Interview with WENDY HARMER

My earliest memories of Wendy Harmer are of her 2DayFM breakfast radio programme The Morning Crew – crammed in the back of the car with my two brothers, I’d listen to Wendy and her co-hosts. My brothers and I would laugh until our sides split, and I dreamt of making an audience laugh like that. I dreamt of being a comedian.

Then I got older, I grew self-conscious of everything from the way I looked to the sound of my voice and, for a few years, became deathly afraid of speaking in front of large groups – so, there went that career path out the window. But I stuck to writing, and I owe my decision to write comedies primarily to comedians like Wendy that I admired growing up. While everyone else was writing “deep” psychological pieces in school, broody, angsty works, I worked hard to make people laugh with my writing – I wanted to recapture the experience I had growing up, listening to Wendy and the Crew on the way to school.

Almost half a lifetime later, I sat in the audience at an event in Paddington Town Hall, partly as an on-the-scene reporter for Boomerang Books (for the event review, click here), and partly as a long-time fan of Wendy’s. Listening to her speak took me back to those good ol’ days when I didn’t have to guilt Mum into driving me places, and I wondered why I hadn’t read any of Wendy’s books. Granted, I’m not exactly the target audience, being a nineteen-year-old male, but still…

So, I bought two books for Mum. I figured, gauging Mum’s reactions to them was a good way to review the books without damaging my masculinity. Judging by the laughter coming down the hallway, Mum was a fan of both. Interest officially piqued, I pinched Nagging For Beginners from Mum’s nightstand after she left for work – I’d seen Wendy perform a few of the nags in person – and I loved it, cover to cover. I’m sure she’ll probably kill me for saying this, but I saw so much of Mum in that book. It wasn’t a book that only women could find relatable, it was a book about women, for everyone, and an insanely funny book at that. I figured I’d best give the other book I bought for Mum, Roadside Sisters a spin. I have to confess, I haven’t read much of it, but what I have read, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed, and I am now severely regretting not picking up more books on Friday night (when I could’ve gotten Wendy to sign them…).

Well… that was a significantly longer introduction than I’d intended to have, so, less of me, and more Wendy…

You’re one of Australia’s best-loved comediennes. You’ve had a ludicrously successful career on TV and radio – what was it that attracted you to writing books? Was it something simply to pass the time, or something you’d always wanted to do?

I’ve wanted to write books all my life. I can remember writing my first short story at age eight. I invented a neighbourhood newspaper at ten (all hand-written). I edited the school magazine then became a cadet journalist at 18. Just in love with words and language. In fact I’ve been far more interested in writing than performing. So when I wrote my first book at age 48 (waited 40 years) it was a thrill.
 
Do you think that, as a “funny person”, you’re restricted to only writing funny, light books? Does Wendy Harmer have a deep, brooding literary work inside of her?

Well you know there are so many truly wonderful writers of deep and brooding works that I might leave it to them. I’m good at jokes and not everyone is! I think light and funny works for me. I probably have a searing satire inside me though which might see me go close for defamation – working up to that.
 
Do the jokes come first, and do you then find a story to fit them into, or is it the other way around?

I think of the issue first – be it the female negotiation of the ‘change of life’/revenge/the nature of friendship – and then structure the book around that. I don’t try to force gags. If you do that you lose the empathy for a character. I like it when readers have a laugh and then, hopefully a tear or two.
 
Your newest release, Roadside Sisters, follows Nina, Meredith and Annie as they travel from Melbourne to Byron Bay in a misguided search for an ‘Oprah moment’. What does one of these moments entail, and, more importantly, have you ever experienced one?

What Oprah is talking about, I think, is that moment when you suddenly “get it”. I tend to believe that the more you understand that you are not smart enough to understand anything – the smarter you get. If you know what I mean. Confused? Me too. Good isn’t it?

Out of Nina, Meredith and Annie – which one is Wendy Harmer? Is there anything autobiographical about any of them, or any of your other characters for that matter?

All my characters contain some aspect of me I suppose – and that’s the joy of writing. One has the chance to experience life through another character’s eyes. I’m endlessly disappointed that I only have one go at being alive and so writing goes some way to easing that.
 
There are heaps of “getting lost to find yourself” road-trip movies/books out there… what do you think sets Roadside Sisters apart from other similar texts?

It’s three women in the Australian landscape – I’ve never read one of those before. So many books are about journeys of course – either a literal or an allegorical one. Mine is lively and fun and feels to me to be real. I really loved taking the trip myself and I hope I convey my love of traveling in it.
 
What inspired you to write the Pearlie series? Was it purely for commercial reasons, or did you have a genuine interest in writing for kids?

I was sick of reading my daughter fairy stories about characters that were no more than Paris Hilton with wings – all frocking up to go to parties. Yawn! Pearlie is feisty – a bit of a detective, an overachiever, bossy. She has been successful because she has a bit of ‘get up and go’ about her. She’s not a soppy character. And each book has a real story – suspense and humour.
 
Are you planning any additions to the series?

