Barnsley author Milly Johnson on hope, romantic fiction and being 'a poster girl for giving it your best shot'

Milly Johnson was 40 before she got her first publishing deal. Fifteen years she had spent chasing an agent with her stories, juggling writing novels with everything from accountancy to crafting jokes.

Barnsley author Milly Johnson.

Now 56 and a Sunday Times bestselling writer, she is one of the top women fiction authors in the UK – and she sees herself as a poster girl for “giving it your best shot and making it happen”.

“I think life has taught me that you will never find what you’re looking for in your comfort zone and you really have to take chances,” she says. “You will get things wrong and you will learn from them but for people who don’t try, they just don’t get anywhere.”

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Millions of copies of Milly’s books have been sold across the world. Her latest My One True North was published last month and became number 17 of the growing list of novels she has to her name. A story of love, fate and second chances, it follows the tale of Laurie and Pete, who are brought together at a counselling group after losing their partners.

Milly says Barry Hines was one of her favourite authors.

“Because it’s about such a heavy subject as grief, that gave me carte blanche to whip in as much humour as possible because you need to counterbalance it,” Milly says. “I wanted it to be funny and hopeful.”

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"My books are like force 12 gales sometimes and I don’t think it’s fair on the reader to not deliver a happy ending. It’s lovely that people choose my books because they know that at the end, no matter what happens, I’m going to leave them with that hope and that uplift and I like the fact I can do that.”

The wide appeal of her books comes, Milly believes, from her desire to write stories that reflect real life. She draws on her own experiences, as well of those of others, pulled together with a good old dose of imagination and escapism.

“There’s always quite a few bits of my own experience in there. Ironically, in My One True North, I wrote about grief when I was in a good place, from an objective point of view. When I finished the book, my dad died and I found myself walking in the footsteps of my own characters.

“I did another edit before it went to print and a lot of me went into a lot of that book. My only consolation is that I got it spot on... All the stuff I wrote about came before I actually had to do it. As heartbreaking as it was in the book, that’s what it was like in real life. It’s one of the most powerful things I’ve ever written.”

Books were always in the house when Milly was growing up. Her grandparents inspired her interest by bringing her copies of Enid Blyton’s classic tales. “I loved to read and I used to write my own little stories,” she recalls. “I would and make them into books with paper and Sellotape and illustrate them. Books were a passion.”

From a young age, Milly wanted to write for a living, but she didn’t believe that being an author was in the grasp of children from the North. Even after being inspired by Northern writers such as Catherine Cookson and Barry Hines, she feared she wouldn’t be taken seriously.

“I was split down the middle,” she says. “There was one half of me that went you’re not good enough to do this, girls like you don’t get these jobs. The other half was going that’s all I really want to do, I want to write books that make people feel the way I feel when I read a book.

“Both sides were very instrumental in getting me to where I am. One side of me wouldn’t let it go and refused to and the other side made me go out and get other jobs. I was at war with myself but it worked because I needed the backbone to carry on writing but I also needed life experience... I wouldn’t have been able to write the sort of books I do write now in my 20s.”

Milly ended up studying Drama and Education at Exeter University. A varied career followed, first as a trainee accountant and then as a greeting cards writer for Purple Ronnie, before a succession of roles in offices, banks, mills, sales and exports.

After being made redundant while pregnant, she later turned her hand back to greetings cards and established herself as a professional joke writer, even sending off verses after going into labour.

“The greetings cards market was massive and I was one of the leading copywriters in the UK that just did this full time,” she says. “It was a perfect job for me and so much more lucrative than anyone could ever imagine... I used to earn my mortgage in a morning’s work.”

It was the silver medal, she says, though the gold, of course, was a novel. And, after 15 years of approaching agents with her writing only to suffer rejection after rejection, a breakthrough moment at last put it in sight.

“I had been pregnant at the same time as a couple of my friends and to cut a long story short, when we were sitting in my front room showing off our babies, it was like a thunderbolt. I thought why aren’t you writing about this?

"Why aren’t you writing about friendships and Yorkshire and women and people you worked with? That’s when I thought maybe there’s a story in three friends on the cusp of 40 who all find themselves getting pregnant at the same time.”

There was indeed. Milly secured an agent and publishing deal in 2004 and, two years on, The Yorkshire Pudding Club hit the shelves. With her readership building steadily, a few years later she successfully applied for a place on TV’s Come Dine With Me. “At the time, I was alone with two small children and I needed all the brass I could get,” she explains, “so I did it for a PR thing really to help boost my books and my profile.”

It proved to be a good move; Milly won the show, her sales increased and a friend of a friend called Pete turned up and took her out for a coffee. They’ve been together ever since.

Fast-forward to January this year and Milly was honoured with an Outstanding Achievement Award from the Romantic Novelists’ Association. “I was incredibly touched,” she says, “and it was also a very surreal time. I thought, am I worthy of this?

“It was a wonderful platform for me to be able to talk about our books – not just mine but the whole genre of books, which is a little bit sniffed at, and the impact that the stories have on people’s lives... As writers of romance, we make a hell of a lot of money for the industry and there’s nothing to be sniffy about at all. There’s still a lot of prejudice out there and we just have to keep battering down the walls.”

Milly is bursting with pride when she looks at that award. For inside her is still the little girl who wanted this career so dearly and yet was far from sure that she could ever achieve it.

“The journey has been long and winding but I got here in the end and I look back and think how much we can achieve if we just press the walls of our comfort zone out,” she reflects. “I hope I can inspire people. I’m just an ordinary Barnsley lass but I tried and I’ve done it.”

My One True North is published by Simon & Schuster.

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