You probably haven’t noticed, but there’s a tab in my menu bar which doesn’t actually take you anywhere. That’s because I’ve disabled the link to the website that hosts the bare bones of my would-be podcast, ‘Shoot The Spit’, with good reason. For more than a year now I’ve had my heart and [half my] mind set on starting a podcast that offers up great local content inspired by my ear-wormingly-addictive favourite shows: 99% Invisible, On Being, The News Quiz, Background Briefing and Strangers (…and This American Life). But I just haven’t been able to do it.
I have failed at starting a podcast.
A year ago I felt (and still feel) like the time was right for an Australian podcast for people who were interested in authentic and insightful yet entertaining audio content featuring interesting individuals. I wanted a show that provided hope for slightly disgruntled Gen-Y commuters in the morning, those a little bit lost about their day to day purpose, and for isolated creative minds lacking general inspiration – in other words, I wanted to create a show pretty much for myself on those occasions that I was having a particularly glib day.
The good news is that this unfulfilled appetite for quality content had me searching for meaningful media, which is where I bypassed the Pedestrians, Elite Dailies and Junkees of the world and stumbled upon podcast shows like WireTap, The TED Radio Hour, Here’s The Thing, Radio Diaries, All In The Mind, RadioLab, Nerdette Podcast and those I previously mentioned.
Before I tried and failed (at least for the time being) to start a podcast, I decided to reach out to someone who knows a thing or two about producing great content.
I called up well-known Australian writer, screenwriter, scholar and Internet-friend Benjamin Law for some advice.
Chatting with Ben
You might recognise Ben’s by-line from his scribblings in Frankie Magazine, The Smith Journal, The Monthly, The Big Issue, QWeekend, Good Weekend, or know him from one of the many panels he’s been on at various writers’ festivals. He’s also currently finishing off a screenplay for a six-part mini-series loosely based on his family for SBS. He’s one of those ‘man about town’ writers who seem to be able to do it all, and to top it off he’s a damn nice guy too. I spoke to Ben earlier this year over Skype…
AN INTERVIEW WITH BENJAMIN LAW
Do you listen to a wide variety of podcasts, Ben?
I do listen to a lot of podcasts and I’ve probably got my boyfriend to thank for a lot of them actually. My boyfriend is a radio producer so he knows a lot about stuff on the radio. I’m looking at my podcast app at the moment… What am I listening to? This American Life, obviously, Conversations with Richard Fidler, Here’s The Thing with Alec Baldwin, NPR’s Fresh Air, a lot of RN. I’m trying to get into other things like the Economist, but my list of podcasts does not come anywhere close to his list. You open his app and it’s like, I don’t even know that you have enough human time in your life to get through this.
But I’m a casual podcast listener, and in fact, you know, I’m one of those strange people who are more inclined to listen to a podcast at the gym than heavy dance music; one of those freaks.
What is it that you really like about those podcasts that you listed?
Here’s The Thing is great because I could listen to Alec Baldwin do anything with his voice. He could transform into a 400kg morbidly obese man and his voice would still retain that rich caramel timbre. Then you’ve got him doing interviews with really interesting people, whether they’re actors, politicians or comedians or people I tend to be interested in, and the third thing is that Alec Baldwin is an incredibly great interviewer and raconteur. I mean, the thing about him is that he lets people talk but he also interjects with really great anecdotes and insights from his own life, without hogging the mic. It’s almost an invitation for them to keep talking or relate to him somehow. It’s a really rare skill. He’s got that really great balance between interviewee and interviewer that I find quite interesting. The other podcasts are just a lot of good storytelling.
It’s similar to…have you been listening to Annabel Crabb and Leigh Sales’ podcast?
Yes! Speaking of, where have they gone?!
From what I understand they were doing it as an experiment and something to do with their spare time. Which astounds me, because they strike me as two people who would have the least amount of spare time in the world. But the appeal for that for me was just listening to people who obviously knew each other so well whilst being inclusive of an audience, if they wanted to come along and hear about everything from politics to show tunes to books that people have read recently.
I don’t mind being a bit of a voyeur when it comes to podcasts.
What other things did you want to hear in an Australian podcast? I’m interested in your opinion because you write for so many magazines, you’ve written books and now you’re writing the screenplay for ‘The Family Law’. You make such quality content across lots of different platforms.
