My name is Milly Johnson, I’m a novelist, joke-writer, speaker, poet and newspaper columnist from Barnsley and I’m clinging onto the mid-fifties tag. I live with my partner of nine years and my young-men sons. I consider ‘novelist’ and ‘mother’ as sharing equal place on the first-place podium, though if I’m honest I never wanted children, but in my mid-thirties, when married, it was as if a switch went on and I wanted a child.
Ten months later I was in an operating theatre having my son surgically removed because he refused to come out. And my real life began. I consider most of what went on before as an apprenticeship. I had a great childhood, loads of mates, loved school, had a lovely family. My grandparents were great readers – my parents not at all, I think the gene skipped a generation. I had no siblings and preferred to sit in and read than play out. From a very early age I wanted to write books that made others feel the way authors made me feel when I read. But I was a northern working-class girl and I thought I had no chance – that was a pipe dream. But it wouldn’t go away, however much I tried to shoo it, because it was complicating things. It would have been so much easier to settle for a ‘proper job’, and not have this lofty ambition nagging me. So I tried to write and sent off my synopses to agents, only to be rejected and quite rightly so. I thought no one would be interested about life in the north (the chick-lit phenomena had cranked up and all the stories were set in London, flat-sharing, PR jobs) and I couldn’t write effectively about the south, so I set my stories in a strange no-man’s land that no one would have been able to identify with.
After each rejection, I vowed not to try again. But then I did, because it felt like only one coat would fit me. I couldn’t have written the sorts of books in my early twenties that I write now, because they are fuelled by life experience. I had a lot of jobs. I did a university degree to train me to be a teacher – hated it. Did office jobs, sales jobs, even became a trainee accountant (worst job mis-match in history). Then I ended up selling cruises for a Yorkshire firm. This led to breakthrough number one, though I didn’t realise it at the time. I was sacked by them for having a Yorkshire accent. And when I’d stopped crying, I decided that my next book idea would be set in Yorkshire, in fact it would be stuffed full of Yorkshire. Then, strapped for cash, I wrote to a few greetings card firms hoping they’d buy a few of the jokes and poems I’d written. They did – in fact I was so sought after that it became my full-time job for many happy years. At that time I’d sort of resigned myself to never breaking through into the book world. But I was a ‘writer’, it was the silver medal position, but it was a great job. I married, but it wasn’t a happy marriage. My two sons were born in the two bright spots when I thought I could make it work, but I had opened a file up with a divorce solicitor just after I was pregnant with my second son. With my first son, I fell pregnant at the same time as two of my best pals and we journeyed through pregnancy together. After the births, when we were sitting in my front room admiring each other’s babies, a thunderbolt hit me. ‘Why aren’t you writing about this: Yorkshire, motherhood, pregnancy, friends… the extraordinary things that happen within the parameters of ordinary life?’ I was already carrying my second son when I started to write the story of three friends who became pregnant at the same time. I got divorced – a single mum with two children, absolutely no support at all from my ex who disappeared. I worked through the day writing jokes, wrote big chunks of my book in the wee small hours. But I felt I had something special and that gave me all the energy I needed. After fifteen years of chasing my dream, I got a book deal. And I’ve never looked back. Yorkshire and all those mistakes and mis-matches served me well.
Could you tell us a little bit more about your experience of motherhood?
I’ve loved being a mum, which has surprised me. But it’s intensive. And I’m an only child squashed between kids and elderly parents. And somehow in that sandwich, the filling gets pressed too flat to taste. All the care floods outwards and luckily for me I have a partner who sees this more than I do. He books me massages, he runs me a bath and tells me to down tools and soak. He also forces me out to go on a walk, because the only part of me that really exercises is my fingers on a keyboard – and if the rest of me was as fit as them, I’d be running marathons. When you are the engine, you need to administer oil, recharge the battery, make sure it’s maintained and busy women are the worst for self-care I think. Any spare time we have for stuff like that, we use for other things. Sometimes we need someone to tell us that it’s more beneficial in the long run to book in a pummelling with hot stones than clean all the skirting boards. That’s why Mamma with a Cuppa is a great incentive to take time out, to focus on ourselves even for a little while. We tend to think time spent on ourselves is time wasted… and quite the opposite is true. We should be our own best friends and we would tell our best friend to rest up occasionally, relax, enjoy some me-time.
Where do you get the inspirations for your stories?
