Hello. My name is Milly Johnson and I’m an international novelist, poet, after-dinner speaker, professional joke writer, script-writer, columnist, cruise correspondent, short-story writer, winner of Come Dine With Me – and I pop up on the telly sometimes.
I come from Barnsley in South Yorkshire where I’ve lived all my life – apart from four years at University in Exeter doing Drama and Education (St Lukes in case you’re asking) and thirteen years in Haworth in West Yorkshire, where I went hoping to catch some Bronte writing magic. It still remains my second home as I have family there and my eldest is a Haworth boy.
HOW DID I BECOME A WRITER?
I can’t remember I time before I didn’t want to write. I wanted to make people feel about my books the way I felt about books myself – bereft when I’d finished them, or I’d laugh or cry real tears at emotional parts. But I didn’t think that ordinary girls like me got those sorts of jobs (I know, I know.) The trouble was – I was split down the middle; half of me was saying I had no chance and to be sensible and get a proper job, the other half was telling me that it was all I wanted to do. I listened to side A too much in the beginning. I was an academic at school so it made sense for me to go to uni and I did a vocational teaching degree, but I liked the drama side so much more. It just goes to show – a theme in a couple of my books – that just because you are good at something, it doesn’t necessarily follow that you should do it.
I left uni, trained for a while as an accountant in a building society (oh my – I hated that job so much), moved to Haworth and supplemented my income in the late 1980s by asking greetings cards firms if they’d buy the four line verse I used to write on the train in and from work. One wonderful firm replied and said that they’d like to give me a chance as a ghost writer, writing copy for a new project – Purple Ronnie. Having some of my poems turned into those cards spurred me on so much. They might have only been daft cards (which turned out to be a multi-million pound industry phenomenon) but I – YES I – was in print! I started to write my first book about a woman who fell in love with a vampire but the rejection letters came thick and fast. Seems I was too early for a girl/vampire love story (plus it was a bit crap) but I finished it. I wrote a book on a plinky-plinky typewriter. I could do it.
The accountancy job didn’t last very long. There was only one coat that fitted, so I did a selection of various jobs in either Leeds, Keighley, Skipton, Haworth to pay the mortgage then once I was at home, I wrote. The trouble was I had nothing much to say. The books I write have come from a lot of life experience and I hadn’t had any then. And the books I attempted then had no real sense of where they were set. It was only when I was sacked for having too much of a Yorkshire accent (by a Yorkshire woman who had a Yorkshire firm in Yorkshire) that my humiliation led me to a state of sheer bloody-mindedness that my next book would be set in Yorkshire and stuffed full of Yorkshire. And it was – but it was also rubbish and more rejection letters followed. But whenever I felt as if I had no chance, I had two huge icons who kept me dreaming: Barry Hines, a Barnsley lad who flew in the face of convention and wrote about the north and ‘made it’ and Catherine Cookson whose books lifted my heart – and she didn’t have her first book published until she was well into her 40s. It wasn’t too late for me, I kept telling myself. And there was a space for northern writers. The agent I eventually landed had told me that he wanted to find the ‘Catherine Cookson of Yorkshire’. I’m not sure that’s me, but if I’m anywhere near it, I’ll take it and run with that compliment. (She sold 123 million books – at time of writing – I’ve sold 2 million!)
A succession of jobs followed. In offices, mills, banks, sales, exports – I hated them all, but I loved the women I worked with and they informed my writing. I worked with older women who showed me that friendships knocked down barriers of age, background, colour, creed. And I worked with younger women who were fabulously nutty. I ‘lived’ in my 20s and 30s – had some great times and horrific times and it coloured and enriched how and what I wrote. When I was made redundant the week before I found out I was pregnant, I wrote off to loads of greetings cards firms and asked them to buy my wares. And they did. I set up a little company called ‘Black Sheep’ and I became a professional joke writer which was the best job I ever had in my life. I was content, happy, working from home with a wonderful set of people to meet up with on work events… but there was just that one missing piece in my jigsaw. It was the silver medal job and there was only one gold – the novel.
THE BIG BREAK
I fell pregnant at the same time as two of my pals. Our journey through pregnancy was an insightful one. And sitting in my front room after the births of our first-borns, I experienced a lightbulb moment. ‘Why aren’t you writing about this?’ said the lightbulb. ‘Friendships, Yorkshire, pregnancy, work, relationships… the extraordinary that exists within the parameters of ordinary, every day life.’ So I started to write a story about three friends who became pregnant at the same time and sent it off to the agent I had been chasing on and off for 15 YEARS. And Lucie Whitehouse, who was an agent there then (now a crime writer who is amazing) sold me to Simon and Schuster and the rest… as they say… is history.
I am the poster girl for giving it your best shot and making it happen and many of my books do feature women who have been knocked into an alternative groove to the one they always imagined they’d be in, and finding their way back to their dreams. I got my publishing deal when I was 40. I love what I do and I hope that comes through in my work. It won’t be for everyone, but as long as it is for the majority – that works.
I live with my partner, my teenage sons, rescue cats and my dog – oh and Alan the rabbit – around the corner from my mam and dad in the centre of Barnsley.
WHERE TO FIND ME
I’m a regular on the MOTIVATIONAL SPEAKER circuit and can tailor make a speech to your requirements. No audience too large… please contact me directly for details or via The Women’s Speakers agency.