Jane Caro is an author, novelist, broadcaster, columnist and social commentator. She was awarded the Walkley for Women’s Leadership in 2018.
She has published numerous non-fiction works including The Stupid Country: How Australia is Dismantling Public Education (2007), Destroying the Joint: Why Women Have To Change the World (2013) and Accidental Feminists (2019).
Jane has also written a YA trilogy on the life of Elizabeth I - Just A Girl (2013), Just a Queen (2015) and Just Flesh and Blood (2018).
ASTRID: Jane Caro is a writer, social commentator and broadcaster. In 2018 she received the Walkley for Women's Leadership Award. She has written and edited numerous non-fiction books, including 'Destroying the Joint', 'Why Women Have To Change the World', and in 2019, Accidental Feminists'. Jane, welcome to The Garret.
JANE: Thank you very much for having me.
ASTRID: You've been writing about feminism for a long time. How difficult is it to write something new or as a writer to stand out from the crowd?
JANE: I don't really think about that. Isn't that really interesting? When you asked the question I went... Oh, I don't know. I tend to get a bee in the bonnet about something and I don't really think, I don't think very strategically. I think maybe people think because I come out of advertising and marketing I must have this big plan. No no no. I'm a complete... I want to write about this, you know, so I just go off and do it. But this book I have to be absolutely straight up about was not my idea.
It was Louise Adler's idea. I wrote an article called 'Women over 50: A Tale of Two Fates'. She read it. She rang me up out of the blue - I don't think I'd met her and I certainly don't think I ever spoken to her before - and said 'That's a book and I want you to write it'. And I went 'OK'.
ASTRID: Now where was that article published?
JANE: ABC Online.
ASTRID: That is a fascinating story. We've actually interviewed Louise Adler for The Garret before and she mentioned how she finds, or found, authors for... you know to publish books. And you know she does listen to radio shows or read articles and then go directly to the source. So I did not know that.
JANE: That's that's exactly what she did with me. And I... I'm so glad she did because the journey I went on to research this book and really get my thoughts in order has been so interesting to me. And so actually disturbing and quite shocking, that I'm really really grateful that she put me on the path.
ASTRID: Tell me why disturbing and shocking.
JANE: Well I heard the statistic about the fastest growing group amongst the homeless being women over 55. I'd also realised that while working class women and women who lost their husbands had always worked for money, that my generation was pretty much the first full cohort of a generation who had mostly worked for their own money for most of their lives. And so, I put those two things together in the article and thought, 'this is bizarre'. But then when I actually went and started to unpack it, the way we set up the world that my friends and I went into as young, very naive women thinking that you know it would all be okay and that we had a fair chance, and then really looking at how 'No no no no no' we were sort of hobbled from the get go.
And particularly I think - and this is the bit that really still upsets me, like I actually feel quite emotional about this - particularly the girls who were the good girls who tried to do what they were told - and what we were told was that our duty was to care for others, that as you know it had always been for women that our job was to facilitate other people to have brilliant lives and that caring was our first duty. And I was lucky I was the daughter of a mouthy feminist. And so I was a naughty girl - rebellious, outspoken, disobedient, all those kinds of things. My friends were much much better behaved than I was and really tried to do what they thought, had been told, was the right thing to do are actually the ones who've been most thoroughly betrayed, and who have found themselves at the end of a life where they have put their caring duties first. You know they have worked. Yes but they've done part time work. They've come in and out of the workforce to care for small children and elderly parents, whoever needed it. And who found themselves shafted at 50 because you know, older women are such a downer.You don't want those in the workforce. And who are on Newstart in their 50s and 60s and who are in real... you know really looking forward to a poverty stricken old age at best and a homeless old age at worst. Breaks my heart.
ASTRID: It is quite confronting. And you weave some of your friends - all unidentified but - stories throughout the book. How did you approach including their stories in the way that you did.
