The next chapter
An average working day for Jana Wendt once translated into what would be considered a wild adventure for most of us. At the peak of her 25-year TV reporting career, Ms Wendt never knew which part of the world or what situation she would find herself in next. Her capers landed her on an overnight journey through St Petersburg with a trainload of drunken Russian nationalist “boors” and inside the dimly lit boudoirs of Sydney brothels. As a journalist, you may be required to become an instant expert on the conflict in Yemen one day, and the next expose the antics of a dodgy car salesman, she explains. With no such thing as a typical working day, Wendt came to expect the unexpected.
Despite this, the Melbourne alumna vividly recalls the moment when it struck her that her working life was somewhat out of the ordinary. Standing knee-deep in Moscow snow, Ms Wendt was preparing to deliver a piece to camera about the fall of Communism in Russia, when her freezing jaw suddenly seized up. “I thought to myself, all this for 15 seconds on television? Surely there are more normal jobs than this.”
Though she exited television in 2006, that thought has stayed with her. For the journalist-turned-author, reflecting on the madness of her own career has inspired her to explore the intricacies of others’ in her latest book. In Nice Work, Ms Wendt (BA(Hons) 1977) offers an insightful glimpse into the jobs and lives of nine workers: a priest, boxer, weather observer, forensic anthropologist, CEO, sculptor, acrobat, volunteer and foley artist. Assuming the position of the proverbial fly on the wall, Wendt trailed each worker for a number of months as they went about their business. She shared the awe of a team of forensic anthropologists as they uncovered human remains in a secret grave in East Timor, bringing closure to some of the families of the estimated 200 civilians who disappeared in 1991 after attending a protest march that came under Indonesian military attack. She watched a foley artist (the person who recreates natural, everyday sound effects in a film or TV show) recreate human sound effects for an episode of Underbelly, using everyday materials such as pegs to simulate the noise of shaving and Sorbolene cream for the sounds of a steamy sex scene. And as she sat ringside at an amateur boxing match, Wendt was relieved to be wearing black as blood sprayed down from the fight above. Of all the experiences Nice Work brought her way, it was a particular moment watching 92-year-old sculptor Tom Bass at work, in the months leading up to his death, that had a lasting impact.
“He was working alone and there was quiet in the studio, but some of his students were working there as well,” she says. “It seemed to me that day they were very conscious that perhaps it was the last time they could see him doing this work. There was something very special about that environment.”
Ms Wendt embarked on an Arts degree with an inkling she would follow in her father’s footsteps and pursue a career in journalism. She remembers her uni days for “the camaraderie and fun”, as well as afternoons spent in the Baillieu Library.
“I was studious, but I probably should’ve worked harder,” she admits. After graduating, she knocked on the door of Network Ten in 1978 and was offered a job as a reporter. Within two years she was poached for 60 Minutes and later went on to present A Current Affair, Sunday and Seven’s Witness. She describes working in television in the 80s and 90s as “heady days” when tremendous resources were available to networks and journalists. Ms Wendt’s enjoyment of TV news faded a number years before she left the industry, but many of the incredible moments in her career, from awe-inspiring to heartbreaking, have stayed with her. Above all, she is haunted by the memory of a report she filed in Pakistan for 60 Minutes on the dangers faced by women believed to have “dishonoured” their families, and a local custom that can see a husband throw acid over his wife if he believes she has committed adultery.
“I remember standing by the bedside of a woman who had been horribly mutilated in this way – she was on her deathbed and died a short time after I spoke with her,” Ms Wendt says. “Those are unforgettable moments and they do stay with you. It can’t be any other way.”
Ms Wendt is often asked if she misses working in television, and her answer is an emphatic “no”. She prefers the different “rhythm of life” that writing offers and the contemplative nature of her new work. Nice Work is the second book she has published, and she is already working on a third (secret) project.
“The very nature of my current work, that is, observing life and people around you, opens you up somewhat. There’s less focus on the self,” she explains. “It’s like opening up the windows and letting in the fresh air.”
Nice Work by Jana Wendt (MUP RRP $34.99)
“We spend forty hours, on average, each week in a place that is not our home, in the company of strangers. Odd then, that the details of what we do all that time often remain unknown, even to those closest to us.”
Jana Wendt, one of Australia’s most experienced journalists, sets out to discover what drives us in the work we do. She follows an eclectic group of people, from a boxer set for a comeback to a maverick priest, and a CEO whose company is mired in scandal to a forensic anthropologist investigating murder.