National Portrait: Author Joy Cowley, the Storyteller

Author Joy Cowley at her Featherston home.
MAARTEN HOLL/FAIRFAX NZ

Author Joy Cowley at her Featherston home.

As far as national treasures go, they don't get much more precious than writer Joy Cowley.

Though she's not just ours.

Despite generations of kiwi kids learning to read from her early learning books, the rest of the world remains pretty enamoured with her too. Her books are in more than 70 per cent of American schools. She's been nicknamed the "Elvis Presley" of children's books over there.

"There is a lovely feeling of being loved by kids. It's worth more than anything else." - Joy Cowley.
MAARTEN HOLL/FAIRFAX NZ

"There is a lovely feeling of being loved by kids. It's worth more than anything else." - Joy Cowley.

At the height of her writing career she would receive 1000 letters a week. They still roll in. She replies to them all.

"There is a lovely feeling of being loved by kids. It's worth more than anything else - reviews, cheques - to have that love of children," says Cowley, now 79.

One of her favourite fan letters was from a little girl who wrote asking all the usual questions with the addition of 'Are you still alive?'

"I began thinking about a promise I had made to my sixth form teacher: to never give up writing." - Joy Cowley.
MAARTEN HOLL/FAIRFAX NZ

"I began thinking about a promise I had made to my sixth form teacher: to never give up writing." - Joy Cowley.

She was once stopped on the street in Blenheim outside Whitcoulls. A woman rushed out with her kids and said 'Who do you think this is?' The children were perplexed with one offering Margaret Mahy and the other Quentin Blake.

Cowley laughs at that. She laughs a lot. The fact is, she's a household name, if not a face, for young readers.

Cowley was not a natural reader in childhood. By the age of seven she had been to five different schools. She was labelled a bad reader and recalls vividly but not bitterly - she is a forgiving person - getting whacked by a ruler whenever she made a mistake. One day she wet her pants when she was punished and was ridiculed by her classmates. Reading, she says, was a great source of humiliation.

The first book she recalls reading that turned things around was The Story About Ping. She was eight.

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"I couldn't bear for the book to end so I started it all over again. When I got to the end for the second time I made an amazing discovery: It was exactly the same story. My aunts told me stories but they were always different when retold orally.

"I discovered the constancy of print and that was important to me, to find something permanent in the world."

In light of her chaotic family life, this was a significant discovery.

Cowley was born in Levin during the winter of 1936. Both parents had poor health. Her mother suffered with schizophrenia and her father was often bedridden with bouts of rheumatic fever.

As the eldest of five children, the young Joy played the role of both parents cooking, cleaning and providing income (she slaughtered chickens on a nearby farm) as well as attending to her parents and siblings.

She was apprenticed to the local pharmacy. That was a disappointment to Cowley who had been working after school as children's editor at the Manawatu Daily Times. They had offered her a cadetship but her parents didn't approve. 

She didn't rebel. In fact, she learned a discipline without which she doesn't think she would have become a writer.

She was 20 when she fell pregnant to Ted Cowley, a dairy farmer in Palmerston North.

"He didn't want to marry me but his mother made him. He was very honest and told me he didn't love me. I tend to be a little impractical in terms of optimism. I thought I'd be able to make him love me.

They were married for 12 years and had four children before he fell in love with someone else.

"I'd come home and find the bed unmade and her lipstick on my side table. We battled on for two years before it ended."

When they split Cowley's lawyer told her Ted would get the boys and she would get the girls. She couldn't split the incredibly close children up and so let Ted take them all.

The grief she felt at losing her children was unbearable and led her to take an overdose of sleeping pills. "I wanted to sleep for a long time."

She woke up three days later in hospital temporarily blind and paralysed.

Her near-death experience had a profound affect on Cowley, who later converted to Catholicism.

"From being a shy and rather timid person, someone who was anxious to please, I came out feeling emotionally strong. When you lose the fear of death there is no fear of anything."

Within two years she had met and married Malcolm Mason, a Wellington writer and accountant, and got all of her children back.

Her writing career began in her early 20s.

"I began thinking about a promise I had made to my sixth form teacher: to never give up writing. When you grow up in a household where a promise means nothing it actually becomes quite valuable and that sat on my conscience."

She submitted over 40 short stories before one was published.

When The Silk was published by Short Story International in America it was spotted by an editor from Doubleday who asked if she had a novel to submit.

It was another six months before she wrote Nest in a Falling Tree, which was adapted by Roald Dahl and made into the film The Night Digger. She's never been paid as much before or since. She can't recall the amount but it was enough to buy her Marlborough Sounds property in Fish Bay.

Cowley would go on to pen more than 1000 books for a children's early reading programme, dozens of picture books, a number of adult novels, spiritual books and a memoir. She has a clutch of awards.

As a young woman Cowley had gumption. She learned to fly a Tiger Moth at 19. She rode a motorcycle in her teens - she wanted a 650 Gold Flash; her father bought her a second-hand run about.

She's no slouch in her later years either. Rafting, parasailing, and one photo on the wall shows her bungy jumping at 65.

"I thought if this goes wrong I don't lose too many years."

Her only qualification, she says proudly, is a diploma in wood turning earned at 70 and hung on her studio wall. Wood lines the walls here. Books line the walls of her three homes.

She works every morning from her office in the Featherston bungalow she shares with Terry Cole, whom she married in 1989, four years after the death of Malcolm. 

There are no more children's books on the horizon. But she's working with composer Gareth Farr on a New Zealand opera.

The storyteller begins a new chapter.

 - Stuff

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