Joy Cowley published her first novel, Nest in a Falling Tree, in 1967. Since then she has published hundreds of novels, picture books and readers. Here is an interview she gave in December 1998. It originally appeared in Magpies Magazine in March 1999.
Photo of Joy Cowley in action at Storylines, Christchurch, August 2010
Toad in a Tiger Moth meets Icarus
“She has French perfume and fine lace underwear, an Edwardian dress of yellow silk with mutton chop sleeves and tiny pearl buttons, a picture hat covered with veiling and gold silk roses, and she is riding through the town on a BSA 650 Gold Flash.” –Joy Cowley, The Machinery of Dreams, in Summer Book 2, Port Nicholson Press, 1983.
As well as being responsible for four children, nine grandchildren, eight cats, and a flock of sheep, Joy Cowley has also produced short stories, adult novels, picture books, children’s novels, spiritual reflections, hymns, poems and over 400 beginner readers.
Although amazingly busy, she is also amazingly helpful to others.
took time off during the Christmas holidays to answer Joy Cowley ’s
questions. Trevor Agnew
1. I like that passage about the motorbike because of its very specific details. In your writing, the descriptions of things like eel catching are often detailed.Do you do this in order to convince readers? Does it involve you in lots of research? Or do you keep one of those mysterious notebooks?
Writers seem to work mainly one of two ways. Some are auditory. They write as though they are taking dictation. Others, like me, are visual. I spend a lot of time with plots and characters, expanding them, asking questions of them until I know them so well that I can see the details. Writing, then, is simply a matter of describing what I can see in my mind.
I like reading stories with specific detail. I think that it is detail which connects with our own experiences and hooks us into a story. I also try to be selective with description, using it for pacing, for light and shade in a work, and for general leitmotif effect.
Do I keep a notebook? Yes. New ideas will gatecrash a work in progress, and without consideration or respect, yell, “Look at me! Look at me!” I have found that the most effective way of getting rid of them is to jot them down in my notebook. The idea might still be active a year later but then again, they might be dead. It doesn’t matter. My notebook serves as a clearing station for intrusive material rather than a source of inspiration.
2. Is humour an important part of your writing/story-telling? I notice the almost slapstick humour of much of your writing, like Starbright’s taking a solo bungy jump without working out how to untie her feet in ‘Starbright and the Dream Eater’. How do you feel humour should be used in writing? Especially writing for children?
You bet! It is an important part of life. Yet few writers take humour seriously! I am appalled at the lack of humour inmost of my early adult short stories and novels. I can only say that I am glad these works were aimed at adult readers who have choices, and not young people. In real life the masks of comedy and tragedy are rarely far apart.
It sounds flip to say “the darker the shadow, the brighter the light” but life really is a oneness and the balance seems always there. Some of the funniest things happen at funerals. That is the wholeness of being. Look at
Frank Court’s book Angela’s Ashes. But, for some reason, most writers for young
readers tend to focus on problems in a humourless way that presents an
3. Does the humour sometimes conceal pain? The joke about cutting off fingers in ‘Gladly Here I Come’ made me wonder. Is black humour an effective tool for your style of writing?
I am not aware of using “black” humour or employing humour to cover pain. I simply try to reflect the world I live in. At the same time I am very aware of laughter as therapy, especially for children whose authority is not always recognised in an adult world.
Humour has been an important ingredient in my early reading books. These stories began in the 1960s, when I was working with my son
and then other children who could not read.
Many were arbitrarily labelled dyslexic but I noticed that their
right/left confusion and disability did not extend to those activities they
enjoyed. Most had simply “switched off”
learning to read, unwilling to put themselves at risk of further failure. Their body language was explicit of a frozen
attitude to the printed word.
These children taught me that early reading materials need to be easy, exciting, meaningful. They taught me that an engaging story was important, even at the lowest levels, and they showed me that no one can be tense while they are laughing. With the all-important humour, there developed a tendency to put a twist at the end of a story. This was a bit like pudding after vegetables. It encouraged a child to read to the end of the book.
