On January 20 of this year, Steph Bowe passed away at the age of twenty-five. She had lymphoma. It’s always tempting to describe illness as a war – ‘the battle with cancer’ – but struggling with terminal illness is just that, a daily struggle. Steph described a lot of it on her Facebook page, and then one day the updates stopped.
We heard the news of Steph’s passing from her mum. The Australian writing community was devastated. Steph was one of us. She started out as a talented blogger and young writer, who was shocked and delighted to receive her first publishing deal for GIRL SAVES BOY at only fifteen.
Steph was good at telling teenagers that they could reach for their dreams. She spoke to teenagers at schools and events, giving wisdom and hope. As Aimee Lindorff notes: “She was always personable and personal, sharing confidences about anxieties and experiences in publishing in a way that was powerful for a young audience…She never hid the complexities of juggling a creative life, education, and growing up. She was honest, which made her so relatable.”
Lauren Rosenberg (former Inkys judge) says: “Steph was always so sunny and so very very kind! Steph wasn’t afraid to stand out – she wore the most colourful and bright clothing. ALL THIS COULD END was part of the 2014 Inky Awards longlist, and as a judge, it kickstarted me into reading YA with the best type of vengeance, and I will always be grateful for that.”
Emily Booth (PhD candidate and bookseller) says: “Steph was the guest author at one of my YABookmeet events after Night Swimming released, and unbeknownst to me, one of my teenage attendees was a massive fan of her. At the event, I interviewed Steph as usual…when I opened it up for questions from attendees, this teenager nervously introduced themselves…Amazing everyone, Steph remembered the teenager from some interactions they’d had online before, and was even able to remember specific things they’d chatted about!…We were all moved by how much she’d clearly impacted this teenager’s life with her books (and before them, her blog). Steph was so warm and genuine…She had far less time than she deserved, but she still affected so many people for the better.”
Steph was so very young! Imagine, being published at fifteen… What a thrill, but also what a full-on experience. An auspicious beginning – and pressure to continue as you’ve started. But she managed to get above all that. She was a respected member of the Australian YA writing community; people didn’t just admire her for her talent, but for her professionalism and hard work.
Fiona Wood (Take Three Girls) says: “Crossing paths with Steph Bowe at a launch or a festival was always good news. Steph was quiet but confident and she had a lovely sense of humour. As a presenter, she was warm, encouraging and generous. School audiences loved her and so did her colleagues.”
Dani Vee (Words and Nerds podcast) says: “I spoke to Steph in the early days of pod. She was lovely, like talking to an old pal. She was refreshingly honest and vulnerable.”
Steph inspired so many teenage book bloggers and writers, and reminded all of us of what it was like to be secretly scribbling in notebooks as a teenager, hoping against hope that our writing was ‘good enough’.
Jack Heath (300 Minutes of Danger) says: “The most wonderful thing about Night Swimming is how often it up-ends your expectations…One of the most under-rated skills a writer can have is contrast. Night Swimming is silly one minute and sad the next. It can make you gasp with horror with one sentence…and have you laughing in the very next paragraph. And the whole thing is sprinkled with wisdom and insight…[To be a teenage novelist] you have to bounce back from disappointment after disappointment, working incredibly hard for long hours for many years for very little money. [Steph’s] three novels – Girl Saves Boy, All This Could End and Night Swimming – are still in print. I think you should buy one. Buy all three…They are some of the best real-world Australian YA you’ll ever read.”
Steph’s gift was that she made each of us feel like we could be good writers, but above all, nice people.
Last time I caught up with Steph was on a tram. We were both going to Carlton from the State Library, and we quickly got talking about family and life, while squeezed into side seats on the packed tram – I was trying to hold onto all my bags, she was trying to keep her skirt neat. It was hot, and we were both sweating. We laughed about that. It’s ridiculous to think that she’s gone. Unbelievable. Surely she is just around the corner, waiting with a wave and a smile, wearing one of her beautiful dresses, ready to sit with you and have a chat.
Kate O’Donnell (This One Is Ours) says: “When I think about Steph these days, it’s the little things and the human quirks that come to mind. Her excellent posture, her round, very-Australian vowels, and the almost growly depth to her voice. Silly, maybe, to focus on this. But I like to remember how she took up space, alongside the memories of our conversations and the way she talked about writing, and our last conversation, about music and our mutual love of lady folk.”
Maria Lewis (The Wailing Woman) says: “Separate to her achievements as a writer, as a storyteller, as a creator, Steph Bowe was the kind of person whose presence lingered. You may have met her once, you may have met her in passing, you may never have met her, yet her presence loomed large thanks to her kindness, sweetness and generosity, that allowed everyone to feel like they knew her…It was that same openness that saw people fall in love with her books as they welcomed you into her worlds like you belonged there.”
The month before she passed away, Steph wrote this:
I have always felt so welcomed and at home in the children’s and YA writing community over the past decade (so many people I am so lucky to know), and this year has been no exception. I was absolutely blown away by the amazingly supportive campaign that Nicole Hayes coordinated encouraging people to share about my work and its significance to them in the lead up to Christmas – when I was in a bad way physically and mentally it has buoyed my spirits very much to know that my writing and involvement in YA still means so much to so many people, and that you all went to such an effort to share that made me feel very much like I am still part of your world. I will endeavour to thank you all individually; know for now that I am so appreciative of the kind words and thoughts of everyone.
There are so many others whose support has been so appreciated, among them my Murder theatre family (who I miss every Monday night!). My wonderful boyfriend Jay. My agent of ten years who is unfailingly supportive. My publisher. So many family friends – I have felt the love of not only people who have known me growing up, but the friends and communities and even neighbours around my mum and grandparents. I am sure that all of your kindness and thoughts and prayers count for something, and that will carry me through to getting well with this transplant once and for all. I only hope to be able to provide the same sense of love and support to others should you go through tough times, and pass on all the good vibes.
If I start trying to encompass everything, to thank everyone, it becomes an impossible task because so many people have been so kind, have offered so much support. It feels inadequate to say I’m grateful. But know that I am, and that your thoughts and prayers and healing energies throughout this year have been a source of strength. It is at times like this that you realise how good people are – both in the amount of support and love we have felt from you all, but also the people I would never have otherwise known. Other patients who have been through this difficult experience and remained so positive and encouraging to others, as well as their carers and families. Doctors, nurses and all the other staff doing amazing work going above and beyond to help people get well, day in and day out. You can really connect with people in a much more genuine way when life gets serious, and its something I’m glad to have experienced. It’s hard not to be honest and authentic in times like this. In a way, it’s the really terrible stuff that makes life feel all the more enriched. Every positive moment is such a source of joy when you feel like you’ve been buried in shit.
It was tempting to leave out that last line – the ‘buried in shit’ line – but that was Steph, too. Unfailingly honest. Yes, she could be diplomatic and polite, but in her writing, you could hear the realness. The shit stuff, as well as the good stuff.
Lili Wilkinson (The Erasure Initiative) says: “Steph Bowe was a great writer who had many more stories to tell. I’m devastated we won’t get to read them, but so grateful for the ones we have.”
There is a lot more to say, but sometimes the saying of it makes the memories seem mundane. Nothing about Steph was mundane, although she was part of and engaged with the normalness of life. She was ordinary, but also extraordinary, which is very human.
Steph should have the final word here, so please read this and think of her:
Thank you to all contributors here – much love to you all.