Vale, Jen McDonald

Vale, Jen McDonald

My dear friend Jennifer McDonald died, aged 60, on Tuesday, July 19.   A week later, coming back from a memorial held in her honour, I stopped at the co-op grocery to buy myself a bar of chocolate.  Chocolate is my addiction of necessity now as I can no longer tolerate either booze or caffeine.  The young woman serving understood completely.  There have been too many memorials of late.

 

It turned out a glorious day after weeks and weeks of rain.  A crowd of us gathered on the rooftop terrace of a pub here in Manly.  We had fresh air, sunshine and magnificent views, but only two of Jen’s writers could make it.  Most in attendance were family, old friends and, I guessed, long-time business associates of Blackie-McDonald – the public relations partnership Jen ran with her husband – and friends of their two grown children.  But I knew her as the principal of For Pity Sake Publishing, and this will be the story, abridged as it must be, of how I came to love and admire her.  Jen had had a rare form of breast cancer that first appeared over seven years ago.  Although she was in remission for some of that time, what struck me so forcefully at her memorial is that I never knew her when she was well.  And related to this is the fact that, although she played a huge part in my life, I played such a small part in hers, if the role I did play was in the culmination of her life’s work in the last of those years.

 

I was in rehab from a hip operation when I met a friend of Jen’s who’d also been a Canberra public servant and, like me, had stood in the crowd outside Old Parliament House the day of the Whitlam government’s dismissal.  There weren’t many people I met in Manly then who’d shared that experience, so we became quite friendly.  She gave me a potted history of her life and I gave a bit of mine, including that I was a writer with five novels under her belt but couldn’t get anyone to take my next one. That’s when she told me about Jen and how she’d started her own publishing house on the northern beaches.

 

My rehab buddy was determined to get us together and sent me off to For Pity Sake’s first book launch.  Held that hot, sticky summer at the pub in Collaroy, it was a crowded, star-studded affair.  I recognised Peter Baume, a former Liberal minister, whom I’d met in Canberra, and a few other faces not so readily identified.  Most memorable of all was Jen herself, her left arm still in a compression sling after her mastectomy, and a smile of radiance that would never leave me.

 

The book launched that day was a novel by Peter Yeldham, best known as one of Australia’s most versatile and prolific screenwriters. Dragons in the Forest was his thirteenth book, and Jen published three more of them.  I was so impressed by what she was doing that I offered my services and I began assessing manuscripts and editing for her.  I’d had experience in publishing but, having given up hope of getting that sixth novel of mine published, I was reluctant to show her the manuscript.  I can’t remember when or how it happened, but eventually I did.  The reader’s report left me speechless, the most enthusiastic I’d ever received.  I said that even if she couldn’t take on the novel, I’d be content to frame the report and go on working for her.  But she did take it on and, after years of rejection, As the Lonely Fly finally saw the light of day.

 

Jen was fond of saying she started her own company because that’s how she was sure to get her own books published.  While I was with her she did publish two – Vegetarian Vampires and My Big Breast Adventure.  Each was beautifully produced and was in its way controversial, especially the one documenting her experience as a cancer patient.  I had edited it and found it moving, informative, and most of all anxiety-relieving.  I thought women with breast cancer would be consoled by her brave, straightforward and at times humourous portrayal of the disease and, significantly, its debilitating antidotes.  Its insights also helped those like me who haven’t had the disease, but fear it as we do.  I thought it certain to find a wide readership.  But because Jen’s approach acknowledged the benefits of alternative medicines in addition to the standard allopathic procedures, the oncology establishment’s opposition effectively killed it.  To this day, and despite her eventual dying, I think this a shame.

 

For all this, I don’t believe we can take Jen’s self-deprecatory claim about what drove her into publishing as the whole truth of the matter.  Her memorial did much to confirm my own observations about her.  In her work at Blackie-McDonald she gave much of herself, supporting and mentoring their employees, as later she looked after us writers.  Dorothy Johnston, short-listed for the Miles Franklin and the author of nine works of fiction before she signed up with Jen, agreed with me that For Pity Sake was the best publisher she’d worked with.  It didn’t have the clout of Penguin, who’d brought out my earlier fictions, but there I was only one of a stable.  For Jen, by contrast, each of her writers was special.

 

One more thing.  I was worried about the name, For Pity Sake.  To my mind it risked connotations of pleading, with little indication of the utter professional Jen was, or the heft of her endeavour.  But there was no hope of getting her to change it, even as minimally as using the initials FPS instead.  Her Methodist father was a journalist and ‘For pity sake!’ was the closest he could come to swearing when his four obstreperous daughters made too much noise as he laboured to meet a deadline.  It was Jen’s portion of his bequest that funded the enterprise, and the name was the expression of her gratitude.

 

As these few words are mine.