She’s the Sunday Times bestseller with a penchant for time spent at sea and a tendency to have her holidays inspire the romantic novels that have seen the author garner a loyal following. We caught up with Milly Johnson following the release of her 17th book, My One True North, released on paperback on 23rd July.
Hi Milly, thanks for finding the time to talk to us amidst a whirlwind of book signings and promo. Can you start by telling us a bit about My One True North and the inspiration behind it?
It’s the story of Pete and Laurie, two people in their early thirties, both negotiating a hard path of grief after losing their partners in similar circumstances. They’re stuck though, unable to move on and it’s worrying their respective friends, so much so that they’re persuaded to seek some therapy and when Pete makes an error at work, he’s told in no uncertain terms that he’s a liability in his present state. What isn’t helping is that there are so many unanswered questions flying around about the accidents which are haunting them. Pete and Laurie both meet at a therapy group run by a pensioner in a teashop and very quickly begin to bond with each other and the motley little band of fellow attendees. But what pushes them together, is also the very thing that pulls them apart.
In tacking a hard subject such as grief, you need a lot of lightness and humour so it’s not a sad book, but an uplifting and hopeful one. And one celebrating the power of human kindness and friendship.
I had a mixed bag of ‘want-to-include’s with this book: the Northern Lights, a man and a woman both taking centre stage both having parallel experiences, a fireman and the headquarters of the newspaper ‘The Daily Trumpet’. I had no idea if I could make a story from them (a sort of literary Ready Steady Cook) because I don’t plan, I just write and see where it takes me. But somehow it worked and a story began to emerge from this mixed bag of ingredients.
Last time we spoke was shortly after the release of Here Come The Girls and you’re back with another seafaring story. What is it about cruising that gets those creative juices flowing?
I think because my head empties when I’m on a cruise, it allows my brain a chance to breathe and explore. As soon as I saw the Northern Lights on our cruise last year, I was determined that they would take far more of a role in the book than I had originally planned for. I kept imagining compasses which became important imagery in the book. Plus a cruise is an amazing place to people-watch and I always get loads of killer lines from eavesdropping and ideas for characters when I’m sitting in a bar or the restaurant.
Does the writing process ever start on board? If so, where’s your favourite spot to pitch up your laptop?
A cruise is my place to down tools. It’s one thing recording some notes, but I don’t work on board. I need to recharge my batteries and I only ever seem to do it properly when I’m on a ship, so I totally relax. However, I come home with a notebook full of scribbles.
You once said that ‘heaven is a cruise ship’ and we wholeheartedly agree. But what was it about that first trip that had you hooked?
It was nothing like I’d imagined. I think I had the same ill-held beliefs as a lot of people who have never been on a cruise before: that it would be cramped and I’d be bored out of my tree. It was neither. There was so much space and as much to do as I wanted to. As soon as I walked onto the Oceana and saw the amazing atrium, my jaw dropped with wonder, I thought it was amazing. I think I was also grateful that I’d found a holiday where I could sit and relax and my children could be fabulously entertained. They were happy and I certainly was. We needed different things for a good holiday – and we got them.
And what keeps you coming back?
I feel so totally relaxed on board and I’m quite fascinated how easy it is for me to do nothing but sit and read without feeling I shouldn’t be ‘wasting time’. From the moment I get on the coach in Barnsley, my holiday has begun. And my quality of sleep is amazing. I also love that I don’t care what day it is, what time it is and how many emails I’ve got to answer. I know my sons can get in touch with me in an emergency but other than that, the phone goes off and my head empties of everything but enjoying myself. I’m delighted that my other half, who wasn’t sure he would like a sailing holiday at all (so I dragged him on a ship for a short taster cruise) took to it like a duck to water and so we both really look forward to our holidays. We don’t want the hassle of flying and so it’s perfect for us.
Having cruised on your own with your two very young sons, what would you say to anyone who has been toying with the idea but is yet to take the plunge?
Don’t think about it – take that plunge NOW. My boys were not the ‘kids club’ sort and a friend of mine told me to take them to the club, leave them and go back for them at lunchtime. If they didn’t like it, then at least we tried. So I did – and I couldn’t get them out. They loved the wonderful bouncy, energetic kids’ clubs crew and I had to drag them out to eat meals. That went on until they were teenagers and could do their own thing. The children are so well catered for on P&O Cruises ships. The staff are fabulous.
I’ve taken quite a few friends with me on ships to test out the water and every single one of them is now a die-hard cruiser. And I’ve had so many people say they’ve read ‘Here Come The Girls’ and on the strength of that booked up. I think I’ve ended up costing my readers quite a lot of money – and I’m as delighted as they are about it.
Can you give us your top tip for anyone about to cruise for the very first time?
Take the coach down to Southampton if you’re on a route – so much easier and less stress. My second tip would be clothes with elasticated waistbands!
Now, home is where the heart is and you are Yorkshire born and bred. Where should we go when we can’t be at sea?
Take the dog and go to Robin Hood’s Bay. I’ve had some very happy times just walking on the beach there and letting the dog splash in the sea. The fresh air builds up a lovely appetite and luckily there’s a fish and chip restaurant not too far away.
Finally, if you could share a cabin with anyone in the world, who would it be?
My other half. He and I have a great carefree time together on board. If for any reason he couldn’t go, I have Jason Momoa lined up as a substitute.
My One True North by Milly Johnson is published in paperback on 23rd July by Simon & Schuster, priced £7.99.