In the land of Hobbits, New Zealand, lives Joy Cowley – she’s a wife, mother, grandmother, great-grandmother – and a writer for over six decades. She’s gone from a manual typewriter with carbon copies to the modern computer. I was blessed to meet Joy at the Wellington festival screening of The Silk (adapted for screen by Nathalie Boltt). She welcomed me open-armed, offering a fountain of knowledge.
Joy’s journey began as a child, when she discovered reading as a gateway to stories and thus forgot she “couldn’t read.” By age 11 she was a book addict and by 16, she was editing the children’s page of The Manawatu Daily Times after-school. “Between 1966 and 1978,” says Joy, “I had five adult novels published in America, by Doubleday. My first children’s book, The Duck in the Gun, was published by Doubleday in 1969.” Her work has included articles, spiritual reflection material, and material for schools, with a few stories transitioned into film – including The Silk and Nathalie Boltt’s recent project ‘Holy Day’ – both of which Nathalie called ‘quite easy’ to adapt thanks to Joy being “an amazingly visual writer.”
Writers, take a seat and welcome the wisdom of a master storyteller as Joy Cowley shares her journey, observations and advice.
Based on your own experience of stories helping you learn how to read, what is the timeless importance of storytelling to all ages?
Homo Sapiens [are] a story-making species. We communicate through story, document our lives through story – history, her story – grow into maturity through story. While we think of story as either fact to fiction, it is fiction which is more often the vehicle of truth.
You say that the day you’re no longer in touch with young people is the day you stop writing for them, “because the energy flows from them and goes back to them.” How have readers remained the same as when you started?
The world of the child remains much the same, in spite of cultural and generational differences. The latter mean superficial variation, but young children go through the same stages, have the same hopes and fears, the same needs, the same likes and dislikes.
I recall hearing at the screening that there was a point in your life where The Silk came true in many ways. Can you share that story here?
The Silk was originally a short story written in my early twenties and published in the NZ Listener. I didn’t know where the story came from. It just happened and at the time it seemed to have a lot of energy. The story attracted attention and was published in many anthologies. Twenty years after it was first published, my husband Malcolm and I lived through those events. He was dying. It was winter. Details of his illness and treatment were in the story and he often commented on them. “This happened in The Silk.” My response was that we were different, there was no silk.
Malcolm died at night. I reached across the bed and his hand was cold, and my first thought came directly from The Silk: “He didn’t say goodbye.”
Later that day, I took out the Hardy Amies brocade dressing gown I had bought Malcolm as an engagement present. It was beautiful, shades of blue and so light I thought it was nylon. Malcolm had always thought it too good to be worn but had said he wanted to be buried in it. As I took it out of his wardrobe, I noticed inside, a small tag I hadn’t seen before: 100% silk.
What word of wisdom, motivation or advice would you give to young aspiring writers today?
Do be aware that the road to publication is usually a long one. Many writers become very disappointed if their first efforts are not published. I sent away nearly 50 stories to the NZ Listener before the first one was published. Someone once said that a million words are prerequisite for style. I thought that was gross exaggeration when I read it, but now believe it to hold truth. It’s a bit like any other endeavour: we do not book the concert hall when we have our first piano lesson.
Writing is a form of communication that is done in solitude, and stories usually have an exhibitionist streak. I don’t send a story away, until I’ve fallen OUT of love with it – only then can I edit it objectively.
When I was in the early years of apprenticeship I belonged to a critique group and found that immensely helpful. These days it is easy for a young writer to join an on-line critique group for support and advice. It is also good to be with people who “speak the same language.” For many people, a writer is a foreign entity, sometimes viewed with awe or contempt.
Thank you Joy Cowley.