Former Listener editor Jenny Wheeler reflects on her journalism career and the latest chapter in her life, as a writer of adventure novels set in 1860s California.
In the early 1970s, the determined young woman from Mangatarata finally got her chance to pursue her ambition to become a journalist. The eldest of four girls from a farm on the Hauraki Plains, Wheeler boarded at Diocesan School for Girls in Auckland. Then, after gaining a BA, she briefly taught at a Wellington secondary school before breaking into journalism. Wheeler worked at the New Zealand Herald, and was editor of a range of publications, notably the Sunday Star and NZ House & Garden, before becoming Listener editor in 1995.
When Wheeler left the Listener in 1997, after two years, she closed the door on journalism. She and her partner, broadcaster Tim Bickerstaff, then focused on their health products business, which she and a business partner sold three years ago. Wheeler is now writing and marketing novels, and has a weekly podcast interview series with authors. She is the most recent recipient of a Magazine Publishers Association lifetime achievement award.
You’ve come a long way from the Mangatarata farm. Did that background provide a framework for the kind of life you have lived: city-based, high-stress, deadline-driven?
From early on, my sister, who is 22 months younger, and I were required by our father [Bevan] to pull our weight on the farm. It was a robust childhood and I am grateful for it. It partly helped me with my “don’t give up” values later in life.
We had two 120ha paddocks and had to muster the sheep. My sister and I were like the sheepdogs, running down the side of the valleys pushing the sheep up to the top of the ridge. We did that from about the age of five or six, and many’s the time we would trail down to the house at dusk, having only just managed to get the sheep in.
So, more hard work than idyllic?
I wouldn’t say idyllic, because there was a lot of tension in the house. My mother, Peggy, was a war bride from Oxford in England, who found herself living on the edge of the Hauraki Plains. When I finally went to Dio at age 13, I could count on the fingers of one hand how often we had gone into Auckland. What I took from my family life was that a woman had to have independence. My mother had none.
Boarding school then led to university. Was that something your parents supported?
I was the first person in my family to go to university. It was complicated for them. At the beginning, they said, “Banking, nursing or teaching, what is wrong with those?” That is how it was in those days, but they were wonderful and sent me 10 shillings a week, which would have been quite a sacrifice for them, and my bursary covered my fees. I earned the rest from my weekend job at an old people’s home.
You say journalism was always in your mind, so why did you initially become a teacher?
I lost confidence in the idea of women being journalists. There were no role models for me. I also had the thought, “What if I am widowed with six children? I will need to know how to cope, so I’d better get a teaching certificate.” But, after one year, I knew it wasn’t for me and that I should get on with becoming a journalist. It was clear in my first interview for the New Zealand Herald, with Allan Cole [later editor], that he just wanted to get rid of me. He told me he had had women with BAs applying and they’d then gone and got married in the first year. I hardly had time to present myself in any way. I pushed for another interview, but then the questions included such things as, “What would you do if you were going to a fire and your stockings laddered?” I could not believe it, the mentality in those days. I was bewildered.
You spent five years at the NZ Herald. What was it like in what was a male-dominated profession?
I was often the only woman in a room, covering a meeting, but you got used to it. It was a very good grounding and I loved the camaraderie. It was probably a really unhealthy lifestyle – it was 2pm until 11pm, then you’d go to the Press Club until the first edition came out, when you saw whose story was on the front page.
Those of us who went through that era agree we enjoyed the best of daily journalism. I got married in that time, and got a stepson in my life. The best years came later, at the NZ Woman’s Weekly – I always said I could choose any topic or anyone and make it into a Woman’s Weekly story.
Can you pinpoint a career highlight?
NZ House & Garden was a big part of that Lifetime Achievement Award. It has been a big publishing success and is still going pretty well to the template I set up. It seems unreal that I got the opportunity to sit down and plan a magazine from beginning to end, in a “secret squirrel” project, under an immediate boss who ran a fishing magazine and had no idea about anything else. I feel very proud of the achievement, even though I was there only a short time before I moved on to the Listener.
What about your Listener days? At the time you became editor, the state television broadcaster was moving its operations to Auckland and away from a bureaucratic framework. Was it a tough time?
I was taken on with an understanding about the “change management” aspect, but circulation was always primary, so content was paramount. But content was affected by where the staff were located, so the two things fed into one another. It reflected the change that had occurred in the media and even in the development of the two cities – Auckland and Wellington – in the 80s and 90s. Dare I say, Auckland came into prominence as the country’s lead city in the 80s and the rebalancing of the staff was urgent if the magazine was going to remain relevant.
Some of the guys in the Wellington office regarded Auckland as the devil, a city of used-car salesmen. But I have very warm memories of the team and I hope they have the same of me. We knew we were living in perilous times for journalism generally and we were in the boat together. Although I burnt out doing that job, I feel I left the Listener in a good situation.
Many women in journalism, as in other industries and professions, have stories of being subjected to sexual harassment. What was your experience?
In those days you took it for granted guys might act badly and you would just have to handle it. I was hit on directly, but I laughed them off and firmly said, “No, we won’t be doing that”, and then laughed at them. At the Herald I was protected in that I was in a relationship with another reporter, Adrian Blackburn, whom I later married. In later years, I used to joke with Timmy [Bickerstaff], “I’m little but I’m tough.” I will not be intimidated.
After you left journalism, you and Tim developed a men’s herbal health product. How did you know this was going to work?
Timmy was always a bit ahead of the curve. He had been importing Viagra before it was available here, and selling it to his mates, so he realised the demand for the product. We produced a natural form of it and away we went. We ended up making a women’s product, too. Women would contact us and say how much better they were and how their relationships improved. But if you started to market it to men on the basis of improving relationships and talking to your wife, and “feelings”, they would not buy it.
Tim died relatively young. What were his challenges?
He was a heavy drinker, probably an alcoholic, and he probably wouldn’t have minded that description. He had all the side effects: he was overweight and had diabetes, and it was obvious he would not make old bones. He was only 66 when he died. He had a massive heart attack, with his feet up on a pouffe, waiting for an All Blacks game to start. It was tremendously sad, but a good way to go.
Now you are a writer, blogger, podcaster and indie publisher. Your website says if you could choose any time other than now to be alive, it would be 1860s California, which is the setting for your historical adventure books, the Of Gold & Blood series. What’s the appeal of that time and place?
Women in 1860s California were doing amazing things such as prospecting for their own mines, they were getting into medicine and they were pushing boundaries. Those things may have been considered shocking elsewhere.
Where do you make most of your sales?
My marketing strategy is to give away book one and hope they like it so much they will buy books two and three. It is early days yet and I am still discovering where my market is. You have to get your own database of between one and 10,000 fans and market to them. I have 2000 so far, and growing.
Who or what do you read?
A lot of my reading is dominated by “work” – reading books by people I will be interviewing for the podcast, which is called, ironically, “The Joys of Binge Reading”. Then there is research for my books, and I am doing a bit of reviewing as well. I don’t have much time for reading for sheer pleasure, but sometimes I rebel and read a book for its own sake.
This article was first published in the February 23, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.