Mark Twain said “write what you know” and for Joy Watson, inspiration was never far from reach. The children’s book author – she’s written 15 stories, including the kids’ classic Grandpa’s Slippers – based many of her wonderful tales on her adored husband Kevin.
Kevin passed away last June, but his legacy lives on in the Grandpa book series, and Joy (78) smiles as she recalls the delight small children would take in meeting “Grandpa” himself.
“It was a true story and he was a true Grandpa,” says Joy over lunch at the Havelock North home of her daughter, fellow author Mary-anne Scott (55). “I wrote the book after seeing his tatty, ragged old slippers propped up on the hearth."
"Later, I remember being at the beach one day and going for a walk – these three little kids were tagging along. Kevin said to them, ‘Do you know who this lady is? She wrote Grandpa’s Slippers.’ They said ‘Oh, yes.’ But when I said, ‘And do you know who this man is with me? He’s actually Grandpa,’ their jaws hit the footpath. They were so excited and had so many ideas about what Grandpa should do in the next book!”
A mother of nine, Joy says words were “paramount” in the Watson home. It’s little surprise then that all nine children have followed in her footsteps in some way – one is a journalist, another an editor, a third a vocal coach. It’s Mary-anne, though, who has become an author like Mum.
She too writes what she knows. Her second novel for young adults, Coming Home to Roost, follows the wildly successful Snakes and Ladders.
Her books deal with the real challenges of navigating the teenage years in New Zealand, from parties to teen pregnancy – and take a male point of view.
“I started out writing from a position of fear,” tells Mary-anne. “I had four teenage boys and it all felt slightly out of control – I wondered how I was ever going to keep them all alive! So I created this imaginary boy and he became like therapy for me.”
She says the themes for her novels came from listening, not only to her four sons, Daniel, John, Chris and Tom, now grown up and out of home, but to their friends.
“Yes, the voices of the boys who sat around at my kitchen bench talking!” confirms Mary-anne. “For years, I observed how they spoke and after a while, they’d forget I was there. In the car, I’d turn off the air con so I could listen in on their talks. They had so many dramas that I had no trouble gleaning dialogue for the books.”
Also a private music teacher, Mary-anne says some of her topics have emerged out of 20 years of chatting with students.
“Sometimes you are the only adult that child sees, other than their parents. And they tell you stuff – who they’re going to the ball with or what they’re worrying about – and you learn so much.”
The pair followed different paths to publication. For Joy, it was a poem submitted to a magazine contest in 1970 that was her big break. Her ode to “the ideal mother” was a hit. Joy doesn’t recall the prize or even if there was one – “the prize for me was simply being published”, she tells – but it was that win that was her springboard to success.
For Mary-anne, it was a true story about her youngest brother’s wedding on a marae, written from the point of view of one of her sons, that saw her work picked up by a school journal.
The way they write is different too. Joy says her tales were handwritten on paper, “at the kitchen table or after the kids had gone to bed”.
Mary-anne likes to plug away on a laptop at the local library, “but never in a café – that seems too pretentious”, she laughs.
Having Mum as a mentor is amazing,” she continues. “She has encouraged me all the way.”
Snakes and Ladders continues to win acclaim, having picked up the award in the young adult category at the 2013 Children’s Book Awards.
Grandpa’s Slippers has sold 190,000 copies since it was first published in 1989, and that figure is climbing. It’s been “steady income” for Joy and she says she’s thrilled the story struck a chord with generations of New Zealanders.
She even managed to convince late husband Kevin to accompany her on some of her many school appearances over the years.
“He wasn’t really a going-out-in-your-cardigan-and-slippers kind of man, but he’d get dressed up and do it for Mum,” remembers Mary-anne proudly.
“And when he did, he was so popular, I could have flown to the moon for all the children would have noticed,” chimes in Joy, now a grandmother to 27 and great-grandmother of two.
So will the writing bug infect the next generation of this remarkable family? Mary-anne thinks so.
“Two of my boys have told me their ideas for a story, but I’ve suggested they go away and keep working on them.
“One of them is heartbroken right now – I’ve said it’s the perfect time for him to write the blues. He will never forget this feeling if he gets it down on paper. He wasn’t overly responsive to my advice,” she shrugs with a smile.
Words: Fiona Fraser