Episode 24: Benjamin Law

Benjamin Law is an author, freelance journalist, columnist and screenwriter.

Penmanship podcast episode 24: Benjamin Law, interviewed by Andrew McMillen, 2016Since I first ventured into full-time freelance journalism in 2009, he’s been someone that I’ve greatly admired, not only for his ability to write well across a range of publications and styles, but also for the simple fact that he’s a generous and enthusiastic supporter of other writers. I first met him in early 2010, when I emailed him to introduce myself and ask for a meeting, and from that point, he has remained as a firm friend and mentor. I interviewed him for The Courier-Mail that same year, for an article that coincided with the release of his first book, The Family Law, a memoir which described his upbringing as a Chinese-Australian. The following year, he spoke about freelance journalism alongside John Birmingham at an event I hosted in Brisbane as part of National Young Writers’ Month. I reviewed his excellent second book, Gaysia, for The Weekend Australian in 2012, and since then, he has taken me suit shopping, offered me a place to crash while visiting Sydney, and provided some timely advice when I was negotiating my first book contract.

As you’ve no doubt already gathered, I’m a big fan of Benjamin’s. His career has recently taken an interesting turn into screenwriting, as his first book was turned into a six-part SBS television series. The Family Law debuted on Australian screens in early 2016; it was very well-received, and Benjamin is currently writing the second season. His regular writing gig is his weekly column in Good Weekend, which never fails to make me laugh. When he visited Brisbane in late April for a QUT Journalism and Media Society event, where we were both speaking to university students about feature writing, I took the opportunity to interview Benjamin in an empty classroom before the crowds arrived. Our conversation touches on how a mentorship with Matthew Condon helped him to pitch stories and get his head around writing longform features; how he was approached by a publisher to write The Family Law; what he learned about the book industry while working at Brisbane bookstore Avid Reader; how he comes up with ideas for his Good Weekend column, and how he views being in a relationship where both partners work in the creative industries.

Benjamin Law is a Sydney-based TV screenwriter, journalist and newspaper columnist, who has PhD in creative writing and cultural studies. He’s 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. Both of his books have been nominated for Australian Book Industry Awards. The Family Law is now in its fourth reprint, has been translated into French and is now a major SBS TV series. Gaysia was published in India in 2013 and North America in 2014. Benjamin is a frequent contributor to Good Weekend (The Sydney Morning Herald/The Age), frankie and The Monthly. He has also written for over 50 publications, businesses and agencies in Australia and worldwide.

Benjamin Law on Twitter: @mrbenjaminlaw

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4.30 Benjamin didn’t plan to write The Family Law; instead, he was approached by a publisher, and it was a similar story with how the book became a television series

5.30 Prior to writing for Frankie, Benjamin was doing production work and writing for a Brisbane Street press, Scene Magazine, while studying creative writing at QUT

6.30 A friend suggested that he should travel to the Gold Coast to meet with the editors of Frankie at Morrison Media while it was in its infancy – they had only just closed the first issue

7.30 “One asset that I have, for all of my deficits, is that I can talk myself into situations; I can convince people to do things”

8.30 Benjamin was at university for eight years in total, in part because there were “welfare and scholarship opportunities on offer”

9.30 “I don’t tend to think long-term very easily; it makes me a little anxious, to be honest”

12.30 The potential dangers of becoming friends with your editors, as a freelance contributor

13.30 “In my early years, when I was at university, I did a lot of work experience for magazines, and it paid to acknowledge how hard editors jobs’ are”

14.30 Benjamin has a reputation for being incredibly kind to everyone he meets in the media industry, which has caused some friends to caution him that he gives people the benefit of the doubt too often

17.30 One of Benjamin’s random freelance jobs was to write advertorial copy for Nike; “I did enough research to see that they’d turned a corner with their [business] practices enough to justify being able to be paid by Nike”

18.30 Benjamin was also the face of clothing brand Uniqlo “for five minutes” in a video ad campaign, which he enjoyed as their clothes “actually fit my weirdly-proportioned Asian body”

19.30 A couple of years ago, Benjamin wrote a series of stories for Good Weekend involving nudity, including one on nude yoga and another on a naked art gallery tour in Canberra

20.30 In 2011, Benjamin also wrote a feature for Qweekend about the fact that Queensland was the only state without a designated nude beach; his story, Queensland Raw, involved visiting the beach and competing in the Nude Olympics

22.00 “My favourite longform writing has that mix of ridiculous and very serious”

22.30 After Benjamin finished his PhD, he realised he was “about to go out in the world as a freelancer, trying to make it, freelancing full-time – which is a pretty insane thing to do”, so he approached previous Penmanship guest Matthew Condon to ask if he could be a mentor as part of a formal arts mentorship program

24.00 “I approached Matt, and the good thing about the mentorship program that we did was the mentor gets money as well, so I could say to him, ‘You don’t know me, but if you say ‘yes’, I might get some money for you!’