JANE: I put a call out. I emceed a conference. I was fortunate enough to emcee a conference at Churchill in Shellharbour which is a coastal area in New South Wales, and they have a particular large number of women facing housing stress in older women. This happens to a lot in those kinds of regional areas because one of the strategies that women do is they sell a house in the city and buy somewhere cheaper further out, which can work but also isolates them and all that kind of thing. And they were running this conference, and at it were a lot of women who were facing housing stress. It wasn't a conference for service providers. It was a conference for people actually in that situation. And so that enabled me to meet some of the women who were actually in this situation, and I called out to them and then I asked them if they had friends and so I gathered a small group. It wasn't an awful lot of people who were prepared to talk to me, but a small group of women who answered quite a comprehensive questionnaire.
I sent them all about 40 questions and they filled them in. And I'm incredibly grateful to them for doing that, because that I think really gave the personal voice to the real life of the women who set out with one set of beliefs about how their life is going to turn out, and have had to face a very different reality.
ASTRID: Did you show any portions of the book to those women before you published?
JANE: No but what I said to them was that I would protect their identity by... in many I divided up events and gave many names to one person so that you couldn't put it together. And I gave them all fictitious names. And I also said to them I will quote you verbatim, and that's what I did. So, occasionally I corrected a bit of grammar and that kind of thing and I made something a bit clearer if it was unclear, but apart from that, I quoted them verbatim. And I have sent each of them a copy of the book.
ASTRID: Have any of them given feedback on the book as a whole?
JANE: No and I wish they would. [Laughter]
ASTRID: I can imagine. Now a few years ago feminist books didn't sell. Certainly not in the way they do now. What is your opinion on that?
JANE: Well I think that feminism has really been turbo charged, particularly by social media. But I think it's not just feminism, I think in a way every outgroup has because what social media has done is it's given women, LGBTQI, people of color who with a disability... Anyone who doesn't live a kind of whit straight male life unmediated access to the public conversation for the first time in history. And what's happened is we've suddenly had an explosion of new voices, and those voices actually have something urgent interesting and personal to say.
And I think there's been a new energy particularly with me too. And I think what women are finally starting to access, which is really interesting, is their anger. Whereas I think women found anger... it was almost forbidden to them. And so feminism was seen and feminist books were seen as angry books, and therefore 'Angry women, you don't want to read about that'. But now suddenly angry women are okay. And what's interesting to me...
ASTRID: Quite popular actually.
JANE: I'm not surprised because anger is energizing. And also I believe that anger fuels comedy. And if you think about 10 years ago, probably the same time feminist books were you know on the remainder piles, Christopher Hitchens wrote that article, you know, why women aren't funny and got away with it. And but what happened after that? Who are the funniest people in the world right now? Women. tThey're the funniest comedians, they're the funny. They're the people who are making waves and changing things. Hannah Gasby. You know, the full gamut. And that is because comedy is channeling your anger into a kind of humour. And I think women have accessed that. And so the books that are being written now. Yes they're, there, they're vigorous. They're dynamic. They're funny. They're punchy. And we've suddenly said, 'Yeah, actually there's a lot to be angry about'. I'm angry. I know the women who I write about a furious. And I think that that anger in a really constructive way has been catching.
ASTRID: So, once Louise Adler came to you and said I think it should be a book. How do you then as a writer who has this anger, who has this point, who has presumably got feedback from that article because it was published, sit down and write a book?
JANE: Well the first thing I did - and it was the first time I ever done it this way - was I came up with the chapter headings.
ASTRID: I like them.
JANE: And I think that was the angry part of me. And the kind of... I have this cynicism which I apply to a lot of things. And I think also it's the ex- advertising writer coming out of me as well. I understand that you know if you can put things in an engaging, succinct and colloquial way, informal way, that is very engaging to readers. And so I just slammed out, you know, how I thought the war kind of stereotypes that my generation grew up with and the kind of judgments that people made about what we should and shouldn't do.
And when I was young, women were very rightly judged by everyone including one another. It was a really actually a scary place to be as a woman. You were always wrong and and always being judged as not good enough. And so I let my anger rip on coming up with the chapter titles. And then of course that was an actually really good way of doing it, because then I knew what I wanted to write about in the order in which I wanted to write it. And it was all about things like money and how how were women seen in relation to money or love or sex or education or all the all the things that make up life. How were my generation of girls expected to behave? And how did that turn out? And where are we at now?
