Profile: Susan Duncan, author, former Women's Weekly editor

Profile: Susan Duncan, author

When Woman's Day executive editor Jo Wiles needed a story on Ita Buttrose following the iconic Cleo founder's appearance on Australian Story, she speed dialed Susan Duncan. Though retired from the world of glossy magazines, Duncan knows her Itas and Qs like nobody's business.  

"I sat down and I did it in two hours and thought, ‘I can still do this!”," says Duncan when we meet for a morning coffee. "Because I’d had such a long association with Ita, I didn’t have to go back through a million files. It was quite fun – an adrenaline rush."

Once a journo, always a journo.

After opting out of tertiary Law studies, Duncan carved out an impressive 25-year career in print and radio journalism, rising to edit The Australian Women's Weekly and New Idea. Her first job was on fashion trade publication Ragtrader, then owned by Rupert Murdoch, which pleased the genteel sensibility of her mother, but it was the sniff and whiff of hard daily news permeating the building that she couldn't resist.

"I never gave up knocking on doors to get into daily newspapers and finally I drove this man at the Melbourne Sun completely mad and he rang me up one day and he said, ‘I’ve got a cadetship for you… in the women’s department’. I visualized hard-hitting news, and I thought, ‘Oh, that’s not really what I want.’"

Still, her boss, Patricia Jarrett, a champion athlete and former sportswriter who transformed Murdoch's women's pages into a respectable vehicle for contemporary women's issues, was tough and trained her "magnificently". Now in the world of newspapers, she rubbed shoulders with front-page by-liners at the Phoenix Hotel across the street where she got wind of the political turmoil unravelling in South Africa.

"There was a shocking argument about Apartheid, which was a big issue," she says. "I thought, ‘I could go there and see for myself what this is all about’. I saved my money and went to South Africa and got a job on The Cape Times."

Though she'd grown up running amok around the Victorian Migrant Camp where her father worked, her wide-eyed naivete was soon tempered by entrenched hostilities, for the most part not overt or deliberate, but "the way people who lived there had always lived."

Following a horrendous bus crash, she rushed into the newsroom and said, 'We've got to get somebody out there'. The News Editor turned to her and said, 'Blacks or whites? If they're blacks, we won't go there'. It was then that she decided to leave. 

"It was actually quite a liberal newspaper, but there was just this different political system that I couldn’t see was going to change for a long, long, time. I was 20 and totally idealistic – had no idea of reality. And I’d grown up in this privileged world called Australia, where you could just hang around and make things good and everything would be good. I left and went to London and worked as a receptionist for Reuters."

In London, reading radio reports for "the colonies", she became acquainted with the hierarchical class system; the chasm between the upstarts from the colonies and the aristocracy. Then, in New York, she had to adapt to another culture; one that did not appreciate people who flitted from one job to the next. In 1982, after working at ACP's New York Bureau, she returned to Australia and worked on The Daily Telegraph.

"I wrote a daily column for them – a gossip column – which I loathed and detested," she says. "I’d lived in New York where the libel laws are really lax, and rational, whereas the Australian libel laws are not rational. Not that I wanted to slander or anything like that, but I felt really inhibited. Also, there wasn’t the culture of gossip then as there is now. In America, there was a whole culture which was semi-respectable; it was a society thing. It just wasn’t for me. It was too quick, it was too short, I like to spend time writing, I like to spend time thinking and I loved to spend time researching."

Duncan then went to New Idea (then owned by Murdoch) before being lured to The Weekly, were she stayed for nearly nine years, rising from Chief Reporter to News Editor and finally Editor. She was fired by Nene King.

"At the time that it happened, it was absolutely devastating, but in hindsight, I think she was right," says Duncan. "The first thing I did when I was made editor and plonked behind the desk was to assign myself an overseas assignment, because I couldn’t stand being in the office; it was just boring behind a desk. I didn’t like the nitty-gritty of dealing with advertisers; I just wanted them to go away. When you’re an editor, you have to walk the highwire between making the magazine profitable while remaining loyal and true to your readers. It’s very difficult… I still can’t sell. And you have to sell as an editor. If somebody said to me, 'where can I buy that shirt?', I’d take it off and give it to them. It’s not in my nature to be able to sell. But you have to do it."

She says her role at the Weekly was "dog-hard" work, far from the glamorous image portrayed by Ita and her ilk, seeing her check cover proofs at 8pm and again at midnight and bidding on stories out of London and New York at 4am in the morning. "It's insane," she says. "No one can do it and stay sane."

What's more, all the while Duncan was juggling deadlines, her husband (also a journo) and brother were both gravely ill with cancer. "This is going on at the same time that someone is ringing you up saying, ‘Do you want to bid on this Michael Jackson pedophilia story?’. And you’re thinking, ‘I don’t care; I just don’t care.’"

