Benjamin Law is a Sydney-based TV screenwriter, journalist and newspaper columnist.
He’s the author of The Family Law (2010) and Gaysia: Adventures in the Queer East (2012) (both of which were nominated for the Australian Book Industry Awards), co-author of the comedy book Shit Asian Mothers Say (2014) with his sister Michelle, and has written the Quarterly Essay Moral Panic 101 (2017) on the Safe Schools scandal. He also co-wrote Law School (2017), a book about sex, with his mother.
The Family Law became a six-part television series for the SBS network in 2016, which Benjamin created and co-wrote with Marieke Hardy, and Kirsty Fisher and Lawrence Leung. The show won the 2016 Screen Producers Awards for Best Comedy and was nominated for two Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts Awards. In 2018, episode 4 of series 2 was shortlisted for the Betty Roland Prize for Scriptwriting in the NSW Premier’s Literature Awards.
Benjamin is also a regular contributes, including for Good Weekend, frankie and The Monthly. He has written for over 50 publications, businesses and agencies in Australia and worldwide, and has a PhD in creative writing and cultural studies.
- Ben appeared at our second ‘The Garret LIVE at the Library event in June 2018. You can listen to the live recording of that interview here.
- Don Watson and George Megalogenis are other journlists published by Morry Schwartz through Schwartz Media.
- Erik Jensen was chosen by Morry to be the founding editor of The Saturday Paper.
Nic Brasch: Benjamin Law is the author of The Family Law, Gaysia, Adventures in the Queer East, co-author of Shit Asian Mothers Say and Law School, and author of Moral Panic 101, a Quarterly Essay. He's also the creator and writer of the TV comedy The Family Law, columnist for The Good Weekend, and a hell of a lot more besides.
Benjamin, welcome to The Garret.
Benjamin Law: Good day. Thanks so much for having me.
Nic: I'm wondering how useful it's been having the surname Law. You can play on that for years with book titles, can't you?
Benjamin: Yeah. It's handy in that you can play with it but you can't really tease me with it. When I was growing up as a kid and a teenager though, like, ‘You're an outlaw. You've broken the law’. It's like, ‘Well, that all sounds great to me’.
Where it has come in handy is because it could be a Westerner name, L-A-W, even though I'm Chinese-Australian, it has come in handy in situations where I don't necessarily want them to know my ethnicity right up front, which sounds strange, but the best example is when I really wanted to profile Pauline Hanson, wanted to arrange an interview with her when she was running, I think, for the New South Wales Senate.
And of course, they said yes, because I was writing for Fairfax, and then I showed up looking like this, and they were already trapped.
Nic: That's fantastic. Is it a word that means the same in Chinese as it does in English?
Benjamin: It's worth investigating, because there is a story that's floating around that Law actually isn't my family name, that my dad's dad bought this name on the black market, because he wanted to work in San Francisco. Really, the Law that my family bought into might have more in relation to Jude Law, the actor, than it does to any Chinese Law.
Nic: There's a quarterly essay in there.
Benjamin: Yeah, I know, false identities and a web of lies.
Nic: Did you mine your family in your experiences for stories when you were young? Did you just watch and think, ‘I'm going to use that in something?’ Did you tell stories about them?
Benjamin: I knew that my family was always quite different. I grew up in a coastal surfing town in Queensland, and when you think of that, you don't necessarily think of a big bunch of Asians. We definitely stood out. It was a very monocultural place, very, very Anglo.
In fact, because I didn't really travel much as a child, I didn't know that the rest of Australia was so multicultural until I left my childhood home. I just thought that we were one of very few Asian-Australians. When you turn on the TV, there are no Asian-Australians either. I knew that we were set apart, because that was very immediately visually obvious, and because when you're the child of migrants, your parents are always trying to convey you to the world in which they grew up, which is so alien and foreign to your own.
So, stories were threaded through my life. It was how we understood our place in the world, and understood our ancestry and history. But I don't think I was necessarily like a storyteller right from the start. I know that I was a big exaggerator and liar, which may be the same thing.
Nic: It’s the same thing. Were you a keen reader at school? If so, do you remember what books and authors sort of struck you early on and caught your attention?
Benjamin: Yeah. I was a voracious reader. I think that was just a part of my life, right from the start. The idea of becoming a writer wasn't there at all. I remember, for instance, in Grade One, where you have to read picture books, and you bring back your reader books with your parents, I was that person who was bringing home two if I could, and speeding through everything.
I was quite an advanced reader, and my grade school teacher was wondering whether I was so smart that I should skip a level. Then they found out, ‘Actually, he's quite average at everything else. He's not particularly one of those genius Asians. He just likes to read a lot’.
Then from there, I remember reading Roald Dahl. The Twits was my first book that my sister had, and that Christmas, because my mom saw that I was so obsessed with the very few books that my sister had, she bought me the whole back collection.
In my family, there were quite a few things that were seen as indulgences, ‘Don't waste your money on that’, but books were never one of them. My mom remembers that I was quite a low maintenance child, in that all she'd have to do was either turn on the television or throw me a book, and I'd be very, very quiet, like a succulent, really. Not much needed.
