Barnsley author Milly Johnson on the unexpected joys of the pandemic and her new festive novel

Milly Johnson’s new festive novel could be the book we all need right now. Yvette Huddleston talks to the best-selling Barnsley author.

Novelist Milly Johnson’s new book tells the story of festive companions making the best of a confined Christmas. Picture: Scott Merrylees

Whichever way you look at it, there’s no denying that 2020 has been a pretty challenging year and we could all do with a bit of warm positivity to ease us into a festive season that is likely to be very different to normal for most of us.

If anyone knows how to tap into the feelgood factor it is best-selling Barnsley novelist Milly Johnson. One of the top ten female fiction authors in the UK, she has written 18 novels so far, with millions of sales worldwide. Her first novel The Yorkshire Pudding Club was published in 2007 and since then she has written at least one book a year.

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Her latest – I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day – is the perfect festive read. “I had the title for this book floating around in my head for years but I just didn’t have the time to write it,” says Johnson. “I kept coming back to it, mulling it over, but I didn’t have the story – and then I just thought if I don’t get a move on, I might never get round to it, so I just told myself ‘this is the year’.”

At the end of last year Johnson lost her father – not long before Christmas. Her last book My One True North, which came out in March this year, dealt with loss and grief and had been written while her father was very ill. By the time it was published, he had passed away and she says that she found herself “walking in the footsteps” of her characters.

When she sat down to start work on I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day, she knew she was aiming to write a story that would be wholly uplifting. “I think I needed somewhere to put all this energy – it was grief – and I also wanted to cheer myself up.” She began writing in January and completed the first draft extremely quickly.

“It really just poured out of me,” she says. “I’ve never done anything like that before – the first draft was all done and dusted in about two-and-a-half weeks. I thought it was going to be pretty rubbish and I was a bit hesitant to send it, but my editor loved it and said it’s the best thing I’ve ever written. There was definitely something inside me pushing this book out – it was quite different to how I usually write.”

The novel is set during the run-up to Christmas in a picturesque pub in a tiny Yorkshire hamlet called Figgy Hollow where six people find themselves seeking shelter after an unexpected snowstorm. Snowed in for several days and unable to leave the inn, they are forced to make the best of difficult circumstances.

It’s a situation that strikes a chord and one with which we have all become very familiar since the UK first went into lockdown back in March. “It is quite prescient and it would have been a very different book if I had started writing it a couple of months ago,” says Johnson. “I would never have written anything about being confined in one place. But if the book has a message it is about living in the moment and appreciating the people you have around you.”

The novel’s tagline ‘‘a Christmas like no other – so they made it special’’ certainly resonates with this year’s festive season and Johnson, both in her writing and approach to life, is keen to accentuate the positive.

“The pandemic has brought some nice, unexpected joys – we are all united in the here and now. You can either moan about it or deal with it – and that’s what the characters in the book do,” she says. “They decide that they can hold a Christmas – they make crackers out of newspaper and they have a snowman building competition. I have always been quite optimistic and I couldn’t write books telling people to have hope if I didn’t believe in that myself.”

In January, it was announced that Johnson was to be the recipient of the Romantic Novelists’ Association’s Outstanding Achievement Award which she received in a ceremony in London in early March.

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In her acceptance speech she referred to the kind of prejudice and snobbery that is sometimes levelled against the genre of romantic fiction, saying “we are the glorious counterbalance to this climate of hate” and later wrote eloquently in defence of happy endings in a blog post for Books and the City website arguing that ‘‘we enhance lives, we change lives… we give people hope that happy endings are not just restricted to fiction, and we know we do this because our readers write to tell us that we have.’’

While humour is very much present in her work – she has won the Romantic Novelists Comedy Award twice in 2014 and 2016 – that doesn’t mean her books are cosy or bland. She has frequently tackled dark subjects such as domestic violence, alcoholism, infidelity and bereavement. Her books often feature women who turn their lives around against the odds.

Female friendship, resilience and second chances are recurring themes. “People contact me with their real-life stories and I feel there has to be some magic in the world with all those wonderful stories where people have had a change of fortune,” she says.

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, but I don’t pontificate.”

I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day could be just the book we all need right now – it even has the bonus of a series of festive jokes at the back. “I have written jokes for Christmas crackers before and these are based on the character of Luke in the book who is a bit like a boy who never grew up, so that gave me carte blanche to make them as silly as possible,” says Johnson.

“With this book I’d like to bring a bit of Christmas magic to everyone. More and more people are turning to books at the moment – they want something to give them hope and take their minds away from everything that’s happening. I hope this supplies that – it is stuffed full of wonderful, joyful things. I do think it’s the best thing I’ve ever written; there is something quite special about this one.”

I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day by Milly Johnson is published in hardback, eBook and audiobook by Simon & Schuster.

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