ASTRID: Picking up on the chapter titles and also your comment before about capturing that anger in a succinct way. I actually loved one of the anecdotes you have in Accidental Feminists where you compare women's work to public schools and men's work or maybe we should say men's privilege to private schools. That really just kind of stuck out for me and captured one of the overall kind of messages of the book. How important do you think it is for a writer to be able to create that kind of image or anecdote for the reader?.
JANE: It's it's really important I think to be as clear as you can be and often metaphor is a really kind of way of helping people to get what you mean, because even if they've got a bit of a blockage about accepting... That particular comparison was between mothers and fathers in particular. So even if they've got a bit of a barrier to accepting that we judge mothers much more harshly than we judge fathers, if I can point it out in another area, like public and private schools, then suddenly they can see the truth of it. I mean that that comparison is basically... and it really came home to me when I was struggling with small children and my husband who was pretty hands on given his era and also how much you know the workplace ratcheted up when we had small children for him, how it infuriated me that if he did anything for his children, if he changed a nappy, if he turned up at a school concert in working hours, you know people went 'Oh my God, the man's as saint'.
ASTRID: He did something something.
JANE: 'He did something for his children. What an amazing father', which used to drive me insane. Whereas nobody ever praised me. All that happened was if I failed to do something I got criticised, and it struck me a long time ago that we talk in exactly the same way about public and private schools... that a private school gives a few bursaries to some you know poor children or Indigenous children, 'Oh my God they're amazing'. The generosity knows no bounds. They're extraordinary. But the public school down the road that may enrol you know vast numbers of kids from difficult, disadvantaged, poorer backgrounds et cetera. We... all we ever comment on them is if something goes wrong. And it struck me that that is quite instructive as to privilege and where we see people on the status hierarchy. If people are high status, little is expected of them. If people are low status, lots is expected of them. And if you think about that as a metaphor for the way we regard men and women across the spectrum, we we don't expect nearly as much from men as we do from women.
ASTRID: I agree completely Jane. Now as you've told us this idea came from... you prompted to write this book by Louise Adler. Now many non-fiction books in Australia are commissioned. They're not written before you get a book contract. Many of the listeners of The Garret are writers who want to get that first contract. Can you explain the process a little bit?
JANE: Yes I'm trying... The first book I wrote I co-wrote with a wonderful guy called Chris Bonner. And he actually approached me. I had become quite active. I wanted to get out of my advertising career. I did enjoy my advertising career more than I didn't enjoy it. It was a bit mixed, but mostly I enjoyed it and I learned things I couldn't have learned anywhere else. But, I was I had muscles I wasn't using. And so I started writing about public education because I felt very strongly about it, and I got really educated about it, and I was a new voice. So I got a bit of... and I got that really did my advice to people often is if you want to change your career, find something you're passionate about and just start banging on about it. Don't charge, just to do it, and you'll be surprised what can roll out of it. And even if nothing rolls out of it you have at least done something that you care about. And he approached me. He was an ex school principal and said, 'I want to write a book about where we're at the Australian schooling system, funding everything'. And we eventually called it 'The Stupid Country: How Australia is Dismantling Public Education', and we took the idea to New South to the wonderful Phillipa McGuinness.
ASTRID: Who has also appeared on The Garret, I have to say she's lovely.
JANE: She's great. And we pitched it to her and bless her, she bought it. And we wrote it together. And the interesting thing is I think a lot of writers find it quite hard to collaborate, but because I come out of advertising I always collaborated with an art director so that was my natural habitat. I felt in a way that gave me confidence, and I think because Chris was a teacher he also comes from a totally collaborative background. So the two of us worked incredibly well together, we just divided up... We worked out what topics we wanted to about split it in half. I wrote the first draft of one then he and so on and so forth.
And that book did really well, it's still I think considered one of the seminal texts on that topic. The great thing was because he was a school principal and I was a public school parent, we could bring those two perspectives to it. So my thing about how you go about doing that is first of all write about something you really care about, particularly in non-fiction. I think you've got to care about it. Fiction is easy to care about because in the end a human story, but non-fiction, you've got to care about the issue. And you've got to have a purpose. Why are you writing this book? What do you want to change? What do you want to make people aware of that they're not currently aware of? I think the best non-fiction is like that. It has a purpose behind it.
