Joy Cowley is one of our most celebrated children's authors and a recipient of the country's highest honour, the Order of New Zealand. At 84, Joy is still writing, but no longer every day. Her main focus now is on caring for her husband Terry, who suffered a serious stroke three years ago. The Weekly catches up with Joy at her Featherston home.
Joy, is it true that at age 11 you helped your father build your family home?
Yes. And what I remember most is that we always had clothes and shoes that were handed down from cousins. We didn't have anything new. When we started working on the house, my parents bought me a pair of overalls and that was the biggest present they could give me because it was something new. I was acknowledged as a builder.
That's a big project for an 11-year-old!
Yes, but because children don't evaluate as adults do, it was just something that I needed to do. I didn't feel resentful of it. I learned skills that I might not have had if we'd been the average family.
In what ways weren't you the average family?
My dad was a carpenter, but he had several bouts of rheumatic fever and he was quite ill. I was the eldest and I was a strong girl, so my dad showed me the different things that he would have done around the house if he'd been able to, like basic woodworking. I could replace window sills, make bookshelves and basic cupboards. I could do basic plumbing and change fuses. My dad taught me how to use a soldering iron. I also learned to cook on a very limited budget because we only had Dad's pension to live off.
How did your career start in writing?
I started writing short stories after I got married and I thought that if I got one story published by the New Zealand Listener, I would die happy. I thought it would be easy, but it took two years. Every story got sent back until one day the editor, Monte Holcroft, who made the Listener a hothouse for young writers, said to me, "How often do you rewrite these?" I never rewrote anything! And that's when I learned how to become an editor. I rewrote the one he'd just sent back and he didn't publish that, but he published my next one.
And then you started writing novels?
Yes, one of my stories was published in a magazine in America. An editor from Doubleday Books read it and wrote to me asking me if I had thought of writing a novel. I hadn't, but I didn't tell her that. My first was Nest in a Falling Tree. It's probably a good thing that I wrote novels before I went into picture books.
Why do you say that, Joy?
Young writers always have stuff that needs to be dealt with. I call it therapy writing and all of my therapy writing went into about five novels for Doubleday. Some of them could have been wrung out, they were so full of tears. But what I was doing was writing out stuff in my life that had never been dealt with. Nest in a Falling Tree was about my first marriage and it was really prophetic. I must have known within me what was going to happen.
What do you mean?
I was still with my husband when I wrote it. I had become pregnant to him at 19 and he hadn't wanted to marry me, but his mother forced the marriage. He told me that I would always be his friend, but he wasn't in love with me, so I agreed that he could go out with other people if he wanted to. That was not a good start to the marriage. We were on a farm, and I'd have to get up and milk the cows on my own because he hadn't come home. I knew what was happening and I tried to deal with it in the best way I could. Eventually, he did meet someone he fell in love with and that was that. They wanted to get married. Now this is where it gets interesting: I persuaded him to go to a marriage guidance counsellor and the first thing we had to do was fill in some personality forms – which revealed that his emotional age was 18. Mine was 40. We were both 30. Now in the book, I'd written about a 40-year-old woman who falls in love with an 18-year-old man. That's projection all the way!
Did you have better luck with your next two marriages?
My second husband, Malcolm, I was married to for 14 years before he died from cancer. He was 25 years older than me and I must admit that when I married him, I thought, "Well, he's not going to leave me for a younger woman." My husband Terry, my first impression of him was one of incredible kindness. We met when he was still a Catholic priest and he would come every morning for an hour to sit with Malcolm when he became very ill. I couldn't have kept Malcolm at home if Terry hadn't done that. If we had met when we were younger, we wouldn't have known how to talk to each other because we're so opposite. We've been married 32 years!
How did you transition to writing children's books?
I began writing for my own children and especially my son, Edward, who wasn't interested in reading. I also began writing for other children in his class who were not very interested in reading and they taught me a lot. These children had tried to read for a while and they weren't prepared to put themselves at risk any more, so if you produced a book, they would look away. So I started doing "story talk" with them, where I would ask them things like what they'd done on Friday night, and they would tell me little things that had happened. I would go in for the detail, then write a story with simple words. No child was ever reluctant to read his or her own story! If they made a mistake, it was never their mistake. It was always because this is a tricky word – it's trying to trick you.
Why is it so important children have positive experiences learning to read?
Because my own experience was so awful. I was nearly 9 before I started reading. It was wartime and a lot of the younger teachers, I learned later, had been taken out to work on the land while the men were away. So older teachers came out of retirement. We had a quite an old teacher and there were about 50 children in the class. I was one of three who was labelled a bad reader and if we made a mistake, the ruler would go around our legs. It was especially awful one day when I knew it was coming and I was so frightened, I wet myself. The teacher got very angry and all the children laughed. I didn't want to go back to school after that. That's why small is always the winner in my books. Small wins through virtue of being courageous, being brave, being funny, being small.
And now you've turned learning to read into something positive for so many children, Joy.
I do hope so. There was one school I went to, to talk to the children, where there was one little boy who was so excited, he couldn't stop jumping up and down. Right before we got started, a teacher made him go outside. I could see him sitting outside the windows with his head bowed, not even looking in. After the talk, I was supposed to go with the teachers for morning tea, but I went outside and sat beside him. I said, "Let's have a story." One of the teachers came out to get me and I said, "No, I'm busy." I hope that boy wasn't punished because we had a lovely time.