Nic: Which all mothers just want quiet children, don't they?
Benjamin: Exactly. If it wasn't Roald Dahl, it was Paul Jennings, or it was those All Right Vegemite kind of books. Later on though, as a teenager, I kind of went off books.
Nic: Oh, really?
Benjamin: Yeah. I didn't really find those books that really resonated with me. YA wasn't really a genre that was particularly strong. Sure, there was John Marsden and stuff like that, but I kind of read either ahead - like reading deeply age inappropriate stuff, like Stephen King - but the main thing I got obsessed with as a teenager was magazines. I still read voraciously, but it was magazines.
Nic: What sort of magazines?
Benjamin: Mainly music magazines... Rolling Stone, Juice, which doesn't exist anymore, Q Magazine from the United Kingdom, Spin Magazine from the United States, sometimes MOJO, but I thought it was pretty dick heavy, just a lot of dudes in MOJO, HQ Magazine, which was a now defunct culture magazine that I really loved.
The great thing about reading across those titles is even though ostensibly I'm using magazines, Rolling Stone would publish amazing pieces about politics, or gender, or social sciences and world events, and that was kind of my gateway in this largely pre-internet era in coastal Queensland. My access to the outside world was really mediated by those titles.
Nic: You felt a need to understand more about the wider world and everything that was going on?
Benjamin: In my little, small, boxy, suburban bedroom that I shared with my brother, reading about gender dysphoria cases in Rolling Stone, something that was happening in what seemed like a completely different world to mine, but that someone had wrote it from their research, and it was a true story as well, really blew my mind.
There was a piece written by... I forget what his name is, but I remember it took up like 14 pages in Rolling Stone. It was a hefty piece about medicine and gender dysphoria, that I just did not see coming. Reading that as a 15 year old… I think maybe that was the first time where I thought that could be a cool job, being a feature journalist, but I didn't even know what a feature journalist was.
Nic: This is what I was going to ask. At what point did you think, ‘Oh, writing...?’ Were you writing at this stage as well, or were you just reading?
Benjamin: No, not really. I really liked reading. I didn't mind doing English assignments, and that probably felt most naturally to me, but I wasn't top of the class. I did really well, but I wasn't one of the geniuses who was marked out for greatness, or anything like that.
The first thing I remember, in terms of if I have to kind of trace back how I got interested in writing itself was Rolling Stone would invite letters to the editor. I was one of those really irritating teenagers who really took up that invitation too seriously. I would comment on their reviews, ‘This review is terrible’ or ‘This story was amazing’.
There was a piece that Rolling Stone wrote about the Australian referendum on becoming a republic in 1999, which was my last year of high school. I was like, ‘I'm a 16 year old in Queensland, and I find it disgraceful I don’t get my say...’ It was this really lofty, high school debating, earnest, Lions’ Youth of the Year kind of vibe letter. But, Lisa Blake, who is now a theatre critic and was then Rolling Stone's editor, she chose it as Letter of the Month. Letters of the Month always won a prize, and my prize was a Panasonic stereo. It was amazing.
Nic: Wow, that's not bad for a letter, is it?
Benjamin: Totally. Because I'm one of five children, we didn't really have that many things that were just our own, but now I had a stereo of my own. I merely thought to myself, ‘Wow, writing pays so well. I better stick with this’.
Nic: [Laughter] Then eventually, what was the path towards becoming a writer?
Benjamin: I thought that I wanted to be a features journalist. I knew that I read and consumed daily news, but I didn't really have the discipline or the interest to pursue that kind of storytelling, because I didn't think it was particularly storytelling anyway. It's about making sure that the facts are disseminated.
I looked at Journalism, and I thought, ‘That's not quite what I want to do, even though they'll teach me feature writing in there at some stage’. There was a new degree that had just started at Queensland University of Technology called Creative Writing.
My friend, Lorelei Vashti. We went to high school together. She's also a writer and an author herself. She was one year level ahead. She had enrolled in it, and it was quite a boutique kind of thing, you needed relatively good grades to get in. Luckily, I'd gotten that grade to be able to get in. But it was a huge gamble, because by the time I started, it was the third year of the degree. Literally no one had graduated from it, so no one had any job prospects. There were no job prospects.
Nic: Welcome to the world of writing. [Laughter]
Benjamin: Exactly, that was a really good lesson. I enrolled in the Creative Writing degree, but without any clear idea of what I wanted from it. As I got into it, I realised ‘We can make this course what we want’. They were already borrowing a lot of journalism subjects anyway, so I got really sucked into that.
The subjects that my poetry friends really resented, I was like, ‘Oh, that's my thing’. It taught me really good discipline. Then from there, started doing work experience for Street Press, started writing for then editing the student magazine at QUT, and then started writing for the Courier Mail, which is the metropolitan newspaper in Queensland.
Nic: What were you writing for them when you started? Just anything they wanted you to?
