Milly Johnson - the best-selling on her love of Barnsley
PUBLISHED: 00:00 16 March 2020
Copyright Kevin Gibson Photography Ltd
Nice Yorkshire people are the staple of Milly Johnson’s best selling books
'My characters are portraits of little bits of people. Nice Yorkshire people, and certainly nice Yorkshire women, are a lot gentler than the stereotype might suggest.' Milly Johnson should know. For the bestselling romantic fiction author, who is Barnsley born and bred, has made a career writing about the lives and loves of women from Yorkshire.
Her 17th novel, My One True North, is published at the beginning of March and we meet at one of her favourite haunts, The Potting Shed in Silkstone, to discuss it over slabs of Victoria sponge and a pot of tea - Yorkshire, naturally. The book follows Laurie and Pete, whose partners have both been killed in a car accident, as they come to terms with their grief and uncover some hidden truths. 'I usually have a female protagonist, but sometimes you set yourself little challenges and this time I wanted a story with a parallel between a man and a woman,' says Milly. 'That led me to think what would be the reason for them to meet, and then I thought, like you do, multi pile-up car accident!'
Fans of Milly's books will be familiar with her vibrant characters, and this book is no different. 'A stripped-back cast doesn't come naturally to me,' she says. In particular, the families of her two leads make their presence felt. 'I'm fascinated by families. They always have an impact, whether it's negative or positive.' She suffered the loss of her own father just before Christmas, an experience which has seen her able to relate to her characters on a deeper level. 'Ironically, a lot of the stuff that happens to them in the book, I'm dealing with now,' she says. 'It's been a slog, but I'm trying to get back into things. We're in a state of recalibration, balancing work with checking in on my mum, who lives round the corner.'
As well as the new book, Milly is involved in The Reading Agency's Quick Reads 2020 campaign. It aims to tackle adult literacy problems by distributing short, engaging books to libraries, prisons, colleges, hospitals and adult learning organisations, as an entry point into reading for pleasure.
'The charity originally asked me to go into New Hall Prison to give a talk,' says Milly. 'I was gobsmacked. We all know literacy is important, but I saw the impact on people of not being able to read and the cycles they get into.'
She has contributed a novella, The Little Dreams of Lara Cliffe, to the project. 'I had a story buzzing round in my mind that was too long for a short story and too short for a novel, so all the pieces fitted. There's a little message in it: whatever your dream is, it doesn't have to be climbing Everest, it could be owning a caravan in Bognor Regis, that's fine, get on with that.'
There are two more novels in the pipeline, and Milly has plans to branch out into crime fiction when there is time. 'I don't know how people write more than two books a year,' she says. 'I like to take my time. I plan nothing in advance, which is quite scary, but I just sit down and write and see where it takes me.'
Scary it may be, but Milly doesn't find writing a solitary pursuit. 'I love social media,' she says. 'The writing community online is lovely, it's made up of a lot of friends. It's weird because the people who I used to read are now my pals and I don't need to buy an audiobook because I can hear their voices. I've always loved Katie Fforde, Jill Mansell and Carole Matthews and, when I was younger, Jackie Collins and Jilly Cooper. They opened up a world I'd never known about. Riders got me into horse riding in my late 20s, though there was no sign of Rupert Campbell-Black going for a hack in Haworth!'
She lived in Haworth for a period while her two children were young, but returned to Barnsley. 'The thing about Barnsley is, anyone who hadn't been would think it's just a little mining town, which it is, but five minutes up the road we've got lovely countryside, all my pals are here and my happy memories are here,' she says. 'I'm not sure if it's something in the coal dust, but we've got so much artistic talent, too.' Proving her point, she reels off a list of successful local friends, from actor Shaun Dooley to young ballerina Tala Lee-Turton.
With a successful writing career comes varied extracurricular activities. Milly is a patron of Yorkshire Cat Rescue, and is involved with The Well at The Core, a complementary therapy centre for cancer patients in Barnsley. 'I like to work with smaller, local charities,' she says.
She has also recently begun working with the National Association of Writers and Groups and is vice president of the Yorkshire Society. 'It's a lovely bunch of Yorkshire business people who get together and help each other where we can,' she says. 'I don't take anything on that I can't commit to because I haven't got a lot of time. The trouble with this job is you can spend far more time with people you don't know than with your own family!'
That said, Milly is content with the demands on her time. 'It's a dream come true for my work to be so popular,' she says. 'From a very early age I wanted to write books and make people feel the way I felt when I read them. I've never wanted to do anything more than that. I feel like a queen, I really, really do.'
My One True North by Milly Johnson is published by Simon & Schuster, price £14.99 hardback. The Little Dreams of Lara Cliffe, part of the 2020 Quick Reads campaign, is out now, available for just £1. Milly will be appearing at the York Literature Festival on March 25. Visit yorkliteraturefestival.co.uk for details