In the lead-up to his Life Writing and Memoir masterclass at Writers Victoria, we asked Benjamin Law about reading and writing memoir.
Are you a big reader of biography, autobiography and memoir?
Definitely. Looking back, I read a lot of books as a kid, but didn’t read many books in my teen years – I was reading Rolling Stone, HQ and Juice magazine instead. But the articles that always interested me were the profiles. What got me back into reading books was memoirs by writers like David Sedaris (who is a god). Even now, I find myself reading a whole lot of memoirs. You sometimes forget that everything from comedy books (Bossypants) to graphic novels (Persepolis, Blankets) can belong to the genre.
Have you set boundaries for how much of yourself you reveal in your writing? It’s flattering when people say they feel like they know my family inside-out. That’s the desired effect, but it’s not the reality. Every memoir is selective with what a writer includes and excludes, otherwise it’d be the most heinously boring blow-by-blow account of a life. For me, the prerequisites are: it’s got to be interesting, it’s got to be funny or sad (or ideally, funny-sad) and it’s got to have a point. Otherwise, the story’s not worth telling. Plus, David Sedaris has several good rules I like to follow. He never writes about himself having sex, he never writes stories that will betray someone’s confidence and he tends to write about people who don’t read much. Hilarious, but practical.
Your memoir The Family Law is fascinating because we get to know your family, no holds barred. Did they know you were writing about them at the time? How did they react to the exposure?
All six of my immediate family members read drafts of The Family Law. Most of the changes they requested were to do with grammar and spelling – you can see where their priorities lie. Sometimes they remembered things differently, which doesn’t surprise me — I do have the memory of a gnat. In those situations, we usually tried to come to some consensus as to what actually did happen when Dad took us to the theme park that smelled like urine, or what really took place when our house became infested with cockroaches. But their support has been obscenely generous. My entire family travelled to attend the book launch in Brisbane, and my mother even did publicity with me appearing on Channel 7’s Sunrise to spruik it. If that’s not committed support, I don’t know what is.
We tend to associate biography with people at the end of a well-lived life or the ridiculously famous. Can the young or the ordinary offer a biography worth reading?
Oh sure. Famous and old people can be boring too. And some young people have already lived the most fascinating lives, or they might be caustic and hilarious. By the time you’re in your mid-20s, someone close to you has probably died, you might’ve travelled the world and had your heart broken. When I go to high schools and run workshops with students, the stories they tell are magnificent. It’s a matter of whether you can tell it well.
You’ve carved out a name for yourself in creative non-fiction. Have you ever been tempted to try your hand at fiction writing? No, I studied creative writing at university and we were required to write fiction then. I’m terrible at it. I’ve got too much respect for the form to try to mangle it.
About Benjamin Law
Benjamin Law is the author of two books: the black comedy memoir 'The Family Law' and the travel adventure 'Gaysia: Adventures in the Queer East', both of which were nominated for Australian Book Industry Awards. He is currently developing The Family Law for television and working on his third book. He is columnist for 'frankie' and 'Qweekend', and contributes long-form journalism to 'The Monthly' and 'Good Weekend.'