Interview: Benjamin Law, Writer

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Photo courtesy of Tammy Law (All Rights Reserved)

Benjamin Law's byline first caught my eye when I came across "Bogan or Gay?" in frankie magazine. It was hysterically funny, and I proceeded to read it aloud to every member of my family, who all loved it just as much as I did. Ever since, I have flicked straight to Ben's articles every time frankie arrives in my mailbox - they never fail to make me laugh, cry and think. His quietly provocative articles for The Monthly (particularly Saving Yourself and A Gay Old Time) are also wonderful and his debut book The Family Law, a refreshingly candid, side-splitting anthology of stories about his wonderfully eccentric (yet touchingly relatable) family, is brilliant.

Ben is a freelance writer. He is a senior contributor to frankie magazine and his work has also appeared in The Monthly, Qweekend, Sunday Life, The Big Issue, New Matilda and The Courier Mail. The Family Law was released this year to raving reviews and has shot to the very top of the best seller list at Avid Reader (beating even Stieg Larsson). If you would like to find out more about Ben, you can visit his website, follow him on twitter and read this interview, which he generously granted us while working on his new project in Tokyo. 

Please describe your career trajectory.

I've always loved reading and wrote stupid stories as a kid. But I probably first got into magazine writing properly when I wrote the Letter of the Month at Rolling Stone as a 16-year-old. The editor sent me a Panasonic stereo for my troubles. (It’s the stereo I still use to this day.) I’m idiotically proud of the fact my first byline was a paid one — if you count stereos as payment. From there, I did a creative writing degree and started writing for every magazine that would take me on.

How did you know you wanted to be a writer?

I'm not sure if was actually a life ambition from the start. But I do remember reading an article in Rolling Stone as a teenager that blew my mind, called The True Story of John/Joan. It was one of the longest stories I'd ever read in the magazine, and looked at a true life case of twin boys in the US where one had a botched circumcision. Scientists effectively tried to make that boy into a girl, and the resulting life story just defied belief. It was probably the first non-fiction I'd read that read like a gripping novel. That got me thinking about the stuff I'd want to write about.

What is your writing routine?

Up until recently, my routine was pretty ad-hoc. My boyfriend produces radio for the ABC and gets out of bed at 3.30am. So out of guilt, my schedule used to run like clockwork: wake up at 6.30am; roll out of bed; green tea; check email; read news; shower; housework; writing/interviewing/editing by 9am. Swim laps; dinner; write some more; sleep. But now, because my research has taken me overseas, I've had to adjust to writing on the road, in airport terminals, in bed — whenever. The concept of routine has pretty much been stolen from me now.

What do you read?

Everything I can get my hands on. Regularly, I read magazines like The New Yorker, GQ (US version), Details, Time, National Geographic and Butt, which is this terrific Dutch gay magazine. Every day, I trawl through Australian, UK and American news websites, and also a fantastic queer news portal called Towleroad. And I'm always reading book, whether it's fiction or non-fiction.

Which writer do you most admire and why?

There are way too many. David Sedaris, obviously — he's a genius and one of the funniest people alive. I adore Jonathan Franzen and Zadie Smith, and the way they both write about people and families in their fiction. Chris Heath and Susan Orlean are two American non-fiction writers who I think are wonderful, and closer to home, people like Chloe Hooper, Helen Garner and Anna Krien do it for me.

What inspires you?

People. I just think people are super interesting.

What do you love about being a writer?

It's great being a writer if you have a short ADHD attention span like me. Every new story is literally a new job; it's impossible for me to get bored.

What are you working on at the moment?

Right now, I'm in Tokyo where I'm doing research on queer celebrity culture, especially on TV here. It's part of a bigger travel adventure book that looks at queer people throughout the Asian continent. Earlier in the year, I was in Thailand going backstage with the nation's biggest ladyboy competition, and in China looking at how young gays and lesbians connect on the internet, in a country where the internet is heavily moderated.

How important do you think it is for writers to have a unique, recognisable voice, even when they are writing for publications?

It really depends on the publication you're writing for. I've been with frankie magazine since its second issue, and both Louise (founding editor) and Jo (current editor) both really encourage their writers to present themselves as a character. As a result, it's probably one of the few magazines out there where readers pay attention to the bylines and flick immediately to their favourite writer, whether it's Marieke Hardy or Justin Heazlewood or Daniel Evans. As writers, that's really gratifying.

Do you tweak your writing process or mindset when you are writing journalistic pieces for The Monthly, as opposed to your irreverent (often quietly heartfelt) musings in frankie?

All the different magazines I write for demand different things. The Monthly is usually a bit more involved and I invest more time into research and interviews, whereas frankie is often about making sure things are as funny as possible, but super-focused on a theme since the stories are usually capped at 650 words.

What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

Read anything you can get your hands on. Be curious about everything and everyone around you. And then, finally, take notes.

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