Benjamin: For the Courier Mail, it was always arts interviews, because I was doing a lot of work for Street Press by that stage. I was a real music head, which is hilarious, because I know nothing about music anymore. You hit your 30s and things change. But I was obsessed with music in my 20s, and I would interview... When Cat Power came to town, I'd do the cover story on Cat Power for the arts lift out in the Courier Mail, or something like that.
Nic: You were working as a freelancer, or were you on contract?
Benjamin: No, completely as a freelancer. Even now, my boyfriend kind of looks at me and he's like, ‘You've never had a real job’. I've worked in offices, so I've worked as a layout designer for Street Press. I've worked for those kind of bitsy casual jobs. I've worked in retail and hospitality. But in terms of a salaried job, I've never had one. I am one of those weird, creepy freaks.
Nic: I'm wondering, which international and Australians feature journalists were the ones that were inspiring you at the time when you were reading Rolling Stone, when you were reading through these magazines?
Benjamin: There was one called Chris Heath, who was writing for Rolling Stone way back in the day. I think he did go on to become a staff writer at GQ Magazine, but I don't think he's at GQ anymore. Later on, I was reading a lot of Details Magazine, where Michael Chabon was an ongoing monthly contributor.
It's kind of strange that glossy magazines introduced me to a lot of the authors that I'd end up consuming. David Sedaris was writing pieces in a lot of glossy magazines as well, Augusten Burroughs. I think I even read a Joan Didion extract in one of these magazines early on as well. It was kind of like the strange pathway. That was always really my obsession.
Nic: Was that your introduction to David Sedaris, through that?
Benjamin: Yeah, it might have been. Maybe it was through a New Yorker piece or something like that. When you're studying in Brisbane and growing up in Queensland, things like the New Yorker, and even say the Sydney Morning Herald, or The Age feel very, very fancy and lofty. I thought I was very much a man of the world.
Nic: What happened, or what happens, when you read someone like David Sedaris, and you're trying to ... Do you read it and go, ‘Why do I bother?’ Or do you read it and it inspires you to reach those heights? It's a two edged sword, isn't it?
Benjamin: No, it's a combination of both. I never think to myself I could even be anywhere close to how he writes or the quality that he does, but it provides me an access point in thinking this guy is a generation older than me, but he talks about the migrant experience, because his father's Greek. He talks about the gay experience. He talks about growing up in a huge, rambunctious, sprawling family. He's one of six, I'm one of five. There were all these resonances for me when I started reading David Sedaris. Because he has written books, but most of his books are kind of smooshed up collections of his essays, when it came time for Black Inc., my publisher, to say, ‘Actually, do you have any book ideas up your sleeve?’ I'm like, ‘Yes, I do’.
My immediate thought was, ‘Well, you love David Sedaris so much’ - I will always worship at his feet - ‘Maybe I could do something like that’. Not be David Sedaris, but at least he's provided me a template of how I might be able to write something.
Nic: When you read The Family Law, it's like reading David Sedaris…
Benjamin: Oh, I will totally take that compliment.
Nic: The tone of the humour, the stories he tells, the way he just mines everything in his life, and doesn't seem to care too much about the people he's talking and writing about. I don't mean doesn't care about them, but he doesn't elaborate. He doesn't do it.
Benjamin: The funny thing is, when I got contracted to write The Family Law - this would have been like 2010, 2011, something like that - I had the opportunity to interview David Sedaris for the Courier Mail. Part of that interview was just like, ‘Say you were wanting to write a book similar to yours, David. Do you have any rules for how you go about approaching this?’ He was so funny. He was like, ‘Well, first of all, I tend to write about people who don't read very much’. I thought that was just hilarious.
The second thing was that he did have rules about... he understood that you don't write in a vacuum: once your book comes out it has real world effects. One of his other rules was that he makes sure that if he writes about people, it's not betraying someone else's confidence.
For instance, there was a great story that he had about his sister's parents-in-law, but of course, if he wrote that, they would immediately know that his sister had betrayed their confidence, so he never wrote that story for a public audience. What he does instead is he reads that story out when he's on tour in every American state, except the state in which the parents live.
Nic: How fantastic. And if you’re listening to this podcast in Arizona ... It's just been blown!
What were the most difficult parts in you writing about your family? Were there difficulties? How did you approach that when you said, ‘Oh, I'm gonna write about you guys?’
Benjamin: Yeah. There was that moment where ... my family's really tight knit, and we really like each other. When we have successes in life and our careers, we really do celebrate them. But I had that moment, and I still remember, we were meeting at, I think my grandma's place. I was like, ‘Hey, guys. I've got a book contract...’ - they were like, ‘Oh, my God. That's amazing’ - "And it's all about us’. They're like, ‘Oh, of course it is’.
Ben: They're really accommodating about that. I think, in terms of the difficulties, part of it is when you go to write a memoir, whether it's an A to Z linear narrative or whether it's even like what I've done, a collection of personal essays, you kind of go into it thinking, ‘This shouldn't be too hard, because these are the stories that I've been told and I've been telling my entire life’.
