Part mystery, part coming-of-age novel, Joanna Cannon’s debut The Trouble with Goats and Sheep is set during an uncharacteristically hot British summer. When a local woman disappears from the tight-knit community of The Avenue, young Grace and Tilly embark on a quest to find out what happened to their missing neighbor. Cannon discusses how her work as a psychiatrist influences her writing, the nature of outsiders and remembering life in 1970s England.
You’ve had a really interesting career path. Can you tell us how you came to be a writer?
I started writing a blog when I became a junior doctor, to empty my head of all the distressing things I saw on the wards. Obviously, I didn’t write about real patients, but I found it therapeutic to write about my reaction to the situations in which I found myself. The blog became very popular, and people began suggesting I write a novel. And so (very) secretly, I began writing the book that would eventually become The Trouble with Goats and Sheep.
The 1970s was a time when many of the societal changes that had occurred in the cities had begun to hit the suburbs. How do you see those changes manifest in Grace’s community?
One of the reasons I set Goats and Sheep in the 1970s was because of the changes in the structure of communities. Very much like today, it was a time when people were having to adjust their idea of community and their own preconceptions. This is reflected in The Avenue with Harold, for example, who wraps his racism in a Union Jack and calls it patriotism, and Grace’s father, who understands he has to change, but isn’t quite sure how to go about it.
Because Grace is the narrator, she seems to be the more dominant one in the relationship, but Tilly has the stronger, more assured sense of who she is. How do you think their relationship develops over the course of the book?
I think that’s definitely something for each reader to decide for themselves, but I did want to explore the dynamic between Grace and Tilly as the story progresses. It’s around that age we first start noticing the differences between ourselves and other children, and subconsciously modifying our behavior in order to be accepted. Grace is obviously desperate to be liked by the ‘cooler’ kids, whereas Tilly is more comfortable in her own skin.
Is the character of Walter Bishop based on a real person?
No, Walter (and all the other characters) are very much products of my imagination. Working in psychiatry, however, I do meet a lot of people (like Walter) who live on the periphery of a community, and are never really noticed until something goes wrong. I wrote Goats and Sheep because I wanted to give them a voice, and also to explore what it must feel like to be subjected to so much misunderstanding and prejudice.
Were you a big reader as a kid? Who are some of your favorite literary heroes or heroines from childhood?
I am an only child of an only child, and as a kid, some of my best friends lived within the pages of a book. I was very fortunate that my parents had the foresight to take me to my local library every week, where I would always renew Little Women and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, because I couldn’t bear the thought of the books going home with anyone else.
I read that you created a Spotify list of 1970s music to get you in the mood of the novel. What are some of the songs on it?
Oh my word, all sorts of ’70s gems! There’s a lot of Suzi Quatro on there, some UK glam rock, and (of course) Elvis. It wouldn’t be a ’70s playlist without a good dose of Elvis.
Grace and Tilly interview their neighbors about the whereabouts of God, eliciting a variety of ideas and personal concepts. Did writing this novel change your own point of view about religion?
I think the concept of religion is such a personal one, and it means so many different things to so many different people. There is “traditional” religion in the book, of course, in the shape of the vicar and St. Anthony’s (and Mrs. Roper and Mrs. Forbes fighting over who loves Jesus more), but you can also find God (or love, or spirituality) in many different places (God is everywhere, as Grace often points out to the adults around her). I don’t think it changed my point of view, but it certainly made me explore the idea.
This novel has been optioned for television. Do you think you’ll be involved in the production at all? What would your dream cast be?
It would be wonderful to be involved, because it’s an area I know very little about and it would be so fascinating. I think for that reason, I’m more than happy to hand over the reins to someone else. It would be good to watch from the edge, though, and keep an eye on my characters. I’m very visual when I’m writing, and I tend to see things cinematographically, so it’s very exciting to see how someone else interprets my words. I’m not sure about a dream cast. I think, especially for Grace and Tilly, it would be good to have completely unknown actors, who don’t arrive with a history of other roles behind them.
Describe your perfect writing day.
My perfect writing day definitely starts with a very long dog walk to clear my head. I always get up around 3 a.m. (which is a hangover from medical school and working on the wards), and I walk my German Shepherd six miles through the fields and we watch the sun come up. I tend to write in the morning and early afternoon, so I think my perfect writing day would have to be one where there were few distractions. Maybe if Twitter crashed, it would help!
What are you working on now?
I’m currently working on Book Two. When I wrote Goats and Sheep, I never expected it to escape from my laptop, so it was truly just me and a blank sheet of paper. I had no idea people would be analyzing my words in newspapers and on the television, whereas now, I’ve had experience of that, and I’m aware of people out there, who will read my thoughts. I think you have to try to put that to one side, and tell the story you want to tell, in the way you want to tell it. It’s the best way to write: just you, a pen and paper and a story you believe in.
Author photograph by Philippa Edge.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of The Trouble with Goats and Sheep.