Georgia Richter’s eulogy for Wendy Jenkins (1952–2022)

I first met Wendy Jenkins sometime in the late 90s. I had submitted a manuscript to Fremantle Press, and Wendy called me in for a chat. She said my writing was lovely but there were a couple of problems: my novel had no plot, and as for the parts that tried to tell the history of Fremantle, well, I pretty much had it all wrong.

It was an inauspicious beginning for a friendship, but actually it had all the hallmarks of a Jenkins encounter: authenticity, truth-telling, and letting me know that this fourth-generation Fremantle person wasn’t going to let anyone get away with mediocre or inaccurate research about her hometown.

Though this meeting was disheartening at the time, I came to see it as an acknowledgement that, when it came to words, Wendy was serious about developing potential, and she was generous when it came to nurturing, advising and sharing her expertise. She met with me because she rated my writing and she was prepared to give me a chance.

Fast forward nearly thirty years and Wendy and I are sitting at a coffee shop in Hilton. We are talking about her crime novel in progress. Willow is brilliant but there are some aspects of the plot that I think aren’t quite there yet. Wendy listens avidly and takes notes. She loves the robust exchange and the chance to discuss ideas. She tells me she will to go away to think about it and do whatever it takes to resolve those final plot holes.

Between that first meeting, and the one that was to be our last, I forged a bond with an extraordinary, complex, talented, uncompromising woman, who appraised the world with sharp eyes and who was a loyal and fierce friend.


When I became fiction publisher at Fremantle Press in 2008, I contacted Wendy and asked if we could meet up ahead of time to discuss how she and I would work together. She said no. She was good at saying no. She wanted to wait until I was there, and then she would see what I was made of. I had to prove myself before she would let me in.

So I began to work at the Press, slowly establishing that Wendy and I read in the same way, that we saw the same raw potential in work. We shared a mutual enjoyment of terribly written sex scenes that we could not share, because what is read aloud in the assessment room has to stay there. Wendy would give sharp reviews of some things we read. ‘He’s just flashing his colours,’ she would say when she thought someone was trying it on. Sometimes we competed with heavy sighs as the reading bogged down.

I was only there for the final quarter of Wendy’s forty-three-year career with Fremantle Press. Across time she read and assessed more than ten thousand manuscripts, and those published books on which she worked across four decades must have reached millions. Wendy was one of a handful of people who shaped the Press from nearly the very beginning, along with Ian Templeman, Ray Coffey, Clive Newman and later Helen Kirkbride.

At the end of 2019, the team at Fremantle Press – including Jane Fraser, Cate Sutherland, Claire Miller, Naama Grey-Smith and Cathy Szabo – were sorry to bid her farewell but we were all looking forward to see her carve out more writing time for herself.

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 so many writers in the literary community.

At the time of her award, Wendy Jenkins AM 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.’


Born in 1952, Wendy was the twin of Lois, and sister of John. Their mother was Maureen, with whom Wendy shared a middle name. Sister Jenkins trained in Fremantle and was for a long time a Silver Chain nurse in Freo suburbs like Hilton, Bicton, Coogee and Willagee. Campbell Jenkins, rugged and tanned, was a lumper in Fremantle Port, who used to take the kids fishing and crabbing off the mole in Freo Harbour. Wendy lived almost of her life in Fremantle and its surrounding suburbs. She went to primary school first at Beaconsfield, then Hilton Park from year five, and high school at Hamilton Hill and then John Curtin Senior High for her final two years.  

Sport was high on the radar thanks to Cam, who would secretly been thrilled if they’d had another player in the next generation the calibre of his brother, Frank Jenkins. ‘Scranno’ played for the Bulldogs and was a Sandover medallist. In football season, the Jenkins household was full of the sounds of the WAFL on the radio, and Cam would take the kids to matches on weekends when Sister Jenkins was off nursing. This childhood saturation in the footy later showed itself in three of Wendy’s four novels – Killer Boots, The Big Game and Gunna Burn – with Wendy no doubt channelling her famous uncle and her childhood WAFL immersion.