What you realise is how many gaps there are in your knowledge and understanding of what these stories mean, and also, just the beats of the stories themselves. My parents, I knew that they'd migrated over from Hong Kong in the mid 1970s. I knew that my extended family were forcibly deported out of the country in 1986. Then when I started writing it, I realised there were so many things I didn't know or understand. Quite a bit of the book was actually sitting down with my family. It was a real gift of a thing to do, to say, ‘Some of these things don't really add up’. Then you kind of realise that there are some things that are mysteries that you need to solve.
I didn't expect to really have to wear a quasi journalist hat for quite a bit of the writing.
Benjamin: Also, the other thing that is challenging is being fair. People in your life will act in terrible ways, including yourself. In writing a piece like this, I was always questioning whether I was being fair to the people in my life, but also fair to a younger version of me as well. That was something that was, I think, a little bit tricky to pull off.
Nic: Were there incidents that your family members recalled in a different way than you do? What happens in that regard? I know that's a common thing in memoir writing.
Benjamin: Absolutely. Even in The Family Law, there was one essay where there was an incident where my Mum was supposed to pick us up, and my brother and I weren't at the car pickup thing, and she thought we were dead, and blah, blah, blah. It was really, really dramatic. Then, because I'd sent my family printed out manuscripts of the latest draft so they could have a couple of months to read it and tell me what they thought, ‘Give me feedback, if there's anything that worries you, I'd really want to know’, that sort of stuff, they got back to me with that particular story, because it involved my brother and my Mum. They were like, ‘We don't remember that happening’.
I actually flagged that in the book. I explicitly state, ‘My mom and my brother have no memory of this happening. But I'm pretty sure it happened because X, Y, and Z’. It's just including that grain of doubt for the reader, and being transparent about the fact that if you didn't realise already, a memoir is told through a very particular personal lens, and truth is a subjective thing in terms of storytelling when it comes to your family.
Nic: And if, as you say, as a six and seven year old, you were exaggerating and lying, like storytellers do, and I know…
Benjamin: Yes, that might be the case.
Nic: It gets to the point when you forget you actually have no idea whether a story you're telling is true or not, over the years…
Benjamin: Well, it's stories that took place a decade and a half ago. I'm not justifying getting any parts of the story wrong, but I'm explaining how different perspectives come up. It was actually great to harvest those different perspectives as I was writing the book.
Nic: I bet your mom went and bought the first copy, and was running around the neighbourhood with it, from the bookshelf.
Benjamin: I'm pretty sure she bought a box load or something. Every time a new edition comes out, she's on the phone.
Nic: From the humour of The Family Law then comes Gaysia, which is a very serious topic, and obviously a very personal exploration. How did that come about? Did you want to stop the possibility of being boxed in as a sort of David Sedaris type thing and suddenly go serious? It's so different.
Benjamin: I get asked that a lot, as if I'm very conscious of my brand. ‘If I was cultivating a brand, it would be a miss’. Also, I think cultivating a brand is not healthy for most writers. Or least, if you're a writer, interested in writing about different things. If you want to build a niche, then sure.
But for me, I wear a lot of different writing hats. Even when I was writing The Family Law, I was always writing serious feature journalism as well. Gaysia came about in several ways. One, I was always being referred to by my friends as a ‘Gaysian’. I'm just like, ‘That's a good book title. I've got to do something like that at some stage’.
Benjamin: The second thing was, The Family Law was kind of making me go a bit stir crazy. Writing a memoir is not an exercise that's conducive to robust mental health, because you're really going through your memories, analysing every last thing. You're really writing it by yourself in a darkened room. You don't engage much with the world during that period. I just needed to get out, and I couldn't wait to just travel, explore the world, and write about what I was seeing.
The third thing was, I'm a voracious consumer of just daily news. Often that's where a lot of my feature story article ideas come from. I noticed that as much as I read about LGBTIQ news, because I'm just interested in my community and my global community, a lot of the stories that I was most interested in were coming out of Asia.
That's the continent of my ancestry. My Mum was born in Malaysia. My dad was born in the south of China. Part of being a child of migrants is you do tend to ask, probably more explicitly than your non-child of migrant friends, that kind of what if question. What if I had been born in China? What would my life as a gay person be like? What if I'd been born as a gay person in Malaysia, which is quite explicitly strict with expressions of sexuality as well?
And so, the more I read these stories, the more I read about alleged government crackdowns on gay beauty pageants in Shanghai, or when I read about gay conversion therapies in Singapore and Malaysia, I thought, ‘That's an interesting news story, but there has to be other layers to it. I know that the other layers would be a human story’.
And so I started going over to different Asian countries. I went to seven different Asian countries in the space of, I think, two and a half years. It was never gonna be like, ‘This is an atlas of Asia, and every single LGBTIQ experience ever’, which I think I almost pitched to my editor. He said, ‘You need to reframe this’.
