Today I'm delighted to welcome the wonderful Debbie Johnson to Little Northern Soul as part of the Never Kiss a Man in a Christmas Jumper blog tour! It's a wonderful Christmas story filled with family, festivity and a will-they-wont-they romance. Well written, light hearted and brimming with great characters, this is the perfect story to curl up with on a winter evening!
Thank you for having me! Never Kiss a Man in a Christmas Jumper has it all – white weddings, snow storms, inflatable Santa's, a likeable heroine, a hot hunky man, and some awful festive knitwear!
It’s about Maggie, a lone parent who is coming to terms with her first Christmas alone – she’s spent all year making dresses for other women’s weddings despite being single herself, and is looking forward to a relaxing family Christmas at her home in picturesque Oxford. But when both her teenaged daughter and her father announce they’re going away for the holidays, everything changes – and Maggie gets a serious case of the Christmas blues.
The down mood is pretty effectively chased away by the arrival of Marco Cavelli, who literally crashes into her life – he’s the kind of man who would cheer all of us up: not exactly whacked with the ugly stick, a great sense of humour, and a strong but caring nature. Maggie is private, self-sufficient, and set in her solitary ways. Things haven’t always been easy for her, and she prefers the quiet life – until Marco messes all of that up in the most delicious way possible! The rest of the story is about how the two of them get to know each other, explore their personalities, get a little bit steamy, and most definitely make the best of Christmas!
2. You always have such a wide range of different characters in your stories, all with stand-out personalities and realistic qualities. Do you base characters on real people or celebrities or do you imagine them?
Oh thank you – that’s very, very kind of you, one of the nicest things a writer can hear! I am lucky enough to have a wide range of friends, an interesting family, and to have worked in a fascinating job in a never-boring city (as a journalist in Liverpool!). I suppose that – mixed in with the crazy whirlpool that is my imagination – allows me to come up with distinct characters each time. I steal little aspects from people I know, things I overhear – I’m like a magpie, and often write down classic quotes in a little notebook! Those will be sparks that set me off – one of my very favourite things is imagining up a new character – that always comes before plot for me. The plot builds around the person, not the other way round. Maggie is very different from previous heroines, she’s quieter and a little on the shy side, which initially I had to work hard with – I had to get to know her myself, in the same way that Marco got to know her, which was a really interesting experience. To be honest she felt totally real by the end of it!
I hope all my characters do have realistic qualities – even if you’re reading a fantasy novel, or a crime thriller, or a fluffy romance, you need to be able to identify with your heroes and heroines – if you can’t, you won’t care what happens to them! Just because the circumstances are outrageously larger than life, it doesn’t mean your characters can’t have their flaws and challenges and quirks, just like we all have! It’s also essential to me to have humour in my characters, and particularly in their dialogue – it’s the amsuing banter between hero and heroine, mother and daughter, between friends and family, that makes this book come to life. There is always room for a bit of laughter!
In terms of celebs, I must confess I sometimes do have a celeb in mind when I’m describing a character, especially my heroes – my next book, The Birthday That Changed Everything, has a male lead called James Carver who is (physically at least) very much based on a celeb – you’ll have to read it and see if you can guess who!
3. You write in a lot of different genres for different publishers – how do you balance a busy work load and keep organised?
My main focus right now is on the romantic comedies, with both HarperImpulse and HarperCollins, which makes it a little easier! At one stage, I had three books out in a year – Dark Vision, the follow up to my urban fantasy Dark Touch (with Del Rey); Fear No Evil, a supernatural crime thriller (with Maze, part of Avon), and Cold Feet At Christmas , a romance with HarperImpulse. That was crazy! I’ve never been very good at limiting myself – I love all three genres, and still always have ideas about all three, which I store away for future use. The sheer demand on my time means that at least for the next few months, I’ll be concentrating on the women’s fiction, but I do have some killer crime ideas bubbling under as well...
