She's hooked on storytelling

16:00, Oct 02 2010
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Joy Cowley at Fish Bay, her Marlborough retreat. Below: In 1955, with the motorcycle her father bought her.

She may just be New Zealand's biggest-selling author ever, but Joy Cowley has lost count. With her memoir out this month, she shows Adam Dudding around the remote hideaway where she dreamt up the little stories that made a big noise.

JOY COWLEY has sold 40 million books. Or it may be 80 million. No one seems sure, least of all her. Though one time she counted up the cheques and noticed she'd made a million dollars in a year.

If you've sat on a school mat any time in the past 40 years or so, you will have read a number of her perfectly crafted (albeit very short) books. You'll certainly remember Mrs Wishy Washy. You may even recall the less famous Baby Gets Dressed, Where Is My Spider?, or even Splosh.

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She's written around 650 "early readers", and each has sold by the truckload – and not just at home. Since the early 1980s, New Zealand reading programmes have colonised the English-speaking world, and from the start, Cowley was a key author; it's been estimated that 70% of American schools use her books.

There have also been 50 or so non-school picture books (including the classic anti-war tale The Duck in the Gun), 80 short "chapter books" for developing readers, a dozen children's novels, seven adult novels, some short-story collections and several successful film and TV adaptations of her work.

"I'm like the fly," says Cowley, "that can lay 250,000 eggs in a day."

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And now, at 74, Joy Cowley has written a memoir called Navigation. It's not a definitive autobiography – she finds those accounts, where every little detail of a life is put in, "terribly claustrophobic" – but after years of nagging from her publisher, she has taken a concise, anecdote-rich dance through what seems to be a life well lived.

There is dark material: a childhood blighted by poverty and her mother's worsening schizophrenia. A straying first husband and her suicide attempt that followed separation from him and, temporarily, her four children. The death from cancer of husband number two.

But the lows are touched on lightly. Far more attention is given to the highs (learning to fly a Tiger Moth), the quirky moments (throwing up in Roald Dahl's swimming pool after too many martinis), the mechanics of a writing career – and the transcendent. In a chapter titled The Religious Gene, Cowley describes a lifelong spiritual quest that took in dabbles with world faiths, some dream analysis and quantum physics, a near-death experience and, ultimately, a sort of homecoming to Catholicism.

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She has a fascination, too, with fate and coincidence and portents. She was booked on the train swept away at Tangiwai on Christmas Eve, 1953, but changed the reservation because of a relative's illness; a fantail in the house predicted a death; a short story about the death of a husband, which she wrote in the 1960s, had uncanny parallels in reality as her husband, Malcolm Mason, died of cancer in 1985.

Navigation was written in Fish Bay, a tiny spot near Kenepuru in the Marlborough Sounds where Cowley lived until the ailing health of husband number three, Terry Coles, forced a move to Wellington. Fish Bay is where she dreamt up Mrs Wishy Washy, and where she moored the 37-foot launch bought with the proceeds of the chubby clean-freak washerwoman. It's also where she built and funded a retreat house called Arohanui – a place that took in struggling families and individuals referred by hospitals, rehab units and GPs, for a rest, a good feed, and a cost-free couple of weeks to let the quiet bay work its magic.

Now the retreat house is where she holidays, or comes to write and fish and look at the sea. Last month, Cowley agreed to meet the Sunday Star-Times there, to show us around, and talk about her book.

DURING THE 2 1/2-hour drive from Blenheim airport, Cowley tells me about something that happened to her in the late 1960s, one of the toughest times in her life. Her first marriage had broken down sparking a suicide attempt, she was living apart from her children, and her writing career was still far from lucrative. Short of cash, she applied for Otago University's Burns writing fellowship.

She didn't get it, but soon after the rejection came another letter, from the editor of the literary magazine Landfall, a man she had never met. Bad luck about that Burns fellowship, he wrote, but here's a different kind of fellowship: you can come and stay with my family in Christchurch, where we'll find you a place to think and write for as long as you need. It was an offer reminiscent of the help Frank Sargeson extended to Janet Frame in the mid-50s, when Frame took refuge at his Auckland home for 16 months and wrote Owls Do Cry. In the end Cowley didn't take up the offer – it would have meant moving too far from her children in Palmerston North. Nonetheless, she said, the offer buoyed her up at a time when she really needed it.

The reason she tells me is that she's just noticed another coincidence, another echo. She should have recognised my name during our earlier email exchanges – the literary editor who made the offer was my father, Robin Dudding.

THE BAY is indeed magic. Insects buzz and bellbirds call; it's full tide, and mist swirls around the peaks across the still grey water. Several houses, most of them now belonging to Cowley's children, are hidden from each other in the bush that climbs from water's edge to the steep hills behind.

Cowley bought the entire 50ha, including a grand but dilapidated 1904 homestead, in 1971 with the 28,000 that British writer Roald Dahl paid her for the film rights of her first adult novel, Nest in a Falling Tree.

That was nice, but the serious money didn't start arriving till the mid-80s, with the huge sales of the reading programmes abroad. Wealth has afforded her comfort and the means to take an Antarctic cruise and drink the wine she likes, but she has also made strenuous efforts to dispose of much of the cash – she calls it "recycling".

She has bankrolled an Indian orphanage that a friend set up in the 1980s, and the Arohanui retreat sucked up some cash too. In the 1990s, Cowley ran writing workshops around the world, helping people develop, and publish cheaply, their own early reading books based on their own stories and in their own languages. She covered her own costs while nurturing grassroots literacy on Native American reservations, in South Africa and Brunei, in Hong Kong, Singapore and Iceland.