Ben: What I discovered is, I really wanted more to write about issues and then locate those issues in a particular part of Asia that made them amplified or made them tricky. For instance, I wanted to look at the lives of transgender people, and specifically, trans women. Of course, Thailand is synonymous with that, but transgender women in Thailand are usually brought up as a punchline, brought up as a joke, they're not two dimensional people, they are three dimensional people. They're not brought up as real lived lives. I just knew that there was something more to that, but at the same time, I was reading that Thailand's the place of liberation for trans women. It's where the medical interventions are so terrific and world class, where you can go for a beauty pageant, and you'll become a mainstream star, like a family star, but is that really the real story? So, I wanted to interrogate one of those stories into my assumptions about those stories, and that's how I went into it.
Nic: Did you go into knowing how you were gonna do structure of the book, and set it out?
Benjamin Law:I never know things about structure.
Nic: No, so how does structure come? There has got to be a point to which you work out, this has to work in this way. Is it after you've written everything down?
Benjamin: Again, it's a bit of a cheat, because as much as it's a book, it's simply a smooshed up collection of pretty long, investigative, feature-y, essay things. I never really know quite how to describe them.
Nic: But the order in which you put things is structured.
Benjamin Law: That's true, that's true. It's kind of something that I had a big discussion with Chris Feik, my editor and publisher, about from Black Inc. We were like, ‘How do you start?’ Because most people had known me for The Family Law, I wanted to bring them in with a bit of comedy to begin with, because a lot of this book, Gaysia, is really grim.
It's a bit of an ask, especially to ask non-Asian, heterosexual cisgender people to read about this obscure topic in a part of the world that you might not think about on a daily basis. I wanted to bring them in, at least in the first chapter, which is headed in Bali, Indonesia, which is also a place that Australians are very, very familiar with as well. But also, let's reframe it and look at it differently. Let's look at an emerging economy of sex work in Bali, gay sex work specifically. Also, let's look at the comedy around this economy to begin with, until we get to the serious stuff. You kind of notice as the book goes on, it goes from Myanmar to Thailand. Thailand also has some comedy within a transgender beauty pageant. We're gonna get serious as well. China's gonna be more serious, until you get to Myanmar, and then the situation's just almost unapologetically bleak. Then we wanted to finish with India, because India kind of provides hope, that whole Harvey Milk quote, ‘You've got to give them hope’. You might have destroyed them with the rest of the book, but you've got to give them hope.
Then the structure of the individual chapters... God, that's a whole other conversation.
Nic: Let's go completely back to humour, and the wonderful, wonderful sex columns you've done with your wonderful Mum, which has been put together and published by The Lifted Brow as Law School, and which is absolutely hysterical.
Benjamin: My Mum is pretty funny. My Mum, after The Family Law, the memoir, came out, she obviously built a lot of notoriety, which has been amplified by the fact that it's now a TV show as well. One of the things that Mum is most known for, and this lands pretty strongly in the second chapter of the book, it lands pretty strongly from the first few minutes of the TV show, is how frank she is about sex, and sexuality, and gender.
Nic: Absolutely. The first scene of the first episode of the TV show.
Benjamin: Exactly, and anatomy as well. She's basically talking about her vag exploding when she's giving birth over the scene of a birthday party.
As a result, when The Lifted Brow approached me, I think, about the possibility of writing a sex advice column, they immediately said, ‘And would your Mum be interested?’ I just thought, ‘That is so weird, but it totally makes sense’.
It's so strange to think that was in 2011, which is six years ago, because I just thought we were happily doing it on the side as a hobby, blah, blah, blah. Then when they wrote back and said, ‘We've actually got enough for a book’. I'm like, ‘No we don't. No, we don't at all’, but we really did. Mum has just provided so much insight and hilarity in that period of time, advice, some which are just howlers. I know I've probably provided advice that's utterly misleading, or possibly dangerous when I think about it.
Benjamin: I think, in all of this, we maintain a pretty good sense of humour. The way that it works out is, Mum can send SMSs and emails and stuff like that, but I'm happy to play Peggy Olsen, Secretary, while listening to her. We have a really good chat over the phone, I write down all her responses, and then I interrogate her a bit. I'm like, ‘Yeah, you're saying that to this person, but Mum, if you were in that situation, would you really tell them to just...’ whatever she's told them, like to buy a sex toy for your sister, or whatever.
Then some more responses come out, and then I edit it and she approves it. Now we've got an illustrated, hardcover book.
Nic: A wonderful one too. I doubt that I know very few people who could write sex columns alongside their Mum.
Benjamin: Yeah, I realise that now.
Nic: Really, it's bizarre.
Benjamin: I know, which is why…
Nic: You were never uncomfortable with it from the outset?
Benjamin: No, no, no.
Nic: It's because you grew up with that. It was just…
Benjamin: I grew up with it, and I got all the discomfort out of my system through my teen years, when everyone is embarrassed by their mothers, but I think I had legitimate reason to be.
Nic: I think so.
Benjamin: It's that very unlikely, strange combination that I think really surprises people. It's probably why we ended up on The Project and stuff like that, all these unexpected places where the book has ended up.
