This week’s interviewee in the Romantic Novel Award Winners series is the winner of the Goldsboro Books Contemporary Romantic Novel Award for her novel My One True North and one of my favourite authors… Milly Johnson.
Milly, you are no stranger to awards and this is your second year in a row as a recipient, having been given the Outstanding Achievement Award in 2020, yet you still looked so surprised to be announced as the winner. Were you really shocked to win, and was does winning this award with this book mean to you?
The shock was genuine. Despite an Honours Drama Degree! Your mind plays tricks with you when you’re short-listed ‘Oh they’re bound to give it to X because of this/that reason’, you imagine politics might play a part, or it’s a strategic choice. I’ve been caught out with it every time. Maybe it’s just that us writers are strange creatures – full of ego that we have the confidence to write something we are sure will appeal to the masses, and yet we’re riddled with self-doubt that we’re not as good as anyone else and couldn’t possibly be picked because the judges simply liked our book best.
I think in my case it was that I wanted it SO much for this book. I felt it was special as I was writing it and I though we always put our hearts into our stories, this one had all of me in it, my barrel was totally scooped out. One of the major themes was grief and my dad was really poorly as I was writing it. Rather oddly I ended up treading in the footsteps of my own characters when he died. I looked at the short-listed books and what a bunch they were, I really didn’t think I had a chance. SoI was totally gobsmacked. But my goodness – delighted too. My One True North was dedicated to dad so it was ‘our’ book, and that’s why I was so emotional.
I loved the phrase you used in your speech about turning your knock backs on their head and using them as springboards. You are such a great public speaker, and your words resonate with everyone who hears them. Do you prepare what you might say in advance, or is it always off the cuff? Does this come from being a natural storyteller?
I prepare if there are points I want to make sure I get in as I am very good at going off on tangents. And that is kind of you to say, I love an audience. I prefer public speaking to acting, I have to admit (line-learning – ugh). Basically I just treat an audience to all the cock-ups I’ve made in life which has provided a very hefty scrapbook of ideas for me to draw on. Every crap thing that happens to a writer is harvested and recycled and I think people are quite fascinated by stories of others reaching rock bottom and using it to project themselves upwards. I also think I resonate because I’m very ordinary and that makes people really believe that if I can do it, so can they. And they can.
Your books are phenomenally popular and I think part of the reason for that is that reading your novels feels like being told a story firsthand by a close, chatty and witty friend. Are you a natural raconteur in everyday life?
I love to talk and I love a good yarn – both to tell and to listen to. I write as I speak which is why I always warn people who listen to me at events, if you’ve hated hearing me, don’t buy my books because they’re just me on a flat page. I was a greetings card copywriter for many years and honed the skills of observational humour, keying into those subjects common to so many of us. People love it when I touch on scenarios many of them have been in so they can explore and view them objectively this time around. I consider it a great honour when people tell me that they feel as if I’ve been hanging over their shoulders and have written about their own personal circumstances.
Your novels always feature a perfect balance of joy and anguish, which people respond to because it reflects real life. Is that something you deliberately strive for or does it just come naturally for you to write that way? How much do you plan your books or are you a pantser?
I just write about some extraordinary things that happen within the parameters of ordinary life. Our lives are littered with coincidences, good luck and bad luck, sometimes truth really is stranger than fiction but weirdly in fiction you have to throttle back so that our storylines are believable. My own life has been very big-dipper and that’s obviously translated into how I write because I take my readers through the wringer. But if I’m going to take my reader low, then I also want to rocket them high and leave them with hope. I’m in the business of uplifting not depressing and if that means I have to temper a bit of realism by manipulating a happy ending, then so be it.
I want my readers to climb into the skins of my characters and walk in them, I want them to cheer on the good guys and boo the bad ones. In life we’d all like to see people get what they deserve but it doesn’t happen, but it does in my books. As for planning – ha! I’ve never planned a book and trust me I’ve tried. It must be magic to be able to see the whole book as a construct from the off – I can only see as far as the next sentence. I might start off with two characters and a house and I am constantly amazed at how much I can pull out of myself and build a whole book from it. When anyone says to me ‘I’d love to write a book but I don’t know where to start’ my stock answer is ‘neither do I!’ Which is why I encourage people to put pen to paper and see where it takes them because I know they’ll be surprised at what is in them waiting to come out.
