A far cry from the celebrity status she enjoys, or rather endures, in the United States where a few years ago newspaper headlines in the San Diego Tribune described her as “The Elvis Presley of kindergarteners.” On that occasion a reporter was spending a day with her and “the children and teachers came pouring out of the school screaming, jumping up and down wanting autographs. This is part of their culture, they are very open and generous,” she says.
Cowley spends between three and six months of each year visiting schools and attending teacher and reading conferences throughout the U.S.
She is much more comfortable with the low key profile she has in NZ and chuckles when remembering an incident in Blenheim. “ I was outside Paper Plus when a woman saw me, and excitedly gathered together her highly embarrassed children saying ‘Who’s this famous author?’ The older one mumbled ‘Margaret Mahy’ and then the youngest made a supreme effort and said ‘I know, it’s Quentin Blake!’”
The children may not have recognised this comfortably cuddly mother of four, grandmother of nine and benefactor of seven spoilt cats but it is highly likely that they cut their reading teeth on at least a few of her stories. To date, Joy Cowley has written six hundred titles for all ages from emergant readers through picture books, chapter books, junior novels and adult fiction.
In the late 1970’s, after a 10 year apprenticeship writing for School Publications, Cowley with the help of editor and reading teacher June Melser, wrote120 stories for the Story Box series to fill a gap for relevant reading materials in NZ schools. Published by Wendy Pye, the books were instantly successful and were soon sold in Australia and the USA. That was just the beginning and today Cowley’s stories and books are a mainstay of NZ’s school reading programme and are in 70% of U.S. schools.
With the Sunshine Book and Story Box series already used in South East Asian schools, Cowley was asked to write some books which were culturally appropriate for young readers there, and this has taken her to Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia and Brunei in recent years. She has also worked in village and township schools in South Africa and views her writing in these cultures as bridging a gap until they develop their own materials. “The real thrust of these visits has been to run writing workshops for teachers and then help shape their stories into graded reading materials for schools. This way children get culturally authentic materials.”
Cowley is particularly interested in writing for children who have difficulty reading but whether writing for Kiwi kids, their American counterparts, Asian or African children, she follows some basic precepts:
“A book should love and affirm a child in its content. Humour is vital. Children can’t be tense about reading if they are laughing. The story should be exciting and I often put a twist at the end. I always make sure that ‘small’ is the winner as children always identify with ‘small’. ‘Big’ never solves ‘small’s ‘problems. ‘Small’ is strong. A book should be like a mirror which tells children how brave and beautiful they are.”
“All of my manuscripts are trialled in schools before I send them to publishers. I do it myself when I can. I once took four stories into a school and one was as flat as flat - it got no energy from the kids. I liked it and sometimes I can salvage part of a story, so I asked what part was boring. One boy said ‘all of it’- so I threw it out.”
Her travels in the States are part promotion and part research. “ I go in as a listener and learner. If I’m writing for American children, I need to be in their schools. The day I’m no longer with children is the day I stop writing for them because the energy flow comes from them and goes back to them.
Over the years Cowley has developed strong relationships with a handful of children through her books. She greatly values these relationships. “Kenny was a crack baby and lives in Canada. He’s been my friend for five years now. There was a teacher who felt he had potential and he showed just a glimmer of interest in my books. Now he’s writing a chapter book about the wonderful powers of ‘Magic Kenny’ and he sends me the chapters.”
Through the night, the fax at Joy Cowley’s house buzzes with letters and drawings from children around the world, itineraries for up coming trips and travel arrangements. Each week she receives about 1000 letters from children in the U.S., U.K., Australia and New Zealand – she replies to them all.
Cowley is frustratingly vague about book numbers sold and awards won (there have been several and she is consistently shortlisted in the NZ Post Children’s Book of the Year Award). However she says three years ago her biggest selling book, ‘Mrs Wishy Washy’, published in 1980, had sold 40 million copies world wide and is still selling more than 100,000 copies per year in the U.S. Her books are available in most countries where English is a first or second language and several have been translated.
While royalties may be only be a few cents per book, it is clear that Cowley is not only successful, but also, very well off. However the oysters are collected from the beach and the wine, more often than not, is Marlborough produced. The high life does not interest Cowley and she quotes St Augustin: “He who possesses a surplus possesses the goods of another.’ We work out a comfortable amount for us to live on and then we recycle the rest.”
