July 7th, 2023Words in Winter guest speaker Jon Faine
Words: Donna Kelly
Jon Faine left the ABC after 20 years as morning radio host in September 2019 – just a few months before Covid hit.
Used to a busy life, he had plenty lined up. First there were publishers knocking at the door looking for a memoir – to which he said no.
“I told them I was not going to leave a job I loved and immediately start reliving it, I wanted to look forward through the windscreen, not into the rearview mirror.”
A few gave up but eventually Jon agreed to write a “thinly disguised memoir” about a disputed deceased estate – with materials he had been collecting for four decades.
The book, Apollo & Thelma, A True Tall Tale, published last year, is the story of the Mighty Apollo, a strongman and circus performer and his sister, Thelma, the publican at Top Springs in the NT for more than 20, who died in 1981.
To tell their story, Jon says, he must tell some of his. But back to Covid.
“I had been collecting materials for this story for 40 years and whenever I found stuff that was relevant I put it in this box and tucked it away for later. Or I might meet someone I thought could add to it and would put in a cassette in those days. I had a lot of oral history. And it was one of those backburner things I could do when I retired.
“Eventually when I did leave the ABC I had a number of things lined and then because ofr Covid they all collapsed. There was one time when I had absolutely nothing in my diary except a dentist’s appointment. That was it for the rest of my life and for someone who has been really busy that is actually quite confronting. I don’t mind telling you I got a bit miserable and felt sorry for myself and retreated into my shed where I started pulling things apart – I play with cars.
“But after a week or two I gave myself a kick up the arse, told myself to get a grip and to find things to replace the ones that had vanished. So I climbed up a ladder, pulled out the box and started going through it. I thought if I am ever going to do it, now is the perfect time, and if not now, when. So I got myself an office at the Abbotsford Convent and put in a second standup desk and acomputer and I used to lock myself in the room. The offices there are the old nun’s bedrooms and the walls are about a million metres thick and they are absolutely silent. Just read things, whole lots of books and interviewed people over the phone to fill in the gaps and it was very therapeutic. It was the opposite of what I used to do and for someone whose entire working life had been talking to people all week it was pretty different and probably good for me in hindsight.”
Jon said he delivered his first draft to his publisher who read it and said the first third was fine but then it fell apart. That was when Jon’s father died. The second draft was returned with the comment that the first two thirds were good but then…and that was when Jon’s mother died. Both were in their 90s “and it was horrible but it’s what happened”.
Jon was also told to give more of himself in the book which he found difficult as a private person and very much in charge during his radio work of how much he shared of his personal life. But he says publishers exist to save authors from themselves and editors “to tell you are not as good as you think you are”. “Once a book is printed it can’t be fine tuned – fresh eyes are vital.”
Jon said he was happy with the finished book but Apollo’s sons and Thelma’s nephews are not despite being interviewed on the record. Apollo, says Jon from his many interviews and personal knowledge was extremely vain, and Thelma, who he never met, was widely known in the 50s, 60s and 70s as a racist redneck.
“The sons are not happy with the final product. They view their father and aunt differently to everybody else. I describe their father in very complimentary terms but also as vain and they are furious that I have sullied his memory, yet he was the vainest person I have ever met. Families are complicated but I am really sad about that. I asked the oldest son if he would launch the book and he said no, he couldn’t do it.”
Jon, who also wrote a travel book about journeys with his son back in 2012, From Here To There, said he had no plans for another book but “you never say never”.
Currently he is working half-time at the University of Melbourne and “pretty much working harder than I have ever been”.
At 67 he says he is too busy and young to retire and it’s also not a good idea to go from “100 miles at hour to zero – a lot of people who retire are miserable”.
He left the ABC, a lifestyle, because he was tired of waking up at 4.15am and also wanted to choose his own time of stepping away. “Some people never recover from that shock when they get tapped on the shoulder. I never wanted to be one of those and I am quite saddened by what is happening at the ABC now but that is someone else’s problem.”
Jon is the guest speaker at Words in Winter and will be in conversation with Marieke Hardy at The Palais-Hepburn on Saturday, August 26.
He first met Marieke at her grandfather Frank Hardy’s funeral, just one of the many stories in his book, but said he had talked many times since. As to their August conversation, Jon said he had no wish to try and decide where Marieke would take that – “it could be as unstructured as my mind or as creative as hers”.
“Marieke is going to interrogate me and anyone who has been on the other side of a conversation with Marieke would be very brave to predict where it might go and I am not that brave. I have know her a very long time, she was just a teenager at the funeral, but then to reconnect in her glittered, celebrated media life and to host her in the ABC studio many, many times over the years is nothing short of a delight. When they said would you come and speak at our festival and we will ask Marieke as well, I just thought how wonderful that would be. I am really looking forward to me.”
Jon said he was also a regular visitor to “your delightful neck of the words as long as I can remember” and Hepburn was a go-to destination for holidays.
“So also to be invited to come and speak in a community that has been so consistently a place we have visited is just lovely and it doesn’t get much better.”
“These regional festivals are a really important part of the cultural life of a town or regional or state and they happen all over the place. They are a wonderful celebration of your community and what it has to offer and it is great to be asked to be invited to me a small part of it.” Link: www.wordsinwinter.com