I really like listening to people talk about their writing process. For instance, one of my favourite shows for 2014 was a show called ‘Transparent’. I’m not just interested in the story of how things come about but I’ve become a bit more interested in process as well, because screenwriting, television screenwriting especially, is something that is very, very new to me. So, with my podcasts, my taste is pretty simple. I want really good storytelling or really good interviews with people who I’m already interested in or people who you can make interesting. Which I think is everyone with the right interviewer.
I want to pull you up there because you said that screenwriting was relatively new to you, but you do have a PhD in screenwriting, isn’t that right…Dr. Law?
[Ben laughs] That’s right, that’s right, and thank you for using my correct title. I always like it.
Which you never use! Anywhere!
No, and I think that’s for a few reasons. One, I was doing my PhD around the sometime that a lot of my friends were doing their PhDs and they were doing it in science, in things I don’t even understand like applied mathematics. It was a culmination of what was, at that stage, their life’s work. I approached my PhD a little more sneakily and a little bit more slobbish-art-studentsly. I really wanted to pick up skills in screenwriting and I had the opportunity to do a PhD and I sort of, looking back, cleverly manipulated my university almost to allow me to do a PhD. But essentially I was doing another undergraduate course that just happened to have a big thesis at the end of it. A big part of that was television writing and I had great supervisors Jeff Portman and Carol Williams who came from a TV writing background and they became mentors in the fundamentals of TV screenwriting 101 and that’s what I learnt for three and a half years. So yeah, I do have that qualification under my belt. It doesn’t get you that far. It’s not like I want to be an academic necessarily and I definitely don’t get flight upgrades.
I think a lot of people don’t believe that I am a Doctor when I get on my flight. They see that it’s ‘Dr.’ on the boarding pass and they’re like, ‘Welcome to the flight…Mr. Law…’ Or the ones that do believe think it’s such a novelty that I must be some Chinese Doogie Howser.
Okay, Mr….Dr….Law. So how much of your real life are we going to see in this screenplay that you’ve adapted from your memoir? Because your memoir is pretty personal.
Yeah, it’s a good question because my memoir is a non-fiction account of a certain period of my life as I remember it. That’s what a memoir is. It’s not an official biography or anything like that. It’s one person’s account and other people might contest it but it’s how that person remembers it. So I regard that entire book ‘The Family Law’ as completely true, or it’s my version of the truth. But coming into television is tricky because the memoir was very David Sedaris in structure in that it had no structure. It was just a collection of short stories or vignettes or little grabs of things that happened to us.
They were a lot more interrelated than David Sedaris stories in that they all were about your family…
Yeah, but you know, some stories took place before I was even born, others took place when I was in my 20s. You basically can’t apply that to a television show. You can’t employ four different characters to play the character of Benjamin so what we decided for the SBS show was that we’d focus on Benjamin at one particular age over one particular period of his life, which is the summer holidays after he turns 14 years old and his parents are breaking up. So we’ve condensed it very smoothly or conveniently into a block of time. We’ve had to age some of the younger characters, we’ve had to make some of the other characters younger. Again, TV production issues and I guess from there on the rest of the show is inspired by the show.
Are you nervous about launching it to the opinions of Australia and maybe even the world?
Oh, of course.
Things could get lost in translation…
I’m really wary of what people may think of the work in general.
Whether I’ve written a book or a play or whatever, whenever you release something into the world for the first time there is that trepidation. This thing has been developing within closed rooms for a very long time and when you expose it to daylight you don’t know what this thing is going to look like. Is it going to be a beautiful child or a hideous monster? We’ve only just finished writing and then it’s a whole new world of television – casting, acting, lighting, design. So it becomes a completely different beast to what it is on the page and I think there are these additional burdens when you’re writing a TV show that, for want of a better word, ‘breaks ground’.
In our show 90% of the cast is Asian Australia. That’s not really been seen on television before. At the same time we don’t necessarily think it’s a show about race.
It’s not about coming to terms with your cultural identity, if anything it’s coming to terms with the fact that your family is splitting up whilst at the same time acknowledging all the peculiarities of being Chinese Australian as well.
So there’s that additional dimension of how are Chinese Australians or Asian Australians going to respond to the show as well. Then there’s, you know, are people going to think this is a true account of my family? I mean there are a few special effects moments in the show that I hope people will realise that probably couldn’t have happened in real life. There are a few absurd things that happen in episode 1 that will hopefully set the tone for people for realising: oh wait, that is so over the top and ridiculous and strange that’s not something that could have happened in real life.
You’ll see, Tym, when you see the show you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.
