In celebration of our 25th anniversary of children's publishing we are delighted to present the eighth edition of Onion Origins.
Finding my people
I was a sporty, bookish kind of girl, and at the end of my first year of university I realised that Accountancy was not for me. Accountancy was so not for me that I had to leave the state.
So I moved to Sydney. The only qualifications I had were one year of an abandoned Accountancy degree and a one-week bartending course. Despite this lack of experience, I quickly secured three waitressing jobs. One at a restaurant in St Leonards where I quit before the end of the first shift, one at the brand new Powerhouse Museum where I spilled a tray of champagne all over myself on opening night, and one at the Pitt Street Pizza Hut where the pay was $4.25 an hour. The actual bonuses were the occasional free pizza and stolen bacon bits from the salad bar, and the unexpected bonus happened only once, when I left work and found myself outside Town Hall Station accidentally face-to-face with the Queen. There was a barricade between me and her majesty, but it was flimsy.
After three months I asked for a raise and when denied it, I quit in order to sell encyclopedias door-to-door in Queensland. Yes. Encyclopedias. Door-to-door. In Queensland. My friends tried to talk me out of it. But I was determined. I'd never been to Queensland. And encyclopedias were books, right? I started in Ipswich, then went to Toowoomba, then Roma, then Chinchilla, Dalby, Kingaroy, Gimpy, Noosa, Maryborough, Childers, Bunderberg, Rockhampton, Mackay, Townsville, Innisfail, Cairns, Port Douglas, then back down to Gladstone. We were young and reckless and it was Queensland and we had adventures. Many adventures. But three months was enough, so in Gladstone I boarded a late-night bus bound for Sydney and wept quietly every time 'Better Be Home Soon' played over the coach stereo. Crowded House was on repeat for the entire 17-hour trip. Quite a lot of quiet weeping.
So, seeking less adventure, I took a job in the watch department of a Prouds Jewellery store. We sold Longines. We sold Seiko. We sold Swatches. Sometimes there were sailors. There were time-cards and we had to clock in and clock out. They were not my people.
When I returned to Melbourne, most of my friends were finishing degrees and taking their first 'career' jobs. I knew that I didn't want to be an accountant, and I didn't want to work in hospitality, and I didn't want to work in retail. But what did I want? I just wanted to read books and talk about them and that wasn't a job, was it? Oh? Publishing.
Investigations revealed that the trick to getting a job in publishing was to know someone who could help get one's foot in the door at a publishing house. But I didn't know what a publishing house was, and I didn't know anyone who worked in publishing, and I didn't have any idea how to even find the door, let alone get a foot in it.
Eventually I went for a job as typesetter (even though I didn't know what typesetting was) at a company that designed and printed advertising material. I didn't get the typesetting job because most people who applied were already doing a typesetting apprenticeship. But unexpectedly I did get a job as a proofreader. I had no proofreading experience and I suspect I only landed the job because the HR manager was sick that day and the Boss interviewed me and we talked about books and he was impressed that I had lasted a whole year in accountancy - he'd only lasted six weeks.
I was incredibly fortunate to work with three tremendously knowledgeable professional proofreaders who taught me many wonderful things about words and how to proofread them, and proofreading marks and layout and typography and fonts - and that the dictionary was my very best friend.
After a year though, I remembered that I really really wanted to go to university. I wanted to go to university because I wanted to learn all the things. I wanted to go to university because I wanted my parents to be proud of me. I wanted to go to university because the walls of the Old Arts building were so solid and impressive and the grass on the South Lawn was so green and inviting. I wanted to go to university because that meant having a student card - so everything would be cheaper.
And I knew a little bit more about the world by then. Many of my friends had done Arts degrees, and I realised that I was foolish not to have done Arts the first time around. Why had I done Accountancy instead of Arts? Who ever knows. Well, I know, but I'm not telling. Okay, I'll whisper it. I didn't know what Arts was. I thought it was painting. There, so now the secret is out. Let us not speak of it again. After all, I learned A LOT selling encyclopedias and that probably would never have happened if I had chosen Arts over Accountancy.
