I never wanted to be anything else but a novelist. Even when the sensible part of me was saying, ‘Get a proper job. Girls like you don’t become them,’ I never stopped dreaming. But such dreams need hard work behind them to come true so I gave it my all. I wanted to write books that made readers feel the way I did when reading the best ones: a willing prisoner trapped in the pages.
Can you share some of your career path enroute from unpublished to published author with us?
I wanted to be a novelist more than anything but I didn’t think I had a chance as a northern working class girl with no connections in the industry. I had a passion for writing, but I had a friend who was brilliant at English and I came up very short when compared to the literature she could produce. She didn’t want to be a writer (she became a dressmaker) I was desperate to be a novelist, and I reckon over the years I just got better with all the hard work and practice. I was split down the middle: half of me wanting to be a writer, half of me convincing myself I was dreaming too high and I should get a proper job. So, after university, I got a proper job and then followed many other proper jobs – all of them ill-fitting because I only ever wanted to write. As soon as I’d come home from the building society/office/mill, I got out my typewriter and worked on my novel, which was a paranormal romance. I sent it off to various agents and the period between it going off in the post to me getting it back with a rejection stamp on it was filled with wonderful anticipation. Those rejections came thick and fast (rightly so) but I was getting comments from agents saying that my work was of a publishable quality which kept my hope burning.
Back then, I didn’t think anyone would be interested in a book set in the north, and I couldn’t write about the south with any authenticity so my stories were set in some airy-fairy no man’s land. Then I was sacked from a firm because my accent was too ‘common’ and it was part-therapy, part-bloody-mindedness that I starting setting my stories in the north so I could stuff them full of my common accent. I had all but given up on ever making it, when I fell pregnant at the same time as two of my friends and we travelled our nine months together. When the babies were born, we were sitting in my front room and it was as if a bolt of lightning came through the window with an attached message. ‘Why aren’t you writing about this – the stuff you know: Yorkshire, friendships, babies, the workplace, love.’ I started to pen a story about three friends who get pregnant at the same time, sent it off to the same agent I’d been chasing for fifteen years and they said, ‘This is the one we have been waiting for’. Me and my northern books have never looked back.
What advice would you give to your younger unpublished self?
I would say to her, ‘Your association with the north is what will give you the break, so don’t ignore it, use it. Use your life and your experience to fuel your writing, nothing is ever wasted. Don’t give up – you can write and you have a backbone of iron so you will make it’.
Are you a very organised plotter or do you write from a specific starting point and then let the characters evolve and take you through the plot?
I would love to plot but I can’t – and believe me I’ve tried. I start the book on page one and somehow I manage to get to the end of it. I enjoy that I’m surprised by what spills out onto the page. When people say to me ‘I’d love to write a book but I wouldn’t know where to start’ my stock answer is ‘Neither do I.’ I’ve written nineteen full length novels not having a clue what else is inside me when I type ‘Chapter One’.
Writing accessible ‘unputdownable’ fiction that balances heavier topics with humour takes great skill, is this used in facing life, especially in a time of pandemic?
Humour has a great power and can help us in the darkest times. I always liken it to a chocolate mousse my friend used to make at university (bear with me). ‘It’s too rich’ she’d say, ‘So you have to eat it with double cream’. That dark sweet mousse needed to be offset with its total opposite and together they were a perfect combo. Stories that are all too light are insubstantial, too dark and they’re cloying – you need one to offset the other. Even a little humour can pop a balloon of swollen tension, even if it’s slightly inappropriate, but it is a badly needed valve to give one breathing space. I like to write about ups and downs, my life has been full of them and my writing reflects that. I want to take my readers on a roller-coaster not a baby ride. But ultimately I leave readers with hope and however gritty some of my story threads might be, readers take from my books that there is light at the end of nearly every tunnel. That has been very needed in the pandemic. We all need to know that however frightening things are, hope shines eternal.
How have you coped to keep yourself mentally and physically fit during lockdown?
Physically – could have done better. But I have now invested in a treadmill which is in my office and was a brilliant buy. I wish I’d done it at the beginning of the pandemic, I’d have been running marathons now. Mentally – it was a struggle to be honest at the start of lockdown because I was very frightened. I ended up downing tools and letting my son persuade me into watching the whole of Game of Thrones which gave my head a total break. Then I eased myself back into my work, because we are used to cracking the whip over ourselves, and now I’m back up to full pelt.
What has the RNA and winning this award meant to you?
I was determined not to join the RNA until I was a published author and that was daft because I missed out on a lot of support and camaraderie (and Prosecco and kitchen parties) that would have helped me along the way. It has brought me friendship and support and a lot of knowledge because you never stop learning in this game. I love that you can cheer on rivals because we all have the common aim of promoting our genre and encouraging reading. I feel as if I am in a fragrant army of kick-ass soldiers and I’d encourage everyone who is eligible to join.
As for winning the award. I wanted it very much for My One True North (so much so I felt sure I wouldn’t get it, hence the shock when I did). It is one of two books that I wrote when my dad was very ill and I pressed him into the pages. I felt as if it was the best thing I’d ever written, as if it was pulled out of my soul and so to be honoured for it was very special. I have a trophy shelf at home now and I have so many freeze-frame moments when I think ‘those trophies are for MY writing’. It makes me so glad I am a stubborn little sod who never gave up because it really does prove what you can do when you want something so much that you’ll give it your all to get it.
What is next for Milly?
I’ll write until I drop. I’m having a crack at a crime novel as well as a romance because I’ve always wanted to stretch in that direction and I’ve been writing some poetry which I love to perform in theatres. I just want to get back to mingling and doing talks and meeting readers.
Thank you so much for sharing your personal writing story with us. I wish you every further success with your future projects and look forward to reading many more of your books.
Comments, likes and questions are always welcome…