When I first became a journalist my dream was to write about fashion. Not Chanel or Gucci or anything fancy like that. Fashion for real people. My favourite Aussie labels were Ojay and Time … ring any bells among the middle-aged crowd?
Instead, I became a cadet journalist at The Newcastle Herald, covering coward punches and cock fights and the shipping news.
Getting “graded” as a fully-fledged journalist meant mastering shorthand. I couldn’t master shorthand, in much the same way I can’t master foreign languages or the Apple TV (or whatever has superseded it). My brain just doesn’t work that way.
But I did manage to swing a trip with a fashion buyer to see – and write about – a preview of the Time and Ojay collections in Surry Hills. Oooooh, sooooo exciting!
Since things weren’t looking so great for me at The Newcastle Herald without shorthand, I applied to work at my favourite fashion magazine – Studio. And I managed to score a junior writer position! I was beyond stoked.
Studio magazine fell on hard times and retrenched me during The Recession. But, before the writing was on the wall, I met the most wonderful woman who became a lifelong friend: Wendy Howitt.
Wendy is one of the nicest people I know. She even indulged my obsession with The Young & The Restless – we’d sip OJ together at the Golden Sheaf Hotel each lunchtime so I could stare at Michael Damian on the pub tellie for an hour.
In one of those amazing twists of fate we ended up living 20 metres away from each other during our childbearing years.
She rushed around to hold me on my back deck one morning as I sobbed about my marriage collapse. Bless her.
We’ve both moved, but we try to meet up for walks once a month to download on our lives. Wendy’s life is getting very interesting at the moment because she’s become a young adult fiction writer! I am incredibly proud of her.
Here’s the press release I helped sub about Wendy’s books:
At age 12, Wendy Howitt bought an exercise book and a biro and began writing a screenplay starring the girls in her class. Nothing much happened – this was the ‘80s and the beginning of the Seinfeld era – and the screenplay ended up in strips on the floor of her sister’s mouse cage.
But it was the spark that led to a successful career in journalism. And, after writing for publications including Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue and winning two beauty journalism awards, the Castlecrag resident has launched two young adult books: USER PAYS and BULLETPROOF.
Both are told from the point of view of spirited school girls caught up in life and adolescence. USER PAYS features 15-year-old Lucy who works hard at school and gets on with her parents. Her life is unexciting, but it works. It just doesn’t work as well as Natasha’s. She is the hottest girl at school. She wears just the right clothes and gets attention from boys.
“The ending is a bit of a shock for some people. But life’s like that,” says Howitt.
In BULLETPROOF, 16-year-old Maddy is on a beach holiday with just her two sisters. Sure, she has to babysit. But three days to chill and hang with her best friend, checking out smoking hot boys has got to be the teenage dream, right? Wrong. And Maddy has to tap into her inner Supergirl to survive.
Howitt wrote the two books as a way of staying in touch with her children during their adolescence, a time notorious for miscommunications.
“My daughter would be the first to say that adults, especially their mothers, have no idea what’s going on with teenagers,” Howitt says. “But I’ve noticed that most of the issues facing my children and their friends are just a version of what I went through 35 years ago. Who doesn’t want to belong, make good friends, fall in love? Coming of age is a universal condition and as a parent you’re in the unique position of wise observer.”
Still, the books cover some pretty dark themes – alienation, death, domestic violence, stranger danger. This seems somewhat at odds with Howitt, who is quite an optimistic and upbeat person.
“Those things are an important part of life and growing up,” she explains. “And all the people I know are interested in those kinds of things. When you go from being a child to an adult, it’s a death in its own way. But hopefully it’s also a wonderful transformation like, wow, you’re now a fully functioning (I hope) adult.”
What she didn’t want was for her books to feel like lectures.
“What teenager wants that? Not my kids, that’s for sure,” she admits. “I’ve learned through countless family dinners that teenagers stop listening the moment you talk too much or become boring. So, the primary aim with these books is to entertain.”
She figures that it’s only once she’s captured her audience they will be willing to go on a journey with her.
“And then I’ll be able to discuss more meaningful things like the importance of self-knowledge, hard work, safe risks, good friendships and getting eight hours of sleep a night.”
Writing fiction would seem like a natural progression for a journalist, but Howitt found it much more difficult that she ever expected.
“In the beginning, except for the ending, I had no plan or plot outline. This was exciting at first: I’d have to write in order to find out what was going to happen. But I wrote myself into corners and couldn’t get out of them.”
She found a mentor and, later, a couple of editors, both old friends from her Vogue and Harper’s BAZAAR days.
“You’d think that writing would be a solitary occupation, but it’s not,” she explains. “It’s a team sport and you’re only as good as the rest of the players on your team. I’ve been fortunate to work with the very best. It’s exhilarating and more fun than I ever thought possible.”
Writing and getting a good night’s sleep is easy in Castlecrag where Howitt lives with her husband, two children (Josh, aged 19, and Phoebe, aged 17) and two mini dachshunds, Sid and Betty.
“Castlecrag is one of Sydney’s most interesting and unusual areas,” she says.
She loves it as much for its community spirit and artistic influence as its gum trees and kookaburras. Her house, nestled in a reserve, overlooks Middle Harbour all the way to the Spit Bridge.
“It’s a magical setting,” she says. “I’m extremely lucky.”
Details of her recent renovation can be found on the website of Donald Campbell Design.
Download Wendy’s books – USER PAYS and BULLETPROOF – on Apple between February 21 and March 7 and you’ll receive a discount.
To find out more about my wonderful friend, visit wendyhowitt.com
Congratulations Wendy! I hope your career as an author is a huge success. I wish I had half your determination and passion.
Song of the day: Andrew Gold “Thank you for being a friend”