Getting sh*t done with Benjamin Law and Leigh Sales
The two journos talk about getting paid in CDs, encouraging public figures to talk about sex and death, phone taps and writing to make sense of the mess.
The following is an excerpt from Storytellers: Questions, Answers and the Craft of Journalism by Leigh Sales. It's out now through Simon & Schuster.
Writer and broadcaster Benjamin Law is the author of The Family Law, Gaysia: Adventures in the Queer East and ‘Moral Panic 101’ (Quarterly Essay), and the editor of Growing Up Queer in Australia. He writes a weekly column for Good Weekend for which he interviews public figures, and he hosts an ABC Radio National pop-culture program called Stop Everything. His feature writing has appeared in more than fifty publications, including The Monthly, frankie, The Guardian, Monocle and The Australian Financial Review. Ben is also an accomplished screenwriter and playwright.
Leigh Sales: Ben, I’ve had to revert to a plan B because of a technology issue, and I’m now putting my iPhone on speaker next to my iPad, which will record via voice memo. There’s a lesson here for journalists—things don’t always work out as you plan and you have to adapt!
Ben Law: Completely. I mainly work in print, so when it comes to recording interviews, you’re always going to encounter something that fucks up. In the early days of doing interviews with artists for street press—which felt very high-stakes, usually paid in CDs—I had that thing you stick on the back of a landline that you bought from Dick Smith. That’s so old that I refer to Dick Smith and landlines, two things that barely exist anymore. Then I also had a technically illegal phone tap that I bought from Hong Kong: you stuck your phone line in one end and then it had a microphone output. I was like, ‘Am I doing something for which I’ll be arrested?’
You were the first person to get me onto automated transcription of interviews.
Do you use Otter?
Yes, I do.
Otter’s such a lifesaver. But do you know what I’m doing now? Outsourcing my transcribing to a human transcriber. It’s great.
Do you get all your interviews transcribed in full?
Look, I used to do more long-form interviews for much bigger feature stories. The interviews that I do nowadays, for Radio National or Good Weekend, are usually thirty minutes and done. So I’m outsourcing the transcribing and my transcriber transcribes it in full. But way back when I used to interview people over hours, or a series of days, I would have my little Moleskine reporter notebook. I would have all my questions written down, I’d be writing notes as I went, paying attention to how people were saying things, surrounding sounds, or anything that I wanted to follow up. But because I knew the horrors of transcribing, as I was going I was making marks like ‘ten minutes to 11:20—boring, do not transcribe.’ That’s what I call active listening.
In long-form feature work, whether it’s articles or books, keeping track of your material, knowing what you’ve got and where it is, is critical. How do you manage that?
It’s so hard. I actually changed how I work because of that. I used to keep folders for every project or story I was writing. All my audio and transcripts would go in there. But then—this sounds like daytime TV—I changed to another software platform, which you’ll love, Leigh. I started using Scrivener, which a lot of novelists use. It’s designed by writers, for writers, and it encourages you to write in discrete chunks rather than one long scroll. It can put all of your audio and all of your notes and scribbles in one document.
The other point I feel our conversation illustrates is that when you’re interviewing, sometimes you have to follow where circumstances lead. Because so far, I’ve not asked you a single thing on my list...
And I just want to derail and undermine you, so I’m glad it’s working! For me, it always depends on the purpose and context. When I’m interviewing someone like Matthew McConaughey, I’m like, ‘God, this guy’s time is going to be tight.’ Or I interviewed Michelle Yeoh and they only gave me twenty minutes when they promised me thirty. So you just have to go in there like a cruise missile.
But if I’m doing something quite complicated and sensitive, if you have the luxury of time, you really do have to hold space for the person you’re talking to. Years ago, I did a cover story for Good Weekend about survivors of childhood sexual abuse where the perpetrator was their sibling. Apparently that’s one of the most common forms of childhood sexual abuse and it’s very rarely talked about. In a way, you need them to lead the conversation because the way in which they’ve remembered and then subsequently processed the incident is not something that’s within my realm of understanding.
So many books, especially nonfiction, you’d just hold it up to your fellow colleagues like, ‘This could have been a feature article’.
You have a weekly column in Good Weekend called ‘Dicey Topics’, where you ask public figures to discuss normally taboo topics by having them roll dice—they might land on sex, money, death, life, politics or bodies. Given the limited number of topics, how do you ensure that every one of those chats feels different to the others?
I’ve got a master list of questions that I find generally interesting for each of those topics. So when it comes to death, I’m interested in knowing what someone’s first encounter with grief was, what helps with grief. When it comes to money, I’m asking the poorest and richest they’ve ever been, or what their plan B might be. Those general questions. Then what I overlay on top of that is, of course, all the specific stuff. Just before I spoke to you, I was interviewing [novelist] Geraldine Brooks and we landed on death. Her husband, Tony Horwitz, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, died three years ago. They’d been married since the mid-1980s. Of course, when she lands on death, we’re gonna have a much more specific conversation about Tony.
