Milly Johnson Wins The Richard Whiteley Award
29 March 2022
Congratulations, Milly, on winning the Richard Whiteley Award at the Yorkshire Awards. Richard Whitely was not only the well-loved presenter of Countdown for many years, but also a proud Yorkshireman. The award was created in his honour to be given to the person or organisation that has given outstanding inspiration to others within the County. Previous winners include Help for Heroes. What does it mean to you to be seen as an inspiration in Yorkshire?
At first the imposter syndrome set in and I thought, ‘ME?’. We are a complex bunch as writers, egos both enormous and fragile and this was no time for false modesty – I certainly wasn’t going to turn it down. So I accepted the honour with grace and thanks. No one was giving me the award because I’d been picked out by a random generator, I’d been chosen specifically, so to be seen as an inspiration is very special and I was absolutely delighted to be this year’s recipient.
Why do you think you were chosen for the award?
Because I’m ordinary, relatable. Because I’ve worked my backside off to get where I am and people see in me what can be achieved if you give something your all and don’t wait for things to land in your lap. If I want inspiration, I look to ‘ordinary’ people who have made things happen for themselves because they make me believe I can achieve what seems out of my grasp too. None of us truly knows what is inside us until we try.
What made you first start setting your stories in Yorkshire?
Sheer bloody-mindedness. My first attempts at books were set in no man’s land because I couldn’t write about the south with any conviction because I knew nothing about living life in London and I didn’t think that the industry would be interested in books about the north. Not surprisingly my early attempts didn’t work. It was when I was sacked for having a regional accent that I promised myself future attempts at novel-writing would be set in Yorkshire – it was part therapy, part ‘I’ll show you’. Embracing Yorkshire was what gave me my big break so there’s a lesson – be true to yourself and who you are.
Which other Yorkshire-based writers inspire you?
Stan Barstow (who I knew personally as we both lived in Haworth at the same time), Barry Hines who lived down the road from me. Barbara Taylor-Bradford’s books I ate whole when I was younger. I loved the Brontes so much I upped sticks from Barnsley to go and live in Haworth. They illustrate perfectly the power of imagination: how else could three virginal sisters have written about such passion and sexual chemistry. I’ve known Joanne Harris since we were children as her parents taught me at school and I love her books too. It was when I was watching ‘Chocolat’ at the cinema that I thought to myself, ‘You know, all this just might be possible for me too’ because I could relate to Joanne. And it was.
Do you see a shift in the publishing industry where writers from other parts of the country are being sought out and given more of a voice?
Well Cornwall has become very popular hasn’t it? And Dorset. So there is definitely a shift away from the capital. Once upon a time no one seemed to be writing about Yorkshire, now quite a few are I see. I’m hoping that we become the ‘new Cornwall’ and I think it will happen. I know when I started out, I loved reading about life in London but I couldn’t really relate to it, so there is plenty of room for more provincial writers and stories because provincial readers want them. Once upon a time I was told that my books were too provincial to travel abroad but recently I’ve noticed that that is what readers in Sweden in particular are taking to their hearts. It’s a slow burn but it will happen.
What other changes in the publishing industry have you noticed over your long career?
Practical things like being able to send your manuscripts over to the publisher electronically. I could barely afford to send them by post when I first started – twenty quid, special delivery! I’ve noticed better connections between authors thanks to social media so we have a stronger support network. And the rise of indie publishing. I used to think that if I was ‘let go’ from the traditional publishing world, it would be game over but that is no longer the case. Sadly the prejudices against romantic fiction still linger but we are all working on that.
How many times have you been on the Sunday Times Bestseller list and what would you say to anyone who doubted the important place that romantic fiction has in the literary pantheon?
Ooh blimey, I can’t remember. I think it’s about twelve, maybe more. But there is always romantic fiction in the bestseller lists which surely proves it is sold widely and respected because the sales figures don’t lie. Romantic fiction sales were up by over 47% last year and recently eight out of the top ten in the Sunday Times bestseller list were written by women with over half of those being romance books. We have always been too big for the industry to ignore, but they’ve tried, and now we are pushing back. Our profits underpin the industry and we are loved and enjoyed by millions. I wish I had a pound for every time someone in my recent launch period said to me ‘Your books have got me through a rough time/Covid/saved me’. We are massive and we are important to our readers.
And finally…if you were creating an itinerary of the best things to see in Yorkshire, what would it include?
There are so many places in Yorkshire, but these come to mind first.
Haworth – the moors in August when they are ablaze with Heather.
Whitby – fish and chips at the Magpie café obligatory.
Robin Hood’s Bay – the beach is beautiful.
Fountains Abbey in Ripon – it’s absolutely stunning
Yorkshire Mining Museum – you would not believe how emotional this tour is. And really brings to home just what workers had to go through in history to bring up the ‘black diamonds’
Leeds – for shopping. It has everything you need.
York – I love this city so much and the Minster is fabulous. And throw in a trip to Betty’s tearoom of course.
Thirsk – the Falconry centre. This is where I go to fly birds of prey. It’s an absolutely magical experience.
And Barnsley, of course. May not feature high on the tourist advice sites, but we have such beautiful countryside, parks and villages around the town centre. And a fantastic statue tribute to Barry Hines. How could I not include it?
You can see Milly’s own tourist guide to the Yorkshire Coastline here.
Milly has been speaking with:
Julia Boggio is a writer, photographer, mother, Peloton lover, runner, and Christmas card enthusiast. She is also an original You Tube star. Her wedding dance went viral, sparking a worldwide trend in choreographed first dances. She and her husband appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show, where she danced with Patrick Swayze, BBC Breakfast, Richard & Judy, Sky News, and many more. She has two cats who hate each other. She is represented by Katie Greenstreet at Paper Literary.