“We are the glorious counterbalance to this climate of hate”: Milly Johnson accepts the Outstanding Achievement Award from the Romantic Novelists’ Association
What an absolute honour this is. I can’t tell you what a dreamlike state I’m in. I know it’s not a dream because I’m fully dressed and my ex-husband isn’t chasing me with an axe through a field of syrup - but I’m sure I’m not the only one here who pinches themselves and remembers back to those days when you wanted to see a book with your name on it so much that it hurt and now you have loads of them and you think, how the bloody hell did that happen?
But really we know that book success comes with hard work, it comes with determination to finish this book even though you are 15000 words in and think this is the biggest pile of crap you’ve ever written, but you have faith in yourself that you will break through that barrier and produce the best your heart and soul can manage. And you do.
It comes with having to overcome the prejudice that somehow authors of our genre write lesser books. People who dismiss our books as irrelevant though they’ve never read one. I was asked to go on a radio station a couple of years ago to be interviewed by an anchorman ‘A-lister’ in this country. I shan’t say who it was but let’s just use the codename ‘Sherlock’. I so wanted to smash down some ill-held beliefs about romantic fiction but I was no match for a host with an agenda to inform his audience that we write the sorts of flimsy fluff that’s made into films by the mass that "come on the TV just before Christmas and always feature a lumberjack."
It comes with having to work out what the hell you are doing and learning on the spot because there is no handbook for this job. No set standards, no security, no guarantee that the harder you work, the more you’ll be rewarded. I’d have been lost had it not been for the generosity and guidance of Sue Welfare. And Carole Matthews who not only helped me more times that I could mention books-wise but also taught me the difference between plant HRT and the stuff with horse wee in it.
It comes with having to grow an iron backbone because this isn’t a career for the faint-hearted. Having to weather someone ripping your book to shreds on Amazon because it’s arrived in a torn envelope or furious that she can’t award you no stars… and then giving her wart remover the full five.
It comes from having to deal with people like Marjory from Preston hunting you down on the internet just to tell you that you’ve ruined her whole life because there’s a spello on page 71. And you have to desist from typing the reply: "Marjory, I think you’ve got too much time on your hands, love."
It comes from learning to value your own stock, which is a hard lesson because we give so much away. I’ll never forget when I was first starting off, this little old lady from a reader’s group handing me a fiver and saying "You’re a professional now, you’ve got to charge". And she was right, if we don’t see ourselves as professional, who will? I had an email a couple of years ago from a group of 12 ladies in Aberdeen who loved all my books and wanted to extend an invitation to come and do a talk to them. They couldn’t pay me anything at all, but they would give me an afternoon tea and I could bring a few books to sell. It was kind, but how could they value me enough to want me but not enough to even pay my train fare? I thought there might be some mileage in an exchange visit so I rang up a plumber in Aberdeen and asked if he could come and bleed my radiators. I couldn’t pay him, but I would give him a sandwich upon arrival and I’d get the neighbours round and he could sell a few pipes and I even threw in a recommendation on Facebook. He didn’t reply. We have to learn to treat ourselves like the craftsmen and women that we are first and foremost or no one else will.
My parents, a traditional couple, just wanted me to have a proper job. By a proper job I mean one where you get a steady wage, sick pay, holidays, a pension, a subsided cafe. A bloke in a suit comes in once a year from head office to give a lecture about investing in ISAs. You have morning huddles where people say things like ‘Blue sky thinking’ and ‘Getting all our ducks in a row’. And when it’s your birthday you have to buy 43 cream cakes to distribute to people who have desks near you.
So why do we do it? Why do we do this mad job that is unstable and mocked and play our game on a field that is as level as the north face of the Eiger? Because we can’t stop. Because as surely as the church draws nuns to its doors we are commanded to our keyboards. We set off writing stories to entertain and end up giving people a place to go when they’re hooked up to chemo drips, or need solace from stress. We enhance lives, we change lives, we show women templates of healthy loving relationships that they might never have seen before. We give people hope that happy endings are not just restricted to fiction. And we know we do this because readers write to tell us that we have. They walk in the skins of our characters. Our stories have helped them leave dysfunctional relationships and inspired them to start up businesses, find new jobs, find themselves, stretch the walls of their comfort zones.
We might have once have upset Marjory from Preston with a typo, but we’ve also given Diane from Dublin a guide to getting out of an abusive relationship, we’ve shown Cheryl from Cardiff that she should be looking at herself as a woman who has value, we’ve given Susan from Glasgow the energy to make the small changes to her life that will lead to her wonderful renaissance. Even myself these past few weeks, I’ve needed to find some respite from grief and I’ve found it in the pages of words written by my friends and it’s given my head a place to escape to, put me on the path to healing. All with our lesser books.
We sell these lesser books by the millions, our sales are on the up, the worse the world is the more we are needed to be the aloe vera on pressured, anxious lives. We are the glorious counterbalance to this climate of hate. There is plenty of space for other books beside the tragic and the challenging. There is nothing wrong with a happy, hopeful ending, nothing wrong with making someone laugh as they read your words, or a good old heart-warming love story – no one reduces Anna Karenina to ‘chick-lit’, “a light, frothy beach read” because there is a romantic element in it.
How can our empowering, enriching and moving novels be lesser books? Well they’re not are they! They’re needed more than ever, so let no one make us feel embarrassed about them. Keep our presence strong, keep inspiring people to be kind and loving and tolerant and sooner or later, the establishment will have to accept that we do not write lesser books. Sometimes you just have to dismantle the walls of prejudice and book snobbery one brick at a time, but we’ll get there if we persist, eventually.
No man is an island,. Even if I do have an arse the size of Madagascar I couldn’t have built this career by myself. At home I’ve got a bloke who does do much for me and is the C3PO to my R2D2z. My wonderful agent dear Lizzy Kremer has my back all the way. I’ve been with Simon and Schuster since the beginning, they are like my family: the walking fabulousness that is SJ, my beloved editors, Jo Dickinson and welcome home to Clare Hey. Everyone from Ian Chapman down has been a worthy cog in my machine. And of course, the wonderful Suzanne Baboneau who celebrates 40 years in publishing this very month who gave my agent the immortal line in 2004 "I’d like to make an offer for your book about pregnancy and Yorkshire pudding” And thank you to the amazing ED PR who aren’t here tonight because they’re up for awards themselves at another do – which is no surprise at all.
The best thing I ever did was join the RNA. I should have done it so much earlier and benefitted from the wisdom and the direction. I think if I’d known how much booze they put away, I probably would have. It’s brought me inspiration and joy and fun and some precious friendships and this wonderful moment that my future self is looking back on a treasured memory. I’ve got so many writer friends in the RNA, you need them, people who understand this bonkers profession, none as close to me as the very talented and lovely Debbie Johnson, my sister from another mother – and father presumably who, in her own words, is "my bitch for the night".
I lost my dad just before Christmas. He would have been the first person I rang to tell I was getting this. If he’s watching me now, on this stage, I think I know what he’d say. He’d say, ‘All right, love. I give in. You have got a proper job.’
Milly Johnson was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2020 RNA Awards on 2nd March. Her new novel, My One True North, is published this week (5th March, Simon & Schuster, £14.99 hardback),
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