I get my writing inspiration from everywhere. Sometimes it’s something I’ve read in a newspaper, or from the life story of someone I know – or, as in my first book, my own life (first books do tend to have quite a lot of the author in them). Or even, as in my latest book, the title comes first and I wrap a story around it. I don’t plot anything, I just set off and see where it takes me. You’d be surprised what is inside you when you try, is what I tell people. I have made this career happen and yet only a few years ago, I was trapped in a terribly abusive marriage, poor as a church mouse, feeling as low as you can go and thinking ‘Is this it? Is this all my life will ever be?’ Small changes and a bit of bravery is all it takes to start the shift to fulfilment – I know this because I’ve been there and done it.
Tell us a little about our book club choice?
My eighteenth book (I know!) ‘I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day’ is the book it is because of when it was written. And I’m glad for that. Had it not been written in January but later, it would not have been about six people in a virtual lockdown because I would have avoided the subject like the plague (excuse the pun). Had it been written last year, it would have been a book about a sort of Brigadoon eternal Christmas land that I couldn’t drum up a lot of enthusiasm for. My father passed away last Christmas and I needed somewhere to dump a lot of emotion, untease it, work it through… and cheer myself up. I wrote the first draft in two and a half weeks, like a mad thing. My other half opened up my office door, brought in coffee and Mr Kipling’s French Fancies, and quietly exited, let me get on with it. And I think I’ve produced something from my heart rather than my brain. I stuffed it full of joy, of cheer, of Christmas and love and friendship because I needed to feel that as I was writing. I wanted the sadness inside me not only to be counterbalanced but jettisoned into orbit. It’s the story of three couples all going various places on 23rd December, but their plans are thwarted by unforecasted snow. Bridge and Luke, planning to meet for five minutes to sign a piece of paper that will effectively begin the end of their very long divorce proceedings are now forced to spend days over Christmas together and it’s clear those feelings of hatred for each other are clouding much deeper emotions. Industry boss Jack and his PA Mary are travelling to Newcastle for a meeting. Mary has been in love with Jack for four years and this was her big chance to show him she was more woman than office stapler. And an older gay couple Robin and Charlie are travelling to Aviemore for a beyond-luxurious Christmas when they have to take refuge in the Figgy Hollow Inn and end up peeling their own sprouts. All of them take centre stage in this book – and no villains! Ridiculous as it sounds, these people became so real to me that I didn’t want to let them go and I’m delighted by the response from readers that they didn’t want to let them go either. I’d had the title in my head for years but I didn’t have the time to write it. Then I made the time because I needed to read it. I think of it as mine and dad’s book because his passing stirred up things inside me that became a gift, strange as it sounds. There’s a lot of child and parent stuff in it.
What does Christmas mean to you?
I love Christmas – I always pull all the stops out and having our first Christmas without dad last year taught me that we really shouldn’t be harking back to ‘last Christmas’ when there was that extra person at the table or worrying who will be sitting there next Christmas… but we should enjoy every one for what it is. The ‘here and now’ is a huge theme of my book. We look back and forward too much when all we really have is that here and now and so that’s where our attention should be. This Christmas will indeed be different, but we can make it special all the same. I shall be making my own crackers (as per usual) and watch the same old films, raising a glass to absent friends but I shall savour it.
What do you think of book clubs?
Books clubs are great! So many people have told me how they discovered me through being a book club choice (and are quite honest in cases saying they would never have picked me up otherwise – ha!) Book clubs broaden your reading horizons and there are treats and surprises to be found outside book comfort zones. And talking about books, trying to get into the author’s head is fascinating. Anything that encourages reading is fine by me. It’s one of life’s great un-winders. And in this life where we are forced to multi-task, reading concentrates the mind on one thing only. I could fill another blog post on the advantages of reading… especially as there are no disadvantages to it.
What do you like to read?
I read to power down at night. I’m presently reading Graham Norton’s ‘Holding’ which made me laugh from the get-go. I read a lot of crime, usually but in this climate I’m finding that my tastes are heading more towards gentler reads. I am often enticed to buy by the recommendations in Friday’s Daily Mail. I love a good autobiography, I revisit the classics and at Christmas I will be mostly found tucking into my old Agatha Christie’s. I remember the murderers but I like to watch the plot unfold again. Blessed familiarity – there’s nothing wrong with it when you need a literary comfort blanket.
If you've been inspired to Read Our Book of the Month - I Wish it could be Christmas Everyday by Milly Johnson - Head over to our Book Club pages to join in the fun and order your copy from our online store here