Nic: I think it's very healthy though.
Benjamin: Yeah, absolutely. I think as a result, the five kids in the family have been quite sensible and open minded when it comes to sex and sexuality. Nothing really phases us. Also, that's because Mum's open to change and changing her attitude and mind as well. As standards change, as we understand more about people from different sexual or gender backgrounds as well, you understand more about the world and you accommodate for people. Mum's always been accommodating. When I came out as gay - we didn't know any gay people when I came out as gay to her - she accommodated for me, and I think that's really important.
Nic: When you were writing The Quarterly Essay, Moral Panic 101…
Benjamin: Which is not a comedy book.
Nic: It's certainly not. There's not humour in it whatsoever. You don't even start with humour, you start with tragedy. Your experience with your Mum obviously was very different to the experiences of a lot young people…
Benjamin: Australian young people, yeah.
Nic: Were you aware of that when you were writing it? Were you sort of ... not reaching out, but sort of feeling that relationship with your Mum as you were writing it, and going, ‘If only they'd had the same sort of thing?’
Benjamin: Absolutely. You always take your parents for granted. The older that I get, and the more stories I hear from other people, I realise how lucky I am. This has been a pretty full on year for people in the LGBTIQ community, with the same sex marriage postal vox pop survey.
I think it's thrown into stark relief how much a lot of parents, as much as they've called a cease fire in tensions with their family around sex and sexuality, how some of my friends' parents have said, ‘No, dear. I'm voting no’. That's just really emotionally wrecked a lot of my friends, whereas for my Mum - and to an extent, my Dad, but my Mum especially - it's never been a question of whether she's accepted me or not. Certainly, you internalise that fear when you're coming out. I did, but I look back and I realise actually, there was never any chance that Mum wasn't going to be accepting.
When you look at the stats, when you look at the data, when you talk to young people, as I did for Moral Panic 101, you realise, ‘My God, that's a rarity in the world’. That's a real tragedy, how rare it is.
Even though I imagine a lot of people who voted yes for same sex marriage don't have a problem with same sex marriage, that's why they voted yes, but would still be confronted if their child came out as gay to them.
Nic: Sure, sure. How was it writing ... what is it, 20, 25,000 words?
Benjamin: 25,000 words.
Nic: It's sort of neither here nor there. You've written lots of articles and essays…
Benjamin: That's not quite a book, either.
Nic: It's sort of midway. Was it the first of that sort of length you've done, and did it pose particular problems?
Benjamin: Yeah, in a way, because I kind of think of it as the longest feature I've written, or the longest single piece I've written. Even though you say rightly that I've written books, none of them are A to Z linear narratives, and The Quarterly Essay is.
Nic: It's actually the longest thing you've ever written.
Benjamin: It's probably the longest thing I've ever written, absolutely. I really had to figure that out. The first thing I did was just do all the research So, a lot of reading, a lot of books, a lot of interviews, a lot of on the ground research. Basically, maybe a month and a half to two months of just simply interviewing people, trekking around the country. I flew to Adelaide, just for the day to interview Penny Wong, and then came back.
It was kind of this really frantic period of interviewing, transcribing, and reading, and reading, and reading, and reading. Then when I sat down, you're so overloaded with information that you don't know where to start.
I did what my friend, Antonia Hays, who's a novelist, kind of recommends. This is her starting process, where she's got a lot of stuff going on, but she needs to figure out how to structure it, which is coloured Post-it notes.
So, I wrote down all of the beats of the story that I wanted to hit. I estimated kind of mathematically how many words I wanted to hit in those beats as well. I used another set of colours to put in the characters in that part of the story, so I could see, map out where we were going to go. Then that starts forming these kind of clouds of sections, and those sections are almost ... I think I went for three act structure, or maybe it was three act plus one more. Then you can kind of see where they're going to go, and you kind of choose where you start.
In some ways, I prefer that, because it reminds you that because sticky notes are not permanent, they can be moved, just like structure can be moved. The main thing is just to dive in. If there was one part of the essay that was really getting me down, I'd just simply move on to the next one straightaway.
Nic: I was going to ask about this. One of the key things in the essay is the role of The Australian newspaper, and the number of articles they had against this high school's program. You say you read every single one of them.
Benjamin: Yeah. It shaved years off my life.
Nic: Did you have to shower after each one?
Benjamin: I just walked into the ocean.
Nic: I'm just wondering, how do you take care of yourself when you are reading this stuff that you're probably taking personally, but as well as just having to deal with it, and worrying about the welfare of other people? How do you take care of yourself when you're dealing with something like that?
Benjamin: First of all, remind yourself how lucky you are. I'm writing a piece. I'm reading about this high school's coverage. It's 90,000 words. Yes, it's personally painful to read this stuff, but I'm not the kids that are getting bullied at school. I'm not the kids without supportive parents. I am the well adjusted adult, so I've got a responsibility to do something here.
