Joy Cowley is truly a living legend, and it was a privilege to be at this final event of NZ
Festival Writer’s Week. John Allen is himself a great speaker, and it was wonderful to hear the obvious admiration in his voice as he spoke with Cowley about her life and career to date.
Allen had a chat with one of Joy Cowley’s friends before coming to interview her, and she described her friend thus: “When I think of Joy, I think of Yoda: he is old, he is wise, he is strong, he is serene, he has seen it all, done everything, and loves it all.” Is this how Joy Cowley sees herself, asked Allen.
Cowley says, “I’m a very big container filled with stuff that’s come from other people, other places. There’s something within me that wants to process what people have given me. I relate to the world most strongly as a mother. But as far as looking in the mirror; as far as I’m concerned, there’s nothing there.”
Cowley’s early life was covered briefly in her autobiography from 2010, Navigation: A Memoir. She has long been a risk-taker, she rode motorbikes, and was one of the first female Tiger Moth pilot in the country. There were frequent references throughout the chat to Cowley’s enjoyment of life on the wild side. She bungy-jumped to celebrate her 65th birthday, and got a tattoo to celebrate her 70th.
Allen wondered about her early reading life. “I was slow to come to reading,” Joy said, “My parents moved around a lot when I was young, I had been to 5 different schools by the age of 7.” At that stage in school, kids were taught reading by phonetics, which made no sense to her. The first book she remembers reading by herself was a picture book called Ping – a marvellous adventure of a duck. “And I finished it and started it again, and the story was the same. This was the first time I’d encountered the constancy of print.”
Her family were great storytellers, but of course stories changed as they grew. “The stability of story is very important, especially if you are from a muddly home, as I am.” When she was about 9, she started telling stories to her sisters, using universal stories but changing the details. These stories were always about powerful children, who could do anything. “I made these into our stories.” Cowley later noted that she wasn’t young as a child – she was the eldest, the responsible one, while her parents were often ill and unpredictable.
Powerless kids empower themselves through stories, says Cowley. “It’s very important that kids are made powerful. In their stories children may solve adults’ problems, but adults can’t solve children’s problems.” To give a child a positive, empowering world in a story is very important.
Cowley uses her lived experience in her fiction. “Fiction writers are dealing with reality, but taking it to another level. They are deconstructing and reconstructing the ingredients of their stories, and pouring them out, making something new.”
After a brief discussion of Cowley’s adult novels, the discussion moved on to young writers using writing as therapy – as Cowley herself did. “You go deep when you are writing. If it is bleak, good – write it, but not for children.” She is concerned by the bleakness in many YA novels. You can empathise, but not sympathise.
Dreams are a recurring theme in Cowley’s writing. “They are important to me, mainly because I remember my dreams. Sometimes they are just the muddle of the day, but then there are messages that take you home to yourself.” There was also a longer discussion about spirituality, and the place of religion in Cowley’s life.
If fascinates Allen that her books have travelled so well around the world, despite their clear kiwi character. Cowley says, “I like to see a strong sense of place in any book. It is important to see where the character is and what the child is doing there. “
As a child, Cowley read so many stories giving children serious messages about being good and responsible. “I used to wish I could be twins so one could be good and one could be bad. There are stories by adults that place adult expectation on children. But my first duty to a reader is to entertain.
“I work with children who are reluctant readers. No one can be tense when they are laughing.”
Her road to publication wasn’t exactly straight-forward. She says, “My writing was always invisible to me. I had no idea of how to evaluate my writing. I didn’t know until I got some feedback, how to begin.” The person who she owes her breakthrough to was Monty Holcroft, who edited The Listener when her first story was accepted – he asked her how many times she had reworked her stories. “Being a writer is one thing, but learning to be an editor is another. I still need a good editor to work on my manuscripts. I very easily go into self-doubt.”
Allen wondered about her eponymous characters snake and lizard – are they Cowley and her husband Terry Coles? “Yes” she says, “I firmly believe that friendship is not made of sameness, but the accommodation of differences.” They married in mid-life, which was the right time for them – and now they are a unit. In Snake and Lizard, Terry is represented by snake and Joy is represented by Lizard. Joy Cowley and Gavin Bishop are currently working on a third in the series, to be called Helper and Helper, which she then read an excerpt from.
In contrast to Sally Gardner about the UK education system, Joy Cowley loves the kiwi education system. New Zealanders are in the top 10 in the world in many different areas, because our education system encourages individual potential. There issomething in the New Zealand character that will give anything a go, and that will persist.
Take heed, Elizabeth Heritage – Joy Cowley loves rats! The Road to Ratenburg is her next Gecko Press publication, about some rats that are made homeless. A bit like Pilgrim’s Progress, apparently – but for rats.
This was a fantastic look into the mind of a legend. I was second in the signing queue, with my well-loved copy of Just One More. It will be Cowley’s 80th birthday this year, and to celebrate this, everybody who attended received a greeting card from Gecko Press, featuring a print of one of Gavin Bishop’s illustrations for the next Snake & Lizard book.
Attended and reviewed by Sarah Forster
NB: I have just gone to Nielsen to find something by Joy Cowley, and come up with 1480 hits for her author name. Now that is a publishing backlist!
Booksellers NZ has been privileged to attend and report on twenty-five world-class events over the last four days. I’d like to give a huge shout-out to Elizabeth Heritage, who bore a full load beginning last Tuesday with Henry Marsh; to Sarah McMullan, whose account of the Robert Dessaix event was fantastic, and to Emma Shi, who attended the more poetry-focused events on the programme. Thank-you also to Kathryn Carmody and Claire Mabey, for being amazing organisers; and to the Radio NZ bloggers, Charlotte Graham and Ellen Falconer, who did an incredible blow-by-blow account of all the activities of the weekend.
Now we have the Auckland Writer’s Festival to look forward to!