Johnson says she found writing during lockdown, the first one in particular, impossible,
“My sons and my partner were off and the sun was shining, They were in the garden and I just found it impossible to write.” That is an unusual state of affairs for the Barnsley author who has just published her 19th novel.
“It meant that when everyone started to go back to work and university I had to knuckle down and get cracking.”
It meant her 19th novel – Woman in the Middle – was written in just three weeks, the quickest novel she has ever written.
It is also one of her most personal books, and she says as a result the words ‘just poured out’.
“Most of my books resonate with people as they are inspired by real life experiences,” says Johnson.
“Woman in the Middle is about a woman from the sandwich generation – like me. They are caring for elderly parents but also still parenting their teenage children.
“I am at that stage in my life and you constantly feel like you are failing and you bet yourself up. You struggle to accept that your parents can’t do the things they used to do and also you struggle to let your children make the mistakes they have to make in order to learn. But it is very hard as your maternal instinct is to do it for them rather than stand by and watch them make mistakes.
“You feel guilty about all the things you didn’t do rather than taking stock of the things your actually have done.
“Also being an only child means that there is never any argument about who needs to do a thing – it’s me. But I am eternally grateful that I still have my mum – she’ll be 90 in March – and don’t begrudge it for a moment. It’s like having a classic car – they take a bit more looking after but you’d rather have them than not.”
Johnson says writing the book also helped her process her feelings about her own mother.
“My mum is fiercely independent. She lives round the corner but won’t even consider moving in with me. I go round twice a day and my other half Pete also goes round to make sure she’s okay.
“Her memory isn’t what it was and I do find myself sometimes being short with her. Writing the book really helped me process this and find a better way of handling certain situations. It sounds strange to say it but the characters really help me.”
Johnson says also being an only child has made her obsessed with relationships between siblings which often feature in her books.
In Woman in the Middle the central character has a sister who doesn’t do her fair share.
“I always seem to have siblings in my books I think it comes with being an only child.”
This month also sees the paperback publication of Johnson’s 2020 festive hit, I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday which she wrote after her father’s death just before Christmas 2019.
“I actually wrote it before lockdown but it is quite prophetic as its centre around six characters stuck in a Yorkshire pub. We all know what it feels like to be stuck inside now,” says Johnson. Like Woman in the Middle, I Wish it Could Be Christmas Everyday is very personal to her.
“My dad was a really organised person and when he was really poorly he wanted to talk to me about his affairs, but I just couldn’t. He wanted to talk to me but I wasn’t ready to listen and that’s something I regret. Once again writing about a similar situation in the book helped me process how I felt about my dad.
“These were the two books I needed to write.”
She is currently on with her 20th novel and is also working on a crime book
Lockdown saw a surge in demand for Johnson’s romantic fiction novels.
“I think people wanted a bit of escapism – even a lot of men downloaded my books – they said I was their guilty pleasure,” she says.
“They didn’t want to read about crime they wanted to read something that was hopeful and familiar. My books are all based in ordinary Yorkshire places, with people going shopping or going to the pub – all the things we couldn’t do during lockdown. And my books either have happy endings or at least hopeful ones and we all needed a bit of that.” Johnson is a true defender of the romantic fiction genre.
“People can be a bit sniffy about the genre,” she says. “But just because something has a happy ending doesn’t mean it is any less well written and it can still have a twist.”
Last year she was recipient of the Romantic Novelists’ Association’s Outstanding Achievement Award.
When she struggled to write during the first half of the pandemic she instead turned her attention to box sets and then to a bit of DIY like a lot of the nation. “My son got Covid right at the beginning of the pandemic and he convinced me to watch Game of Thrones with him and I became addicted.”
“We really hadn’t done anything to the house and so I spent a lot of time on eBay finding exactly the type of furniture I wanted for my study and now I am really pleased with it. I have the desk I have always wanted.”
Johnson writes in her study trying to keep office hours of 9am to 4.30pm.
“My dad bought me a typewriter years ago and I did a Pitman touch-typing course and so now I type even quicker than I talk although I have upgraded to a Mac. I don’t have a plan, that’s just not the way I work. I have an idea and thoughts about characters and then I just started writing.”
Born and brought up in Barnsley, where she still lives, Johnson is also a scriptwriter, poet, columnist, joke-writer, motivational speaker and short story writer. She says she always knew she wanted to write, from a very early age, but has said that she didn’t think that ‘‘ordinary girls like me got jobs like that’’.
She worked in a variety of jobs, including an enjoyable and lucrative period writing humorous verses for Purple Ronnie greetings cards, while continuing to send manuscripts to publishers, bouncing back from a succession of rejections and trying again. Success as a novelist came relatively late, her first novel was published when she was 40, but she is philosophical about that, acknowledging that she wouldn’t have been able to write the kind of books she writes when she was in her 20s.
“A lot of what I write about is from my own experience,” she says. “There have been ups and downs in my life, and I have been very low at times. I do know how that feels and I think it probably helps me to connect with my readers.
The Woman in the Middle is out now in hardback, £16.99, and I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day is published in paperback on November 11, £8.99.