And also collaborate with somebody, because you'll learn a lot from them and also it it softens the blow of you know seeking a publisher. There's someone else you can share all that with without... and you don't have to work away in a garret thinking is this good or is this shit? You know because you've got someone they can bounce off. So that was how it worked for me and I in fact collaborated on a couple more books after that before I struck out on my own interestingly enough with young adult fiction.
ASTRID: I had questions coming later in the podcast about your trilogy on Elizabeth I. And so, all of your books all of you on your non-fiction books require a great deal of research. 'Accidental Feminist' has notes at the end of backing up everything that you've said. How do you approach and collate your research?
JANE: It's really interesting. Research is something that I have never sort of thought of myself as being particularly expert at. But I think it's a bit... The Internet is so wonderful because I don't know about anyone listening, but I can easily disappear down a rabbit hole if I get onto something that I'm really interested in and I chase it up and find myself reading a whole heap. Well that's what researching for a non-fiction book which is about something you're really interested in and you really care about. And you're also... I always believed that the best books the writer is on a journey as much as the reader, so that with fiction I think it's better if they don't know, the writer doesn't know exactly where they're going to go. The same thing with non-fiction, you are exploring this topic and what you do... I would just think, I'd write something and then I think, 'Oh I need to know, is there research to back that up? You know what is the statistics on that?.' And I'd google it! And nine times out of ten, ot only would I find the information I want to know but it would lead me into a whole lot of other areas. It's also if you are someone who reads widely around the topic you care about, it's a bit like when you're pregnant you constantly see pregnant women in the street. Well I would constantly come across articles that were absolutely relevant on Twitter and Facebook that someone had posted that were totally relevant to what I was writing about.
The one in the first chapter about how women's women's equality was included in the original American Civil Rights Act in 1964 literally as a joke was found like that. Someone posted that article on social media, I saw it and went, 'Oh my God'.
ASTRID: That was a pretty disturbing paragraph
JANE: And that sort of thing... There's a serendipity that happens when you have an idea in your head and suddenly you see the things that fit with that idea.
ASTRID: Now talking about the things that people can post or find on social media anyone who publishes faces the potential for immediate feedback, often quite vicious. I would say feminist attract a particular type of feedback. How do you cope?
JANE: It's interesting. I... It doesn't get to me as much as it seems to get to a lot of other women. Also, I don't think I get as much of it as some of my younger feminist colleagues. I think partly that's because the sexual... I'm nearly 62. None of the trolls want to fuck me. So that's fine with me, by the way, the feeling is entirely mutual. But they just... I am so unimportant to them, in a way, so I don't get a lot of the sexualised stuff that I see some younger women getting, which is horrifying and really frightening. So I don't get that. Also, as I have said on Twitter on occasions, I spent 35 years in male dominated creative departments in advertising agencies. I have been bullied by the wittiest men in Australia. so your average troll doesn't hold a lot of fears for me. I had to learn how to deal with that kind of stuff, and I often...
I also know that with bullies - and I've written a column about this as well - with bullies, bullies want to get a particular emotion from you. If you refuse to give them that emotion - even if you feel it you don't have to show that you feel it - you're no fun. They can't play with you, because what they're looking to do is control you. So if you gain control of you and refuse to give them...if it is fear they want, or humiliation or hurt and you don't give it to them, you're no fun to play with. And so an example I give is many years ago somebody put on Twitter - they were trying to be very scary - 'I'm going to come round when you least expect it and take from you everything you care about'. And I went back and I said 'Oh, when when's that likely to be?' And they said 'Soon' and I said 'Lovely I'll pop the kettle on then'.
I never heard from them again. So... I know that's hard to do and I know I'm lucky in that I don't get the same level of sexualised hideous abuse as a lot of younger women do but I do think part of it is also that I just refuse to play their game. I don't bite back, and if they're really... I just block and mute really fast. I don't give them any time.