The competitive edge that later expressed itself via Wordle or any other game that was afoot, manifested in the young Wendy Jenkins on the hockey pitch where she was an excellent if ferocious hockey player who could have tried out for the state team. On the hockey pitch she was intimidating and fearless and, in her excitement, would swing her stick above her shoulders and would get cautioned about breaking the rules. Her twin sister Lois decided it was better to stay off the ground in case Wendy was, quite literally, in full swing.

It was a working-class world of service and trades, but from Lois there come some tantalising glimpses into the nascent poet: ‘Wendy began writing poems at a very early age, lying on her bed, reciting aloud, making changes and then reciting it again until she was happy with that section, then moving on to the next verse.  Because I was a sometimes willing, but sometimes irritated captive audience, I learnt the poems also, and some remain with me to this day.’

Lois recalls the first ever poem Wendy wrote and delivered in class. It was year two and the subject was ‘wood’. Wendy’s effort was a show-stopper:

Trees give the world beauty
Trees give the world shade
Trees give the world wood, from which furniture is made.

‘She could have gone further but wasn’t allowed to,’ Lois recalled. In absence of any obvious (or elsewhere reported) encouragement, one can only conclude that Wendy always had a preternatural gift for words – a gift which seems to have arrived mostly fully formed and which spilled out of her from her very early.

Wendy was rightly suspicious of juvenilia and had the poet’s reticence about publishing it. So I hope she will forgive here my inclusion of the poem that she had published in a John Curtin SHS magazine in form 5 (year 11), which demonstrates the control, sophistication and originality that she had achieved by around the age of 16:

Look Back

Look back through the vague veneer of years,
To the warm ephemeral flush of childhood.
To the thirsty spring that drank of your youth,
So an hour was never an hour,
And a day not a day at all.
Look back in wonder and recall.

Look back, through the tyranny of time,
To the drawing of your independence.
To the summer passions that beat in your breast.
And ripened the sweet fruits of life for the fall.
Look back in wonder and recall.

Look back, through your diary’s yellowed leaves,
To the vapid climax of your life.
To the subtle siren sighs of autumn,
That lured you closer to the pall.
Look back in wonder and recall.

Look back, through the dire doors of death,
To the swift senescence born of winter,
To the wind’s bitter breath, that froze up your logic,
And swept shrouds of snow on your hair.
Look back in wonder, not despair.


Wendy studied Social Work at WAIT (now Curtin University) and she was employed for a time as a psychiatric social worker with the Western Australian Mental Health Services – a job which she would have acquitted well, I believe, with her perceptiveness and interest in the stories of others.  

At the age of 27, she had just returned from travelling through Europe. In my time, she did refresher courses in French, and she loved speaking French at work with Jane Fraser in the kitchen, and dreamed of one day returning to Paris.

But in 1979 she was working downstairs at the Fremantle Arts Centre as a supervisor in the art gallery, courtesy of a position offered by the centre’s first director, Ian Templeman. Ian asked Wendy if she could assess some manuscripts for Fremantle Arts Centre Press, established just three years before. Soon her job at the Press evolved as she began to edit and help authors develop their work in poetry, fiction, and non-fiction.

Famously, Wendy was the one who opened up a massive, roughly typed manuscript tied together with green-and-white waxed string. She began to read, with a growing sense of excitement that made the hair stand up on her arms. Wendy said, ‘I wanted to know, like the hundreds of thousands of readers after me, what happened to that little boy born in turn-of- last-century Australia into such nation-shaping and difficult times.’

The manuscript was Albert Facey’s A Fortunate Life, and Wendy Jenkins and Ray Coffey shared the editing of the book that has become an enduring Australian classic.

Wendy was never a one-trick poet pony, to slightly mash a metaphor in her honour. Her professional roles included an arts management business with Mary Wright, which was called Wright Jenkins Articles and provided editorial services, PR for arts organisations, events management and services for individual artists. Lois was also part of this enterprise, which was based in the Bannister Street Craftworks. Besides this, Wendy did hugely valuable work on panels and committees for the Australia Council’s Literature Board, and the Department of Culture and the Arts.

