A conversation with Joy Cowley

A conversation with Joy Cowley

Parents should know how important it is to read to children. In particular, I’d really encourage dads to read to their children – especially to their sons! Showing them that it’s not just girls who read (because in New Zealand I think it’s mostly the mothers who read to the children) makes a big difference to boys’ literacy.

By Tracy Carter

One of New Zealand’s most-prolific and most-loved children’s authors, Joy Cowley, recently chatted with Grapevine about her extra-ordinary writing career, her inspiration and her advice for up-and-coming writers …

Grapevine: When you were a child, what did you imagine you’d do for a living?

Joy Cowley: As a young girl I was full of ideas of things that I’d like to do! I loved drawing – and very often writers also do artwork too, because creativity frequently has a number of channels. I used to draw pictures of all of the things I’d love to try. And then I’d shut my eyes, and I’d take my pen and put it down on the paper and try to choose one! At one stage I wanted to be a missionary. At another I wanted to be a violinist – although I’d never touched a violin in my life! And another time I thought it would be wonderful to be able to go to sea, because I used to read books about pirates – until I learned that girls couldn’t join the navy back then!

GV: How did you get started in your career as an author?

Joy: Very slowly (laughs)! In my day, there were no writing schools around, and little help available. I was a slow reader – I was about nine before I started reading, for several reasons (I’d been to about five schools by the time I was seven, so that didn’t help!) But once I’d started, I became an avid reader. I loved stories and started recycling what I was reading in my writing, which soon got the attention of my teachers. 

I was at Palmerston North Girls High School, and when I’d got School Certificate my parents (who were on a pension) wanted me to leave and start working to bring in some money. I mentioned this to my teachers, and I’m not sure what happened, but a week later I was called into the principal’s office. The school had arranged (with my parents’ permission) for me to stay with some people who lived opposite the school – a Baptist minister and his wife. I’d stay with them during the week, and after school I’d work at the local newspaper. I was the editor of the Children’s Page. Can you imagine?! I was only 16 years old! I was over the moon – I just loved that job. 

At the end of the year I was offered a cadetship with the newspaper, and I couldn’t wait to tell my parents. But they refused! My parents thought that all journalists were communists, and I’d been too much under their influence, so that was that. They arranged instead for me to be apprenticed to the local pharmacist. Now, that was hard for a girl who hadn’t done maths and chemistry at school – I had lots to catch up on! But it was also really good for me. While I was full of enthusiasm and imagination and all those creative urges, I didn’t have much discipline. Those years of pharmacy training taught me discipline; and that’s very important for a writer.

After that, I married and had four children in four and a half years. When they were little, I used to write short stories and send them away to the Listener. I thought it would be easy to get published, but it wasn’t!

For two years I sent my stories away – probably once a fortnight – and I received rejection slips in return. It was a long apprenticeship! But here’s the thing: I didn’t know how to edit my stories. So now I tell writers, “Look, don’t do the final editing until you’ve fallen out of love with a story. When you’re no longer emotionally involved, then you can see it objectively.” Even now, if I’m writing something big – a novel or something similar – I’ll leave the final edit for about three months after I’ve finished it. For a short work, I’ll leave that on the computer for several weeks and then begin editing.

Anyway, finally I got a story published. Then another one, then another … and one of those stories, called “The Silk,” was reprinted in an American magazine called Short Story Central, and a Doubleday publisher picked up a copy in Grand Central Station … 

I wrote a series of five novels for Doubleday – my first, Nest in a Falling Tree, was published in 1967 and Roald Dahl made a film from it for his wife. But during that time I was also doing children’s writing, and the children’s writing took over.

GV: You’re truly a wonderful and prolific author! You’ve written everything from novels, to early readers, to picture books, to spiritual reflections … Where do you draw your 
inspiration from?

Joy: I feel a bit self-conscious saying this, but I have a very strong prayer life … that’s how I start each day. What we call God – I believe there’s nothing outside of that. That divine presence is in all of creation. And I believe our relationship with God is that of waves to the ocean – we rise and fall as one. We think we’re separate, but we’re really not. The head will find a map for the journey to the heart, but the heart is where we have this experience of the divine in everything. So that’s very much a part of my life, and it always has been.
GV: What’s your favourite book (that you haven’t written), and why?

Joy: I enjoy a wide range, really, but I suppose my favourite New Zealand children’s book would be Memory by Margaret Mahy. Margaret’s aunt had dementia, and the story was based on her. She was a lovely woman, and Margaret looked after her – she loved her aunt dearly. Memory is about a 14-year-old boy who runs away from home and takes refuge with a woman who has dementia. The book is warm, and loving, and funny – and it really says a lot about relationships.