ASTRID: That is a good life lesson. Now you have had a varied career, well beyond writing non-fiction books and YA fiction, but in terms of your writing career, what is the greatest change you have witnessed, and what does that mean for today's writers?
Well I think the Internet is got to be the greatest change. It's, it's meant both good things and bad things. In a weird kind of way it's given people like me more of an opportunity, because I've been able to find my own audience. And I mean I now have I think it's ninety three thousand followers on Twitter. Well that means people want to commission me to write articles because they know that I'm going to retweet them to ninety three thousand people. So you know it has given people who might have had a much harder time getting published and getting out there an opportunity. Other people I've noticed - Constance Hall - you know there's a lot, and particularly women in fact, who have managed to have a voice that people want to listen to and that's created an audience.
But what it's also done is it's made... it's made newspapers and all those kinds of things completely shrink. So the number of viable places to get published is much smaller. The money you can make is much less, so if you're trying to earn your living out of it it's much harder than it used to be. And it's, you know, things like there's no reviews anymore so... there is all of this... It has been a kind of wings and swings and roundabouts, basically. Mostly I think it's good in the long run, but I do watch with great regret what's happened to our major newspapers, what's happened to major television stations, and things like that.
Though at the same time there are other hopeful things happening like 'The Saturday Paper', like 'Crikey, like 'The Monthly'. You know, there are... and 'Meanjin' that are growing in importance, because they I think it's like department stores, I think newspapers were really the department store of news. The problem is the Internet is now the department store of news just like it's the department store of goods that were in department stores, which is why they're both shrinking. And so what the Internet really favours is more niche... maybe that's also why feminism has come back, because it is a niche it's aimed at a particular group of people. And the more... the less general and the more niche oriented seem to be more successful. They're also much harder to make money out of. So there's a proviso to that.
ASTRID: And the money issue is... I teach at RMIT, and I look at the new generation of writers coming through and I wonder what that career will look like in terms of financial viability. So I want to ask you, Jane in terms of your writing career what is the best investment you've made in yourself or in your public profile to continue to write and be published?
JANE: Building a Twitter profile. And I didn't kind of set out to do that. I just you know... listen huge advantage for your copywriter, Twitter. I mean for goodness sake. Hundred and forty characters luxury! We're trained in brevity if nothing else.
And also in being punchy, getting to the point that you know... When you write for 35 years in a medium where every second or every square inch has to be paid for by somebody else,. you have to learn how to be succinct and direct and also engaging. And those turned out to be just about the best skills you could possibly have for involving with the Internet and building your own audience.
So that was just sheer luck for me and timing. No plan involved, I was in the right place with the right skills at the right. But I think that's an important thing. And the Internet's a good place to experiment with your voice too. It's not the same as having to get a publisher. You can have a blog. You can put posts up. You can experiment with the sorts of things you want to say and see if you can build some sort of a following. Now you might have to be waiting tables and driving Ubers while you're doing that, but hey welcome to actors lives for the last... however long it's been.
ASTRID: When you think of all the nonfiction works that you've published what do you think has had the most impact, because you worked with purpose you do write to...
JANE: Of the non-fiction works I would have to say that 'The Stupid Country' probably remains the one that has had the most impact. I do have hopes for 'Accidental Feminists' that it may well match 'The Stupid Country' or even... 'Unbreakable' also had a huge impact. In saying that, 'Destroying the Joint' as well. But 'Unbreakable' I think because it came out just before #metoo, and it is the story similar stories of women who were prepared to share before everybody suddenly got prepared to share those kinds of stories. And the responses I had to that from readers was really quite profound. But I think that 'The Stupid Country' helped us helped to change the way we talk about public and private schools and particularly how we talk about funding, and because that absolutely affects how much access our most disadvantaged children get to a decent education, I find it hard to go past that for something I'm proud of.
ASTRID: Talking about children and the education system you've also written fiction. Fiction can be feminist. You wrote a trilogy which concluded in 2018 on the life of Elizabeth I. As someone known for their public profile and then non-fiction writing. How did you switch into fiction?
