Interview: Benjamin Law on what makes for a good writer
Author of The Family Law (2010) and Gaysia: Adventures in the Queer East (2012), Benjamin Law, shares his thoughts on what makes for good writing, who inspires him, his experiences when traveling around Asia, researching his latest book and shitting.
How did you start your writing career? Is this something you always wanted to do?
Benjamin Law: I read heaps of books as a kid, and was obsessed with magazines as a teenager, but it wasn’t like a lifelong dream to become a writer or anything. I just liked reading a lot. Then I wrote a letter to Rolling Stone when I was 16, and it was chosen as a Letter of the Month. I won a stereo. Looking back, I must’ve thought, “Wow, writing pays so well!” Then I decided I wanted to be a magazine journalist – one of those people who hits the road, meets interesting people, goes on adventures, writes about it and gets paid to travel the world. So I enrolled in a writing degree.
In your opinion, what makes a good writer?
God, how you even begin to start defining good writing? For me, good writing – fiction and non-fiction – should be illuminating and thought-provoking. It should ask important questions, and be compelling enough to make us give a shit, whether it’s about the realities of Federal politics or an imaginary mother of dragons.
What's your writing routine?
I try to wake up by 6.30am, but usually it’s 7am. Because I freelance, I could technically wake up whenever I want, but some years ago, I decided to enforce some standards. This means waking up early. And wearing pants at my desk. Then I shit, shower and shave, read the news and scan social media, respond to as many emails as I can, then get writing whatever needs my attention first – TV script, magazine story, column, whatever. I’m usually working on at least two projects every day. And then I try to break mid-arvo to either swim or go to the gym.
Who are the people that inspire you?
In terms of other writers, I have a little hero pile on my desk of writers I look up to: Jon Ronson, Ariel Levy, Susan Orlean, Anna Krien and Caitlin Moran are all there, and so is an old edition of The New Journalism, edited by Tom Wolfe. But really, the people who inspire me the most are the interviewees I meet, whether they’re celebrities or ordinary people who’ve experienced something beyond belief.
What other passions do you have?
Can you classify alcohol as a passion? Just kidding – I can’t even drink that much before I’m wiped out. Sleep. I have a passion for sleep. And good TV.
Can you briefly tell us about your experience of travelling around Asia and writing about your experiences? Did you find it challenging writing about everything and experiencing it at the same time?
I spent the equivalent of roughly a year travelling to seven Asian countries – Indonesia, Thailand, China, Japan, Malaysia, Myanmar and India – looking at seven queer issues to write my book Gaysia. Looking back, I’m sort of astounded I did it at all – I came back poor and exhausted – but Christ, it was probably the best experience of my life. It was a challenge to write about everything as I was experiencing it, and I did write a lot of the book in train stations, airports, hostels and strangers’ living rooms, but it was also necessarily to come back to Australia and get some perspective too.
Image credits: Paul Harris