A fortunate, inspiring life

Wendy Jenkins was a scion of WA’s literary family. Photo courtesy Fremantle Press.

THE respected Fremantle author and editor who ‘discovered’ Australian classic This Fortunate Life and mentored a generation of WA literati died last week aged 70.

Wendy Jenkins had been an editor at Fremantle Press for 40 years before retiring in 2020, and the authors she nurtured included double Miles Franklin Award winner Kim Scott and multiple nominee Joan London, “living treasure” Dave Warner, poet John Kinsella and a host of other award-winning writers.

Fremantle Press released a statement saying Ms Jenkins’ sudden death had left staff with “heavy hearts”.

“We were proud to call Wendy our friend and collegaue, and admired immensely her unsurpassable grasp of language, her quick wit, keen eye, finely tuned ear and her wicked sense of humour,” the statement said.

“Wendy, a fourth-generation resident of Fremantle, began working the Press first as a writer, publishing her debut poetry collection Out of Water into Light in 1979.

“Wendy went on to publish a second poetry collection, Rogue Equations, and four books for younger readers: Killer Boots, Hot News, The Big Game and Gunna Burn.”

At the time the publisher was known as Fremantle Arts Centre Press and operated from the heritage-listed building on Ord Street, where Ms Jenkins had been given a job as an assistant in the gallery.

She picked up some work assessing manuscripts for the press, one of the first being Albert Facey’s life story, which he’d titled This Fortunate Life.

Although Facey had only planned to print 20 copies for family and friends, Ms Jenkins later told colleague Georgia Richter the hairs stood up on the back of her neck as she read his extraordinary tale of abandonment and redemption.

New to the job, she later recalled that she didn’t initially cotton on to the work it would take to get the memoir into bookshops, but press boss Ray Coffey and other staff soon picked up her enthusiasm: “we had hooked onto a whale and it would be quite a ride,” she wrote.

The book became one of the Press’s most successful, selling more than a million copies and finding its way onto school booklists.

“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,” Ms Richter wrote on Ms Jenkins’ retirement.

“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!).

“She is a superb reader who can see the promise in a writer.”

Ms Richter said Ms Jenkins had felt a huge sense of responsility as a custodian of stories and always worked for the good of cultural literacy and the development of WA writers.”

In 2018 Ms Jenkins was awarded an AM in the Australia Day honours for her services to literature.

At the time she said: “Editing has been at the centre of my working life, and I have been privileged to be present at the emergence and unfolding of some of this state’s, and this nation’s, most defining voices, stories and talents. It has been work of quiet passion, from which I have gained more than I have given.”

Ms Jenkins is survived by her sister Lois and brother John.

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