About The Author
Joanna Cannon was born in a small Derbyshire town, at the very edge of the Peak District National Park. As an only child of an only child, a great number of her friends lived within the pages of a book, and she soon discovered what would become a life-long fascination with words, stories and character.
Her love of narrative had always drawn her towards psychiatry, but it wasn’t until her thirties that she decided to go back to college and finally complete the A-levels she’d abandoned some fifteen years earlier. Before specialising in psychiatry, Joanna rotated through a series of hospital jobs, from the A&E to palliative care. It was around this time she began writing a blog in order to make sense of her experiences. And before long she found herself writing the book that would become her debut, The Trouble with Goats and Sheep, now out in paperback.
Set in the long hot summer of 1976, this concerns two ten-year-old girls’ search for their missing neighbour, Mrs Creasy from Number 8. The neighbours seem keen to blame her disappearance on the heat, but 10-year-old Grace and her best friend Tilly aren’t convinced. Inspired by the local vicar, the girls decide to investigate, believing that if they can find God – who keeps everyone safe – they might also find Mrs Creasy and bring her home.
The girls gradually uncover a series of small mysteries behind the avenue’s closed doors. As they try to make sense of what they’ve seen and heard, a wider history of deception and long-buried secrets begins to emerge.
Rich in period details, and fizzing with ideas, The Trouble with Goats and Sheep is part coming of age tale, part meditation on the nature of community and very much about belonging and un-belonging.
Exclusively for Foyles, we talked to Joanna about learning to hide our 'unbelonging', the ultimate unreliable narrator and checking biscuit production dates.
Questions & Answers
What was the starting point for the book? Was your blog a conscious prelude to your novel?
The starting point for 'Goats and Sheep' was working in psychiatry, I think. I’d always been fascinated by personal narrative – not so much the narratives of the rich and famous, but of the ‘ordinary’ (which is often quite extra-ordinary). Working on mental health wards, I met a lot of people whose narratives had taken them to the edge of society, and it brought home to me how easily that can happen to any of us. When I started my blog, I had no intention of writing a novel – it was just a way of emptying my head. As a junior doctor, I saw many things I found extremely distressing, and writing about my reactions to these situations was the only way I could make sense of them. I think that’s a huge part of writing (and reading) – it’s a wonderful method of shifting perspective and understanding the world around us.
How did you set about creating Grace’s voice?
Grace appeared in my head all of her own accord (for which I was very grateful!) The more I wrote, the better we got to know each other, but her voice was there from the beginning. The characters in some of my favourite novels have chatted away in my head, long after I’ve finished reading, and when I wrote my own novel, I very much wanted to find a voice the reader would be able to hear too.
Much more than just a name-check of classic 70s products, your book manages to really capture the atmosphere of England at the time. How did you go about the research since you’re too young to have lived through the period yourself?
I do remember the seventies – although I was very young. I think childhood memories can be especially vivid, so a lot of the 'Goats and Sheep' nostalgia is drawn from my own experiences (shelling peas on my Grandma’s front room carpet and switching the television on five minutes early to warm up). The ’76 drought is also something people remember very well, so whenever I mentioned the book, I was given plenty of anecdotes by friends and family. However, my personal memory isn’t that accurate, so I did have to double check TV schedules and biscuit production dates!
Although it’s full of comic moments, there are also some very serious themes: how a person can be, as Grace puts it, missing from the life they belong in; as well as religion, community, friendship, ageing, loneliness, and so on, though all delivered with a light touch. Were these all things you knew you wanted to write about at the outset, or did they develop through the story?
They’re themes which I feel are incredibly important, but I didn’t set out with the idea of writing about them – I think if I had, the story might have felt too contrived. The characters on The Avenue all have their own stories to tell, and as those stories developed, the subjects of loneliness, ageing and friendship began to take shape. I did know I wanted to write about prejudice and a small community, and I had a starting point and an end point, but the rest of the ideas happened more organically.
Can you say more about the sense of ‘unbelonging’ which permeates the novel.
