Lady Writer on the TV

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Jennifer Byrne once thought she’d be asking the tough questions in a courtroom – as a barrister. Instead, an early bend in the path of her brilliant career led her into newsrooms and television studios as one of Australia’s best-known and best-loved journalists and broadcasters.

At 57, Jennifer now heads the ABC TV’s The Book Club which goes to air in March after dropping the tag "First Tuesday". The more refined literary world she now shares comes after a career at the sharp end of journalism – in print, radio and television.

She has interviewed pop stars and politicians, won a Logie in 1985 for her story on Paul Keating’s tax summit and reported from far flung parts of the globe.

Jennifer is married to ABC presenter, film producer and comedian Andrew Denton. The couple have a son, Connor. She tells Rosemary Desmond of her fascination with literature and life.

You started work with The Age at 16 - why so young?
It was the equivalent of a modern gap year after finishing school. I got a Commonwealth scholarship and was accepted into Melbourne University Law (school). I was going to be a lawyer, working up to be a barrister. But because I was so young, my mother was a bit anxious that I was going into what she saw as the dangerous waters of university. So she said ‘why don’t you take a year off and go see if you can be a journalist?’ I thought ‘well, OK,’ because even then, journalism was hard to get into. And you know what, I just loved it. About half way through my three year cadetship, the editor said to me ‘so, what are your plans?’ and I said ‘I’m going to stay’. I just woke up every morning and felt excited about going into this crazy, male-dominated and hard-bitten newsroom and I was in heaven.

And you went on to become the San Francisco correspondent for The Age?
I was 23 when I told The Age I would finally be taking up my place at university. I had been there for two days when I got this phone call on the Tuesday from my then editor Michael Davie who said ‘if you can be ready to leave on Friday, we’ll send you to this plum posting in San Francisco’. He said to me later that he knew if he didn’t get me then, I wouldn’t be back (at The Age) because I was clearly heading on a different path. So he offered me the biggest bait that any fish could be offered. I wasn’t angling for the job because I didn’t know it existed but you just have to follow your own star.

What was San Francisco like in the late 1970s?
It was just so exciting. I inherited this vast, beautiful house, two computers, two cars and I couldn’t even drive! But I learned really fast, and I was covering the entire West Coast of the USA. The downside was that I was replacing someone very senior, who was retiring and I wasn’t as good as him, so I worked really hard. But that never hurt anyone, did it?

You interviewed Stephen Fry after the release of his second autobiography. How was that?
He was fantastic – that was a really exciting day. The Sydney Opera House was as packed as I had ever seen it. Before the show, even the cool, collected, Stephen Fry looked at me quite nervously and said “Cor’ blimey, it’s amazing”. But he was incredibly open and we talked about his relationship with his new boyfriend, his drugs – nothing was off the record. He was an absolute and total delight. We did two (shows) in a row and when he finished, he gave me some books and some flowers and invited me for a drink – as though I needed to be thanked.

I understand you will also be talking to some high profile people in May as part of your “Jennifer Byrne Presents” series…
I’m not allowed to say anything but it’s very exciting because they are incredibly well-known high-profile names, much loved authors and hugely read. I talked to them when I was in London for J.K. Rowling. And the thing was I wasn’t allowed to take her book (The Casual Vacancy) to Australia. I had to read the book in the publisher’s office. It was so top secret, I had to sign at least four different documents to get access to the manuscript.

Do you think books, at least in paper format, are doomed?
I was a bit resistant to the e-form in the beginning because I preferred to get my books in print as I enjoy the experience of a print book. But when I travelled I started using a Kindle. It’s like when television came in, everyone said it would kill radio but it didn’t. Books and reading will prosper but the printed book…it’s a bit of a question mark. My hunch is it will survive.

What are your three ‘desert island’ books?
The Complete Works of Shakespeare because it contains all the plays, Winnie the Pooh because it always makes me laugh and I would take whatever majestic classic I haven’t yet read.

Who would be your ideal dinner guests?
I’d invite the two people I’ve just interviewed – whom I can’t talk about! I’d invite (Charles) Dickens and I’d invite Herodotus, who was a great classic writer of travel and history many, many centuries ago because he talks with excitement about the world in a way I find thrilling.

Of all your interviewees, who was the most memorable?
I’d have to say J.K. (Rowling) because it was such a high stakes interview and she hadn’t done one in years. I was so happy that we did ‘click’ and she was very generous. Her publishers were only doing three or four interviews around the world. I was really thrilled and I thought that was a great tribute to The Book Club. They chose someone who was primarily interested in books over celebrity.

I’ve heard J.K. Rowling’s book mentioned in the same sentence as 50 Shades of Grey. Why is that?
That’s because for a period, 50 Shades outstripped the rate at which the Harry Potter books had sold. I think there are better books (than 50 Shades) but the only way you are going to get to better books is by loving reading. I don’t care where you start: Enid Blyton, Shades of Grey, comics…. Books are not meant to be ‘good for you’, books are meant to be a pleasure and a joy and fun. But good on (50 Shades author) E.L. James. She played a blinder. She had the wit to keep quiet and let the book do the selling and talking. Now E.L. James is someone I’d love to interview…

What do you do when you are not reading or in front of the camera?
I have raised my son (Connor) who has just completed his HSC, I walk a lot with the dog, a Jack Russell named Riley, who lives the life of, I can assure you. She has a very happy life, Riley. I exercise, I have lunch with girlfriends, I go to the theatre, I go to Melbourne often to see my parents who are both alive, but old now, I hang out with my sister and I travel. I also take long baths, but l always have a book to read in the bath, I write a column for the Australian Women’s Weekly and I have a finger in quite a lot of pies.

You sound like a cheerful kind of person. Is this something you work on?
It was something I worked on when I was younger. I was in my teens when my parents split up and it was not a happy time for me and I just thought I’m not going to carry this around for any longer than I need to. I must have always been a cheery person but Andrew has always given me credit for that. He says ‘you are a cheery soul, but you make sure you stay that way’. So I look to the things that make me happy, not the things that worry me.

And is Andrew also a happy person?
I think he is a naturally serious person, more than I am. It’s funny because when we met, I was the ‘serious’ reporter on 60 Minutes, and he was the comedian. What we’ve realised in the years we have been together is that he’s a bit more serious and I’m a bit more light-hearted. But it makes for a great combo and I’m sure that was one of the reasons we were attracted to each other.

Do you think you will keep doing what you are doing now or do you have any longer term plans?
Andrew and I are not exactly sizing up our Zimmer frames yet but we are very aware, having older parents, that the truth about ageing is all too clear and it’s tough. Was it Bette Davis who said ‘ageing is not for sissies?’ We have so many places we still want to go which will involve physical health. We want to walk the Inca Trail, we want to do active things, as well as cultural things. We are putting the active things at the front of the queue and leaving the quieter things at the back. I’ve always exercised because I’m very conscious of the need to keep as healthy as you can for as long as you can. I’m not scared of ageing but I don’t want to define myself as this age or that age…and I genuinely believe in that absolute cliché that you are as old as you feel. In a world where people use age as a defining point, I just think ‘don’t play that game’. I’ve never had plastic surgery and I don’t plan to. I believe you do get the face you deserve and in a sense, it’s mean to leave your friends behind. You have to work with what you’ve got.

This article was written by Rosemary Desmond and originally published in the February/March 2013 edition of 50 something magazine.

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