shall we get into the interview?
That’s probably best.
1. How did your parents encourage your writing?
I didn’t even necessarily want to be a writer when I was growing up, but I was a big reader. I was constantly reading; the one thing that my mum and dad never thought was a waste of money was books. We grew up with a lot of books in our household; they just thought it was really important for me and my four brothers and sisters to be well-read. There was always reading. I think my mum’s still got set recordings of us in bed together, which is kind of cute. Look, to be honest, later in life when I wanted to be a writer, my parents had the same attitude towards me that they had towards all of our siblings, which is ‘whatever you choose to do in life, make sure you like it, make sure you’re good at it and make sure you can earn money from it’. They never really said that explicitly, but they were always framing what we chose in life around those three things, which is a pretty good attitude for parents to have and in terms of the Chinese community, they’re different in that way.
2. What initially inspired you to begin writing and why do you continue to write today?
I think I wanted to write because I like reading. I read a lot of books growing up, but I was a huge fan of magazines when I was a teenager, like Rolling Stone and Juice and being in the Queensland suburb of the Sunshine Coast, which is not a city or anything, reading those stories about the world and about people I’d never meet, made the world feel close and amazing. One of the reasons I wanted to write was to explore the world. I think what I love about writing and why it’s a privilege, is that it’s an education that I get to share with people. Every time I write a new story, I’m educating myself about someone or something and by writing it, I get to share it and that feels kind of fantastic. I guess the other thing is that writing is a profession that has allowed me to travel around the world, meet people and make friends I wouldn’t have made or met otherwise. I guess that writing fulfills that basic curiosity in me. If you’re the kind of person who’s always being called out for being a ‘busybody’ or a ‘stickybeak’, writing’s not a bad profession. You get to get to be a busybody and stickybeak and get paid for it.
3. What is one of your favourite pieces that you have written and why?
I’m not sure if I have a favourite, but I’ve got ones that are probably quite memorable to me. It’s probably the more serious pieces. Like I’ve got my weekly column in Good Weekend, I’m probably known for my funny pieces in frankie and I really like writing them; I have such a blast writing them. However, the stories that stay with me are probably about people who allowed me to access their life stories and these life stories are not necessarily ones that are usually shared with people. I wrote a piece in Good Weekend several months ago, about people who are in couples and one of the partners comes out as transgender midway through the relationship. I’ve written about people who’ve been survivors of sexual abuse within the family and these people were incredibly brave to share their story with me, as well. I think those stories, in particular, stand out to me.
4. What makes a good writer, as opposed to what makes a poor writer?
A great writer knows their craft inside out. A great writer has probably read their entire life and are curious. A great writer knows the heart of the story as well; they know the big, central question in a story. There are so many different types of great writers, to be honest. There are some writers who are just so funny and other writers who have great journalistic access and there are other writers who just really know how to describe a place perfectly, to make you feel like you’re right in a foreign city you’ve never visited before. I think different writers have different skills and like people, I think writers have their strengths and weaknesses as well. I know what mine are – not going to tell you – but there are so many different things that make a good writer, but I think basic human curiosity is what makes a good writer and to be honest, a good human being.
5. Which has been the most helpful criticism that you have received, that has assisted in developing your writing?
I was once told, ‘Look: not everything needs to be a joke.’ I think he (the writer) reviewed my second book Gaysia and he told me to be confident in the fact that if I’m writing a serious story, just really own the fact that it’s serious and go hard into its content and what the story means. If I’m going to write funny, then sure, go for funny, but I think for a long time I fell back on a lot of jokes, because I wasn’t confident enough that people would be willing to read something that was really serious, unless I had wisecracks in there. That was a really good lesson, but to be honest, I’ve been told many times, ‘Stop writing about gross things, like poo!’ I think that’s not bad advice. I probably write about gross stuff too often. I think the best thing for any writer to do, is to be open to criticism. You can get a little bit cocky sometimes, but then again, there are a lot of writers who have this crippling lack of confidence and that can be a problem, too. Criticism has to be taken on its own merits, as well.
6. How does an emerging writer get their work published?
One thing is having the tenacity to send your work to a lot of editors, to a lot of competitions. The difference between a good writer who continues to write for a living and a good writer who doesn’t, is often community, whether you feel like you have friends in the industry who support you. It’s a really learning profession and by definition, you’re at a desk, alone, working on big stories, especially if you’re a freelancer and if you don’t feel like you’ve got friends you can talk to about the very particular stuff associated with writing, whether it be a lack of confidence, anxiety about what you’re writing or even boring things, like back pain, because you’re sitting or standing at your desk all day, it’s really, really difficult, because it’s such an isolating experience, unless you have those people around you. The first thing’s the tenacity to approach people, the second thing is a sense of community and the third is never losing that, as I keep saying, utter sense of childlike curiosity.
