In light of the Emerging Writers Festival, Hannah Bambra caught up with Benjamin Law to talk taboo topics and the highs and lows of being a freelance writer.
Hannah Bambra: There is a lot of integrity in your work and you are not afraid to make fun of yourself. What’s the value, for you, in writing/ sharing such honest and personal stories?
BL: Look, I think there’s a lot of entertainment value in embarrassment. I think most writers feel specific emotions more acutely than others—despair, happiness, anger, lust—but I see my life as a whole series of hideous embarrassments. The only way for me to get over them is to write about them. SHARE THE HORROR WITH EVERYONE.
HB: Do you feel a sense of responsibility or hesitation when writing/ sharing the stories of strangers and your family members?
BL: All families have different lines and boundaries. My family’s boundaries just happen to be defined by the fact my mother enjoys discussing her vagina and childbirth in public.
HB: Do you keep in contact with people you have interviewed? How did you deal with hearing the personal, heart-wrenching stories of LGTB people in Asia and then keep traveling on?
BL: For some people I do, but because I interview so many people in my day-to-day work, it’s difficult to maintain a relationship with everyone. Plus, in a strange way, the relationship is professional: you’re there to learn from them, not to necessarily make friends.
HB: Although both of your novels have been pretty specific and personal, you have written for a wide variety of publications and by no means restricted yourself to one topic or genre. How do you think writers can balance finding their niche and being pigeonholed?
BL: It’s hard. Some writers are really good at one thing (sports, politics, music, whatever) and understandably stick with it. For me though, what I like about being a writer is to be utterly promiscuous with what I can write about. I’d get bored otherwise.
HB: You have mentioned in interviews before, your Mum’s habit of asking people to graphically describe their birthing experiences, has this potentially helped you write about taboo topics in length?
BL: It wouldn’t surprise me. Few things were off-limits in my household, so I’ve probably got a stronger threshold for shock than most people.
HB: Are you ever surprised by the response of your readers?
BL: After I wrote The Family Law, a lot of young queer guys and girls contacted me and told me the book made them feel a bit braver about the prospect of coming out to their families. That was unexpected and a beautiful side effect. I’ve kept in touch with some of them.
HB: The lack of jobs and the reality in writing for a career may render it to be less flashy than some emerging writers may imagine. What do you think remains romantic and enticing about being a writer?
BL: As much as I hate freelance writing some days (the admin, the writer’s block, the insane schedules), I sometimes step back and remind myself that it is actually an incredible job. My writing assignments have seen me travel to Myanmar and India, sleep in marsupial reserves and visit Uluru. That’s pretty great.
HB: In one way journalism is for people who love people but in another way it’s a highly isolating profession (especially for a freelancer). Are you a people person?
BL: Some days yes, other days no. Most writers are over-thinking introverts, because you have to be the type of person who’s willing and wanting to spend a lot of time with yourself and the page. At the same time, all my stories are fundamentally about people, because I find most people curious or interesting.
HB: Did you ever consider yourself being anything but a writer? And were there times of great rejection that you thought maybe it was a bad career choice?
BL: Oh, the pay wasn’t always great. No writer I know is in it for the pay or glory, anyway. But if I couldn’t be a writer for any reason, I’d like to be a teacher.
HB: Lastly, what advice or gems of knowledge would you like to share with young, Australian, budding journalists and writers?
BL: Get an accountant. Exercise regularly. Read a lot and omnivorously too. Don’t stop writing.
To find out more about Benjamin Law or the Emerging Writers Festival visit the following sites;