Iconic Kiwi author Joy Cowley reflects on her very difficult childhood and how she overcame it

At the age of 10 she took over cooking the family evening meals; by 11 she was helping to build a house.

Joy insisted on coming to meet me at the little station in Featherston, where she now lives. It’s freezing cold, wet and hailing, and there she is wrapped in a cheery red wool coat. With sparkling eyes and a warm smile she wraps her arms around me like a long lost friend.

Joy Cowley is one of our most prolific and beloved authors. Her books have sold more than 40 million copies worldwide. She writes for adults and for children, with more than a thousand titles to her name, but it’s for her children’s books that she’s best known.

Generations have learnt to read with Joy’s books. They’ve been captivated by delightful, simple stories like Mrs. Wishy-Washy, who scrubs the mud from farm animals, only to have them wallow in it all over again. Joy will tell you that learning to read has to be a fun and meaningful exercise. If it isn’t, then we teach children to read and to hate it at the same time.

She has received multiple honours for her work but this year she became one of the select few to be granted the Order of New Zealand, our highest award. It doesn’t come with a title and that suits Joy just fine. As she says, “I’m a very ordinary person who quite likes being ordinary.”

Joy is aptly named. She obviously delights in life. At nearly 82 (her birthday is in early August) she has the energy and zest for living of someone almost half her age. But it hasn’t always been that way.

“I didn’t have a childhood until I had my own children.” It’s a stark admission and perhaps surprising for someone who clearly understands children so well.

Joy was the eldest of five children, four girls and a boy. Her father’s heart had been damaged by rheumatic fever so for most of the time he wasn’t able to work and the family survived on the benefit.

“We moved around a lot. Probably because we were in debt,” she tells me ruefully.

Her mother was a deeply religious and troubled woman. “I couldn’t understand Mum. I was frightened of her moods,” Joy remembers.

“When she was happy she loved to sing – she had a beautiful voice – but she could be very cruel. She would hit us a lot with anything that came to hand. A belt, a slipper. I remember repeating to myself at the time, ‘I will never do this to my children, I will never do this to my children.'”

The pain of those memories is clear. “My early adult novels come from Mum, from trying to understand her and the effect she had on my sisters.”

Joy escaped into her writing. The novels were about mental illness, death and marital infidelity. Her first great success, Nest in a Falling Tree, was adapted for the big screen by none other than Roald Dahl.

As a child, Joy had to grow up fast. “I felt responsible for the younger ones.” By the time she was 10 she was cooking the evening meal.

“It made me a cook but my siblings suffered my trials,” she grins. (The experience has paid off if her delicious, freshly baked afghans are anything to go by!)

When she was young, Joy spent a lot of time with her grandmothers. Her mother’s mum was a gentle Swedish woman.

“She talked a lot about Jesus, as though he lived next door.” Her father’s mother was Scottish, and loved Scottish dancing. “When she danced everything rattled on the shelves.”

Joy was a solitary little girl. By the time she was seven she’d been to five schools. “When your parents move from place to place, friendships are missing. I remember a special friend, Kay. When we moved on I would cry every night because I knew I wouldn’t see her again.”

Learning to read was challenging for Joy. She vividly remembers her time at Lyall Bay School in Wellington.

“It was during the war years; schools were run along military lines. We were lined up and marched into our classrooms to loud band music, and we would have to put our hands on our desks to have our nails inspected. Three of us had labelled ourselves ‘bad’ readers. We were made to come to the front of the class to read – if we made a mistake, the teacher would rap us round the legs with a ruler.”

In those days reading was taught through phonics – sounding out words – but “for a visual child that didn’t make sense”, she says. A copy of the picturebook about Ping the little duckling changed her life for ever. It was the first time she’d read for herself. She proceeded to have “great adventures in the safety of my own desk and chair”.

Her father would take her to the library to discover the classics – books by Jules Verne and Victor Hugo. “A child who reads a lot begins to write,” she says. Reading enabled Joy to escape into her own mind.

At the same time, when she was about 11, she began helping her father to build a house for the family. “Dad would make things and fix things but I would do all the heavy lifting.”

She drops this casually into the conversation, as though all 11-year-olds build houses. Of course there were no advanced power tools then. She was the hammer hand, although she did have one incident with a circular saw when she was building a dolls’ house for her sister.

She wasn’t allowed to use the saw but she went ahead anyway and sliced into her thumb, which bled profusely. So she said she’d cut her thumb with the axe while chopping firewood… and she’d had enough forethought to drip blood all over the chopping block and mop it up from around the saw.

“I had a creative imagination from an early age,” she says wickedly.

As is so often the case, Joy says it was a teacher who made a huge difference in her life.

“We didn’t think of ourselves as poor, but as kids who had a bath just once a week we were probably rather smelly. This man saw beyond the funny shoes and the hand-me-down clothes. He was different from all the other teachers. In the afternoons he’d read to us. He read King Solomon’s Mines, he did all the voices.”

