Jane Caro’s tiny hands are never still. They slice the air, slam surfaces. A counter-argument can be dismissed with a flick of the wrist. “When I was on Q&A years ago someone put a tweet up on the screen that I thought was hilarious,” she says. “They said, ‘her tiny, tiny hands are driving me crazy’. I do have very small hands, and I wave them around.” Right now, in a quiet café in Narembun, on the corner of one of North Sydney’s bougainvillea-edged suburban streets, those energetic hands with nails painted deep pink to match her lipstick, threaten to send a glass of water flying across the table at any moment. “I use my hands to draw the thoughts out of my head somehow,” she says. “If you made me keep my hands down, I’d find it really hard to talk.”
Those ever-restless hands could be a metaphor for the woman herself. Former advertising executive, now columnist, public speaker, author, novelist, lecturer, social commentator, and broadcaster, Jane Caro is prolific. She released her memoir, Plain-Speaking Jane, last August, and was lined up five for different events at the upcoming Sydney Writer’s festival. She was a panelist the previous week on Q&A, one of numerous appearances on the political/current affairs program. She is now “really getting into” her third novel, last of a trilogy for young adults starring Queen Elizabeth I. She just finished the first lot of filming for a television program for ABC Compass, which looks at gender relationships between fathers and daughters, mothers and sons, and will go to air in September. “I like doing these simple things, not fancy, not high concept at all,” she says. “A bit like my memoir, you know, an ordinary life. That’s what I’m interested in, ordinary.”
Jane Caro is just as she appears on television, or in her writing – impassioned, warm and witty. Her default tone is “emphatic”, and her strikingly large eyes widen and narrow with the rise and fall of her voice. She makes strong eye contact. Her sentences are highly enunciated. These are the techniques of a seasoned public speaker, or an actor. She did, in fact, enjoy acting on stage as a hobby while studying English Literature at Macquarie University. However, she has never had training in either field, and swears she doesn’t practice in front of the mirror. “No. I’ve never had media training, I’ve never practiced, I’ve never done Toastmasters, or Toastmistress, or anything like that. I believe very strongly I need to be me as I am, good, bad…” She also says she doesn’t get nervous. “Because I think, the worst thing that can happen is that someone will criticise me, or I’ll be wrong. And it’s like, oh well, it’s not like that hasn’t happened a million times before.”
When her publisher asked her to write a memoir, she protested that she hadn’t done anything worth writing about. “Because I have lived a pretty ordinary life. I haven’t climbed Everest, I haven’t won an Olympic Gold Medal.” However, her publisher argued that it was this very reason she should write it, and in hindsight she agrees. “Most people don’t live that kind of out-of-the-box life. And therefore we struggle with feeling that we’ve lived this not very important life. And actually I don’t agree with that at all.”
The first child of parents who were, “very-forward thinking”, Jane Caro’s family immigrated to Sydney from Britain in 1963, when she was five, and she grew up in the peaceful northern Sydney suburb of Frenchs Forest. Her parents encouraged debate, and she was taught from an early age to speak her mind, although this was not a quality that always endeared her to her teachers or peers. In her memoir, she wrote, “I thought of myself as a failure, irritating, unlikeable.” And, she says now, “I think I was correct in thinking that I annoyed people. I think people felt I was stepping out of my box and getting ahead of myself, and how dare I have opinions and how dare I feel free to express them. And it bewildered me.”
After graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in 1977, she began what would become a 35-year career in advertising. She worked for some of the most prestigious agencies in Sydney, including the Campaign Palace, JWT, and Saatchi & Saatchi, winning awards for her creative work. However, rarely did she feel adequately valued, Saatchi & Saatchi being the exception. For this she blames rampant sexism in the industry. Writing her memoir, she says laughing, was a bit of revenge.
“I wasn’t wanting to take revenge on individuals, I wanted to take revenge on a system that says that as a woman you have to work twice as hard, and even if you do well, we’ll find ways to slap you down… you are going to have to prove yourself every single day, over and over again, and we still won’t believe that you’re any good at what you do.”
Plain-Speaking Jane is written with a light-hearted touch but it is, at times, painful. She details the years she spent dealing with an anxiety neurosis, “which was a florid one”, as well as the serious illness and near-death of her infant daughter. However, she says she does not feel laid bare. Instead, sharing her experiences have made her feel the least lonely, as there are so many people who can relate. “There’s this obsession that you can’t wash your dirty laundry in public. You can, and it comes out clean.”
Now, Jane Caro says, she is free from the need to please. She objects to the way society teaches young woman in particular to seek approval. “I think young women are taught that it’s really important that you are approved of by everybody. It’s a crock of shit, you never will be.” She also believes the pressure of striving for greatness can be detrimental. “People say good is the enemy of the great. But I actually think great is the enemy of the good. People feel, I have to be great, or I shouldn’t try at all.”
She says the secret to success is to not overthink.
“All fear is anticipation. If you don’t anticipate, it doesn’t mean the terrible thing won’t happen, it means you won’t have to waste all that time and energy trying to pre-deal with something that may not happen. I’m always saying to my daughters, don’t anticipate. It will be as it is. Just go do it.”
In the session, A Perfectly Imperfect Life, at the Festival yesterday, she talked about her life in advertising, her role as a mother and her battles with anxiety.