At the end of 2019, with her customary desire to avoid the fanfare she so richly deserves, Fremantle Press editor and manuscript assessor Wendy Jenkins left the building. It is an understatement to say this is the end of an era: Wendy began work with the Press, formerly known as Fremantle Arts Centre Press, just a few years after it published its first title in 1976.
Fremantle Press, with its different names and locations, has been a point of continuity in all that Wendy has done. She has moved with it from Fremantle Arts Centre to South Terrace and then onward to Quarry Street. The duration of the partnership would suggest that Wendy and the Press have been a good fit for each other, but times change and people do too, so in reality there is an extraordinary kind of flexibility and adaptability required of a person to stay working in the same place for 40 years.
Through seasons of brightness and toughness, Wendy and the Press have had something to offer each other. The Press gave Wendy a logical outlet for her talents, the excitement of working with people at the height of their powers, vital connections and relationships with authors and editors, and a chance for her daily work to exemplify the key role of the Press in nurturing new careers.
In 1979, Wendy, a fourth-generation resident of Fremantle, had just returned from travelling through Europe. She was working downstairs in the art gallery of Fremantle Arts Centre, courtesy of a position offered by the centre’s first director Ian Templeman. Her first poetry collection, Out of Water into Light, had just been published with the Press.
The Press was working upstairs from the gallery at that time, and Wendy began some manuscript assessing with them, as well as answering correspondence, just at the point when they were in the process of moving from anthologies of stories and poems to single-author collections.
One of the earliest manuscripts Wendy took from the ‘slush pile’ was the life story of Albert Facey. Wendy still recalls the hair standing up on the back of her neck as she read it, and going to publisher Ray Coffey to tell him of the find. Wendy worked extensively as editor on that manuscript, and this was the first of many significant books she was to be involved in – A Fortunate Life proved to be one of the enduring bestsellers for the Press and a classic of Australian literature.
In the 80s and 90s, Wendy played a significant role in variously identifying, nurturing and editing some of the most important Western Australian writers. Some of these were part of the writing community that she moved in and helped to foster. They are a who’s who of WA literary giants: Caroline Caddy, Marion May Campbell, John Kinsella, Joan London, John Mateer, Deborah Robertson, Tracy Ryan, Philip Salom, Kim Scott, Dave Warner and Brenda Walker to name just a few. Between them, these writers have collected awards such as the Steele Rudd Award, the Miles Franklin Award, the Commonwealth Poetry Prize, the Age Book of the Year and numerous premier’s literary awards.
In recent years, Wendy has devoted more time to assessing the hundreds of manuscripts that come through the door every year (we estimate she must have assessed more than 10,000 manuscripts across 40 years!). In recent times, she has also continued to deploy her consummate poetry editing skills with poets such as Caitlin Maling and Nandi Chinna. It is a kind of exclusive club in itself, those poets fortunate enough to have been edited by Wendy Jenkins.
While this is a time to thank her for her years with the Press, it is also a time to mark her retirement from a richly varied working life that has always had the state’s literature at its heart. In the last 40 years, Wendy has run an arts management business with Kitty Wright, worked on panels and committees for the Australia Council’s Literature Board and the Department of Culture and the Arts, and taught and participated in writing groups with new and emerging writers. Besides this, she has written six books of her own – the children’s books Gunna Burn, The Big Game, Hot News and Killer Boots; and her poetry volumes Rogue Equations and Out of Water into Light. Many of these garnered awards including a Special Premier's Book Award, multiple shortlistings in the Western Australian Premier's Book Awards and several Notable Book awards from the Children's Book Council of Australia. Her poetry and fiction have also appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies around Australia.
In 2018, Wendy was made a Member of the Order of Australia for her significant service to literature as an author, editor and publisher, and for her work mentoring and developing the Western Australian literary community.
It is possible to list all of Wendy’s achievements, but then there are also the things that are not seen, but which form a vital part of how the Press functions. These include the difficult and delicate task of rejecting manuscripts, or of offering the right kind of encouragement to authors even when the Press does not wish to take on a particular submitted work. Wendy is a font of corporate knowledge and has a profound memory for manuscripts encountered years ago – a skill that is an asset to a team as it gathers to assess a writer’s prospects.
What Wendy has given the Press are gifts too numerous to mention. She is a superb reader who can see the promise in a writer. She has a highly attuned ear for language and is that rare and precious blend of writer and editor that means either role is augmented by the other. Her knowledge of WA social history is surpassed by few. Wendy has been a generous colleague who operates at all times with honesty and integrity. Above all, she has a huge sense of responsibility as a custodian of stories and to always work for the greater good of cultural literacy and the development of Western Australian writers. In that way, she sees and understands that the Press is bigger than any of us.
The fact is, working with manuscripts set in a certain place has a way of working on you too. You can’t be in a job like this without absorbing the effects of the books – and sometimes it is not until the immersion has occurred that you come to understand what these encounters will mean. One of the most profound of these for Wendy was working with Nandi Chinna on her first volume Swamp Poems and walking with the poet through the wetlands. That walk and Chinna’s manuscript together had a direct correlation on Wendy’s involvement in the Roe 8 protests, which itself became the site of an extraordinary groundswell of poetic protest and crisis articulation. It was a fertile and demanding time and Wendy was one of the poets at the heart of the protests.
We know that Wendy’s qualities are irreplaceable and, in thinking on what she has given the Press, it is clear that her talents have helped to shape Fremantle Press in a unique way.
We thank Wendy for sharing her talents with us, and for her custodianship of the literature of this state. We look forward to seeing where her creativity takes her now. Time to write seems the best kind of reward for someone who has given so much to all the other writers in this state. We are going to miss her, and we wish her all the very best.