I was excited about my first day of classes. I knew in my heart that the other Arts students would be my people. I was so excited that I missed my first two lectures because I was overcome with nerves and vomiting on the banks of the Yarra River. My boyfriend tried to calm me down enough to stop the vomiting but when that failed, he went to my first two lectures for me. And took notes.
Oh how I loved studying Arts. I loved it. And then, three years later it was finished, but I didn't want it to be finished so I enrolled in an Honours degree. And I tried very hard to do it full time. I really tried, but I needed money and found it was easier to survive if I studied part-time and worked the night shift as a ward assistant in the delivery suite at the Mercy Hospital. Every night there were new babies born, there were exhausted mothers and exuberant fathers, and there were delivery suites to clean, and delivery trolleys to ... wrangle. I was sleep-deprived and I had a nauseous-linen allowance, but I had enough money.
More than enough. I discovered that I had enough money to go overseas and why not do that instead of finishing my Honours degree. No reason I could think of. So I did. I lived in London for six months, and sailed around the Greek Islands with five friends for two weeks, and saw the Acropolis and admired the pebbled beaches of Nice and went to a casino in Monaco and camped in a thunderstorm on the side of a hill in Florence and discovered that Venice was real and got a hire-car wedged between buildings in the pedestrian precinct of Verona and almost acquired a taste for Guinness in a lovely old wooden pub in the south of Ireland where a Dutch couple told me I spoke very good English for an Australian.
And then I came home. And went back to uni. And needed a job. Again. A friend helped me secure employment in the mailroom of a law firm while I finished my Honours year (okay, sometimes I was also the tea lady - but I infinitely preferred the mail room with its fancy mail train system and the whizzbang of the new photocopiers). And then I was done. Degree completed. And I never ever in my life wanted to study again.
So there I was, a somewhat over-qualified mailroom attendant, surrounded by lawyers. And I still didn't know anyone in publishing. I sat the public service test and made it to the last round of interviews and might have been successful had I not just read The First Stone by Helen Garner. The question for the group interview was about how best to handle a sexual-harassment complaint from a female student against a male housemaster. I had PLENTY of ideas about that.
Then my (musician) partner thought he was interested in a job at the Australian Music Examinations Board, but on enquiry he discovered that the position description was not for him, so I applied for it. After all, they had a music publishing program. Perhaps this was the door I had been looking for? Almost, but not quite. It was a wonderful job and I worked with fabulous, dedicated people, but it was not book publishing. Clearly.
And then one day, an acquaintance invited me to a launch of Visible Ink. I didn't know what Visible Ink was, but I didn't have anything else to do that day, so I went.
It turned out that Visible Ink was the anthology of writing from the students of the RMIT Professional Writing and Editing course. That afternoon, in the Lounge on Swanston Street, I truly found my people. There they were. All in one place. And even though I had promised myself I would never ever in my life study again, I enrolled in the RMIT course and I loved every minute of it. Every single minute. And in the second half of my second year I did the Practical Placement subject at a children's books publishing house.
Ten years earlier I had realised I wanted to work in publishing. Eighteen months earlier I had found my people in a bar on Swanston Street and since then had spent countless hours with them, talking books and writing and short stories and poetry and ideas and editing and publishing and works-in-progress. And life and art and the creative process. And now I was doing the first day of my work experience placement. I stood on Gertrude Street outside Black Dog Books. I took a deep breath. Here, finally, was the door. In I walked.
And then ten years ago, I had the great fortune of being swept into the House of Onion on the wings of Margo Lanagan's heartbreaking short story Singing My Sister Down from Black Juice. Ten years ago.* Ten tremendously rewarding years.
- Jodie Webster, Commissioning Editor