"Iceland, which has the oldest literary tradition in the world, didn't have its own material for children in schools – they used Swedish books. So I did writing workshops for teachers there."

The urge to donate her stuff and her time is unstoppable. During our interview, in front of a roaring wood-burner, Cowley repeatedly hauls herself out of her deep armchair to grab books from the shelf for me – a trilogy of children's novels because they're set in Fish Bay; a couple of books about a girl called Agapanthus Hum, because they'll be just right for my six-year-old, a book she wrote based on her time on a Native American reservation. (A week later she mails me yet another book for my children, with an inscription inviting them to show her any stories they write. When my son takes her at her word and emails her one, her warmly encouraging critique is in his inbox a couple of days later.)

She also presses upon me a well-thumbed copy of one of her favourite books, Michael Chabon's Wonder Boys (which was sharing shelf space with Gunter Grass, John Grisham, Wilbur Smith and guides to boating, gardening and cooking). Other heroes include Virginia Woolf and TS Eliot ("the greats") and Stieg Larsson. Among children's writers she hugely admires her friend and contemporary Margaret Mahy ("a very cerebral writer"). Even JK Rowling gets a nod despite the superfluity of adverbs.

She is less fulsome about her own writing, quite clear that she's not a great writer, just a prolific and diligent one.

Yes, she was always driven to tell stories. Before she could write, she would compulsively draw pictures – on pillowcases or her father's library book endpapers if necessary – and when a little older, she'd make up stories at night for her sisters.

But there's no genius in that: "I'm sort of New Zealand's Enid Blyton. I've worked a lot with children and I know their learning needs. I know what vocabulary to use, and, at the same time, write an entertaining story for them.

"And I know better than to trust my own judgement – I test the stories in schools and make sure that they work.

"For a lot of writers... it's about what they want to produce. For me it's always about what needs to be read and what children want."

The secret of her success is her "ordinariness. I just meet people where they are and where I am".

And her phenomenal sales aren't her own doing: "I couldn't sell icecreams in the desert." They're down to the phenomenal drive of Wendy Pye, the Auckland publisher who sold the world on New Zealand's revolutionary reading programmes – based on children taking home a short, graded book each night rather than ploughing through a 252-page monolithic textbook.

Cowley has no idea how many books she has sold – the last hard figure she heard was in 1996, when her American publisher said Mrs Wishy Washy alone had sold 40 million copies. But a Dunedin academic recently told Cowley she was the 13th best-selling author in the United States.

"People get very impressed by that until they realise this is all 16-page books in schools."

Pye, whose "Story Box" and "Sunshine Books" series account for about 300 of Cowley's 650 early readers, said Cowley's sales were certainly in the millions, "but I can't tell you whether it's 40, 80 or 30".

Cowley doesn't really care – "for me it's always the story that's the most important thing".

Then she notices it's half past five – "time I started preparing food".

As well as giving stuff away, Cowley likes to cook for people: at Fish Bay I was steadily fattened up with smoked fish and pasta, oyster fritters, watercress soup, a generous lamb roast, raspberries, chocolate brownies, spice biscuits, olives, fresh windfall macadamias from the garden and many cups of tea. The single bottle of wine I brought started to feel inexcusably stingy.

WE STAYED a night at Arohanui – I slept in the house, but as usual Cowley took one of the bunk rooms in the adjoining dormitory, so she could better hear the delicate chirruping of the tree frogs living in a small courtyard fountain. She introduced them to the bay using spawn taken from a friend's place in Pelorus Sound.

In the morning the tide was out, revealing clattery grey shale and clumps of oysters. Cowley, gumbooted and wrapped in possum fur jacket and hat, pointed out the kingfisher nests in the low clay banks. Oyster-catchers and the paradise ducks scattered as we filled a bucket with oysters and took watercress from the stream spilling on to the beach.

Back inside, Cowley said she would stop writing "when I run out of ideas". And despite the occasional panic over the past 40 years, they always come eventually. "What we call writer's block is actually just flat batteries." They always recharge at Fish Bay.

So she keeps writing books (the remarkable fable-like junior chapter book Snake and Lizard, published in 2008, has just been sold into its ninth territory, China) and she writes back to the thousands upon thousands of children who write to her each year.

In Navigation, she claimed to be "going to seed". Certainly she is mellow, kindly, grandmotherly – but there is still a quiet, relentless energy too. She paints, she spins wool and dyes it and knits it into big crazy jumpers like an unreconstructed 1960s idealist. She turns wood on the lathe she bought herself as a treat. She took up piano lessons in her 60s and stopped at Grade 6 only because her fingers were too stiff to play the fast notes. She is about to start a course in icon painting using egg tempera. She horrified her children by getting a rose tattoo on her shoulder for her 65th birthday ("Here, I'll show it to you...").

All that's left on the bucket list she and husband Terry Coles drew up is a tandem skydive, though she wants to lose some weight before doing that, as she worries her ankles aren't up to the landing.

Right now, though, there were oysters to shuck and turn into fritters, and a watercress soup to make. Joy Cowley, OBE, DCNZM, gets back to work.

Navigation, by Joy Cowley, is published by Penguin on October 11, $45. Cowley will hold events in Auckland and Wellington; details at www.penguin.co.nz. This month Cowley has also published a book of advice for would-be children's writers, Writing from the Heart (Storylines, $25), proceeds of which will go to the Storylines Children's Literature Charitable Trust.

Sunday Star Times