In terms of workload, the words ‘balanced’ and ‘organised’ rarely have any relevance to what I do, I’m afraid! I live in chaos – three kids, two dogs, writing away like a mad person between school runs! I do make a lot of lists, just to keep myself vaguely on target! I end up with lists of lists...
4. Can you tell us about your journey to publication?
I’d always wanted to write fiction, but I’d been one of those people who talks about it, and never does it. Partly that was because I was busy being pregnant (for what felt like a very long time over the course of three kids...) and raising small kids and having the associated nervous breakdowns, but partly it was because I was working as a journalist and that writing style is very different. I had a crazy year where my dad died, I had a baby, and I took voluntary redundancy from my job – it was bonkers, now I look back! But it allowed me to start writing on a freelance basis, doing some journalism and some PR and marketing, and to fit in work around my family (there was another baby two years later, and a house move, and another bereavement, just to make it all feel extra insane!). It was only after I’d found a balance with all of that – in fact when I was 40 – that I really sat down and thought ‘come on now, no more excuses, just write!’. I entered a contest called the Harry Bowling Prize for New Writing in 2010 – and I won! It was judged by agents and publishers, and the ‘do’ was at the Romantic Novelists’ Association annual awards in London – it was all very glam, and it gave me the confidence I needed to continue.
That said, it wasn’t exactly an easy road from that point onwards. I got an agent – Laura Longrigg at MBA – and I finished two books; one was Fear No Evil, and one was a women’s fiction novel about a newly-single mum who copes with devastation in her life by going on a holiday that transforms her entire existence. That eventually became The Birthday That Changed Everything, which is being released by HarperCollins in January next year – so it took six years! In between, I got a deal with Del Rey for the Lily McCain books – urban fantasies about a Liverpool pop writer who gets sucked into a world of Gods and Goddesses and vampires and witches, but all set in modern day Scouseland. The first one of those – Dark Touch – came out in March 2013, and was the first book I had published.
The point of that long and tangled tale is this: there was no overnight success, it took years – and along the way I got rejected by pretty much every major (and some minor!) publishing houses in the UK! Seriously, I still have all my rejection emails – I could write a book just using those! You need a thick skin, and it’s still hard work – the JK Rowlings are few and far between, and anyone interested in writing should expect to slog their guts out for relatively little financial gain! You have to take solace in the other benefits as well!
5. What’s your favourite thing about being a published author?
I love losing myself in a character – there is always a moment, when you’re writing, when you just hit an absolute golden spot: where you come up with something so right, so lovely, that it makes you want to jump for joy! Creating strong female characters like Pippa in Pippa’s Cornish Dream, Leah from Cold Feet at Christmas, Maggie from Christmas Jumper, Jayne McCartney, my private eye in Fear No Evil, and my fantasy queen Lily – it’s an absolute pleasure. These are all women you’d like if you met them – and bringing them into existence has been a privilege! Also, hearing from people who have read your books can be very uplifting – you have to put up with terrible reviews, or nasty comments on Amazon, and just live with it. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, even if it makes you cry! But when people tell you how much they liked a character, or how much they enjoyed a book, it all feels worth it – knowing you’ve given somebody a little pleasure, a little escapism, maybe distracted them from a difficult situation, or just allowed them a little respite from real life – that is awesome!
6. Any top tips for aspiring authors?
Expect to work hard, and don’t expect glory – if it was easy everyone would be doing it! I’d also pass on a few tips that I was given myself that have helped me in practical terms. Firstly, always question the motivations of your characters – if something they say or do feels ‘off’, or contrived to fit a plot device, readers will notice. Their motivations have to feel real, and not just be convenient! Secondly, when you’ve finished, put your book away and leave it for a while – then go back to it with a fresh pair of eyes. What looked like a work of genius the week before might make you cringe, and before you show that book to anyone else, you want it to be the very best it can be!