WA was brimming with extraordinary writers in those early years of the Press. Recently, Deborah Robertson sent me aphoto of her with the young writers Gail Jones, Joan London, Marion Campbell, and Wendy, full of life and glee, sprawled together in some loungeroom. It’s a truly historic image. Never I think has a couch in Australia borne so much literary talent at once:

In 1979, Wendy’s first poetry collection, Out of Water into Light, was published with the Press. Another, Rogue Equations, was published in 2000. Although she is most admired as a poet and editor, Wendy could also write cracking fiction, as evidenced by her four published novels – the three mentioned above, and Hot News. Some of her short stories were anthologised. Her across-the-range ability was extraordinary: she was at home in a villanelle as a limerick, a crime novel or a book for kids. Her ear for language was superb and she was rightly proud of her literary superpowers.


When Nandi Chinna’s manuscript Swamp Poems came in to the Press, Wendy and I both went walking with Nandi through the wetlands at Walliabup and, like Nandi, we both fell in love with that mysterious, beautiful landscape.

As the 2017 state election loomed, Wendy and I joined Nandi and thousands of other activists to try to halt the extension of the Roe Highway in what proved to be a long, hot, tension-charged summer. Nandi said: ‘One of my greatest memories of Wendy is linking arms with her and other women, to form a barrier against mounted police that were protecting and enabling bulldozers to clear banksia woodlands around the lakes.’

Wendy was one of a number of activist poets like John Kinsella and JP Quinton, Liana Joy Christensen, Tracy Ryan, Tim Kinsella and others who gave that campaign their everything and who documented it in powerful, real-time poems, including a long poem called ‘Beeliar Blue’, which noted many of the key activists in its verses.

A mordant chapbook was produced by John, JP Quinton and Wendy, twelve sonnets taking as their inspiration the Shakespearean street names that surround the wetlands. These include Cordelia Avenue and Romeo and Juliet streets, which never meet. Each poet contributed a verse to the twelve. One of my favourites is ‘Hamlet’:

The curate’s egg a planet, a ball of asphalt,
O horrible, O horrible, most horrible!
Such antics at the Christmas office party,
Spiked with quills from the fretful echidna.
Gah! This power that follows me around,
Makes me give speeches, cuts short conversations.
To win by default is to be internally corruptible,
To not win at all is to stray from the playbook.
What a piece of work is this?
how ignoble in reason; and in harm – how infinite.
Sleep now sweet forest creatures lost so far.
Flights of Carnaby’s circulate as you pass.


Wendy and I were both early birds of another kind, though often I would arrive when at 6 or 7 am to find the coffee pot on and WJ already eyebrow-deep in manuscripts. She loved work best in a brand new day when people weren’t yet around.

When she was working on a poetry edit, she could take up the whole boardroom table with manuscript pages spread out and the table top covered in little rubber crumbs from her pencil workings and erasings.

She would sit with each poet, going through their work for hours, line by line. They loved her keen eye, her fine ear and her vision that met them where they were. I believe it was the fact that she knew writing from the writer’s side that made her such a superb editor.

The poet Marion Campbell recalled Wendy as ‘a most exquisite and brilliant poet’, but she also still knows by heart the poem that Wendy came up with on the spot one day when Marion’s son complained he had to write a limerick for school.

That family had a short-tailed Siamese X cat called Bruno who had recently shown amorous intentions towards one of Marion’s sweaters. Quick as a flash, Wendy looked at the cat and said:

There once was a cat called Bruno
Who was, well, a bit – you know
His tail was truncated
But he happily mated
In a style that only a few know

All of which is to say: Wendy didn’t just go to work and do it there – she was a genius wordsmith through and through, and she lived in the world of words as naturally as breathing.


A preoccupation in Wendy’s unfinished crime novel Willow was friendship: the value of long friendships that endured despite their cracks and flaws. Friendship was important to Wendy, though she sometimes fell out with people in spectacular ways.

I know too that there were a number of poets with whom she had a long, deep history and who she always held dear, including John Kinsella, Tracy Ryan, Caroline Caddy, John Mateer and Michael Heald.

To hear these and other poets like Dennis Haskell, Caitlin Maling and Nandi Chinna speak of her, I came to appreciate how intrinsic to many careers her input was. The page was the place she was most at home but once you met truly Wendy there, she would bestow upon you the honour of walking beside you in the real world.

‘Look back in wonder, and recall.’

There was nobody else in this world like Wendy Jenkins. I so hope that for this brilliant, questing spirit there is a pen and a notepad waiting on the other side for her.

Georgia Richter

Share via: