Benjamin Law Talks Dysfunctional Families and Anthropomorphic Genitals

“Sorry you’re going to hear me expelling phlegm and I apologize” says the surprisingly dulcet baritone on the other end. I’m on the phone with Brisbane based writer, humourist and raconteur Benjamin Law who, due to a recent bout of illness, sounds like a really hoarse drag queen (his words). It’s apt really, that our conversation should start with mention of a bodily function. Apt because despite Law’s exceptional work for The Monthly, Sunday Life, The Big Issue, New Matilda and The Courier Mail, it’s his crass, self deprecating and ceaselessly hilarious work for Frankie Magazine for which he’s most famous and, as he later admits, from which he was first inspired to pen his debut novel, “The Family Law”. For fans of his work, Law is every bit as self-deprecating, engaging and witty as his writing might imply so read on as we discuss David Sedaris’ personal writing tips, anthropomorphic genitals and the dysfunctional marriage between humour and sentiment.

Let’s start with the genesis of your writing career. When did you first realize that writing was your calling? Well it was probably my first published byline. I was a real magazine fanatic as a kid and a teenager. I read Rolling Stone, Juice and all those magazines veraciously and I always stupidly tried to write letters to the Editor. And then one of them was published as the “Letter Of The Month” in Rolling Stone. Basically I was 16 and wrote this really earnest, heartfelt piece about the Australian Republic and they thought it was good and they said “It’s letter of the month Ben, you win a stereo” and I thought well this writing gig’s okay. So from that point on I thought it would be really, really awesome to be a writer. But in terms of the writing that I have done for this book, “The Family Law”, I’ve been writing for a magazine called Frankie for the last six years and in one of the earlier issues my Editor asked me to write a column called “My Mother’s Advice”. And as soon I started writing that, I realized that my Mother, and my family by extension, but especially my Mother, was gold to write about so that’s the genesis of those types of personal stories.

So how does your family, your Mother in particular, react to your work? Especially when it divulges so much personal information… It’s funny. I think there’s a mixture of love and a feeling of pride both that I’m getting work published and that they’re being turned into characters and immortalized in print. People always think my family are horrified to read about themselves but I think there’s always a part of us that’s quietly pleased that you’ve been immortalized on the page and people are reading about you. It’s funny, we like to celebrate each others wins so when I told my whole family about the book deal they said “that’s fantastic you’re going to write a book”. And then I said “Yeah, it’s all about you” and then there was a long silence followed by groaning so I think there was that mixture of happiness that I was going to write about them and people going to read about them mixed with quiet horror as well. A lot of mixed feelings really.

Because your writing style is so candid and especially for longtime Frankie readers who may have followed your work for years – do people feel like they know you? I think they do and to an extent they do. I write about quite personal things sometimes, you know, growing up in a dysfunctional Asian family and being gay and all that sort of stuff. I think people feel as though they have access to my life and they sort of do as well. I don’t write about every last thing I do in my life. I don’t write about how I go to the shops and buy a pint of milk or anything like that but there are parts of my life that I’m happy to share. And when I was younger I know I was looking for writing that I could identify with and someone who might have come from a similar family background to me so having written all the Frankie stories over the years and having written this book as well I’m already getting people saying that they really identify with it. Maybe they’re from a big family, maybe they’re from a divorced family or maybe they’re from an Asian-Australian background or maybe it’s all of the above. Maybe they grew up in the nineties and know the same pop culture references as me. So it’s really nice to have that connection and I think that’s one of the main reasons for writing really, building connections with people and seeing if they can connect with your life in return. I think it’s a good thing if people feel like they know you.

Is there any subject that’s taboo? I think that comes down to common sense. I don’t write too much about having sex. I don’t think I want to write about having sex and I don’t think people want to read about it either. I try to avoid writing about people in a completely asshole-y way. I think that’s really unfair. I try to see the story from their perspective and see if I can understand where people come from as well. And anything that’s boring really. I mean, people ask me if I self-censor and yeah I do and one of the main reasons I do is because I want to self-censor the stories I don’t think people will be entertained by. No one wants to read a boring story but maybe that’s just the born homosexual showman inside of me, afraid of boring people. So that stuff I try to avoid.

I think what’s really interesting about you, in terms of being a contemporary Australian writer, is those two modifiers that you carry as a writer. You know, Gay and Asian, or Gaysian as my Singaporean Mother would say. How do you think your identity affects how your writing is perceived? It’s interesting because those are two labels that are slapped on me and labels I’m pretty happy to wear because they’re both true. But people always ask if I’m sick of writing about those two things – the fact that I’m gay and the fact that I’m Asian – but if you’re writing stories about your own life you can’t really write from any other perspective. And I don’t think that other people are quite aware that they constantly write from their own race and sexuality as well. I don’t think sex columnists who might be female, white and heterosexual often think of themselves as female, white and heterosexual sex columnists. I guess Asian and gay is…

A marginalized identity? Yeah marginalized but at the same time I don’t think you have to be Gay or Asian to get the stuff I’m writing. And even though I write from a particular perspective, the amount of straight white girls that get it is a good sign that it’s universal. You don’t have to come from a dysfunctional family to get this either you just have to come from a family.

