Joy Cowley sees herself as a wife, mother, grandmother and great-grandmother. For as long as she can remember, she has written. New Zealand readers from young to old will be familiar with her stories and her characters. Mrs Wishy-Washy, Agapanthus Hum, Greedy Cat, The Wild West Gang, and Shadrach are just some of the characters that have graced Kiwi bookshelves over the years.
NZ Booklovers recently had the great fortune of catching up with Joy about writing, family and retirement.
What career would you have chosen in a parallel universe, if you hadn’t been a writer?
Do I have only one choice? In three parallel universes I would be (a) a teacher of young children, (b) an artist (painting) and (c) a joiner who makes fine furniture.
What is your writing process like? Do you have any special quirks or superstitions?
No quirks. Generally there is a need for solitude and silence but I have written a story on a brown paper bag in a crowded airport. I usually hold a story internally like a pregnancy, until it is ready to be born, then it comes with a rush. After it’s downloaded, then comes a long process of editing and refinement.
You’ve said you started writing for your son, who had difficulty learning to read. What kept you doing it?
I started with my son, and then other reluctant readers. Teachers used some of the stories and asked if I could get them published. In the late 1970s I committed 5 years to work on “Story Box” an early reading programme. Writing for children was so much fun, and so rewarding in effect, that I really haven’t gone back to writing for adults.
How has being a mother, grandmother and great-grandmother shaped you as a writer?
Without this experience I would not be writing for children. As adults we all have every age within us, but it needs to connect with the child out there. I tell aspiring authors that if they write for one child they know very well, they will get the age and language level right.
As a new mum, I (as I’m sure other mum’s with young babies who aspire to write will agree) am in total awe of your ability to have four small children and publish novels at the same! What’s your secret?
I think “was” is the operative word in the last sentence. I had four children before I was 25, and I seemed to have boundless energy. Young children are in bed early, and I often had evenings to myself. Writing time!
You’ve said: “For me, the Marlborough Sounds hold the stuff of legend, and away from this place, I lose something of my identity.” (I believe) you’re living in Featherstone now, how does this change your writing identity?
There is a definite feeling of coming home to myself when I go back to Fish Bay in the Marlborough Sounds. There the environment is defined by sunrise and sunset, high tide and low tide, and no internet access. In a place of natural beauty, wild with growth, it is very easy to write. We go there in January and each holiday has produced a children’s novel. This is because I have support and encouragement from Terry, my kind and patient husband. I think every writer needs a “Terry.”
How does it feel to receive so many fan letters from your young readers? Do you feel a great sense of responsibility to them?
Yes, of course I feel a great sense of responsibility to children who write letters. They have priority. If a child has to wait 3 weeks for a reply, that seems like an eternity. I do enjoy their letters and keep the treasures, including one from a 9 years old girl who asked the usual questions such as, what is your favourite colour, and then finished with: “Are you still alive?”
With over 600 stories to your name, which one (or series) are you most proud of? Why?
I am still sentimental about the first series, “The Story Box” published by Wendy Pye. There are now about 1100 early reading titles,many of them out of print, but I have also edited about 500 books by other authors. I can’t write outside of my own culture, so have done writing workshops for aspiring authors in countries that didn’t have their own reading programmes. I think it is important that children see themselves authentically in their books.
What are you currently working on?
I am having much pleasure in a new character called “Ted Bear” who represents a child of 2 – 3. Writing for pre-school children is challenging but so enjoyable. I’ve also more or less finished editing my last junior fiction work “Ratenburg” a story about a family of rats who set out on a long and difficult journey, and that is ready for a publisher who has been waiting for it. I think I mentioned that editing takes me a long time. I go through stories many times.
Will you ever retire from writing?
I’m 79 this year and energy is diminishing. I have needed to retire from some writing-related activities, but I expect I’ll go on writing as long as the ideas insist on words. I may not be writing children’s books, though. I facilitate spiritual retreats and these days a lot of my writing goes into those.