GV: Do you have a favourite of your own books?

Joy: There are a couple that I still have a strong emotional connection with … 

The Silent One is a book about a deaf-mute boy and a turtle, that’s set in the Pacific. It was made into a film a few years ago now [1985]. And Chicken Feathers, set in the Midwest in the States, is about a boy whose parents have a poultry farm. He has a pet chicken, and it talks – but only to him. The story has humour, as well as an awareness of the boy’s feelings and his growing-up. 

GV: International Literacy Day is coming up in September … how would you encourage parents to improve their children’s literacy?

Joy: Parents should know how important it is to read to children. In particular, I’d really encourage dads to read to their children – especially to their sons! Showing them that it’s not just girls who read (because in New Zealand I think it’s mostly the mothers who read to the children) makes a big difference to boys’ literacy. 

A love of books and reading is caught not taught. If the whole process of learning to read is dull and difficult, children can learn to read and yet not love reading. Try to create a little corner of the house where there’s no TV or other distractions, and try to make it a routine – it doesn’t have to be for long each day, just 15 or 20 minutes. 

Obviously, choose reading material that the child likes! Remember: stories can empower children in ways that they can’t experience elsewhere. The younger they are, the more they’ll experience failure – not being able to do things because they’re too small, because they’re afraid of things that are new, because they’re overlooked … So it’s very important that the child should always be powerful in a book. The child must always be the winner. Boys in particular love action books – stories where the boy gets to be a hero.

GV: Can you tell us a bit about your work for (the Children’s Literature Foundation) Storylines?

Joy: Yes! I’m a patron of Storylines. Back when we first began, we met for a four-day retreat with a group of children’s writers and illustrators. Writers of adult materials had their own meetings, but children’s writers hadn’t had that opportunity. We all had to bring along a suggestion, and mine was to put something free on annually about children’s books. The following year we organised a Storylines Children’s Day at the Auckland Museum. They usually had about a thousand museum visitors on a Sunday, so they expected they’d get about two thousand for the Children’s Day. Well, before the doors opened there were approximately ten thousand people spread all over the lawns, waiting to get in. The place was crowded! But it was a great, great day. So that was the real launch of Storylines. 

I’m in my eighties now, and I’m not as active in it as I used to be. But there are lots and lots of younger writers involved. I’m aware that we do very little on our own; we work better in a like-minded group. What comes out of a like-minded group is much greater than the sum of its parts. 

GV: Do you have a favourite quote or saying?

Joy: I have a few, actually. My favourite spiritual quote comes from a fifteenth century monk. He had the popular name of anonymous (laughs). He said “Find thyself – ‘tis half the path to God, then lose thyself – and the rest of the way is trod.” Another one I like is ‘Happiness and unhappiness are the high and low tide on the sea of contentment.’

GV: What advice would you give to young writers and would-be authors?

Joy: To young writers, I’d say you have to be both a writer and an editor. The first thing to do is get an idea and plan a story around that idea. The idea is not a story in itself – it’s the seed of a story, and you need to work with it. Once you’ve got the whole story – beginning, middle and end – you have to put on another hat and become an editor. That isn’t just about checking spelling and punctuation; it’s about asking questions like, ‘Have you got all the information you need in the story?’ and ‘Did you start before the real beginning and go on after the end?’ 

Sometimes writing is a bit like running a race – you’ve got to do warming-up exercises to get into the story, and sometimes you’ll find that you’ve run on past the finishing tape! You’ve got to pay attention to your beginnings and endings.

In writing workshops, I like to take people back to memories of their childhood that have a lot of emotion attached to them. If it’s a positive memory, I encourage them to write it down as the basis of a story for children. A story that’s real to them is going to be real to the reader, and some lovely stories have come out of that process. There was a Jewish lady in one of my workshops, and she had a wonderful story of how she and the other children kept the rabbi busy at their front door while the rest of the family pushed the Christmas tree into the garage!

When I do writing workshops for children, I get them to focus on something that they’ve done recently. It could’ve been a holiday, or a trip into town to do some shopping or something. What they have will be very sparse, so I hone in on detail … I ask them, for example, what did they eat, what did they see, what did they hear? You get some lovely stories from children when they do that. The life is in the detail.

GV: What book are you reading right now?

Joy: I’m reading a book about spiritual reflection by Thomas Merton – it’s called Seeds of Contemplation. I actually read it before, years ago, but it’s interesting how, reading it now, I’m coming to a deeper understanding of what he’s talking about.

That happens with books!