If you’re to judge the success of a writer by the volume of content they produce then Benjamin Law is a literary force to be reckoned with. Luckily for us, he’s not just prolific but also an enormous talent, bringing a distinctive and hilarious voice to the Australian cultural landscape. Born and raised in Nambour, a small town in South-West Queensland near the Sunshine Coast, he has written for over 50 Australian publications, including the Good Weekend, The Monthly and the Lifted Brow.
He has also published two highly successful books, The Family Law, and Gaysia. The former of which has been adapted for TV and presented on SBS where it is currently airing its second season. The Family Law is a searing, heart-warming, and hilarious portrayal of the hidden family politics in Law’s own upbringing. It is unflinching, uncompromising and a deeply empathetic exploration of one dysfunctional Chinese-Australian family’s experience of divorce, queerness and the challenges of parenthood. The series has received wide-spread critical acclaim and is a hit with audiences both in Australia and abroad.
We spoke to Benjamin, one of our Fringe Ambassadors for 2017, about writing, making the transition from page to screen and the importance of seeing your own story represented.
When did you first realise that you wanted to make a career out of writing?
I was always a big reader before I even considered writing, but I was that irritating teenager who’d write letters to Rolling Stone magazine in the 1990s. Once I got letter of the month and they sent me an actual Panasonic stereo. “Clearly,” I thought, “writing pays extremely well."
These days you’re one of the biggest names in Australian writing but how challenging was it when you first started to try and make your way in the freelance economy?
Freelancing is basically hustling. A combination of my parents’ migrant work ethic combined with a deep seated fear of letting people down kind of means I’m constitutionally made to freelance, really. But it was a transition: I started doing work experience for street press, then writing for them, then for the city newspaper, then glossy magazines, then books and TV. It’s been step by step.
What were some of the challenges you found when you first started writing the screenplays for The Family Law?
Oh god, how much time do you have?
Once the scripts are finalised how active a role in the production and direction of each episode do you like to take?
Oh so little! And happily so – our showrunner Sophie Miller is one of the hardest-working and modest people in the industry, and she’s across everything from production, casting, scripting and even directed an episode recently. I trust her completely, and I’m brought in to give advice when it’s needed, but I’m really there for the plotting, writing and editing, and then just eating a whole lotta stuff with the cast. It’s awesome.
There are a few moments scattered throughout the show where your characters encounter casual racism, but for the most part the primary focus of the story is just the minutiae of their day to day lives. Is there a reason you chose to ground the show with such suburban themes?
As much as The Family Law is groundbreaking in terms of race (i.e. it’s the first show in the country with an Asian-Australian family as the main characters), we never were interested in writing a show about race. It’s a black comedy about divorce, and the characters are Chinese-Australian. You can’t disentangle race from characters, so racially specific stuff – food, culture, language and, yes, racism – is going to be in the story. But it’s not the story – or at least not the story we’re telling. Our show’s as much about being Asian or Chinese as Friends was about being white.
The Family Law are loosely based on your own family, and they’re very loveable, but the portrayals occasionally stray into unflattering territory. Do you think this made it more or less easy to write the storylines about your loved ones?
Oh we never set out to write anyone as role models. These characters had to be as flawed and three-dimensional as real human beings. Otherwise it’s going to get boring. And clichéd, really.
Fiona Choi and Anthony Brandon Wong do an amazing job as your mother and father in the show, but how much of their performance is invented and how much is based on your real parents’?
Oh they’ve hung out with my real parents a lot, and in fact my parents are kind of semi-official language consultants for the show. But from Day One, Fi, Anthony and all the actors were told their fidelity had to be to the characters as they interpreted them on the page, not to the real life people. And that includes me.
If there had been a show like The Family Law on TV when you were growing up, how do you think it would have affected you and your writing?
Oh I’ve no idea. It’s possible I wouldn’t even be a writer – a lot of what drives me is to write stories I missed out on growing up, and also find stories I don’t see now. One of the nicest things about the show has been people saying they finally feel represented. A lot of that is from Asian-Australian viewers, but it’s heartening to see non-Asian viewers seeing themselves in our characters and stories too. It makes sense: I’ve been seeing myself in white stories for years.