30 Dec 2017

Joy Cowley: 'I have always regarded myself as being fortunate'

7:11 am on 30 December 2017

Joy Cowley describes herself as an ordinary person for whom the hard lessons of life have turned out to be the best ones.

Joy Cowley

81-year-old Joy Cowley received the country's top honour. Photo: Mark Tantrum

The 81-year-old author has been made a member of the Order of New Zealand in the 2018 New Year Honours list, chiefly for her contribution to literature, and children's writing in particular.

Ms Cowley, also known as Mrs Joy Coles, said the honour was huge - and even better because it does not carry a title.

"I'm not the type of person that copes well with that. Anything that separates me from other people I don't feel comfortable with."

The commendation also sits well with her strong Christian faith.

"I kept looking at 'Order of New Zealand' and got to thinking, 'well that sounds a bit like a religious order' which is appropriate for me because I do feel religious about this country.

"I think it's a sacred land and I love the people in it - they're all family."

Ms Cowley and her husband Terry Coles live in Wairarapa but still have a house in the Marlborough Sounds they visit as often as they can. Her writing for children began with an after-school job in 1953 when she was 16, editing the children's page of The Manawatu Daily Times.

She ran the gamut of grief over an earlier broken marriage and the fallout it created on a young family. She told The Listener in 1999 that while her life has always been abundant, there have been devastating times.

"At one stage in my life I was stripped down and realised that I still had a lot. I have always regarded myself as being fortunate."

She told RNZ that what had come through at this stage of her life was that the hard lessons were the best.

"I suppose in Catholic terms it's the way of the Cross. You have difficulty, and some part of you dies and there's resurrection. It's as though life is continually emptying us and filling us with something new. It's a way of growth."

She began writing for children in earnest during the mid 1960s, when one of her sons had difficulty learning to read. It inspired her to write stories for him and children with similar difficulties.

It also spawned a new career path of travelling to conferences, visiting schools, and running writing workshops.

Ms Cowley said it was during an overseas trip that a question from an educator in the United States answered one of her own long-held questions about what sets New Zealanders apart.

"Many years ago I was talking at Grand Rapids University in Michigan and a man in the education faculty came up to me and said he was going to visit New Zealand to see what makes us so different. He said if you look at any endeavour in the world - arts, sports, music, science and research - take the top 10 names and one will be a New Zealander."

Ms Cowley said when she thought about it, it became clear the answer lay in more than our isolation, lingering pioneer mentality and small population.

"The main thing for me is that we have one education system and individualism is valued. It's not valued in other countries I've worked in. I've been in some places where the most important values are patriotism, obedience, politeness and conformity. That's good socially but it kills creativity. In New Zealand the potential of the individual is greatly valued."

Ms Cowley said children had been among her greatest teachers as a writer.

"Working with them is wonderful, they don't dissemble, they're real and honest. If they don't like something they tell you."

She said children had not yet learned to try and be someone else.

"They're not trying to remake themselves: that comes later. It's like when we're young, a tree is simply a tree, then we learn it's made up of a trunk and roots and then we take it apart further, and then finally it comes back and a tree is simply a tree but this time we know what it feels like to be a tree.

"We go through this process of making life very complex and then making it simple."

Ms Cowley ended the interview with some advice she frequently hands out to budding writers: It takes a long apprenticeship.

"These days people seek instant satisfaction. They write one story and wonder when it will be published, but those I see with potential I say 'don't give up'. Join a writing group, get all the help you can from fellow writers and write every day."

Ms Cowley is now working with a publisher on a book of spiritual writings.