I wasn’t as confident when I started doing that column. Nowadays, I find that even if I do replicate a lot of the questions—and I do tend to—everyone’s story is so bloody different that they’re going to give me something completely specific and interesting and not at all like the previous interviewee.
What is the difference between a discussion over the phone or Zoom versus an in-person interview?
It’s always best practice to interview someone in person. I used to do all of my interviewing in person where possible. But when the pandemic hit, everything became exclusively Zoom or phone. The pros of that are access and efficiency. There’s something about scheduling a Zoom meeting where it’s like, ‘Okay, we’re getting straight into it. No simple talk, no buffering. It’s an appointment in your diary.’ The benefit of face-to-face interaction, of course, is there’s trust and intimacy that is built, which is difficult to replicate over Zoom. You notice more about body language and that does affect the way you might question someone.
Plus, for a book or feature, you need colour to fill it out. You need the non-verbals that explain a person’s life to you—what their kitchen is like, and so on.
I don’t think I can do that over Zoom. Good nonfiction writing uses all the tools that fiction writing uses—character, space, description—and your toolkit is suddenly limited if you’re just having a virtual interface.
In this book, only a few people I’m interviewing aren’t from a traditional newsroom/journalistic background. You’re one of them. Do you feel that not being a traditional journalist gives you any advantage in approaching writing about real-life events and issues?
I can totally list the disadvantages, Leigh: mostly it’s that I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing. I mean, I did a creative writing degree at QUT [Queensland University of Technology]. And because it was so bare bones at the time, I was borrowing a lot of journalism subjects, which I bloody loved because I wanted to write creative nonfiction and it was still a genre where people were figuring out what the conventions were. Joan Didion, Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Wolfe had done it for years and years. They called it the ‘new journalism’. My point is, I learnt about the inverted pyramid, I learnt how to do interviews, but when it came to other things, like media law and how to professionally conduct yourself within this space, I’m like, ‘Whoa, I really wish I learnt that stuff.’ Like, when sources get angry at you, how to manage that. I’d call my editor and say, ‘This source is angry at me,’ and they’d be like, ‘And that’s okay, Ben. You held them to account, this is what’s going to happen.’
Because I don’t come into a story from a hard news background, one of the advantages I have is I use my instincts. When I’m doing a death knock as part of a crowd that’s been knocking on someone’s door all week, I’ve had to rely on my judgement: ‘If I was that interviewee, how would I want to be approached?’ That’s when I use my creative writing instincts. Maybe one of the advantages is that I’m more amenable to changing my mind or approach as things go along, and not just relying on a toolkit that’s been handed down to me.
How do you judge how many words a story is worth? For example, whether something is a feature article or a book?
This reminds me of when I was a bookseller. So many books, especially nonfiction, would come in, and you’d just hold it up to your fellow colleagues like, ‘This could have been a feature article.’ And then sometimes you read features where it’s like, ‘Oh my god, don’t stop there. Give me more!’
I think part of it is being a reader. When I make those judgments as a reader, you want to transpose that onto being a writer as well. ‘As a reader, do I want a book about the history of disposable pens?’
As a freelancer, you’re constantly pitching for your life, right? Every pitch is the only access you have to work. Often what I’m doing in those pitches is comparing a story to other stories that I’ve written for that publication, or stories I’ve published elsewhere. It helps the editor’s understanding—‘Okay, so it’s like that story about the bear hunt in Iceland, but you’re going to be doing a giant fish hunt in Fiji. That was roughly three thousand words, so this is going to be roughly three thousand words with that same style.’
You plucked an idea about disposable pens out of the air because one was in your hand. It makes me wonder how you come up with your ideas.
I used to run masterclasses for people who wanted to get into freelancing and creative nonfiction. The exercise I would make them do is actually one I do myself. In the back of my brain, I’m always asking, ‘What am I really interested in? What do I have expertise in?’ And that might be from my personal background or my personal interest. That’s always an advantage because you come into the story bringing that interest, and curiosity, and hopefully a sense of authority in terms of what you’re talking about. And then I think, ‘What are the things I’ve been interested in but still don’t know much about?’ Questions that you feel can’t be answered at dinner parties or book clubs, you know?
When I find myself in a conversation and I’m stuck, I think other people might feel discomfort but I feel excited.
I remember way back, before I even had the language for anti-vaxxers, I found myself in a dinner-party conversation with tertiary-educated people working in the arts and media. One said, ‘Well, I do think there are too many vaccinations for the following reasons, don’t you?’ And I’m like, ‘Oh, I’m not sure I do believe that. But it’s really interesting coming from you, because I thought the anti-vaxxer movement was quite niche and “over there”. So where’s this coming from?’ I couldn’t quite figure it out, and that became a big story for Good Weekend.