The show and the book are quite different. What they have in common are some of the stories and some of the characters, obviously. The main thing that they have in common is the emotional heart. We’re playing laughs off painful emotional truths. It’s pretty sad when parents split up, but besides that the mixture of comedy and tragedy, there’s a lot of stuff that comes up in the TV show that’s not in the book at all.
Thanks for that insight into what you’ve been working on. Here’s a question you must get all the time, but how do you managed to do it all?
Well I freelance for a living now so I don’t have a single employer who pays me all my money to buy my groceries and pay my rent, so with freelancing you have to be pretty versatile to survive entirely off it. The other thing is that you have to have several things going on at once because the very moment you’re not working is the moment you cease to live.
I’m talking about it quite unromantically in terms of wages and things like that but that’s one aspect of it. If I didn’t write for travel magazines in this instance, if I wasn’t doing screenwriting work and working on a book project, then I wouldn’t be earning money. But the other thing that I’ve sorted crafted for myself is a life where I don’t get bored easily.
I am one of those people who tends to get bored easily as well so if my whole life was just doing magazine articles for one very particular type of magazine I’d go a bit crazy.
The other thing is that when I feel like I’ve gotten a skill under my belt I tend to get bored with it as well. But in terms of juggling, I’m a pretty bad multi-tasker. That’s probably my dirty secret, Tym, in that if I’m concentrating on one type of story I can’t be writing a column on the side. And if you see my iCal schedule it’s very much colour coded and broken down, almost anally retentively so, into very discreet blocks. I’ll be doing This for four hours. Then I’ll have lunch. Then I’ll do This for five hours because I can’t really focus and it’s why I activate program called Freedom, if you do want some tricks, you turn off the internet for set periods of time.
Do you think freelancing is a viable option for us Millennials?
Yeah. I’m making broad generalisations, but Gen Y is a generation where people skip from job to job, interest to interest very quickly and we’ve probably seen our parents work very hard at single jobs and decided that’s not necessarily a trajectory that we want to be on. We’re quite flexible as well. Especially if you work in arts and media, you tend to have a broader spectrum of skills. The other thing as well, if you work in the writing industry like I work, there basically are no salary jobs, even if you want them, especially in newspapers or magazines. At the same time people are laid off, those words need to come from somewhere and freelancers represent pretty good value to editors.
You’ll see the pages of magazines become more and more freelancers because you’re just paying them for the words not the benefits. As this goes on, you’ll see freelancing become a more viable option with certain types of jobs.
With no set career projection per se, in that you’re not climbing any ladder, you’re not trying to get a promotion although I’m sure you could hand yourself one if need be, so what happens next for you over the next five ten years?
Good question. The people who know me well would probably understand that Ben is not the type of person with a plan at the end of the week. I get really anxious when my mum’s trying to make plans for the months ahead and I’m like, I can’t see that far ahead. Maybe that’s a freelancer thing. Some do well with five year goals so they can visualise it and reach it. But I guess the other thing for me is that I like leaving things open so that if an opportunity comes up that I didn’t even anticipate, you know, I wasn’t anticipating writing a television show for instance, but I really wanted to when the opportunity popped up so I’ve made time for it. I have no idea what is going to happen in the next five years. I think I want to write another book after the TV show is done. I haven’t been able to write feature articles as in depth as I’ve liked to over the past two to three years because I’ve been concentrating on TV shows, so I want to get back int that again. But who knows, there are other things I’m interested in that I’d be happy to leave myself open to. I might be in Istanbul or I could be doing anything really, but I’m really not one of those people who plans ahead that far and mostly…the other thing is I like being surprised as well. If you’re that type of person freelancing is good for that.
Is that because you’re quite confident in your skills and you’ve obviously worked hard? Is that why you don’t worry per se. You seem quite happy go lucky about it all.
Maybe that’s a part of it. I’ve been freelancing to some extend since I was a teenager, just on the side, more and more throughout university and now I’m in my early thirties and therefore doing it full-time. There are some skills I know how to do and even if it’s not going well, I know what’s not going well about it. For instance, if I’m in the middle of writing a feature and I’m stuck, I tend to know what I’m stuck about. So yeah confidence is part of that skill set, but I think the other thing is do you have enough bosses who have got your back. Have you got enough people who might have work for you, if you asked for it? If one of the balls you’re juggling turns out to be an egg that smashes or if something goes terribly wrong or if that editor decides they don’t like your work anymore, do you have other people who are still there for you? Over the years I feel I probably have enough people who have my back in that respect as well.
Image from www.theweekendedition.com.au