We talked earlier about writing from the perspective you know and obviously the majority of your work reflects this ethos but have you ever dabbled in fiction? Actually that’s a good question. I did a Creative Writing degree for my Undergrad degree and I’ve actually discovered that I’m really bad at writing fiction. I’m one of those people that keeps going back to things that have happened in real life and thinly disguising it and I think that’s a bit unfair. I’d rather just write it and say it’s all true and lay it all on the line. I do some scriptwriting as well which I guess is fictional but I’m really bad at disguising people’s identities and because I’m so bad at it, it’s a really dangerous thing for me to do. I’m much more comfortable writing about things that have happened in real life. And I think writers who like a good chat or get together with their friends and want to divulge something hideous that’s happened that day are probably those sorts of people as well.

And do you ever embellish in your non-fiction work? I think most non-fiction writers do but what I do is flag it. It’s obvious when something’s an exaggeration. There are other things as well like a lot of this book goes back to a time when I was five years old, or eleven years old or before I was born. So obviously I wasn’t in a position to take my handy Olympus dictaphone into the situation and I was forced to construct a certain setting and construct dialogue to make sure it’s readable. But I think you can play around with those things as long as they don’t affect some sort of central truth.

Let’s talk about the ritual of writing for a bit because I find the writing schedule of freelance writers and novelists really interesting. You know, the output can be so varied day to day. You can write five words or five thousand words or find inspiration or not. Do have a stringent routine for writing? I usually try to wake up and read the news from 7 to 8, eat breakfast and do some housework. It’s really riveting, are you totally involved in this right now? (Laughs) Then from 9 I think “everyone else is starting their day, this is when I should start as well”. So I basically work from 9 to 5 on whatever I happen to have going on whether that’s a book project, or a profile for a magazine or interviews and things like that. And then I’ll try to work right up til 5 and if there’s a particularly urgent deadline I’ll work right up til midnight, keeping in mind that I give myself regular breaks as well. It’s really, really easy to turn into that trash bag freelancer who rolls out of bed at whatever time…

Do pants ever come into the equation? Well they didn’t used to. I used to just roll out of bed and think there was this nice charm in always working in my underwear. But then you realize that pants make all the difference. Once I put trousers on at 9am I actually feel like I’m an actual person doing an actual job. I must say though, I live in Brisbane so sometimes I work in ridiculously short shorts or underwear so it’s not always professional.

That actually reminds me of a Nick Cave interview I read where he talks about working in his shed in Brighton and before he crosses the threshold he puts on a three piece suit to mentally prepare for working on the song or script or whatever he’s doing… That’s great, I love that. See if I could have a separate space – I live in a one bedroom apartment that I share with my boyfriend – so there’s not really that luxury of space. I’ve read that the Australian writer Margo Lanegan has one room for writing with a computer that’s not connected to the internet and another that is. But because I don’t have that luxury of space it’s just about being very disciplined and regularly disabling my internet.

You’ve actually just offered the perfect segue into my next question which is – how much of your time and mental exertion is dedicated to things like Twitter? I sort of have segments you know. I’ll activate a program called Freedom and what Freedom does is disable your internet for a certain amount of time. So you might notice that I’m off Twitter for an hour or two and then I’ll be back on and do a run of Tweets and then I’ll leave. I find it really difficult to actually need these lame software devices to get me back on track. Twitter is really easy it’s pretty much releasing a brain fart into the world and then you get back on track. I don’t find it destroys my train of thought and sometimes I need some distraction.

Speaking of disabling the internet, a recurring motif that I find again and again in your work is “homosexual pornography”. Those two words always come up… (Laughs) Oh look, yeah they just pop up. That’s just my life Ashley. My life is a porn movie. Wow, that’s good to know.