7. How did your appearance on Ted Talks all come about?
To be honest, they just asked me. I wasn’t really thinking that I was up for it. I mean, it’s a really big ask to get up and do a talk with no notes. I’m not sure I’d even do it again, to be honest. I think that says more about my brain. I think some people are really good orators and I definitely need notes most of the time. They just approached me. I think I’d been writing a lot about LGBT issues and it was clear that I had something to say. My sister (Michelle) has appeared on Ted Talks as well and she’s particularly great at it.
Benjamin Law’s Ted Talk
Michelle Law’s Ted Talk #1
Michelle Law’s Ted Talk #2
8. As an openly gay adult, what advice do you have for people (especially teens) trying to work out their sexuality?
One – don’t rush. There’s no need for you to come out until you feel completely safe doing so. Two – again, find your community; don’t feel like you’re alone. The great thing about young people nowadays and the lucky thing for them is that the internet’s so readily available. I sort of came out when dial-up was still pretty new and so the fact that you can go online and find other young people like you, I think is really important. This sounds really weird, but find people like you, who are queer, that you don’t necessarily want to sleep with. Find platonic friends who will be there for you, because often you end up sleeping with people you’re attracted to and then, if they’re the only people you associate with who are queer, you don’t have that many ongoing friends around you. Find those people from all walks of queer life and all types of queer identities, who can be your allies and friends. If you live in a small country town or you live in a regional area that you don’t feel connected to or you don’t have that community around you, you might want to consider moving to a bigger city at some stage.
9. Do you think that there is a legitimate reason for gay marriage not to be legalised in Australia?
No and I think the majority of Australians don’t, either. I think the most frustrating thing is that most Australians are either passionate about it and then a lot of people just think that it’s just a non-issue. The people that do think that is an issue, or who have something against it need to realise that it doesn’t affect their lives. That’s the thing; it affects people who are being legislated against right now, so no, in answer to your question, no – I can’t see any reasons why you should be legitimately discriminated against on a legal basis.
10. Why do you think that Australian authors are a central part of our society and culture?
Writers, like any artist, define our national identity. We tell the stories about our people, as well. Culture and the arts, which writing is such a great part, is very important. We’re a small nation, we’re 25 million people; that’s like a small European nation and we’ve got a great landmass. The other thing beyond that, is we’ve got a really complicated history as well, in terms of race relations, in terms of Indigenous and non-Indigenous race relations and we’re a unique country, with a unique history. Unless you have writers telling those stories, whether it’s through fiction or non-fiction, you don’t really come to understand Australia. I mean, I remember reading The Secret River by Kate Grenville for the first time, and I don’t know if you’ve read that book, but if you do, it’s like a punch to the gut, that this really brutal story and many like it, are a part of our national history and how our country was formed. We don’t often own up to that, so it’s about understanding ourselves. That’s why I think writing is so important in this country.
11. Do you think that journalism truly has a future in Australia?
Yeah, absolutely. Where journalism ends up, that’s a great question and, like you say, the newspaper industry is definitely in a very different phase of its evolution. Journalism won’t die; people want to know what’s actually happening. When you’re talking about journalism, it sounds like you’re talking very specifically about print journalism. Broadcast journalism and digital journalism has never been more robust. I think print’s just finding its place in the world, but print won’t die out, either. I think people have a hunger for longer stories. Where we actually find it, that’s debatable.
Bio (taken from ‘About‘ on Law’s website)
Benjamin Law is a Sydney-based journalist, columnist and screenwriter, and has completed a PhD in television writing and cultural studies.
He is the author of two books—The Family Law (2010) and Gaysia: Adventures in the Queer East (2012)—and the co-author of the comedy book Shit Asian Mothers Say (2014) with his sister Michelle and illustrator Oslo Davis. The Family Law has been translated into French and is currently being developed for television. Gaysia was published in India in 2013 and North America in 2014. Both of his books have been nominated for Australian Book Industry Awards, and he is now working on his next.
Benjamin is a frequent contributor to Good Weekend (The Sydney Morning Herald/The Age), frankieand The Monthly. He has also written for over 50 publications, businesses and agencies in Australia and worldwide, including:
• AAP (Australian Associated Press)
• ABC’s The Drum
• The Age
• The Australian
• The Australian Financial Review
• The Australian Way (Qantas)
• Australian Traveller
• The Big Issue
• The Courier Mail
• Daily Life
• Dew Process
• Get Lost
• Good Weekend (The Sydney Morning Herald / The Age)
• Griffith Review
• The Guardian
• Hello Mr.
• Hide & Seek
• Kill Your Darlings
• The Lifted Brow
• The Monthly
• New Matilda
• Qweekend (The Courier Mail)
• Smith Journal
• Sunday Life (The Sydney Morning Herald / The Age)
• The Sydney Morning Herald
• The Sydney Star Observer
• Travel and Leisure: South East Asia
• Vogue: Living
• The Walkley Magazine
You can discuss a love of poop (or whatever random thing springs to mind) with Mr Benjamin Law, through …
That’s it for this edition of The Hive, but I’ll see you back here on Wednesday.