There was a lot of kind of internal pep talks about that sort of stuff. I'm really one of the most privileged gay people of the community, really. I'm privileged to be of the generation I am. I didn't have to live through violence, and bloodbaths, and gay hate crimes, and stuff like that. I'm going to use that privilege the best I can. If I'm writing about people without resilience, I need to acknowledge that I do have that, and I've got a skillset where I can tell this story.
Partly, I'm driven by rage as well. This scandal that The Australian whipped up for one year is kind of an abdication of responsibility as well. It's kind of a corrosion of journalism. I'm not a journalist in the purest sense, but I do wear a journalist's hat quite a bit. When you see people framing a story from day one in bad faith, omitting important information to give readers context, writing editorials within the first 24 hours of your first story, basically damning a program, where you haven't actually told readers what it is. When you set out that agenda, what it does is, not only do you have critics of Safe Schools not knowing what they're talking about, you actually have supporters of Safe Schools not knowing what they're talking about. You have completely clouded any chance of getting daylight into the argument, and I think that's a real kind of injection of toxicity into civic conversation that really, really depressed me.
I was just so motivated to clear the air. We were having a discussion based on flimsy premises, and that really, really disgusted me.
Nic: Did you feel the weight of responsibility?
Benjamin: Yeah. One, I felt the weight of responsibility to get it right. I also had the fear that how is The Australian going to go after me, because a good third of this essay is a forensic analysis of what The Australian did. I am friends with or know people like Tim Soutphommasane, I know people like Yassmin Abdel-Magied, who's a friend of mine. I know how personal they get in basically trying to ruin someone's life. They set campaigns and agendas to do that. So part of my thing was, if I'm going to write this essay, it better be water tight, so that when they go about pulling it apart they've got nothing to criticise, because everything is factually correct.
What we saw, of course, is they went after me personally, because they didn't want to engage with the essay, or maybe they didn't have the time or interest to. They went after low hanging fruit, because there are some arms of The Australian which can still be a good newspaper, but there are some arms of The Australian, and some journalists of the Australian that are incredibly lazy.
Nic Brasch:Are you usually approached? Are you commissioned to write articles? Do you pitch ideas? Does it work both ways?
Benjamin: It works both ways. Now, at this stage of my writing career, it's probably long burn projects. I had a big phase in my life, and I'll probably go to it again at some stage, if I have the opportunity, where it was endless pitching, because that was my job. I pitched feature articles, I pitched seven stories at a time to Good Weekend, or The Monthly, or whoever I was writing for at the time, and then I'd go on assignment.
Now that I've become a TV screenwriter, TV screenwriting is taking more of my time. That feels... even though it's not a salaried job it feels more like a salaried job, because there are such strict parameters in what needs to be met. I don't have that flexibility or agility to say, ‘I want to do this, this, and this’.
Work mainly does come to me nowadays. I'm pretty lucky to be in that position.
Nic: Tell me about the screenwriting and the wonderful TV show, The Family Law. How did that come about? Also, how is it different writing for TV than it is writing articles?
Benjamin: Oh, God, so different.
Nic: In what way? What are the main…
Benjamin: Look, in terms of how it came about, The Family Law, when it was released in 2010, Matchbox Pictures were really interested in adapting it into a TV show. I think for a really long time, producers across the country have been wanting to portray and Asian-Australian family, because Asian-Australians are like roughly one in 10 Australians. Proportionally, that's equivalent to how many African-Americans there are in the United States. And when you think of how many African-American stories, how many black characters there are on American TV, and you think of how many yellow and brown faces are on Australian TV, we've got such a long way to go. So, the Australian television industry was quite cognisant and aware of the fact that there was this omission, this void, in how we were portraying our country.
The Family Law came along, and Matchbox Pictures, who have been such a champion of diversity in the shows they make, they are the biggest production company in Australia, but they also make things like Barracuda, and The Slap, they make Nowhere Boys, they make The Family Law. They also make The Real Housewives of Melbourne, which I very much enjoy, and it's diverse in its own way, probably not diverse in class, but diverse in its own way.
Matchbox, and Tony Ayres specifically, the book landed on his desk through his business and life partner, Michael McMahon, and Sophie Miller, who's a producer there had read it, and are like, ‘Tony, we know that you don't have much time to read books, unless you're thinking about them for adaptation, but maybe you should read this’.
I'm very grateful that they did that, because then Tony loved it. I think there are some resonances for him, because he's also Chinese-Australian, he's also gay himself. Then he asked me and my boyfriend out to dinner. I'm like, ‘Whatever he asks, I'm already going to say yes. I just want to have dinner with Tony Ayres, really’.
Then we started developing it, and because I'd done a doctorate that involves screenwriting, but I just assumed I'd never use it again, he was like, ‘Well, you should come to the rooms’. Then I realised I could start providing them outlines, because I had some university training in that. I'd never really written on a scale to do a proper TV show before, so I was thrown into the deep end. The first season on The Family Law really was an intense apprenticeship. There are a lot of discussions where the subtext was, ‘Do you know what you're doing?’ The subtext back was, ‘I really do not’. It was kind of an undeveloped muscle that I didn't have. Part of the difficulty for me, adjusting to screenwriting, and especially the writer's room, is that most forms of writing, and definitely most forms of writing I've done in the past, are completely solitary and solo. It's me working out... Sure, I'm going out and doing interviews with people and I might be talking to my editor, but really, it's by myself in a room, trying to figure out how this story works.
