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Joanna Cannon graduated from Leicester Medical School and worked as a hospital doctor, before specialising in psychiatry. She lives in the Peak District with her family and her dog. The Trouble With Goats and Sheep is her first novel.
Below is a Q&A with this author
Borough Press’ Charlotte Cray interviews debut author Joanna Cannon about her beloved characters in The Trouble with Goats and Sheep and what it is about writing that sparks her mind and her heart.
1. Your child narrator Grace is distinct and charming, and in her best friend Tilly we have a pair of gumshoes who can see more than the adults they live around – where did Grace and Tilly come from? And what are their powers?
Thank you so much - I only wish I knew! At the risk of sounding slightly unhinged, I think Grace had been in my head for quite a while, and she just needed to find her way out. When I decided to write The Trouble with Goats and Sheep, I wanted an unreliable narrator, but I also needed someone without an agenda, so a child was the natural choice. Grace appeared almost immediately, and I knew straightaway she would have a best friend called Tilly. The minute Grace and Tilly climbed out of my head, they started chatting away to each other, and all I had to do was listen (okay, I really do sound unhinged now!). Lack of prejudice is their most important quality, I think. All the adults in the story have very fixed ideas about each other, but through Grace, I wanted the reader to see a world without that filter.
2. 1976 is alive in your novel, the tastes, smells and blistering heat. What was it about this year that made you want to place your story there?
One of the themes in Goats and Sheep, is appearance versus reality. We work very hard at building a version of ourselves that others will find acceptable, and at first, everyone on The Avenue seems quite virtuous and upstanding. However, that exterior can deconstruct very easily, and in the story, I needed a catalyst to make that happen. What better catalyst than heat?! Human beings behave very differently in extreme temperatures, and I wanted the environment to reflect the narrative, so as the tarmac melts and the lawns begin to yellow and fracture, the neighbours’ ability to keep up appearances also begins to fall apart – as Grace says, heat breaks the bonds that hold things together. Everyone who lived through the ’76 drought has very vivid memories of that time, but I’ve also heard from people who weren’t born in the 70s, but tell me that Goats and Sheep reminds them of the long, hot summers of childhood, which is lovely and just what I was hoping for!
3. The poignant and important thread that runs from the first page of The Trouble with Goats & Sheep straight through its reader is one of otherness and difference. Why was it important for you to tell a story that inspires the reader to question themselves?
Sometimes, I love a straight-up, darned good story – but some of the most memorable, and satisfying books I’ve read, have made me change my mind about something. Or at least, somewhere between the first page and the last, I’ve thought a little more deeply – Nathan Filer’s The Shock of the Fall, for example, or John Boyne’s A History of Loneliness. The idea of unbelonging and otherness is something which has always been important to me, but even more so working in psychiatry, where I meet many people who are very sadly pushed to the periphery. It’s at Grace and Tilly’s age we first become aware of the differences between ourselves and others, and we start to subconsciously adapt our behaviour accordingly. This duplicity works very well, but there are people who don’t have that ability. They only have one version of themselves to present, and that version isn’t always one society is willing to accept. We are all so focused on finding similarities, because it’s a form of self-validation, but it’s really the differences we should celebrate and enjoy.
4. A big part of The Trouble with Goats & Sheep is understanding the might and worth of a small community congregating and creating power together. Why did you want to explore this?
Communities are incredibly powerful. I think it’s easy to forget, in an age where our communities are becoming more fragmented and less obvious, but I wanted Goats and Sheep to remind us of that power, and how it can be used both negatively and positively. Community support is a protective factor in mental illness, for example, and as our lives become smaller and more un-peopled, so our risk of mental health problems increases. Goats and Sheep is also set in an era when ideas and values changed and shifted, and we were all forced to re-evaluate our own definition of community. We’re seeing an even more extreme version of that now, and there are echoes of hostility and fear on The Avenue that we still read about in the media today. The story shows that communities aren’t fixed. They’re fluid. They change and evolve, and grow, and it’s only by being open to these changes and overcoming our fears, that we, too, are able to evolve ourselves.
5. You have this description, ‘Alternating layers of beige and concern’ that illuminates one of your singular qualities as a writer: that of marrying the mundane with the comic, with a balm of warmth smoothed on top. What is it about everyday life, the un-extraordinary, that inspires you?
I love the un-extraordinary! I’m not really one for stories about kings and queens, and movie stars. I’m more interested in your next-door neighbour or your postman! I think if I were to blame anyone for this, I’d blame Alan Bennett – I watched Talking Heads as a child, and it was the first time I truly understood the power of words. I knew who these people were within the first few lines, and it felt as though someone had opened a door in my mind. It also gave me a life-long obsession with the ordinary. It’s just so fascinating. Also, working as a doctor, I have heard hundreds of patient histories. They’re always absorbing, sometimes heart-breaking, and very often incredibly moving. It’s a huge privilege to hear someone’s life story, and it makes me very aware that we don’t have to seek out the rich and famous for an interesting narrative. It’s right there at the bus stop or in the supermarket queue, waiting to be told.