A pet project run with husband and ex-priest Terry Coles at Fish Bay, is Arohanui – a retreat house for people in distress. Thirty years ago when her first marriage ended, Cowley says she longed for somewhere to go where she could forget about her problems and be looked after for a while. Arohanui is the fruition of this dream. People come by referral and Terry and Joy offer them simple hospitality.
“Usually the people who come here are in such a bad space that a spiritual experience would be a great luxury. They are just looking for some way to turn off the pain in their minds. The tranquillity and beauty of the bay helps, as well as people being removed from their situations. Quite often people come here and for a start just sleep and sleep and sleep.”
Conversion to Catholicism 17 years ago came after a long journey and was something that Cowley resisted for at least 10 years. “I have always been aware of God. I searched through most Protestant churches – I was never comfortable with anything that made God too small. Catholicism was the last thing I wanted intellectually but when I did become a convert there was a deep feeling of coming home.”
She still does not agree with the church’s views on contraception, unmarried priests and refusal to ordain women. “But these are related to intellectual ideas, not my gut feeling about the spiritual riches of the church.”
However Cowley has not become all pious and God-fearing. “The older I get, the wider I feel the gap is between religious dogma and spirituality. I think religion is necessary but it makes God too small. The function of religion is to provide a path to spirituality but all too often instead of following it, we sit worshipping the sign posts.”
Always interested in the relationship between good and evil; as a child she prayed that God would make the Devil good. “As I grew I realised that if we walk away from anything in our lives, it will follow us. The Protestant tradition is to cut out evil, but whatever is repressed will build up and become strong.
“For me personally the greatest evil would be fear because it breeds ignorance. Fear so limits us. That’s why at 60 with a fear of heights, I went bungy jumping.”
Joy Cowley seems to lead a life of creativity at so many levels but she refutes this: “What is creativity anyway? There is nothing that I am that hasn’t come from someone else. I think that good writers have to be very self absorbed, but my varied life experiences are all so enriching. I wouldn’t want to sacrifice that pleasure to lock myself up in a room and knock my head against a wall. The result of that discipline is very powerful writing and that may be why I’ll never be a really good writer.”
In March Cowley will travel to the Middle East to speak at a conference in Cairo and visit American schools in the area. There will be more travel in the U.S. and towards the end of the year, Penguin will release her first adult novel since The Growing Season published in 1978. Written in a matter of weeks in an apartment in New York, it is called ‘Classical Music’ and is about two sisters-one living in NZ, the other in New York- reunited for the funeral of their father.
“It’s a small domestic novel. There’s a lot of laughter in it. I don’t much like my earlier adult novels- they are very bleak. I have learnt over the years not to take myself too seriously- life is a lot lighter and simpler than I would have deemed.”
Many beginner writers use the medium as therapy and Cowley says she was no exception. “Writing is a form of meditation- a deep interior journey. All sorts of stuff will come up in a book and there is always a tendancy to emotional self indulgence and laziness. The mind will think in cliches.
“The discipline is involved in getting beyond the self indulgent and pushing images beyond cliches- looking for fresh ways of writing things. Writing a novel is one deep and prolonged movement which is why the first chapter usually has to be rewritten- that’s the warm up exercise and by the end I go so fast that I pass the finishing tape. The old advice to start in the middle is theoretically right.”
At the end of 1999, Cowley will stop touring U.S. schools. She feels her life is becoming overcrowded and that at 63, she’s slowing down. She wants to spend more time enjoying her family, garden, book and art filled house and the down to earth community life in the Sounds. She already facilitates retreats at Arohanui and other centres and says there is a huge demand for retreat work that looks at spirituality in a fresh way; “There are a lot of people who are church burnt.”
She will continue to write- one idea is for a book on spirituality- “without all the narrowness of some religions. A book about the spiritual as everyday life. I would simply call it ‘Yes!’”
Abundance is the word that comes to mind when interviewing Cowley and she agrees.
“My life has always been abundant. There have been devastating times. At one stage in my life I was stripped down and realised that I still had a lot. I have always regarded myself as being fortunate.”
We left Joy making wontons (she loves to cook) the Bay still awash with rain. Half an hour earlier, she was showing us her collection of kaleidoscopes. She wound up an exquisite Swiss music box and we stood- two adults, two children- watching the changing patterns of luminous glass as the beautiful tinkly music rolled around us. Riches indeed.
published NZ Listener February 13, 1999