Joy, how long have you been writing and how did you get started?
Although The Treasure Man is my first published book, I have always enjoyed writing and sharing those words with anyone who would listen. I remember I enjoyed writing stories at school, usually with a twist at the end, which didn’t go down too well with the teachers! In 1999, when I was 23, I moved to Ukraine. At that time, before Skype and Facebook, the only way to stay in touch was to write. I grew to love writing long emails full of my stories and adventures.
The Treasure Man is a children’s book that addresses the complex issue of homelessness – why did you choose this as a key theme for kids?
My own children, who are now teenagers, have very big hearts. Our annual trips to London would bring out the compassionate side of my kids, as they would notice every homeless person and want to help or talk to each one. When we moved to Motherwell, almost 4 years ago, and began to shop in Glasgow, we were faced with homelessness on our doorstep, and as a family we had to pray for great wisdom to know how to handle such overwhelming need without becoming desensitized or emotionally drained.
We began to give our kids a budget before we went into town, and it was up to them how they distributed it, but it was a matter of prayer. We would pray for them to know who to help and how to help. We encouraged them not to give the money, but to pray for creative ways to be able to help or bless. Usually before we left the house, they would write a card, or a small word of encouragement, and by the time our train pulled into Central Station, they had a picture of who they wanted to bless and what form that would take. Sometimes it was food, or a weekly bus pass, or personal hygiene products. Always in a lovely gift bag with a personal card. The children so delighted in finding the right person and blessing them.
Homelessness is a difficult issue, and as grown-ups, we don’t have all the answers. But I don’t feel that children should be excluded from the conversation. They may be able to see more clearly than we do.
In the book, the children begin to learn how God may be speaking to them – when were you first aware of God speaking to you and why do you feel it is important to introduce children to this?
As a child, I struggled to make friends. I always felt like the odd-one-out and battled all kinds of insecurities. But I was raised in the church and knew Jesus loved me. I knew He wanted to be my friend. I talked to Him incessantly, because I didn’t really have anyone else to talk to, and I became aware that He talked back. Talking and listening to God became part of my everyday life. It was as normal as asking directions when I was in a new place. (Remember, this was before Google Maps!) Sometimes I’d feel prompted to talk to someone, or walk a different route to normal, call someone to chat or ask someone for help. As I grew more used to hearing God’s voice, His directions became more specific and more directional.
I remember when I was eight or nine, we were driving back from a holiday (I think we’d been to Whitby). I had fallen asleep, and when I woke up, we were in an unfamiliar town driving past a big wall. Very clearly, I heard God speak to my heart and say, ‘You will go there!’
‘Where are we?’ I asked.
‘Hull,’ came the reply from the front of the car.
‘What’s that place with the big wall?’
I’m going to go there, I thought, as I went back to sleep. And 10 years later, I did.
Why do I feel this is important for children? Listening to God shaped my life and led to so many adventures. I want that for my own children, for my nephews and nieces, for all the special ‘little people’ in my world. I want them to have adventures, to know that God has their back and the safest place in the world is being where He is. Children’s fiction is full of adventures, often with a dark supernatural side. I want to inspire children that adventures are possible with Jesus. And these God-adventures are the most exciting ones out there!
What do you hope readers – children and adults! – will take away from the novel?
I hope that everyone reading the book will be inspired to ‘give it a try’. I want people to try to believe that they are precious to God – try to talk to Him, if they never have before, try to listen for those little promptings, try to step out and act on them. I hope everyone reading the book will feel that talking to God and listening to Him is something normal that we can all do. And my biggest hope is that anyone reading the book who doesn’t know Jesus will want to know Him and be able to take those first steps on the adventure of a lifetime.
Without giving too much away, what was your favourite scene to write and why?
I think it would be the scene at the end, in the café. I loved how everything came together in ways Sienna and her family could never have known. Even now, Jack’s comments about bacon butties make me laugh out loud. Jack is one of my favourite characters – he has such a cheeky sense of humour. He reminds me of someone I know!
Did you have to do any research for the novel?
