Benjamin and Michelle Law are mega-talented writers, so it seems only natural they’d put their superbrains together and co-author Sh*t Asian Mothers Say, a book born out of genuine love and affection. Ahead of their Sydney Writers’ Festival appearance, RACHEL EDDIE and ANDY HUANG asked the literary siblings about growing up, writing and working together — without driving each other nuts.
A: You’re going to be speaking about ‘Literary Friendships’ at SWF so let’s start with Sh*t Asian Mothers Say, which you guys wrote together. How did you find the experience? Has it scarred you forever, or is this something you’re likely to do again, either together or with someone else?
M: It was great working together! Because Ben moved last year and we’re not living in the same city [Brisbane] anymore, I rarely see him in person, so it was nice to have an excuse to hang out more. I don’t know if Ben and I will be writing another book together anytime soon, but I wouldn’t mind co-authoring a book with someone in the future. I’d have to know them well to collaborate with them though; it’s pretty rare to find someone whose work you get enough to embark on a project together.
B: Michelle and I have worked together before, developing stuff for television, plus we’re both freelancers so we get each other’s work rhythms. It just works. Plus, we’ve got the same sense of humour – i.e. fucked – so we usually know when we’re hitting the mark or not. When you’re able to make your sister bend over laughing, and she can do the same to you, you know you’re hitting your mark. Siblings tend to work together well. I’ve done magazine reports with my other youngest sister Tammy too, who’s a photojournalist.
A: Collaborating with someone you know, love and respect can be really enjoyable. But it can also be the absolute worst! Having made it out of this process without killing each other, what was it that worked for you, and what would you recommend we avoid?
M: I think it helped that we lived interstate and weren’t constantly at each other’s throats. Ben and I work best when we’re alone and can send edits to each other via email, which is exactly what we did. We did have several days working intensively in my apartment during a heatwave and I don’t have air conditioning, so I definitely don’t recommend that.
B: Yeah, we actually did go crazy writing this book, but as Michelle says, that was more to do with the weather than each other. A good third of this book was written over a deliriously hot summer weekend in Brisbane, when I was up visiting for work. We really wanted to nail some deadlines, but Michelle’s apartment really traps the heat, so we were both losing our minds and just grunting and sweating through our underwear. Michelle got so delirious. And because she’s studied comedy improv, she started getting up and saying really inappropriate, racist, disrespectful shit in some really horrible characters’ voices. And I was like, “This is gold! Don’t stop!” Then we reigned it back from there. Moral of the story? Don’t be afraid to actually go batshit insane.
A: You’re both writers, both incredibly successful. Did this come about naturally: that both of you ended up as writers? Did one influence the other?
M: It came about pretty naturally. We were both the bookworms in the family. I read so much I got glasses in fourth grade and I was always making up stories, either to entertain myself or as a cathartic thing. But I never saw writing as a viable career option because I’d never heard of a young person being a writer—more journalists than anything. The turning point for me was when I got a story published in Growing up Asian in Australia alongside Ben, who was studying writing at uni at the time and was offered a book deal, and I realised that writing was something you could actually do as a profession.
B: I’m not really sure I influence Michelle necessarily. Our reading tastes have crossover, but I’m far more into 20th century American fiction, whereas she’s more into British classics and the Bronte sisters. Our family was always big into reading, but we’re probably the most similar when it comes to the siblings – we just read a hell of a lot. I mainly got into writing from reading magazines.
R: Was it a bit of sibling rivalry that got you to where you are today (in your careers)?
M: Not really. If anything, it’s probably sibling support. Is that a thing? Ben and I are big cheerleaders of each other’s work and we’re both really proud of each other. If I’m competitive against anyone it’s probably myself. It’s helpful having Ben come before me though; from his experiences I’ve sort of fast tracked my learning of what are good and bad moves in a writing career, and I’m always pestering him with questions about things like invoices and contracts. But also sibling stuff, like how to use Sard and if I can eat lap cheong straight out of the packet. (The answer is, No.)
B: Well, Michelle’s eight years younger than me. Anyone who wants to compete with their younger sister would have to be an utter loser. (Then again, I’m not above being an utter loser.)
A: ‘Family’ comes up in your work a lot, and you both seem to be open about the outrageous things your mum says, and what happens in the Law family… isn’t it kind of weird to reveal all these things from your personal life to strangers readers (strangers)?
M: Comparatively speaking, I guess because we already reveal a lot to the people who are closest to us, namely friends and family, the idea of revealing things to strangers doesn’t really faze me. I think that openness also came about because Mum brought us up to not worry about what other people thought of us as long as we were happy and doing the right thing.
B: Plus, our mother is the most open person in the world. It took me years to realise that not every adult woman regales complete strangers with stories of what happened to her vagina during childbirth. Every family has a line. Ours just happens to be on the other side of the equator somewhere.
R: We were curious about how you navigated your teens and sexuality with a mum who appears to be protective and have quite conservative views?
M: I didn’t really go through a teenage phase because I wasn’t allowed to go to most parties or hang out with people after dark, and I still haven’t really experienced that, so one day when I’m in my forties you’ll probably find me passed out in a gutter somewhere, high on ecstasy and covered in my own filth.
