Working with Words: Ben Law

Ben Law shot to literary fame with his first book, the surprisingly moving, laugh-out-loud memoir, The Family Law. He’s been writing journalism for many years, for outlets as diverse as Frankie, the Monthly and Good Weekend. Ben’s essay ‘Holding the Man and AIDS in Australia’ is the latest in our Long View series.

We spoke to him about his first writing payment (a stereo), how writing is like vomiting, and sharing the stage with Germaine Greer and Jeanette Winterson.

Ben Law: David Sedaris and Jonathan Franzen ... taught that horrific embarrassment and family dysfunction can make for sublime writing material.'

Ben Law: David Sedaris and Jonathan Franzen ... taught that horrific embarrassment and family dysfunction can make for sublime writing material.'

What was the first piece of writing you had published?

As a teenager, I’d stopped reading books for some reason, but I was inhaling music magazines like a mofo: Rolling Stone, Juice, Q and Spin especially. I was constantly writing letters to the editors (god I was irritating), and one of my letters was chosen as Letter of the Month. They sent me a Panasonic stereo. I’d never had my own stereo before. My first proper byline, and an incredibly well-paid one too. It’d be years – years – before I was paid that well for my writing again.

What’s the best part of your job?

Getting reader feedback, even if it’s hostile. When you write stories, you spend so many hours in front of a screen, locked away from all human contact, that when readers email or tweet their reactions, it feels gratifying. Plus, a few young people emailed me to say they felt braver about coming out as gay after they read my first book. That was unexpected. It made me feel like I’d written something worthwhile.

What’s the worst part of your job?

Often: writing itself. On days when it just doesn’t work, I’d rather take a hammer to my face.

What’s been the most significant moment in your writing career so far?

There’s been no one single moment. They’re all steps. There was first byline in the local street press. Getting published in a proper newspaper. Writing for a national glossy magazine. My first book launch. There’s no moment where you ‘make it’ as a writer. It’s all work. But sharing the stage with Germaine Greer and Jeanette Winterson has been ridiculously fun.

What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?

Best advice: ‘Writing is vomiting then cleaning it up.’ That’s how I work: I basically spew all on the page (the first draft of my next book was 120,000 words originally), then hack it all back ruthlessly. The worst thing a writer can do? Regard their fellow writers as competition.

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself?

Somehow, I ended up on Andrew Denton’s new gameshow Randling. When it screened on ABC1 the other evening, someone tweeted that I had a face like a Furby. Can’t argue with that.

If you weren’t making your living by writing, what do you think you’d be doing instead?

Maybe being a teacher or a paediatrician. I get along with kids. My older sister’s a teacher, and I respect the profession a lot. I was also writing a story for Good Weekend recently where I had to talk to a lot of paedatricians and I admired them all so much. Plus, I don’t mind shit and blood, and I’m okay with illnesses and emergencies.

There’s much debate on whether creative writing can be taught – what’s your view?

You’re talking to someone who did seven years of creative writing degrees: undergraduate, honours and a doctorate. Looking back, I must have gotten lost in the campus corridors and never found my way out. Maybe you can’t teach good writing, but you can foster and grow it.

At university, I had great teachers who introduced me to killer writing from the New Yorker and Good Weekend. Some of them became mentors and introduced me to editors. It also gave me the opportunity to get some early mistakes out of my system, before I had an audience. A writing degree doesn’t guarantee a writing career (editors don’t give a shit about your GPA), but it does give you an opportunity to hone your craft.

What’s your advice for someone wanting to be a writer?

Read like a motherfucker. Write like a motherfucker. Make friends with people who want to be writers too and support each other. Go to events at your local bookshop. Attend writers festivals. Volunteer at writers festivals. Get a job at a bookshop, so your supplies come at a discount. If you’re young, write for Voiceworks. Attend the National Young Writers Festival. Find mentors. And choose your projects wisely.

Laurie Anderson – the musician and performer – has a great quote about choosing projects that’s become my mantra: ‘It has to have two of the three following things: It has to be fun, it has to be interesting, or it has to make money.’

Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?

I buy most of my books in person from Avid Reader, an indie bookshop in West End, Brisbane. I love that place. It’s where I worked for five years, and the staff are like second family. Both of my younger sisters have worked there too. It’s become this breeding ground for published writers. Anna Krien, Krissy Kneen, Christopher Currie, Trent Jamieson, Kris Olsson and Ronnie Scott have all worked there. Otherwise, I need to read something immediately for research, I download e-books, usually from Booki.sh.

If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and why?

Enid Coleslaw from Daniel Clowes' Ghost World. We’d get some fast food, watch some terrible movies and make incredible wisecracks about everyone behind their backs.

What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?

David Sedaris and Jonathan Franzen are two very different writers, but they both taught that horrific embarrassment and family dysfunction can make for sublime writing material.

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