Marlborough Book Festival #1: Navigating a Writer’s Life with Joy Cowley

Last week I hopped on the bus up to Blenheim for the Marlborough Book Festival, something I’ve wanted to do for years. Marlborough is known for its sunny climate which makes it ideal for vineyards. The area produces some of NZ’s best wine (and I’m not just saying that because my wine-maker uncle lives there!). What goes better with wine than a good book?

I’m not entirely sure how the Book Festival came about, but my librarian Aunt and cousins have been involved with the festival since the start. 2017 was the festival’s fourth year. While this year was the biggest so far, the festival has a really fun, friendly atmosphere. The interviews feel more like conversations and the format allows for lots of questions from the audience. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and really recommend it for fellow kiwis!

Unfortunately, I arrived in Blenheim with a really vicious cold. I was planning to do some sight-seeing around the festival, but I only managed enough energy to go to four festival sessions. There were a lot of naps. It’s only now that I’m starting to feel better that I realise just how sick I was, and I’m impressed I made it to the festival at all! Huge thanks to my cousin and her partner for taking such good care of me.

All of the sessions I went to were highlights for me, but I’m starting with Joy Cowley because she’s the one that keeps coming up in conversation. She needs no introduction to New Zealanders, but for everyone else, she’s best-known as a children’s author, but has written short stories and novels.

Rather than focusing on any one book, the interview with Joy ranged over her entire life, because almost every part of her life has impacted her writing. She’s a firm believer that everyone has a path and says that while at times we may feel directionless and like we don’t know where we’re going, it’s possible to look back and see a direct line to where we needed to be. She’s in her seventies, and I really appreciated hearing from an author at the peak of career—although she’d argue its still an apprenticeship.

Another thing that really stood out for me is that Joy gets up at four AM every morning and writes until eight AM. It’s pretty standard advice for authors to get up early, but I imagined that once you’ve ‘made it’ like Joy has, you would get to sleep in! She works hard, but she obviously finds the work rewarding, and that in itself is inspiring.

I borrowed a copy of Navigation, Joy’s memoir, from my Aunt to read after the festival, and her voice is so strong in it, that it was honestly just like hearing her speak. Writing friends, check this out! Yes, she’s traditionally published and her journey is specific to New Zealand, but I think her practical approach and the fact she is looking back over a very varied writing career is a really good antidote to all the negativity, stress and high demands of today’s write to market mentality. Plus, there’s something intrinsically interesting about other writer’s journeys (I haven’t read Stephen King’s On Writing yet, so I can’t compare them, but I imagine there’s a similar appeal).

Anyway, most of the author sessions at the Book Festival were an hour long, but Joy requested an hour and a half, because she had a feeling there would be a lot to talk about. She’s a natural story teller, and when the time for questions came, I was disappointed—I just wanted to hear more of her stories! She gave advice to current children’s authors and freely shared where her ideas came from. She’s generous with her advice and time, and I really regret that at the end of the session, I didn’t have the energy to go up and talk to her—though it’s probably best I kept my germs as contained as possible.


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