Feature Articles / Sarah Armstrong remembers Jesse Blackadder

‘With her death we have all lost the books she will now never write … and I have lost the truest and best writing friend I could imagine. ‘ Author Sarah Armstrong remembers her friend and writer Jesse Blackadder.

Twenty-two years ago, I resigned from my job as a journalist at the ABC and moved to a valley near Mullumbimby in northern NSW. I was determined to write a novel.

I wasn’t all that surprised to find that writing a novel was hard. But I was surprised how much I craved the company and conversation of other writers.

Then I met Jesse Blackadder. We met in Byron Bay at a famous share house, Coolalie, that sits on a lush hill overlooking the town, and I still remember the moment we were introduced in the kitchen.

Like me, Jesse had just moved to the north coast. She had two unpublished novels in her bottom drawer and a determination to write and publish.

That first evening we sat on a red velvet couch and talked for hours, and soon after, formed our first writing group. For the next 22 years Jesse and I were in a writers’ group together. The size and shape of the group changed, other writers came and went, but we two were always there.

Jesse and Sarah

Jesse died on 10 June this year, at the age of 56, six months after a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer.

A writing friendship is a very particular kind of friendship and allows for an intimacy unlike any other. Maybe that’s due to the vulnerability that comes with sharing early drafts, rejections and bad reviews, or maybe it’s just sharing with someone the ineffable, consuming joy in crafting story. Maybe it’s having someone to roll around with in books and words and ideas.

I think that in the best writing friendships or groups, there’s a kind of pact you enter, or that is shaped over time.  A pact to take care of each other but not to shy away from honest feedback.

She was often the first one brave enough to say the hard stuff if something about the group structure or dynamic was not working. And she gave forthright – if diplomatic – feedback on others’ writing.

She kept track of where I was at with my writing. In recent weeks I’ve trawled through our many hundreds of emails and texts (thank god I am not a deleter) and there she is, again and again, emailing to ask after a meeting with a publisher, checking in on my writing day or sharing an article on writing.

She let me hitch a ride on her enthusiastic professional development – telling me about classes and grants, workshops and books. Half of my how-to-write books are recommendations from Jesse. And once we’d read them, we’d get together over cups of ginger tea to dissect what the authors had to say.

At her home in Mullumbimby, she hosted big soirees for local women writers. It might sound simple: sending an email to 20 writers she knew were tucked away in the nearby valleys and villages, offering them a cup of tea and a chance to connect. But the impact of those events was far reaching; they helped create an enduring network of north coast writers and seeded other writers’ groups.

Jesse’s great natural warmth meant that she made myriad connections in the world of literature (something that became clear when she was close to the end of her life and hundreds upon hundreds of people sent their well wishes). She was always willing to connect someone to just the right grants officer, or publisher, or freelance publicist, or photographer or other author. ‘Here,’ she’d say. ‘I’ll flick you an introduction email.’ 

With her death we have all lost the books she will now never write, her partner Andi has lost her beloved, and I have lost the truest and best writing friend I could imagine.

Jesse Blackadder, 6 June 1964 – 10 June 2020


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