It awakened something in Joy. By now she was writing poems. “He valued my writing.”

The family was living in Foxton. The town had a little district high school.

“No one ever got beyond the fourth form. Everyone left at 15 and went to work.” But Joy was craving more education. She discovered you could go free on the bus to Palmerston North Girls’ High.

Her parents agreed to her going, so long as it didn’t cost any money, so she went there on her own to enroI.

Although she was thrilled to be there, she didn’t fit in with the other girls.

“I wasn’t interested in the things they were interested in – film stars, hairdos and boys. I was in love with John Keats [the romantic English poet]. The teachers were my friends.”

By the end of the fifth form her parents were determined she should leave school and find a job.

“I was so upset, I really wanted to do University Entrance. The principal intervened on her behalf and Joy went to board in Palmerston North with a Baptist minister and his wife. After school she worked as the children’s editor of the Manawatu Daily Times. She proved her worth and was offered a coveted full-time cadetship at the paper. Her parents were horrified.

“Journalists are communists or atheists,” her father declared, and he took Joy to the local chemist to start a pharmacy apprenticeship. Joy was heartbroken. But she soon found solace elsewhere.

She became pregnant at 19 to young dairy farmer, Ted Cowley.

They’d met at a dance. Ted didn’t want to get married but his mother insisted he do the “right” thing. “I thought he was the most beautiful man I’d ever seen,” Joy admits.

The couple had four children in four-and-a-half years, but Ted never settled into the marriage. Joy agreed to let him see other women. He would go out at nights and that’s when Joy would write… her aim was to get a short story into the Listener but the stories she sent in would be sent back.

Eventually, the then editor, Monty Holcroft, asked, “How often do you rewrite these stories?” And that, says Joy, was a pivotal piece of advice. “A lot of people know how to write but not how to edit, that’s the skill. The block of marble isn’t the statue.”

She began writing children’s books to help her son, Edward, who was having trouble learning to read. What’s the key, I ask, to engaging a reluctant reader?

“Find something they’re interested in. It has to be new and different. Humour is very important.”

As Edward’s reading took off she was asked to help other children.

“I started by asking them what they’d done at the weekend; they’d tell me and their stories would get more and more involved. I would type them out and they’d take them home for their parents to read. Then I’d reduce the language and add pictures. No child is reluctant to read their own stories.”

Joy at Government House in Wellington after her investiture into the Order of New Zealand.

One day an editor at Doubleday publishing in New York picked up a magazine that contained one of her short stories. The woman wrote to her. “Do you have a novel?” she asked.

“When an editor asks, ‘Do you have a novel?’ you don’t say no,” Joy grins.

Doubleday sent a handsome advance against her royalties and Joy was able to pay someone to come in and look after the children while she wrote. The novel was Nest in a Falling Tree, and the rest is history.

While her writing flourished, her marriage failed. “Ted fell in love. He asked me to move out for six months… to give him time to ‘get over it’.” She did. He didn’t.

His new love moved in. Ted wanted the children to be with him. Joy would have them at weekends. She is quick to say he was a wonderful father. But one night when he was due to bring them around for a beautiful dinner that Joy had cooked, they didn’t turn up. Joy was inconsolable.

It was a dark time. She took a handful of sleeping pills and lay down on her bed. “I felt myself going fast, towards the light.”

She woke up in hospital. She’d had, the psychiatrist told her, “a normal reaction to abnormal stress”. That was when, she says, she lost her fear of death. “It’s as if the light is still there.”

Joy is not bitter about her experience, quite the opposite. “I say to people, ‘Look back on the hard times, these are our greatest teachers.'”

With her husband Terry.

She now runs spiritual retreats. “There’s a lot of digesting of life experiences,” she explains. Although she is Catholic, her retreats are largely non-denominational.

“People are exploring beyond themselves, there is a real hunger out there.” Joy tells me she’s always had an awareness of “otherness” – it’s a source of inspiration for her writing now.

Her marriage to Ted finally over, Joy went on to marry Wellington writer and accountant Malcolm Mason. They had many happy years together until cancer claimed him in 1985. Joy nursed him at home. A Catholic priest, Terry Coles, would come and sit with Malcolm. Terry and Joy became friends.

Some years later, Terry, who according to Joy is about as romantic as a rice pudding, asked Joy to marry him. He rang me out of the blue while I was in the Sounds [she has a much loved house in the Marlborough Sounds]. ‘Bugger this,’ he said, ‘I want to get married.'” Joy was not expecting that!

She still gets up at 4am to write. She toils away until 8am in her cosy office in the Featherston cottage she shares with Terry, then she might spend time in her shed wood-turning. Just that morning she was making the most beautiful wooden bowl. She made it for me… a Joy Cowley treasure.

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