I think feeling as though you don’t “fit in”, as if you don’t quite belong, is something most people can identify with at some point in their lives. It’s common to feel this way as children, but as we get older, we learn to present different versions of ourselves in order to be accepted, depending on the situation. This works very well on the whole, but some people don’t have that ability – they only have one version of themselves to present, and very often, that version isn’t always what society sees as “normal”. As a consequence, they’re pushed further and further to the edge, and we only seem to notice them when something goes wrong – when we need someone to blame. I wanted to write 'Goats and Sheep', because I believe we all have a little unbelonging in us – we just learn how to hide it.
The concept of ‘sheep’ and ‘goats’ is quite complex here, as during the readings at a funeral service the girls observe that God ‘only seems to like the sheep’, and believe it is a matter of choice whether a person is one or the other. And yet your novel suggests it is much more complex and has as much to do with ‘being’ as ‘doing’.
The idea of goats and sheep is a very complex subject, and it’s definitely a blend of both being and doing. I think acceptance is important to the majority of people, so we tailor our behaviour – our ‘doing’ – to match that of our neighbours. However, our ‘being’ might be quite a different story, and our natural personality might not be especially sheep-like at all. There lies an exhausting lifestyle, because we use up barrels of energy pretending to be something we’re not. I also think it has a lot to do with perception. How we perceive (and therefore often judge) others can be vastly different from how they really are – which is something I wanted to explore in 'Goats and Sheep'.
How did your ‘day job’ in psychiatry inform your writing?
Working in psychiatry helped my writing in so many ways. It’s the only specialty where we need to understand the whole patient. When someone presents in A&E with chest pain or shortness of breath, we concentrate on the illness – and we only ask about the patient themselves in relation to their current symptoms. In psychiatry, we need the whole narrative – often going back decades – to appreciate how this person came to be here, and why they’re experiencing mental health issues. It’s a huge privilege to get to know a patient in this way, and it really highlights the complexity of human personality and behaviour. When you’re writing, I think it’s equally important to ask yourself who your characters are – and what life did they have before they landed on the first page of your novel. If you know that, then the people you write about will be so much more believable, and so much more real.
Psychiatry also helps with the age-old, writers’ mantra of “show don’t tell”. The patient with chest pain will tell you exactly how they’re feeling, but the psychiatry patient very often won’t. They can be the ultimate “unreliable narrator”, because they may be terrified of what’s happening to them, or, sadly, too ashamed to confide in anyone. In which case, you have to rely on their appearance, their behaviour and their choice of words. Psychiatry is very much about the ‘showing’ rather than the ‘telling’.
As a first-time novelist, can you describe your path to publication.
It was quite an unusual route! I had only ever written for my own entertainment and I didn’t really consider the possibility of ever being published. However, it’s very easy to live in a safe corridor of never showing anyone your work, and I did want to see what people thought of it, so at the beginning of 2014, I decided to be more adventurous. I applied to The Womentoring Project, which is a Twitter-inspired programme run by the author Kerry Hudson. It pairs aspiring female writers with women in the publishing industry, and I was very lucky to be able to send the first 5000 words of what would become 'Goats and Sheep', to Katie Espiner at The Borough Press. Katie was incredibly supportive and encouraging, and when I’d reached 30,000 words, I went to York Festival of Writing, and entered their Friday Night Live competition. This is a kind of literary X-factor, where you read an excerpt of your work to a room full of editors and agents. I think it was the most terrifying thing I’ve ever done, but I was fortunate enough to win, and through the festival I met my amazing agent – Sue Armstrong, of Conville & Walsh. Sue sold 'Goats and Sheep' to The Borough Press, and I had to frequently remind myself I wasn’t having a transient psychotic episode.
Who are the writers that inspire you?
There are so many. I am especially in awe of Rachel Joyce, Sarah Winman, Patrick Gale and Nathan Filer, who write so beautifully and with such skill, I often have to pause my reading to give their prose the respect it deserves. I’ve also read some incredible debuts recently – for example, Tasha Kavanagh’s Things We Have in Common, and Ben Johncock’s utterly wonderful The Last Pilot. I think the most inspiration, though, has come from Alan Bennett. As a child, I watched Talking Heads, and it felt as though a door had opened in my mind. I knew who these characters were from the moment they began speaking, and it was the first time I really understood the power of words.
Do you have another novel on the go and can you tell us anything about it?
I do. The next story is about memory and identity, and what it means to grow old – but, as with 'Goats and Sheep', we’ll see where the journey takes us!