Interestingly, I didn’t set out to write a published novel. At the end of a busy year for us as a family, I needed to ‘beef-up’ my niece’s Christmas present. Money was tight, so I set my alarm to go off at 5am every morning, and wrote the book over a couple of weekends, in those quiet hours before everyone woke up. The book was heavily influenced by the things we had done that year – a trip to London, a trip to Hull, moving to a new place, helping out at Kids’ Church. Everything came out in the book.
The most influential part of the year had been the visit to Hull in October. As I have already shared, I had gone to University there, and then we lived nearby before moving to Scotland, so I still had friends. We went to stay with very dear friends for the weekend and ended up going to church with them. Now, I have been to many churches over my 40+ years, but never a church like this one. It was the strangest feeling, like the Sunday service wasn’t the main event. People weren’t coming to church, the Church were coming together. This city centre church are very active in helping the homeless and anybody who needs help. This came through in every aspect of the gathering, from the smoking shelter in the car park, to breakfast being served with coffee before the service for any who wanted it, to the sensitivity of the congregation to those who had probably never been in church before and didn’t know the ‘correct’ way to behave. I was touched and inspired by this gentle, caring, but deeply practical congregation.
As I started to write The Treasure Man, I knew the only hope for the homeless character was for him to find a church like this one.
Beyond the clear Christian content, how does your faith inform your writing?
My faith influences everything I do, which includes my writing. As I mentioned earlier, talking to God is part of the natural ebb and flow of my life. I ask for His help at work, for inspiration on how to teach. I ask who I should reach out to and encourage. And I ask God about my writing. I often find myself asking Him about a character, how will their story develop? Or how can I explain this truth so a reader can understand it? I pray a lot about what I should write, I ask God for help with story-lines and plots. I also pray about marketing, how can I get my book out there for people to read?
How did you find the publication process?
Exciting and challenging. I remember how my heart was racing when I got the first email from Nicki, and realised it was a personal email and someone had read my story, rather than just the standard ‘we are not accepting any work at the moment’, which I had got from many other publishers. When they said they would be interested in publishing it, I was blown away. It was such a validation of the story and my writing, and honestly, it was totally unexpected!
The story needed a complete rewrite, which I was concerned about, but my editor, Sheila Jacobs, was amazing. She laid out really clearly what didn’t work and why, prompting me to go back and dig deeper. During the final edits, I learnt so much from her. Sheila patiently explained her changes, and why and how the piece could be improved. It felt like a masterclass in creative writing. I feel very honoured to have worked with her on the project and would love to work with her again.
Did you get input from friends and family for The Treasure Man or was the book something you felt best to work on alone?
When I first wrote the book, it was specifically written for my niece. Her Mum, my sister, helped a lot with tweaking ideas and names and places, to make it fit their family. However, when it came to the main writing, and then the rewrite, it was just me and a laptop, usually at 5am, with a cafetiere of coffee and lots of prayer.
What are you working on now?
During Lockdown 2.0, I did a blog on my website, joyvee.org, from the point of view of Sienna (the main character in The Treasure Man), looking at her challenges during the second lockdown. I did consider starting that again when the third Lockdown was announced, but I decided not to. It was hard work writing a new part of the story every day after work.
I was approached last month by a mother who had read The Treasure Man with her son, and now wanted advice on what to do when he wants to talk to every homeless person they come across. As a result, I am looking at putting together resources for parents, based on some of the lessons in The Treasure Man. How do we help our children with the issue of homelessness, safely? How can we teach them (and ourselves) that we are precious to God? How do I help my child hear from God and discern if it’s His voice?
I also have two nephews and another niece who all think it is high time Auntie Joy wrote something for them – so, watch this space!
Finally, what is your favourite book and why?
I can’t say I have a life-long favourite! I’ve had different favourites at different seasons in my life. The one I find myself recommending the most to people at the moment is Angels of Humility by Jackie Macgirvin. It is a story set in a small town in America and in Heaven. You have a glimpse into the angelic realm and see the eternal actions of the characters involved. I found myself seeing some of my actions in a new light, and it wasn’t all good. The book challenged me, but also gave me great hope. It helped refocus me on Eternity – which is very necessary these days.