25.00 Benjamin describes the process of freelance writers pitching stories as “an exercise in approaching a stranger and telling them that you should work for them, and that they should give you money”

26.30 “Our work is like acting, in a way: a lot of auditions, and not many callbacks”

27.00 Benjamin recommends that any writers under the age of 30 should be contributing to Voiceworks, a national magazine established in 1985

28.30 A lot of Benjamin’s feature story ideas came from drunken conversations with friends, often prompted by the question “what’s up with that?”

31.30 Benjamin worked at Avid Reader in West End, an independent bookstore owned by previous Penmanship guest Fiona Stager, for five years

33.30 When he first began working at Avid, Benjamin didn’t have any interest in writing books, but the job gave him an important insight into how the Australian book market works

35.30 His first book, The Family Law, came about while Benjamin was writing for Frankie and Qweekend; he had two stories published in an anthology named Growing Up Asian In Australia, and that led to a call from Black Inc publisher Chris Feik, who asked Benjamin whether he had a book up his sleeve

38.00 A key influence on Benjamin’s writing was David Sedaris, the American humorist writer and author who Benjamin “worships at his feet”

39.30 “Reading his stuff was a revelation, because he combines tragedy and comedy so well, and reminds you that they’re not opposites – they’re often closely linked”

40.30 “Writing is fucked. Every sentence is a failure, until it’s not”

41.30 Part of his research project for writing The Family Law at the age of 25 involved interviewing his family members, which greatly impressed Benjamin’s father, who had not seen his son in “work mode” as a journalist before

44.30 “There’s a stupid bravado that comes with your first book; there’s a stupid bravado that comes with being in your 20s, as well”

45.30 “As rough and rugged as that book is, I think I needed to get my family’s story kind of out of the way. My family’s story is a really complicated one, and I feel like I needed to tell that before I could tell any other big story about my life”

48.00 Benjamin was ready to write his second book, Gaysia, before The Family Law had even been published, because “the extroverted side of me was trying to burst out of that introvert bubble, and get out into the world again”

49.30 The idea for Gaysia came to him easily, as he wondered about the human dimension about news stories he’d read on homosexuals growing up in Asia

51.00 Gaysia is comprised of seven different stories of about 8,000 to 10,000 words per chapter, based on seven different countries

53.00 While reporting for Gaysia, Benjamin was “really anxious” in his note-taking while in the field, and made sure to record, transcribe, structure and write as much as possible while still immersed in these cultures

54.30 When in writing mode, Benjamin thinks he’s probably not the best company; he needs complete, “monk-like” silence to write, and is studious in meeting deadlines as he is “a disgusting people-pleaser”

56.30 He prefers to constantly edit while he writes, using the app Scrivener. He tends not to start at the beginning of a story, instead preferring to start with a scene that he’s excited to write about

58.30 Benjamin sometimes experiences writer’s block, but he finds that it’s not so much about being stuck with the writing itself, instead, it’s usually about grappling with the meaning of what he’s writing

50.30 Benjamin’s partner, Scott Spark, is a songwriter, singer and ABC Radio producer, and finds that being in a relationship with another creative person is “fantastic”

62.00 “If you listen closely enough to his music, it’s kind of, in part, the story of our relationship in there”

63.00 Benjamin’s regular writing job is a weekly column for Good Weekend, which emerged out of a column he used to write for Qweekend

64.00 “I was given free reign, which is sensational; I could write 350 words about whatever I wanted”

65.00 In mid-May, Benjamin’s Good Weekend column was expanded to 500 words, and is now named Adult Education, where he tries to learn something new each week

66.00 “The first thing I do is choose the topic, then I do a huge word diarrhoea dump […] Every idea that comes into my head goes down [on the page]”, which runs to about 1,000 words before he edits it down

67.00 When writing a column, Benjamin will turn to writers like David Sedaris and Caitlin Moran to get a sense of tone and humour

68.00 “If you’re on social media, you’re cracking jokes, you’re sharing stuff about your life that’s interesting; often, they’re the seed of what might make a column”

71.00 Benjamin’s doctorate was in screenwriting, and he’s now heavily involved in that process, first for the first season of The Family Law and now for the second season






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