Yeah, very good to know. Let’s talk about the elephant in the interview so to speak and that’s Dave Sedaris who is almost a compulsory reference in all the reviews of “The Family Law” I’ve read thus far. You’re both humorists who write about your family and sexuality. You both share certain stylistic sensibilities as well. Do you feel an affinity with his work?
Totally. And I’ve got to flag first of all that no one can ever be like Sedaris. He’s a one of a kind genius, you can’t even try. But I have to admit that ever since my early twenties when I discovered Sedaris I’ve kept a neat stack of his books next to my desk. I remember first reading him, and I talked earlier about being a teenager and really wanting to read someone I could identify with on a personal level, and it was when I discovered David Sedaris that I had this moment where I thought I could really identify with a writer. He was gay, he came from a large family, really quotable family as well. I thought he was just incredible. Of course he comes from a completely different generation to me but I really dig his stuff. When he came to Brisbane last he signed one my friend’s books and all he wrote was this sign that said “Abortions – $3” and I remember thinking “who else can get away with that shit?” David Sedaris, of course. I actually had the pleasure of interviewing him over the phone for a profile I was writing and it was actually really good timing. It was just before I was about to start writing my book so I got a few bits of advice from him. Like if you’re going to write about people, write about people who don’t read very much. I thought that was great advice. He’s fantastic, I love the guy.

Did you fight the urge to gush? Yeah, I just let him talk. You know, the phone’s interesting because you’re detached from the person on the other side. But I think if I interviewed him in person I would have done something creepy like sneaked myself in his suitcase and followed him home to France. But yeah, he’s an incredibly generous person. We ended up talking for a good hour about all the things he regretted about his writing so it was a good learning experience actually.

Would you ever do reading tours like Sedaris? Because I think in Australia at least, you have the fan base and that kind of accessible and endearing style to do what he does and read it aloud to your fans. I think that’s something that people would totally pay for. Look, I’ll be doing readings around the place to launch my book, hopefully I won’t be still leaking mucus. But I definitely think reading the stuff is a lot of fun and recently my sister and I recorded an audio version of one of the stories. It’s one of the stories about all the bad things kids do in childhood and it tells this story of me defiling this sex education pop up book. And at one point my friends and I give these funny voices to all the pop up genitals in this book at school so you’ve got my sister impersonating a giant labia. So stories can be fun to read out loud. I’m not sure if I’m going to attempt the same voices when I do read it out loud though.

You mention the kind of anthropomorphic talking labia, which visually is such an outrageous gag. And from what I’ve read of “The Family Law” a lot of it is hilarious and it’s that self-deprecating style that Frankie readers will be familiar with. But I think there’s a less obvious emotional core as well. Like the one story I have read is ostensibly about this pushy Asian Mother but you peel back the layers and it’s really about loneliness and identity and self-worth and like, empty nest syndrome. Do you have a barometer for what works on an emotional level as well?
That’s a really good question and it’s probably a difficult one to answer. It’s a feeling, there’s no formula for whether you’ve gotten something right because I think it’s a lot more intuitive. I know when I started writing this book my Editor gently suggested that I not rely on too many jokes because the jokes would just come anyway and he told me not to be afraid to get to the heart of things. I think that’s my fall back, if I feel like I’m getting too close to something I’m just going to throw in a poo, or dick or vagina joke to soften things up. That’s actually a disgusting sentence. You’re going to read back on that think “that’s one foul sentence” (laughs). But I feel like there are stories out there that go straight for laughs and that’s great. And there are stories that go straight for the heart and that’s fine as well. But I’m probably weary of each of those things, you need a balance of both. If you’re just going to be funny and snide that doesn’t always appeal to me. And if you’re going to be incredibly earnest and sentimental that doesn’t really appeal to me either. It’s a difficult balancing act. Because of that I’m always quite aware of how I’m telling the story. Like if you come from a family like mine and things happen within the family, emotions can get really raw. It can be a challenge not to bleed all over the page, you need to step away from the situation and think about what actually happened and how other people reacted and why they reacted like they did.

Any particular example? There’s this one story where my Mum, in a way, basically fakes her own death. She turns off all her phones so no one can call her and just sends us into this despairing panic about whether she’s okay or not. And at the time I thought that was crazy but given some time away from the situation and after some heated words you can start to see why someone would react in that way. And you start thinking back to your childhood about all the times you made your Mother think you were dead as well and you realize that there’s no such thing as a story that exists in a definitive form. Everyone has a different account and different perspectives and that’s half the challenge – making sure all those points of view are accounted for.

Finally, we talked earlier about interviewing people as a freelance writer – what’s it like being on the other side? Going from probing for information to being probed? Sorry that was a poor choice of words. You mean like right now? Like how you’re probing me right now? It’s pretty violating. No it’s interesting, I’m not actually in this position too often and at the end of the day an interview is a good chat right? I really like chatting to people and hopefully we’re in a situation one day where I get to ask you the questions.

I’m almost 99% sure that will never happen but Ben, thank you so much for your time today. Thank you.

Benjamin Law’s debut novel “The Family Law” is published by Black Inc. Books and available at all good book shops.

Title Image Provided by Benjamin Law