I had the pleasure of sitting on a Walkley Student Industry Day panel with Benjamin Law last week, when we offered up all sorts of advice to aspiring freelance journalists, like "don't do it!" and "get a day job!". Jokes aside, I was pleased to find Law in person is every bit like Law on the written page – even his tardiness, emphatic apologies and flannelette shirt and skinny jeans ensemble sounded true.
He's extremely articulate, self-deprecating, passionate about his craft and accomplished for a journo of his age. He's also versatile – name me another journo who can simultaneously pen stories on farts, indigenous Australia and parenting disabled children? I hope you enjoy this first 'Bloke in Media' interview...
Writing credits: Frankie, The Monthly, The Big Issue, Qweekend, Sunday Life, Nerds Gone Wild, The Courier Mail, Cleo, Best Australian Essays 2008, Growing Up Asian in Australia.
What's the Benjamin Law story? Why writing? It's funny: I wasn't always interested in writing. All my new years resolutions to keep a diary or journal have always failed (and continue to fail) by January 7th. But I was always reading books, and a slew of magazines. As a kid, Who Weekly, TV Hits and my sister's copies of Dolly. As a teenager, it was all about Juice, Rolling Stone, Q, The Face, HQ, Australian Style, Uncut, Mojo and Spin. It was on a whim that I enrolled in QUT's creative writing program. Luckily for me, journalism subjects were compulsory for my cohort, and I found that mixture of creativity and journalism perfect.
You mentioned on the panel that you had your first piece of journalism published in Rolling Stone aged 16?! Please explain... Rest assured: this isn't as impressive as Patrick Fugit's character in Almost Famous. No groupies, either. The real story is that I wrote the Letter of the Month for Rolling Stone when I was in Year 11, and they sent me a Panasonic stereo for my troubles. I still use the stereo every day. True story.
How has your freelance career developed? Did you have a deliberate plan or has it developed organically? To be honest, my plans have always been vague and short-term. But I've always had the overall goal to just keep getting better. Part of me is always driven by the belief that my work is fairly shithouse, so I'm constantly questioning: "How can I write something better than last time?" It's a surprisingly productive combination: cripplingly low self-esteem, with sporadic bursts of self-belief.
Did/do you have any mentors, etc.? Mentors have been unbelievably important to me. In the early days, my uni lecturer Stuart Glover saw beyond my chronic acne and orthodontic braces, and pulled me under his wing. He was one of the first people to introduce me to incredible non-fiction beyond newspaper stories. Anna Krien was a journalist/poet/novelist I'd admired from afar, and nowadays we're practically married. Right now, she's in the forests of Tasmania, writing about things I'd never be able to get my head around. I would go insane if she wasn't around as a sounding board. Then in 2008, I was formally mentored by journalist / novelist Matt Condon through a youth arts initiative, and he forced me to pitch to editors whose reputations intimidated the hell out of me. So I owe a lot to these guys, and a whole heap of others — no doubt.
Tips for developing journalistic voice and credibility... My only tip is to read as much as you can. Read everything. Absorb how others have done it. If you're interested in good non-fiction, pick up folks like Joan Didion, Hunter S. Thompson, Helen Garner, Truman Capote, Chloe Hooper, Chris Heath, Susan Orlean, David Sedaris, Bill Bryson, Malcolm Gladwell, Gideon Haigh — everyone. Get acquainted with the masters.
What piece of your work makes you most proud? In a perverse way, I'm always proud of the articles that almost get me sued. One piece I wrote about male pattern baldness saw one hair-restoration company threaten to take me to court, which was satisfying; they were absolute shysters. There was also another piece about sex education in Queensland schools that got readers up in arms, which I loved. And any personal story that features my mother is always a winner. That woman is gold, and I love her to death.
What does an average day in your life involve? Up until recently, my routine was pretty ad-hoc. But my boyfriend produces radio for the ABC and gets out of bed at 3.30am. So out of guilt, my schedule runs like clockwork nowadays: wake up at 6.30am; roll out of bed; green tea; check email; read news; shower; housework; writing/interviewing/editing by 9am. Swim laps; dinner; write some more; sleep. It's all glamour, people.
Is work week diversity important for you? One of the sole reasons I'm a freelance writer is that I get easily distracted. In one week, I might be writing a feature article on fantasy sports for one magazine, doing interviews for another, and final edits for Frankie stories. And while all this is happening, I'm constantly working on a book too. Freelancing is good for people who get bored easily or have ADHD.
What are the tools of your trade? Equipment-wise: I use a MacBook Pro after discarding my poor old Powerbook G4, which I'd put through almost five years of abusive hell. (Poor thing.) My digital voice recorder is an Olympus WS-100, which has a direct USB input, which I find insanely useful. For phone interviews, I use a direct phone-tap, which are hard to find here, but can buy online from Hong Kong. If I don't have a pen, I take quick notes on my mobile phone, and simply store them in the drafts folder. ExpressScribe is insanely useful, free transcribing software; and Switch will convert all audio interview files into whatever you want.
Website-wise: I read a whole stack of news-sites daily (ABC, News.com.au, SMH, The Age, NY Times, Salon, The Daily Beast, Towleroad) as well as Facebook/Twitter, which I consider news-sites too: it's news about my friends, that's all. There's a whole lotta stuff I read online regularly too: The Onion, Crikey, Metacritic, The New Yorker, McSweeney's, PostSecret, Vanity Fair, and a whole lotta blogs. (Girl With a Satchel included, of course.)
Radio-wise, I listen/podcast most ABC stations (Local ABC, Radio National, News Radio, Triple J), as well as a lot of stuff from USA's National Public Radio (NPR). This American Life is an NPR radio documentary series by Ira Glass that I've podcast religiously for years. I also love Dan Savage's Savage Love — his podcasts and sex advice columns are the shit.
As for magazines ... I can't even begin. Truly.
You have quite the cult following amongst Frankie readers and journalism groupies. How do you deal with the fame and fandom? Oh, I don't know about that. Come on, guys: I'm a writer who works in my underwear and socks throughout the summer, and a stained hoodie during winter. You really want to be a fan of that?
But I do receive some lovely email from readers sometimes — mainly Frankie fans — and that's truly lovely beyond words. My editor at Frankie also alerted me to the fact I had online stalkers (some of whom knew where I worked), which was both heartwarming and chilling.
If there was a Benjamin Law magazine, what would it look like and feature? Funny you ask this. My first foray into magazines was this cute zine I made in Year 4 (before I knew what a zine was). It involved fake news stories I totally conjured up, like the draining of the Loch Ness to find the legendary monster — that sort of thing. It had hand-drawn pictures, saddle stitching and everything. So lately, I've been yearning to get back into zines. Watch this space: I might be breaking out the photocopier and stapler again soon.
Visit Ben's website here.
Girl With a Satchel