There are some people that stay with me long after I've written about them. It's one of the best things about journalism; getting to truly hear another person's story and spending time retelling it on the page.
All of us have a story, and I believe all of them are worthy of sharing.
One of the people that has remained with me from the short time that I spent with her was someone I met outside the office of the Western Leader newspaper when I was 20 years old.
My boss said; "There's a homeless woman outside. Go and talk to her." We spent an hour or so in a cramped van, surrounded by all her worldly possessions, and she brewed me a tea as we spoke.
I trudged back up the steps of the office and wrote the story. A few months later I got a letter from her via the newspaper, telling me I had clarified something important for her when she read what I had written and this had altered the direction of her life.
Last year I spent time working on a book with a woman called Gwen Young-James. After interviewing her, I somehow became her mentor, editor, advisor, publicist and the person that arranged the publication of the memoir that followed our interview, A Life Well Lived.
She established the first bed and breakfast in the coastal NZ town of Whitianga near where I live, and later moved to America - blagging her way into work for some of the country’s wealthiest and most influential people.
This included Walter and Leonore Annenberg, who regularly hosted presidents and royalty on their sprawling 200-acre estate, and who hired Gwen as a cook. Gwen had no formal training and wrote her own references (with no formal letterheads of course: "I'm from New Zealand - we don't have letterheads in New Zealand," she told the doubters), but proved herself to be a hard-working and trustworthy member of staff and a willing and quick learner.
It was the 1980s and, under the guidance of a great Italian chef who had once cooked for the Queen Mother, she was “like a sponge soaking up the knowledge every day”, and would cook and serve food for Prince Charles and President Ronald Reagan among the guests at the estate.
Reagan, she says, was first and foremost an actor, with great charisma that helped endear him to the nation. But it was his wife Nancy who was the strength and the brains in the relationship, she told the audience at her book launch.
Reagan was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease in 1994 at the age of 83, but as has been speculated by others that knew him, Gwen says he did show signs of the illness long before that time. “He would say to me ‘Gwen, quick can you help me find this before Nancy comes’ because he didn’t want her to know he’d forgotten.”
After some time working for the Annenbergs, Gwen worked for Marvin and Barbara Davis who at the time owned 20th Century Fox. They were wealthy beyond comprehension to New Zealander Gwen. She writes of Barbara owning three necklaces worth $3 million each, and the couple had his and hers Rolls Royce golf carts for getting about the estate. But she never let them down and she never changed who she was. She would command Barbara to stand on a stool so she could fix the hem on a ball gown. She cleaned as well as cooked, never once muttering 'I don't do windows'.
Writing the book came easy to Gwen. I now know that if you want to write a book, you must always just start, and not give up. No book is ever written by the fearful person who lets doubt get in the way of filling the page.
Many people (including me) have a book they would like to write but it takes courage, determination and sheer force of will to keep it going.
There can often be a wide difference between the story that forms inside your head and the words that appear on the page, as any writer will tell you. Gwen says the writing bit was easy, but I know from experience that’s often not the case.
Gwen began with hand written pages, starting in chronological order from her earliest childhood memories. She found a supportive friend to type up her notes and would then email me her chapters.
Whilst her version of the book began at the beginning of her life, it was obvious to me that the book needed a hook for the reader, and I re-ordered the chapters so that the story begins with the arrival of President Reagan to the Annenberg estate where Gwen was working as a cook.
Gwen has printed 2000 copies of A Life Well Lived and is speaking with a large American book store chain about publishing her book in America, which will require huge print runs.
She has joined the New Zealand Author's Association and says her book will profile in their prestigious magazine in August. “They were amazed that I had achieved so much in such a short time, they said others had taken years.”
This was her first attempt at writing a book, my first attempt at editing one, and so we have both been challenged by the ups and downs of the process but I have personally been inspired by her tenacity.
Gwen does Zumba every day, she breeds bichon poodle puppies, and she goes on regular cruises with her sister and daughter. And with her 80th birthday coming up, it will be on a cruise ship that she will research her next book. There is nothing that holds her back from asking for advice and help, which she receives gratefully and then just gets on with it.
“Believe in yourself," says Gwen. "Eat healthily, exercise, and surround yourself with interesting, positive people.”
It's this philosophy that gave Gwen her story.
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