4. Do you have anyone in mind when you write? In other words, do you write for a particular, person, audience, reader, when you are working on something?
Not any one person. I am keenly aware of the age and reading level of my intended audience and this awareness tempers my writing.
For beginner readers, the focus is the acquisition of reading skills. This means a very simple graded text with much of the plot detail going into the illustrations, so the page-by-page notes to the illustrator are very important, especially if the illustrator has not had a lot of experience in working at this level.
Books for fluent readers have more language content and here is where I try to push the limits in expanding a young person’s awareness of the richness of the English language and ways in which it may be used. (“Once upon a mousetime, two little squeaks went cheesing...”)
It is always a delight to find that teachers have used the book as a springboard for the student’s own creative writing.
5. The spiritual as a part of everyday life seems a regular theme in your work. I am thinking of the mussels on p.24 of ‘Bow down
Shadrach’ or the trees in ‘Gladly
Here I Come’. Then there’s your hymn
“Sacrament of the Seasons” (No 77 in ‘Alleluia Aotearoa’) “ Jesus comes to me as a springtime tree…”
Your characters even discuss religion, and have spiritual beliefs (e.g. ‘Starbright and the Dream Eater’). What are your views on the mysterious behind the mundane?
What is mundane? Everything has a particular beauty. Everything is a facet of the mysterious.
I have always known an “otherness”. Most children have that knowing. I am sure they bring it into the world with them. For me, at a young age, the knowing had simple self-evident truths: that everything was connected to everything else; that good and bad described how we thought about things and not the things themselves; that there was no such event as death – things simply turned into other things.
There was also a strong sense of another greater reality somewhere very close. It was as though this life was a dream and I was very close to wakening. I remember that as a young child I felt very old. Not just parent-old or grandparent-old, but as old as a mountain. I have spoken with many children who have the same feelings.
Naturally, when I was young, I tried to place these feelings where they could be affirmed, but there was no explanation for them in the religious or scientific beliefs of my childhood. My views earned me beatings from my mother who believed the devil was in me. (My parents were fundamentalist Christian and their divided world always seemed alien to me.)
These days there have been huge shifts in spiritual awareness as people discover the metaphysical outside of the old religious structures. Part of this shift is supported by new physics and by the sudden expansion of knowledge that has come with micro-chip technology. But we still tend to talk to children about religion in demeaning and meaningless ways, which are remote from their own spiritual experiences. So, yes, I do write about child-centred spiritual experience. I believe it is not separate from other life experience, merely an extension of it.
6. I was interested in your views on fantasy in the Introduction of ‘Beyond the River’, where you wrote, “Since the beginnings of communication, people have used fantasy to express truths which could not be contained in a factual account.” Are you myth-making for the 20th Century? Are you entering a new science fiction–fantasy field with ‘Starbright and the Dream Eater’ and ‘Ticket to the Sky Dance’?
I don’t see myself as myth-making for the 20th Century, although I am aware that I belong with a number of writers who are exploring myth. The stories in Beyond the River were largely inspired by the New Zealand landscape which seems to dictate ongoing legend.
Starbright and the Dream Eater and Ticket to the Sky Dance were inspired by quantum physics, and they did involve a bit of research.
I’m a lover of plots. I like stories to work like intricate well-oiled machines.
Fantasy is not apart from reality. It is reality pushed to the edge, and it must work logically. Fantasy should always be real to the reader. I like to read science fiction but am disappointed when plots are illogical or when they rely heavily on coincidence.
7. What are your views on settings of children’s fiction? Your New Zealand settings and descriptions in e.g. ‘Gladly Here I Come’ are very sharp, right down to, say, the smell of eels. There seems to be an American setting in ‘Starbright and the Dream Eater’. Was this your idea, or the publisher’s idea?
I believe that every work needs a sense of place and, because I’m a visual writer, place is always specific and important. Much of my writing has been set in New Zealand. Some books have been located in Australia and could not be anywhere else. The two fantasy novels are set in the USA. In both Ticket to the Sky Dance (California) and Starbright and the Dream Eater (Wisconsin) we have situations which could not have taken place in a country with a small population. The only densely populated country, that I know reasonably well, is the United States, so I chose localities there.
