Benjamin Law on writing, divorce and his new television series

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“If you get me talking about that we could be here for hours,” writer Benjamin Law muses on the recent season finale of Game of Thrones.

“Sufficed to say I think the television series is doing a really good job of the books. I love the books, though it could have done with maybe a third of them chopped out – that’s really harsh to say.”

On the thread of successful book-turned-television series, Law’s The Family Law follows a similar suit to the George R. R. Martin classics – albeit with slightly less sex and gore.

“It’s so much like Family Law, the similarities are uncanny!” he adds with his distinctive chortle.

Content aside, the similarities are in their ability to successfully translate the print format of the story to the difficult script writing rules of television. First written in 2010, Law’s debut novel put his families story into the spotlight, and told the tale of divorce, living in Australia and the many antics of a large family – Law is one of five children.

“It’s been really hard work because even though I studied screen writing at university for a bit it’s not my professional background. And so learning from the greats in the TV world has been fantastic,” Law says.

“It’s been a really rewarding process, and I think the ticking anxiety underneath it all is what is my family going to think? I’ve already put them through the strange rigmarole of writing a book about them – I think a TV show is another level of exposure.”

The series aired on SBS touches on everything from his sister’s frowned upon romance to his awkward school performances, but perhaps the hardest thing for Law to relive was the scene in which his parents dramatically separated.

“I realised when we started developing the show that I hadn’t even written that scene for the series as I hadn’t written it in the book. It was very much about my parents’ separation and my parents’ divorce. Of course in television you can’t just allude to things happening, so I had to write it,” he says.

“It’s not an exact representation of that but there were moments where it was really hitting home. This is really stupid because I was writing scripts for so long and I’m an adult man, and I thought I’d recovered from the trauma of that period of our lives … yet when I saw the actors perform that scene in the raw footage, I got really weepy to the point where my producer was like, ‘Oh I’m sorry I didn’t even realise that would be emotionally affecting you’. I didn’t think I would be that emotionally affected and I think it’s a testament to the actors themselves for being able to represent that.”

With around one in three marriages ending in divorce, it’s surprisingly an aspect of the show that isn’t broadly represented in Australian television. As a result, Law refers to the topic as the “beating heart” of the series and one he hopes resonates with those who have also experienced it.

Another element of the show is the insight it gives to Law’s Chinese-Australian upbringing.

“It’s not a huge thing to realise that you can have both of those things simultaneously, and I really value my dual cultural heritage in a way. In some ways I’m very Australian and some ways I’m very Asian and those aren’t mutually exclusive,” he says before building on the commonality of his youth, “In the next 10 years Nguyen, as in Luke Nguyen, is going to bypass Smith as the most common Australian name, I think it’s within the next 10 years. Let me look it up, I’ve got the statistics nearby.”

Minutes passed and, after checking, Law was in fact correct in his initial statement. It’s a handy fact to have, and one that’s come from his many appearances on media panels talking about the diversity of Australia. It’s a hot topic of late, especially with the treatment of refugees by the Australian government, and the topic of nationality and what that means is one he will discuss at the Bendigo Writers Festival (held on August 12-14).

Naturally, the topic of offshore processing and its connection to nationalism is one that crosses Law’s mind: “I think the main reason we’re doing it is to secure our borders and to nation build. By securing our borders we are in part defining who we are and who we aren’t,” he says.

Delving into deeper subjects with Law is one of his defining abilities as a writer; as he often shifts between the humorous and political in his writing. At the writers festival, Law will appear on two panels, ‘Nationalism’ and ‘Brave Enough’, the latter of which discusses creative bravery in writing alongside Wild’s Cheryl Strayed.

Aside from writing three books, the second of which was Gaysia (2012) and the third was Shit Asian Mothers Say (2014) co-authored with sister Michelle Law, Law has written for more than 50 publications, ranging from The Age and The Australian Financial Review to Frankie and Cosmopolitan.

“I get bored of writing the same things but I find they all also feed into one another,” he says.

“The TV writing is such an intense discipline. It’s a three act structure, you’ve got to nail emotion, spare time for the ad breaks but give the audience enough information without making it too heavy – it’s so precise and it’s really stressful as well. But I feel like those muscles that I’ve exercised are muscles I can apply when I get back into feature writing. They’re all different muscles but they correspond.”

Published in Forte Magazine and online.

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