7. What does your average writing day look like?
I get home from the school run at about 9am, and have my first cup of coffee. Then I have until about 2.30 to write until my keyboard is on fire before I go and pick them up again! My oldest is 18, so he sorts himself out, but the younger ones are still in Primary school, so very little in the way of creative genius gets achieved while they are around – although I am often found at least attempting to write while they watch Minecraft videas in the background! I also have other work to do – journalism, PR, copywriting etc. So I can have quite confusing days – writing romance one minute, and web copy about training courses the next! Hope I never get them mixed up and send my copywriting clients a steamy sex scene! You never know – they might pay me more!
8. This is your second Christmas story – Cold Feet at Christmas was published last year. What do you love about writing a festive-based story and how does it differ to writing a general romance story?
I think Christmas is a time of year when our emotions are very much heightened – there’s a reason all those emotional TV ads get us tearing up! Depending on your state of mind, or your circumstances, Christmas can be extra-wonderful, extra-sad, extra-exciting or extra-depressing...hopefully one of the nicer ones I’ve listed! But it is like no other time of year, and for a fiction writer, that’s an exciting thing to explore. Christmas makes you do things you’d never normally do – whether that’s spend a fortune on an extravagant gift, snog someone at a Christmas party, or drink yourself into a stupor! In Cold Feet, Leah and Rob might not have acted the way they did if they hadn’t ended up snowed in together at Christmas. And in Christmas Jumper, the fact that Marco essentially saves Maggie’s Christmas is one of the most beautiful things about it – she welcomes him into her home and her life at this very special time of year, which makes it even more significant. Plus, on the shallow side, you get to have lots of fun describing snow storms and Christmas trees and getting your characters dancing to Christmas songs!
9. How do you get yourself into the festive spirit to write a Christmassy story?
Songs! Listening to Christmas songs is definitely the way to do it – I’d say watching films as well, but I don’t have the time while I’m writing!
10. In January your new full-length novel, The Birthday That Changed Everything, is being released by Harper Impulse. Can you tell us a little about that?
You know, I love this book – partly because it’s the first one I ever finished! I identified with Sally, the lead character, so much. She’s about to hit 40; she has two teenaged kids who see her at best as an amusing irrelevance and at worst as the enemy, and her husband ups and leaves her for a woman half her age. She’s a mess – physically, emotionally – an absolute mess. But we meet her at one of those ‘the only way is up’ moments, and join her as she tries to rebuild her life with a family holiday to Turkey. She makes wonderful friends there, and goes back to the same resort at the same time for several years – with the same friends, the same more-than-friends, and the same hopes and dreams. It’s about what happens to all of them during those next few years – the good, the bad, the ugly, and the downright hilarious! I think a lot of women will ‘get’ Sally – she’s put so much into being a mum, being a wife, that she’s kind of lost sight of who she is as a person – the story is as much about Sally having a romance with herself as James, the man she meets in Turkey!
Seen as how we’re celebrating your festive story I thought it only right to end with some quick-fire Christmas questions!
Any festive traditions? Buying the tree together on Dec 1, and each of the kids chosing a new decoration – this results in a very uncoordinated tree!
Best part of a Christmas Dinner? Stuffing and roasties!
Favourite Christmas Song: Last Christmas by Wham!
Favourite Christmas book: Bridget Jones’s Diary
Favourite Christmas film: Bad Santa
How do you celebrate Christmas? We go to church on Christmas Eve, and spend Christmas afternoon with my in-laws, eating, drinking and generally being merry.
Organised shopper or Last minute frantic buyer? Very organised – I’m excellent at spending money, it’s one of my best skills!
Do you prefer being home or away for Christmas? At home or with family near home.
Most memorable present received? I can’t think of one...which must mean there haven’t been any that were memorable enough!
Any new year’s resolutions? I have the same resolutions every night when I go to bed, whether it’s New Year or not: to try and be more thankful, to try and worry less, and to treat my own body with a little more respect!
Thanks very much for talking to me Debbie, it’s been great :)