7. You were once the editor of the Children’s Page of a newspaper. What did you discover about children’s reading and writing interests from this experience?
In 1953 I was the children’s page editor, known officially as the NFC lady (News For Children), for the Manawatu Daily Times. There is a pre-story to this. My parents suffered poor health. My mother had schizophrenia and my father’s heart condition prevented him from working. I was the eldest of five and it was always understood that I would leave school and work to help the family. We lived at Foxton at the time and I travelled by bus each day to Palmerston North Girls’ High School, where a wonderful group of teachers conspired to keep me at school. In 1953 they found for me this wonderful job at the paper, plus board with a family near the school. Half of my wages paid for my board, the rest was taken home to my parents at the weekend. This was a very happy arrangement. Every day after school I spent two to three hours in Broadway at the Manawatu Daily Times.
I had an office typewriter on a small table, in a windowless room that smelt of old smoke and printers ink, and as long as I got my copy to the type-setting room by Friday afternoon, I could do what I liked with the Children’s Page. Under a bare, fly-specked light bulb, I hammered out an identity for myself as a self-important, middle-aged, world-travelling editor who had a dog called Crackers. When I was out of the country, Crackers took over the typewriter and gave the readers another, less dignified image of me. We became popular, Crackers and I, and sometimes I would have a high school student a year or two younger than I, coming into the office and asking to see the NFC lady. Of course, I always said that she was out.
This was heady stuff for a sixteen year old. At the end of the year, I was offered a cadetship with the paper, a position usually reserved for males. More heady stuff. My rejoicing was short-lived, however, when my parents refused permission. Reporters were a lot of heathens, as far as Mum and Dad were concerned, and I had already been too much under their influence. No, I would be apprenticed to our local pharmacist and that was that.
The last day of school was a sad affair but, as I was walking out the gate, my English teacher ran after me. She had a favour to ask. Would I please give her my essay book? She wanted me to promise her that I would keep on writing. I promised. And it was largely that promise that made me buy an old typewriter three years later and start writing short stories. It was another three years before I had anything published.
8. Why do you visit schools, and take part in workshops? Is it after-sales service?
It’s not so much “after-sales” as a matter of keeping in touch with source and resource. My own inner child is overlaid with so much adult that I need to maintain contact with the unadulterated -–the children out there. When I am researching a book, I talk over issues with school classes. The results are almost always different from what I anticipate. For example, before writing Bow Down Shadrach I put this question to children: “If your family pet was very old or sick and had to be killed, would you want your parents to tell you the truth? Or would you like them to tell you that the animal had run away, or maybe gone to a lovely home where it would be looked after for the rest of its life?” I imagined that all children would opt for the truth but only older children wanted that. Almost all five-to-seven year olds wanted the nice story.
Generally, when I am researching likes and dislikes or anything to do with feelings, I ask questions of children older than the reading age of the intended work. If I’m writing early reading books for five and six year olds, I interview seven and eight year olds and begin, “When you were five…”. I find that children are not usually able to reflect on their immediate situation but will readily give information from the past.
Also all my manuscripts are trialled in schools before they are submitted to a publisher. I have a team of great teachers who help me with this. Almost always, rewriting needs to be done as a result of the trialling. Sometimes the story is discarded. I’m never sure of the final seasoning until the dish has been tasted in this way.
9. How do you keep in touch with the way children speak, their styles of speech and language? Also, how do you make up languages like Starbright’s private language?
I realise there is such a thing as style but, all the same, I try to give each story an original and authentic voice. Very often this means leaving behind everything I’ve been taught about “writing” and simply telling the story on paper in a conversational way. I suppose writers are a bit like actors in this.
Dialogue? It’s a matter of listening to young people, noting vocabulary, speech patterns and inflections. Young children are still engaged with the novelty of language. They enjoy taking words to bits and reassembling them in different ways. They delight in rhymes, rhythm, alliteration, riddles, puns and other word jokes. They experiment with language and, often, when they haven’t the right word will invent one – as Starbright does. I confess that I too enjoy inventing words. A recent addition is “flumsy” which is a combination of flimsy and flummery. Very useful.