Then there are things you hear about on the radio or television. I’m not a daily news journalist, but sometimes I’ll hear a daily news report that fires my interest.
Then, I think the other thing is just being a shameless busybody, Leigh.
Because I don’t come into a story from a hard news background, one of the advantages I have is I use my instincts.
I keep a notebook in which I write down ideas and thoughts and observations, many of which I might never use. Do you?
You’ve actually tapped into a secret shame or vulnerable spot with me, because I have always felt like an imposter for not keeping a proper notebook in the way that you, Helen Garner, David Sedaris, Joan Didion—actual writers—do.
Thank you for using my name in that sentence.
Any time I started writing a diary in January, I’d end in March, because I just can’t be fucked. But I do send emails to myself. If it’s the middle of the night and I get an idea or something connects, or if I’m walking down the street or even doing laps at the pool—I’ll hop out of the pool. If I put it down somewhere, then it’s somewhat cemented in my brain. Sometimes I’ll even take a whiteboard marker to my window and it just hangs around like vandalism.
You wrote a big nonfiction piece for Quarterly Essay, called ‘Moral Panic 101’. What was it about and where did that idea come from?
That was about the media reporting and the moral panic that ensued once the Safe Schools program—which started as a state program in Victoria then expanded into a federal program—was being attacked and painted as a bogeyman in the press. Specifically, the News Corp press, and more specifically, The Australian. The essay came about because I was following the story closely. I felt invested as a reader, as a gay man and as a queer person, and I felt so angry about a story that I thought I understood. I forget what I was reading, but I realised my preconceptions about this program were actually wrong. It’s not a school-based delivery program, it’s about getting principals to sign a pledge that they will protect some of the most vulnerable demographics at school. It was actually so light-on in terms of what was required for a school to be a safe school. These new resources teachers were equipped with—that people were in a huff about—hadn’t even been officially used in classrooms by that time. And they definitely weren’t mandatory. I just lost the plot.
Long story short, sometimes I write to make sense of a mess. That mess might be in my mind, or a story that needs clarification. As I started writing that essay, I thought it was gonna be a feature—I realised it wasn’t gonna be a book—and then I thought, ‘Actually, the perfect format would be a twenty- something-thousand-word essay.’
Even though you started that essay from a position of personal investment, to me as a reader, it read as a very clinical piece of investigative work, where you were saying, ‘This is what the media is claiming, and this is what the facts are.’
It’s a really good point, Leigh. I knew coming into it that it was clear what my inherent biases and passions were. I wasn’t hiding them. I have a stake in this conversation. It is personal for me. But, knowing that I could compromise the story if I got too emotionally invested, my instincts were to remove some of the emotion. When you lay out the stats, there is no argument against them. When you lay out the timeline, there is no argument against the chronology.
I remember when I signed on to do the essay, I started reading David Marr’s Quarterly essays and his other work. What I cracked was that so much of his work is just laying out the chronology of a complicated story. You start seeing how the dots connect. As much as these stories are wrestled with and reported in a daily news cycle, our memories are short, and our capacity to understand the way that this story from two days ago connects to this story today is limited.
As you say, if you know you’re writing something controversial, part of the key is having the facts, the timeline, absolutely locked down. I’m keeping a timeline at the moment about a sexual assault case I’m following closely with the possibility of doing a book. The other day I noticed, ‘Hang on! That date! Those two people went to the police on the same day. Were they colluding? What was going on here?’ Just laying it out in a methodical way can be such a useful investigative tool.
Completely agree. And I learnt that from working as an associate producer on a documentary. Part of that job was doing the research. It was about gay hate killings in Sydney that climaxed in the 1980s and mid-1990s. It was basically a sport to go so-called ‘poofta bashing’. It’s an incredibly complex story that takes place over decades and it was so intimidating to even know where to start. The most handy thing was, ‘Let’s just go through it day by day and let’s start seeing where these pieces actually start aligning.’ And then you realise—similar to what you’re talking about with the sexual assault case—‘Those two things happened around the same time, similar accusations were made. What contact do we need to get to clarify how these two stories might connect?’ You wouldn’t have seen it if you hadn’t laid it out chronologically.
Very few people are able to straddle as many different genres as you. You do radio, print, books, journalism, plays, TV, fiction, nonfiction. Did you sell your soul to Satan to get all this talent?
You calling me a genre slut, Leigh? Is that what you’re saying? Sometimes I think I have something wrong with me. I can’t pay attention to things, or maybe it’s that I get excited a little bit too easily. Which sounds terrible, like a dog that’s about to hump your leg or something. But, you know, I’m a deep, omnivorous reader; I like going to plays; I like seeing movies; I like watching TV; I like reading nonfiction. And I’m excited by the possibilities of each of those forms.
Storytellers: Questions, Answers and the Craft of Journalism is a collection of life lessons and trade secrets from some of the best in Australia's storytelling business. It's out now.