JANE: I'd always wanted to write fiction and novels. And indeed long before I got into writing non-fiction I was in a writing group and I was writing very bad novels really appalling. I don't know how the poor people who shared that writing group with me actually put up with me because we would read what we'd written to each other, with a with a published writer sort of running it. And it was one of the ways she made money, was she charged us to go in and learn the skills. And it was really useful. In fact I think almost all of us have been published.
ASTRID: Well done. That is a great writers group.
JANE: Yeah. It took a while but almost all of us. And I then I can't remember quite how it happened but I just sat down one day and and kind of blind... passion and wrote this stream of consciousness about Elizabeth I in her voice which is the easy part of this trio of books. And I took it - because the other novels and I knew they were bad - and I took it and I read it to the group, and they said, 'That is the best thing you've ever written. You have to keep writing it'.
I never wrote them as YA. I wrote what I wanted to write, and I always wanted... I'd always... she was always been a hero to me when I was a girl, particularly finding female heroes who had not come to a sticky end - which most of them do - or not being beholden to some bloke was almost impossible. But Elizabeth I kind of stood as a beacon and she's almost the only woman in history you could think of apart from perhaps Marie Curie who's seen as a genius, you know someone whose brain was her most admired characteristic and that was important to me.
And so I've and I've read everything I could read on her, and I remember thinking in a kind of calculating way, I really want to get published as a fiction writer'. And the people in my writers group who were getting interest were writing genre novels, they were writing historical or crime or whatever, or memoir. And I thought what what genre could I write and bear to do? I couldn't do romantic fiction I'd rather kill myself. Chick lit, no way. Crime, not clever enough. Science fiction, don't care about it. And then I thought historical, I could do historical.
And then I thought Elizabeth I, and that's when I wrote that sort of stream of consciousness thing and took it to the group. And then it just... I just kept kept writing it and I sent it around to adult publishers and they all said, 'We really enjoyed it. It's fantastic. But no'. Which was frustrating.
ASTRID: And did explain why?
JANE: 'We just can't see how it fits into our marketing... an Australian author writing about an English Queen. It just doesn't seem... Blah blah blah blah blah'. And then a friend of mine, Kate Hunter, who wrote young adult books 'Mosquito Advertising'. I knew her from advertising. And I was you know I was whingeing to her on the phone, 'I can't get a blah blah blah'. And she said, 'Could it be YA?'. Shit yeah. It could easily be YA actually. No sex in it, she's a virgin. The church schools love it.
And so she said, s'Send it to Christina Schulz at UQP, she's my publisher'. I sent it. Two weeks later I had a contract. So you know my my advice: whinge to all your friends. Just to get you off the phone, they'll give you a contact.
ASTRID: They might have the answer. Would you write fiction again.
JABNE: Oh yes. In fact I have another contract for a YA fiction set in Australia set in country New South Wales set in the 60s late 60s, which I started to write quite a few years ago, 2012, and I stopped because I had Elizabeth... still bugging me and I had to finish the trilogy. Christina, bless her, nudged me and said, 'What about that book you were gonna write?' And I actually found that I'd done about seven chapters now. They rough as guts, it will all need rewriting, but I thought, Okay yeah I'll do that one now'.
ASTRID: That's exciting. My final question. In 'Accidental Feminists' you describe feminism as 'an incomplete project'. What advice do you have feminist writers getting published today?
JANE: Well I think you've never had a better time to get published if you're a feminist writer, because the books are selling and everybody likes what sells. So there's that. And I think also I think one of the things that's really important is don't be placatory. Don't worry about - when you're writing what you want to write - don't worry about how it will be received. Don't worry about how other people are going to respond to it.
I think one of the things women are trained to do from an early age is to worry about how other people are going to see them and to try and control that. And that just leads you up your own bum quite frankly, trying to second guess others navigate you anywhere. Write exactly what you want to write. Say it as truthfully as you can in as much your own voice as you can manage, and don't ever let little gremlins get into your head and say it's not good enough or people won't like this or is it too angry or any of those little self doubting things we do. Ignore all of those. Do it your way in your voice and as truthfully as you can. And don't worry about how other people will react to it. That is for them to decide once it goes out.
ASTRID: Perfectly said. Jane, thank you so much for coming to The Garret.
JANE: My pleasure. Thank you for having me.