10. Dreams play a part in some of your stories. Are dreams important to you?
Dreams are sometimes important to me; more often unimportant. I do remember them whereas many adults don’t. Children always remember their dreams and they are always important. They always want to discuss their dreams. Which is why dreams play a bigger role in my children’s writing than in my adult works.
11. You often mention your own animals (cats, goose, dog, etc) in biographical notes. Your stories often deal with animals in trouble (Shadrach, or the turtle in ‘The Silent One’). How do you feel about animals?
I have great respect for the intelligence of animals and am grateful for their companionship when it is offered. Quite frankly, I don’t see a lot of difference between them and me. I like Mark Twain’s statement: “Man is the highest creation. Now I wonder who found that out?” and I feel deep regret at the way humans see other species through the eyes of their own comfort. For example, Save whales. Kill rats. Life and death and exchanges of energy are natural processes. It is the selective attitude that bothers me. Rats are highly intelligent animals, natural survivors. Cockroaches, snakes, sharks all have bad press yet all are very beautiful. Where do adults find such unreasoning hate for some of their fellow species? Not from their childhood, that’s for sure. But they are usually successful in passing their attitudes on to their children.
Many children bond with animals. Pets in a home are as important as parents and siblings. Sometimes, more so, judging from the letters I receive from children. I don’t underestimate the love that a child can feel for a pet. In a world weighted with adult authority and expectation, it can be a great comfort to have a companion who accepts you exactly as you are.
12. Maurice Gee once said that writing children’s novels is easier than writing adult ones. Is this your experience?
I do not find writing for children easier than writing for adults. It would be true to say that I write for children as I write for adults, doing the best that I am capable of, but at the same time staying with the child’s experience of life and language. In that last point lies the challenge. Writing for children means being true to readers of a certain age group. It involves disciplines that don’t come into adult writing.
When I write an adult story or novel, I can stretch the wings of language to their fullest extent and soar like an Icarus. With writing for children, there are limitations that tether me to a particular audience. No expansive ego trips permitted.
On the other hand, a novel for a young reader is usually less than half the length of an adult novel, so it is a shorter course.
I must say that I enjoy the challenges of writing at all levels, but find writing for early emergent reading the most difficult. Trying to make an engaging story out of a vocabulary range of some twenty words can be like trying to create a crossword puzzle with no black squares. This year , the writing of an adult novel Classical Music was luxuriously easy, compared with the work that went into some emergent readers written the previous year.
13. How do you feel about the illustrations for some of your books?
Do they reflect how you see the characters?
Most often I am delighted with the illustrations, although there have been a few disappointments. Availability of a suitable illustrator is an on-going problem for writers and publishers. Many illustrators are booked up five years ahead. I waited for six years to get the Mexican illustrator Joe Cepeda for Gracias the Thanksgiving Turkey. Problems also arise when an artist is not available to do a second or third book in a series. We have four different sets of characters depicted on the covers of the two Shadrach novels. The third book in the trilogy will probably bring more changes. Young readers find this disappointing and confusing.
In early reading books, much of the story is contained in the illustrations and I need to write full illustration briefs f
for each page. Both the illustrator and I are under the same constraints. We are helping the child to learn to read. But when I write picture book texts for established readers, I do not dictate to the illustrator in any way. Rather, I view the illustrator as a co-author who can expand my original idea into something much bigger and better.
14. Did you ever get that motorbike? When I first asked you that, in Winton in 1984, you were still rueful about the Royal Enfield 147cc your dad had bought you, thirty years earlier.
Marriage and children soon grounded me but, even now, I ache at the sight of an old DH-82. I am filled with nostalgia for a contraption of wood, wire and canvas, with a 48 mph cruising speed, just fast enough to whistle the wind under your goggles, slow enough to fill the open cockpit with smoke from the crematorium.
But I should add that there is a postscript to the motorbike era. My son James has a beautiful Harley, which I may occasionally ride.