Bypass January Blues: An interview with Milly Johnson
MILLY JOHNSON was born, raised and still lives in Barnsley, South Yorkshire. A Sunday Times bestselling author of eighteen novels, she is one of the Top 10 Female Fiction authors in the UK with millions of copies of her books sold across the world. In 2020, she was honoured with the Romantic Novelists’ Association’s Outstanding Achievement Award and was a featured author in the Reading Agency’s Quick Reads and World Book Night campaigns.
A writer who champions women and highlights the importance of friendship and community, Milly’s characters are celebrations of the strength of the human spirit.
LondonPop editor Megan Thomas talks to Milly about her career and her wonderful selection of books.
Happy New Year! What are your writing goals for the year?
Thank you and Happy New Year to you too. This year I have book 19 to finish and then it’s on to book 20. I don’t want to get pulled off into a lot of side projects this year as it’s going to be hard enough to focus on what I have to do so a spot of streamlining is called for.
While your books tend to keep to British lifestyle, they've been sold worldwide. What do you think it is about your books that makes them so entertaining and appealing to an international audience?
I would like to think that the people in my books tackle issues which are worldwide and common to lots and lots of people. Women especially, whether they live in Perth or Papua New Guinea, will have confidence issues, partner troubles, worries about children, menopause fears. I’ve always been a great fan of observational humour so I try and bore down into finding those threads which unite us.
Your books cover all manner of weathers and themes yet are tied together by a thread of romance, and the fact that they make for the perfect fireside-with-a-pair-of-fluffy-socks reading. How do you go about deciding what to write about?
The triggers for a new book can come from anywhere. Sometimes I start with a central character - and the story whips around her or him like a candy floss around a stick. The Magnificent Mrs Mayhew, for instance - started from an idea about exploring what might sit behind the eyes of the wife of a famous MP who is dragged into the media spotlight even if she doesn’t want to be there, and how she is judged by the public and dissected by them.
The Perfectly Imperfect Woman came from an article about a whole village which came up for sale a few years ago. It seemed more fictional than fiction as the old lady who owned it died and she had been charging her tenants a peppercorn rent for years. When I read about it, my head started to knit a story about what might happen next; how would the next owner make changes. My first book The Yorkshire Pudding Club was inspired by my own pregnancy journey.
My last book I Wish it Could be Christmas Every Day was a case of writing a story to fit what I thought was a killer title. I don’t plan books so I don’t know where I am going with them until I write them but I think I have a good handle on what my readers enjoy by now; i.e. something comforting and satisfying that leaves them with hope.
Are your descriptions of Britain in your books drawn from real places you've been and experienced, or are there some places that are fresh from your imagination?
Some of the places in Britain are real but I intersperse them with made up places. Penistone is a market town near to where I live, and yet Maltstone and Oxworth are fictional - because then I can put in shops and features that aren’t in the villages they are based on. Likewise when I write about the East Coast, Whitby is real but places like Ren Dullem and Wellem aren’t. I actually have a fun map on my website of this area with real histories of that part of Yorkshire woven in with the fictitious. It’s great fun smudging the lines and because plenty of it is fact, it makes the fiction easier to believe too (I once had a woman smilingly admonish me for all the time she’d spent researching trying to prove Van Gogh came to Yorkshire). When I do write about real places, I make sure I research them thoroughly.
Where in Britain are you from, and do you find that it inspires your writing?
I’m from South Yorkshire - an ex-mining town. Being from this part of the world has given me a career. I was a spark of difference writing about the north when so many books were about the south and my books struck a chord with the people who come from this area. Plus I got brownie points for not dissing the north but writing about it with a lot of pride and affection. Yorkshire is lovely and I’m proud to be an ambassador for it. My hometown - Barnsley - is where I cut my teeth on life and where I grew up, my pals are from here and I’ve been happy here. The experiences I’ve had in this place have given me a wonderful scrapbook from which to draw material.
What's your favourite thing about Britain in January?
I hate January with a passion, it always feels as if it has over a hundred days in it. So what helps me get through it is to concentrate on small facts like we have a few minutes more sunlight every day, and we are on course for spring. I always buy hyacinths to grow on my windowsill because the sight of them cheers me. And I love seeing the snowdrops and crocuses bud in the parks - that eases me properly into the coming year.
OUT NOW with Simon & Schuster!
The latest in Milly's library of novels is My One True North, and it's bound to kickstart your literary year with some much needed joy.