B: To clarify, Michelle’s been covered in her own filth before, but that’s probably more been from a combination of food poisoning and lactose intolerance. But we should clarify that this book – Sh*t Asian Mothers Say – isn’t really about our mother per se, but a whole lot of Asian mothers. Our mum is probably least like most Asian mothers in that she’s pretty liberal and open-minded when it comes to sex and sexuality. For starters, she and I co-write a sex advice column for The Lifted Brow. A lot of readers refuse to believe our mother isn’t made up.
R: In that same interview you discuss racial stereotyping in Sh*t Asian Mothers Say and whether that is or is not racist. Are you afraid that others might misinterpret/ have perceptions of the book that will either perpetuate racism or have you in the firing line? Is it okay because it’s owned by you–the people who would essentially be hurt by that racism?
M: I’d hope that people who pick up the book realise that a) we’re joking b) the book comes from a place of love and real affection for Asian mums and c) that Asian mothers are very racist themselves.
B: Look, I’m just going to say it: this book is for other Asian people. If Today Tonight has a problem with that, you can pass them my phone number.
R: I imagine the writerly media world has adapted and evolved a whole lot since you both began your careers. Is there any use handing out advice to budding journos/writers when their skill set, style and mode of production might need to be entirely different in ten years time?
B: Susan Orlean recently said, “My old standby advice is to go find a small town somewhere and get a job at a newspaper, but I am very reluctant to give that advice anymore because I don’t think it’s actually possible.” I get where she’s coming from, but I still think getting work or work experience at a local community paper, street press, website or magazine is still really vital to pursue, alongside other stuff, like studying writing at university, as well as attending festivals and events to get to know other people.
A: Also, increasingly, it feels like there’s this pressure to be funny all the time, probably more than before – at least, on the Internet, with the rise/emergence of viral content sites like Buzzfeed. Even the news has to be kind of funny these days – with clickbait, and those Onion-y/Upworthy headlines… So what are your thoughts on this, on how digital technology – and the Internet – is changing the way we read and write?
M: Personally, I really love sites like Buzzfeed and The Onion because they’re a fun way to blow off steam, but I do know that what may pass as “reading” when you’re scrolling through those articles is not the same as sitting down and reading long-form features or a book. I’ve found over time that I’ve needed to distance myself from the internet and rewire my attention span. But on the other hand, those sites can also be a great source of inspiration for comedy writers to gain an understanding of what does and doesn’t work. So I think it’s up to individuals to find a balance with what they consume.
B: You know what? Sarah Ferguson – the mulitple Walkley Award winning ABC journalist – doesn’t seem like she has a sense of humour at all. And who cares? No one. Because she’s monstrously good at what she does. I think humour is just one type of asset if you want to be a writer, and it’s not a mandatory one. Integrity is more important, I think. And even though the digital space is transforming the way we read, I think the demand for good writing of all lengths remains almost the same. For instance, I use Twitter a lot, but I’m reading a hell of a lot more longform magazine stories – and from more sources – because of it.
R: What do you hope to see from publishing (be it print, online, radio, or TV) as new makers come into that world?
M: More young, female writers and their work being given a platform. More diversity on screens. More experimentation with form, and more quality Australian TV comedies and sketch shows.
A: You’ve both got a lot on, with a doco, TV series, and book in the works. Can you tell us more about your latest projects?
M: Suicide and Me was a documentary I wrote that aired on ABC2 last year. It’s about suicide awareness and prevention in Australia. It follows the stories of three young survivors and was made in the hopes of smashing the stigma surrounding suicide and creating a national conversation. I’ve also been working on a manuscript the past few years—it’s a book of memoir essays about having alopecia areata. And there’s a few television and feature film ideas floating around in my head that will hopefully take form in the coming year.
B: I’m still working on developing my first book, The Family Law, for TV. I’m also in the first few months of researching a new book. But it’s going to take years. Get back to me in 2016.
R: Which pusheen cat describes you best, and which do you think describes your sibling best?
M: I love pusheen cat. Pusheen cat on the scooter (“DGAF BABY”) and pusheen cat eating a cheeseburger meal are my spirit animals. Pusheen at his laptop or baking pusheen is Ben.
B: Oh, I’ve seen this fucking cat! I was sending out emojis of this cat in China over WeChat a lot – I didn’t know it had a name! There are so many that remind me of Michelle, especially the one that sleeps and eats ramen.
M: The New Yorker / On Beauty by Zadie Smith
B: GQ (US) and The New Yorker / The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
M: Frozen soundtrack
B: Active Child’s You Are All I See … and the Frozen soundtrack
M: Game of Thrones / Broad City / Kroll Show
B: Game of Thrones / Veep / Breaking Bad
B: What is this question?
Sh*t Asian Mothers Say is available now as a paperback and e-book.
See Benjamin and Michelle Law speak about ‘Literary Friendships’ on Sunday May 25, as part of Sydney Writers Festival.
Benjamin Law will also be appearing at: ‘Vince Gilligan – Breaking Bad’ on Thursday May 1; ‘Tim Cope: On the Trail of Ghengis Khan’ on Friday May 23; ‘The Politics of Translation’ and ‘People of Letters’ on Saturday May 24; and ‘Strangers in a Strange Land’ on Sunday May 25.
For all event details, head to swf.org.au.