6. You’re a psychiatrist, a vocation that relies on an ability to care for and, more importantly, understand people – what interests you about people? And what work experiences have left their mark on the page?
Very often, people ask how psychiatry helps with writing, and it does in so many ways. To be a doctor, it certainly helps to have an interest in people – I was told on the first day of medical school, that doctors can roughly be divided into White Coats and Cardigans. I’m most definitely a Cardigan. However, to specialise in psychiatry, an interest in people really is mandatory! I think it’s the individuality of people that interests me the most, how the decisions we make and the storyline we create for ourselves, are based on our own unique view of the world. Understanding those decisions and unpicking that storyline is something I’ll always find fascinating. Psychiatry is also the ultimate example of the author’s mantra of ‘show don’t tell.’ When I worked in A&E, if a patient presented with chest pain or shortness of breath, I could pretty much assume that everything they told me was factual and accurate. In mental health, patients are often too scared or, sadly, too ashamed to explain how they feel. We therefore have to rely on the body language, the expression, and the choice of words rather than the words themselves. It’s listening out for that missed beat in a narrative. Psychiatry is all about the showing, not the telling.
7. Last question: from reading The Trouble with Goats & Sheep I know you love a proverb: what’s your favourite?
I definitely do! I think proverbs are wonderful – little snippets of wisdom through time. There are some brilliant examples, but if I had to choose one, it would be ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you’. Not only is it found in The Bible, it also exists in every religious text and in Greek and Roman classical literature. Be kind. Always. It’s a very simple concept, but it’s amazing how much magic can result from a just small act of kindness.
January 2018 Book of the Month Abundant in moving insights into identity and memory, this charming slice of humanity is as elegantly formed and sweetly satisfying as the Battenberg cake depicted on its cover. Eighty-four-year-old Florence (Flo to her best friend Elsie) has fallen in her flat and, as she awaits help, wondering whether she’s “reached the end of her story”, her musings reveal a long-buried secret. “Everyone’s life has a secret, something they never talk about,” she remarks. “It’s what you do with your secret that really matters”, and what Elsie does with hers is determined by the unlikely reappearance of a man from her and Elsie’s past. Florence’s reflections on she how hasn’t done enough with her life, how life takes you down paths you hadn’t intended to wander, are wholly heartrending. She wanted to be a scientist, to devise a world-changing invention, but instead she and Elsie ended up in a factory for the entirety of their working lives. While there’s loss and sadness as the twisting tale unfolds, this is also a tonic for the soul - upliftingly wistful, poignantly funny, and the relationship between Flo and Elsie is wonderful. At once a bittersweet ode to the elderly and the passing of time, and a compelling mystery, this proves that sometimes it’s entirely appropriate to judge a book by its cover. I adored it.
One of Our Books of the Year 2017 | January 2017 Debut of the Month. The title refers to a Bible quote and two 10-year old girls are greatly mystified as to its meaning and where to find God. They spend the hot summer of 1976 looking for answers. Set in a small town housing estate, the girls’ avenue is a close-knit community of busy bodies. They all know everyone else’s business, they all have secrets they are trying to hide. Beautifully told in multi first-person narratives and nipping in and out of several houses, many of these secrets are drip-fed to us. At its heart is the disappearance of Mrs Creasy from No 8 and the neighbours ostracising Walter Bishop from No 11 whose house mysteriously burnt in 1967. Then there was the “taking of a baby” in the same year. All these mysteries and more bounce round the houses in a charming tale of ordinary folk sweltering in the heat. I loved it. ~ Sarah Broadhurst Shortlisted for the Books Are My Bag Fiction and Breakthrough Author Award 2016. Longlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize 2016.
One of our Books of the Year 2016. Shortlisted for the Books Are My Bag Fiction and Breakthrough Author Award 2016. Longlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize 2016. February 2016 Debut of the Month. The title refers to a Bible quote and two 10-year old girls are greatly mystified as to its meaning and where to find God. They spend the hot summer of 1976 looking for answers. Set in a small town housing estate, the girls’ avenue is a close-knit community of busy bodies. They all know everyone else’s business, they all have secrets they are trying to hide. Beautifully told in multi first-person narratives and nipping in and out of several houses, many of these secrets are drip-fed to us. At its heart is the disappearance of Mrs Creasy from No 8 and the neighbours ostracising Walter Bishop from No 11 whose house mysteriously burnt in 1967. Then there was the “taking of a baby” in the same year. All these mysteries and more bounce round the houses in a charming tale of ordinary folk sweltering in the heat. I loved it. ~ Sarah Broadhurst