Being from Yorkshire myself, just up the road from you, I always feel that your characters are people I recognise. Do you steal them from real life?
Some of my characters are from my imagination, but then again that imagination has been fuelled by people I’ve met or heard about. Quite a few might start off based on people I’ve encountered but by the end of the book the reality has been chased away because they’ve grown into their own skins (this is handy as it means I’m unlikely to be sued by someone for libel) Sounds odd, but they are every bit as real to me as those who live and breathe.
What do you think are the most important ingredients of a successful romance novel and what advice would you give to those of us just starting out in this genre?
I know there is a trend for ‘unlikeable’ characters, but I always find I get into a book much better when I am really rooting for the leads. I have to like their values (Heathcliff hanged a dog – wasn’t interested in him after I read that bit), I don’t want my lovers to be too perfect – a reader has to think the hero is attainable and the heroine would make a nice friend. Any faults have to be redeemable. I also like to tease my reader, make them think that this time I just might not deliver the happy ending (though I always do). I want them to be champing at the bit for the lovers to get together, but I never make it easy for them to do that. We all love a bit of sexual tension, that frustration when they are just about to couple up and then you wrench them apart. I think you have to just write the story in your heart without copying a trend, get that first draft out on paper with all the mistakes and clumsy grammar because that’s the one that captures all the emotion and will give you your direction on what sort of love story you want to write. Getting the emotional feels is harder to do than any editing. It may be a very gentle rolling hills kind of love story or it may be a up Everest in a blizzard sort – and there are audiences for both.
I know your dedicated readers, of which there are many, are always desperate for your next novel, so can you give us any details of what is on the horizon and when we can look forward to seeing it?
It’s called ‘The Woman in the Middle’ and it’s out in hardback on October 14th. And it’s very much based on my experiences as someone in that sandwich generation, having to look after elderly parents and deal with kids who might be adult in age but your apron strings have no intention of untying from them yet.
It’s about Shay who has spent most of her adult life looking after her in-laws, her parents, bringing up children, being the chief cook and bottle-washer for her electrician husband Bruce. Now her children have left home and it’s time for Shay and Bruce to finally have some ‘us’ time. But the delivery of an orange skip on her mother’s neighbours’ drive sets in motion a series of life-changing events as long-buried secrets are forced to the surface and turn Shay’s world on its head. And, life being as unfair as it is, sometimes it doesn’t stop kicking you when you’re down but continues to batter you long past your point of coping.
The only way Shay can truly recover is to go back to the place she was brought up and try and right a great wrong that was done to her when she was only sixteen, which put her on a path to a life she should never have had.
It’s the story of family and friendship, community, first-cuts being the deepest, of there being no guidebook to parenting. I think us parents often wish we had a rewind button when we’ve made wrong decisions with the best intentions, believed our intuitions. In the sandwich generation, we have to watch our parents become the children and our idea of world order becomes upset – at the same time as we have to stand back when our children flap their wings and try to fly their own way. It’s a very hard place to be in which I wanted to explore. It’s a massive book with so much going on in it, but at its heart it’s the tale of a woman who deserves better than she got and she finds the strength to rise up from rock bottom and fight for herself and those she loves. I had the best fun writing it, it’ll be a hard read in places but there’s a lot of lightness too. Some of my favourite characters ever in this one – and some scenes I never wanted to stop writing.
Milly, thank you so much for answering my questions, it is always a delight to hear from you. The entry period for the 2022 Romantic Novel Awards is now open and will close on 30 September.
Milly’s award-winning novel, My One True North, is out now and you can buy a copy here.
Laurie and Pete should never have met.
But fate has pushed them together for a reason.
Six months ago, on the same night, Laurie and Pete both lost their partners.
Struggling to manage the grief, they join the same counselling group – and meet each other.
From their sadness, Pete and Laurie find happiness growing and they sense a fresh new beginning.
Except, the more they talk, the more they begin to spot the strange parallels in their stories.
Then Pete discovers a truth that changes everything.
But, as surely as a compass points north, some people cannot be kept apart.
About the Author
MILLY JOHNSON was born, raised and still lives in Barnsley, South Yorkshire. A Sunday Times bestseller, 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. Her nineteenth novel, The Woman in the Middle, is published 14th October 2021 in hardback by Simon & Schuster.
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