Joy Cowley is a prolific, widely published and much-celebrated writer of fiction for adults and children. She began her career writing short stories and novels, followed by children’s literature. Joy has written a remarkable range of children’s books and stories, including popular Scholastic titles Hero of the Hill, Nicketty-Nacketty, Noo-Noo-Noo, and her new title Hush: a Kiwi Lullaby, stunningly illustrated by Andrew Burdan. In 2005 Joy Cowley was made a distinguished Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to children’s literature. She lives in the small town of Featherston in the Wairarapa.
We asked Joy some questions about herself, and here’s what she said...
Where were you born? Where do you live now?
I was born in Levin and I now live in Featherston, New Zealand.
Where did you go to school? Did you have a nickname?
I went to six different primary schools because my family moved around a lot. These schools were in Wellington, Johnsonville, Otaki and Foxton. At Otaki School I had the nickname ‘Jumbo’ because I was clumsy.
What were you like in school? What is the naughtiest thing you did?
My first years at school were difficult because I struggled with reading. But I improved and in my last year was dux at Foxton Primary School. The naughtiest thing I did was to pinch money out of my mother’s purse to spend on lollies in the school tuck shop. Of course, I got caught.
What was your favourite book growing up?
My favourite book was Snugglepot and Cuddlepie by May Gibbs. This book about the gumnut babies was the first real book I read. I was nine.
Who is your favourite children’s author?
I have several favourites. They include Margaret Mahy, David Almond, Philip Pullman, Katherine Paterson.
What is your favourite food/colour/movie?
I cook and enjoy a variety of ethnic food and particularly like Indian cuisine. I like the colour red and wear red shoes. My favourite movie is The Matrix.
Who inspired you to write?
How did you get started? How old were you?
Once I became a reader, I devoured books. I did what most children do – I wrote stories inspired by and based on the books I’d read. By the time I was in high school, my stories were more original and teachers gave me a lot of encouragement. When I was 16 my parents wanted me to leave school to earn money for the family. My teachers intervened and got me an after-school paid job. I was the editor of the children’s page of the Manawatu Daily Times. This started my writing for children.
Why did you want to be a writer?
I had an active imagination and if I had not become a writer, I would probably have been a great liar. That is not a good option. Now, I’d like to retire but stories keep getting in the way.
How do you think up ideas?
Ideas come out of experience – something seen, something heard. When an idea pops into my head, it is magnetic. It attracts other ideas. Soon those thoughts blend together to become a story.
Do you have a special place where you write?
I now have a little office with a nice old desk but I used to write on the kitchen table. Every January we go back to Kenepuru in the Marlborough Sounds and there we have no internet. This gives me a lot of writing time. At home, most of my day is spent answering correspondence.
What is the best thing about being an author?
I will change that to CHILDREN’S author. I have always liked working with children and the best letters I get are from young people. I’ve been writing for so long now, that I meet adults who had my books when they were young. Some of these have become writers themselves, and that makes me very proud. They are carrying on the tradition of New Zealand children’s literature.
Have you had a funny or embarrassing moment as an author?
I’ve had many funny and embarrassing moments. Years ago I was talking in a small country school, and I got a lot of attention from a young boy in front of me. He listened to every word. When it came to question time, he was first, wanting to know how long it took me to write The Lion in the Meadow. I replied that I didn’t write that book. Margaret Mahy was the author. His expression changed to shock and disappointment. “You mean you’re not Margaret Mahy?” he said. I felt that I had been wasting his time! No doubt he had the same feeling.
What do you do when you are not writing?
I enjoy woodturning. I also like painting, cooking, spinning and knitting, and reading.
What would you have chosen to be if you were not an author?
Probably a teacher of young children.
Which famous person from the past would you like to talk to?
Mahatma Ghandi. He had great wisdom and a big heart. I think I could learn from him how to be a better person.
Is there anything else you would like to tell us about yourself?
Next year I will be 80. This time is lovely. I’ve had a very full life and that means heaps of wonderful memories. When I was young, I didn’t want to grow old. Now I know that each year keeps getting better.