Two years after losing her brother, and then her husband, within three days of each other, Duncan finally said farewell to her career. "I couldn't get out of bed one morning," she says. "It was a frightening moment, because you think that what you've got will go on forever. I'd been in journalism for 25 years and you think that's going to be it, and then all of a sudden you wake up and you don't have to go anywhere and you then have to start to build a new life... a different life."

It's this different life – the "unexpected life" – that laid the foundation for her first book, Salvation Creek. Where Ita has been reserved in talking about her private life, Duncan has a no-holds-barred approach. We find a woman daydreaming about being dead at her work desk who gets involved with a married man and then finds a lump in her breast only to be heartlessly dumped over dinner. Her raw honesty – and dry humour – has resonated with readers; Salvation Creek has sold in excess of 100,000 copies.

"I lay there one night, thinking, what door have I opened? I’ve laid out my life on a marble slab and I’ve handed everyone a scalpel. When you don’t think anyone’s going to read it, you are completely uninhibited. And I thought, this is terrifying, but it’s not too late – I can still withdraw the whole thing. So I came back to it and sat down and thought, I could get rid of this. But then I thought, what’s the point? If you’re not honest, if you don’t tell the truth, if you don’t tell it like it really is – we all have insane ideas of reality (I’d spent a lifetime building up this reality in a way, which I thought was aspirational) but there is a hard-core bottom line. People do die, people do get sick, I got breast cancer – things do happen that are out of your control. Nobody has a free ride through life."

Duncan is statuesque in person; intimidating, even, but there is also a softness and compassion about her. It's her vulnerability – the fragility of a stoic, dogged, reporter who adopts two menacing puppies for company  – that's so endearing in print, and which opens her up to wonderful new relationships in the secluded surrounds of Pittwater, where she makes her new home and also finds love (her second husband, Bob, lost his wife, Barbara, to cancer).

The writing in Salvation Creek, as with her first novel The Briny Cafe, is short, sharp, succinct – full of likeable characters and hearty meals (another passion of Duncan's is cooking), though there is a greater sense of Duncan's spiritual searching in Salvation Creek; she is keen to know how one determines what is right from what is wrong, and if her cancer is the result of making bad choices.

"I want to know about the mind and spirit now. I want to understand why some people wake up joyful each day and others struggle out of bed. Why some people see the good in the most devastating situations and others see the bad in the best. Why do some people die too young? Why does success fall at someone's feet while others slog and get nowhere? Are there heroes – or are we all flawed? Is it luck? Is it timing?"

There is a gleeful little moment for Christian readers when she tells of her grandmother, who once passed her a Bible and said, 'It's got some good tips for living', though she also looks into Buddhism via her friend Sophie and a nun who visits the ailing Barbara by her bedside. Duncan is confronted by her own faulty humanity and desperately seeks to right her life, worn out by the demands of career, the cancer that surrounds her and her choices.

"I'm looking for a good fairy to come along, tap me on the shoulder with her wand and make all the bad habits dissolve into dusty, leaving in their wake only joy and happiness," she writes. (And, oh, how the little Christian within wants to suggest, "How about Christ! He's no fairy but will do a right good cleaning up job and set you on the right path). Deeply reflective, she has some pearls of wisdom to offer herself, such as "once you stop thinking about yourself all the time, the world opens up again". (And we know that God's law is written on the hearts of men.)

A reporter to her core, when we meet she's curious as to why a blogger (what is that anyway? and how do you earn a living? you have to buy a house!) would be interested in meeting to talk about her new book. Well, there's three reasons: one is that you are the former editor of our country's highest selling women's magazine; another is we share a love for Pittwater, where I spent my teen years; the last is we both value community.

"I love Pittwater, I love our community, I love the way we live, and I really feel this is the place that saved my life. I just want to keep writing about it, to expose what can be so good about life," she says. Amen to that.

The door left open for a sequel to The Briny Cafe, Duncan is already to work from a room within the house once owned by poet Dorothea Mackellar. "She’s a bit overwhelming as a spirit in the house," she says. But you get the impression novel writing is just the right pace for both Duncan and this place.

"I have a community’s support and I know that I’m not influenced by advertisers or bosses – I have a publisher and a deadline but I’m allowed to run my own race and to essentially be true to myself, and that is the recipe for contentment. If you know your motives are good, you can sleep like a baby."

See also:
Book Shelf - The Briny Cafe

Girl With a Satchel


Footprints Australia said...

I just finished reading Susan's book "Salvation Creek" a couple of weeks ago. I really appreciated her raw honesty, warts & all approach in her book. The only thing missing was photos! So I am happy that now I know what she looks like!