The next one is Pearlie in Central Park. The first in a series where Pearlie leaves Jubilee Park and goes off to see the world. She encounters snow for the first time… and squirrels!
 
Who do you prefer to write for, adults or children? How do you feel about restricting your content for the Pearlie series, more so than you would for say, a book like Farewell My Ovaries?

The trick with the Pearlie books is to get character and story in 1600 words. They can be time consuming – like doing a giant crossword. Of course they are a vastly different exercise to adult books. I’ve just written my first young adult book : I Lost My Mobile at the Mall – Teenager on the Edge of a Technological Breakdown. It’s proved to me than I’ll happily write for any age group if the tale’s good enough.
 
Early after Farewell My Ovaries was released, a lot of it was made of its… content. What drove you to write a book like it?

I read a lot of chick/hen-lit and was always disappointed that there was no decent sex in there. I mean – you read for 300 pages about love and all that and there’s no sex? Surely we’ve moved on since Jane Austen.

What was the funniest complaint you received about it?

A woman wrote to complain the lead character smoked. No matter that she had some fairly wild sexual escapades. I thought, given her sex life, my heroine should have been on a pack a day of Camel unfiltered!
 
Nagging For Beginners… it’s all shades of brilliant. How many of the nags featured in that book would you admit to ever having used?

All of them, repeatedly. BTW. Why are you sitting around reading this when your room looks like a pigsty?
 
I’ll have you know, my room looks like… [William looks away from the computer to see a stack of clothes on his unmade bed. To be fair, he’s packing for a trip to Queensland, but still, point taken] …Of your books, which one has the best opening line?

‘Now, Francie, I want you to look into this mirror and tell me what you love about yourself.’ Love and Punishment.

If you could claim any other writer’s work as your own, whose would it be?

J. K. Rowling, please.
 
If you could rid the world of ONE book, which would it be?

The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown. Aaargh!
 
The last Australian book you read?

Cooee by Vivienne Kelly and I loved it! She’s such an acute observer of character.
 
I asked my friend for a random filler question, and she came up with this, so, fill away: What is the most valuable piece of advice you were never told?

Never cross the Portuguese border at 3a.m. in a car full of piano players with Ignatius Jones in the boot – it will only end in tears!

Sydney Writers’ Festival: An Evening With Wendy Harmer

And what an evening it was.

Tonight’s event at the Paddington Town Hall (“I went to a Sleaze Ball here once!” – Wendy Harmer) was completely different to the one earlier this afternoon. While Coming of Age was very much about the writing process, An Evening With Wendy Harmer was about the writer herself. I guess it’s because of Wendy’s history as a comedienne, or as her jacketflap bio puts it, “humourist”. She has a certain stage presence and is comfortable veering off-course. In fact, most of the evening was spent intentionally veering off Angela “I’m supposed to be interviewing you” Catterns’ script, because, as she said, “Nobody wants to hear about that, that’s boring.” And she was always right. As entertaining and funny and engaging as her books may be (and they are), Wendy Harmer’s not the sort of person you go to hear speak to learn about her authorial intent. You want jokes, you want anecdotes, you want her opinion on things, you want her guessing the weight of Angela Catterns’ breasts – and if you were there, you got exactly that.

As an aside, this wasn’t a session for the kiddies. As someone who grew up listening to her breakfast show on 2DayFM, it was a shock (and a pleasure) to hear her frequently drop the F-bomb in conversation.

Farewell My OvariesSprinkled in amongst the social commentary and relentless gags were brief mentions of her books. She was inspired to write Farewell My Ovaries because, reading chick- and hen-lit, she’d always be annoyed at the chapter breaks between the lines “They collapsed onto the bed in each others arms.” and “They woke up the next morning.” She wanted to write the sex, but writing sex is just like writing comedy, according to Wendy, because everybody has different tastes. As she puts it, one person’s “Come on over, sexy” can be someone else’s “Oh my God, get away from me”. Reactions were varied. She quoted one reviewer who described the sex as gruesome, and another that likened her exploration of sex to canonical texts I’ve forgotten since the event (my bad).

Roadside SistersShe also spoke about her newest release, Roadside Sisters, which sounds like your standard three-women-on-a-roadtrip, only doused in Harmer’s trademark humour. But, there were more pressing matters to discuss (see: Angela’s breasts – Wendy thinks they’re somewhere between one-and-a-half and two kilos each).

Five minutes before the conclusion of the session, Angela tried to steer Wendy into a bit of shameless promotion (and it worked, the book she shamelessly promoted, her personal favourite, Nagging For Beginners sold out the moment the Evening was over, and I was sure to grab a copy for Mum, which is currently being thoroughly enjoyed, judging by the laughter coming from her bedroom). She acted out a few of the featured nags, including my favourite, the Nagging for BeginnersStriptease Nag, which, if you ever have the pleasure of seeing her perform, is the funniest thing ever.

Comedienne or humourist, whatever you want to call her, Wendy is an entertainer. If you ever have the chance to go and see her live, I whole-heartedly recommend her. If you want something to keep you company until then, there’s always her writing and her podcasts.