You get into a writer's room, which is essentially what it looks like in your head, which is a lot of writers in front of a whiteboard, the producers are in the front, writing notes, you're throwing ideas, and I'm like, ‘I don't know how to talk’. Also, you need to learn to be bolshy with your ideas and not feel hurt when they're rejected in front of everyone in real time. You've just got to become a machine.
One of the really great things was, several months into the process, we brought in Marieke Hardy. She's a screenwriting veteran. By that stage, Kirsty Fisher, who is her screenwriting partner - they wrote Laid together, they created Laid together - was on board as a script editor.
Then I got to see these two women, who have a history of working together, work. They were just like this machine. It was like Terminator had entered the room. They were just endlessly rolling off ideas. 90% of them didn't work, but it didn't matter, because the 10% that were amazing, were amazing.
I kind of watched them and learned to treat this writer's room like a really great dinner party with mates shooting ideas. It doesn't matter if most of them don't work. That's the point. That's how you're going to have a good time. It took me a really long time to adjust to that, actually.
Nic: The beauty of that collaboration is you have to justify everything. You can come up with a great idea, but someone's then going to push you and push you. If it gets through that process, it's a good idea, but that really makes you think about and justify every little thing.
Benjamin: Yeah, absolutely. One of the biggest things that I learned was how much - I mean, it's a cliché that it's all about character and nothing else, but it really is. People start talking about their own lives, they start talking about friends and family. They start talking about stories that they've heard that relate to the characters we're talking about. It becomes really intimate. A good writer's room becomes really intimate, where you explore where a character's head is at, and it's this kind of gymnasium of empathy. That's the really beautiful thing about screenwriting, that I didn't expect to love so much.
Nic: Have you got a novel in you?
Benjamin: No. I read a lot of novels. In fact, if I'm reading a book, it's most likely going to be literature. I don't really know where I'd start. I also just think it would be really, brutally hard as well. I'm too in love with the forms that I'm writing to want to try to write…
I'm going to write a play next, I know that's the next thing that I'm going write. But no, novels are a whole other alien species to me that I just want to stand back and admire fondly.
Nic: Speaking of admiring and reading great novels, have you yet completed reading any of the following...
Benjamin: Oh, God.
Nic: The Lord of the Rings, A Picture of Dorian Grey, Catch-22, Ulysses, or anything by Patrick White?
Benjamin: Can I just say those are all dudes, and I think that's bullshit? I just think, why is the cock forest the cannon? One, I take offence at the fact that those are the five that have been picked. Also, I want to come out bolshy, because I've read very few of them.
Look, Lord of the Rings, I think is kind of like…
Nic: I got that list from you.
Benjamin: Oh, really?
Nic: I got that list from you. That was my research. You admitted that you have never read any of those, and I've got to admit, I haven't either. I've never finished any of them. I want to know if you've done it yet.
Benjamin: I've tried Lord of the Rings, because the film's a masterpiece. Peter Jackson's amazing, but he did a really good cut, because I don't want to hear Tom Bombadil sing. That stuff is tedious and bullshit. Ulysses...
Nic: Who could get through it?
Benjamin: There's probably a reason why the people who love Ulysses most were taught Ulysses at university. It's one of those books that I think needs to be accompanied with an exegetical component, and I don't have time for that in my life. What else did I…
Nic: A Picture of Dorian Grey?
Benjamin: A Picture of Dorian Grey... No, I love Oscar Wilde, but I just haven't read it.
Benjamin: This is terrible, because Marieke Hardy actually thinks that I'm a complete philistine, and she's absolutely correct. She's like, ‘This is a masterpiece’. I'm like, ‘I've had this conversation with you about other books, and we are going to differ’.
We do agree that Jane Eyre is overrated though.
Nic: And Catch-22 is not as good as Mash.
Benjamin: Yeah, right. Okay, there is going to be a lot of people unsubscribing to this podcast right now.
Nic: Anything by Patrick White?
Benjamin: No. I will give Patrick White the time of day. I'm actually really looking forward to reading Patrick White, because I know there's something there that I'm really, really keen to discover. I want to make time to pick up Voss.
Nic: Because David Marr has told you, you should read Patrick White?
Benjamin: Yeah, completely. How did you know? How did you know?
Nic: It's been an absolute pleasure speaking to you. I bet we could go on for hours, and hours, and hours, and there's so much to talk about, because you're prolific, but in a nice way.
Benjamin: Oh, thanks, not in a nefarious, horrible way?
Nic: Not in a way that you just churn stuff out left, right, and centre for the money.
Benjamin: Yeah. Not yet anyway. Thank you so much, Nic, for having me on board.
Nic: Absolute pleasure. Thanks, Benjamin.