Communities, Prejudice and Housing Estates: MysteryPeople Q&A with Joanna Cannon

  • Interview and Review by MysteryPeople Contributor Scott Butki

 

The Trouble with Goats and Sheep eases slowly into its mystery. In a neighborhood where something is clearly amiss, two girls explore their community, asking questions. Grace, who is 10, serves as the narrator for the girls’ explorations.

As the book kicks off, the wife of Mr. Creasy, an important member of the community, has disappeared. As the townspeople navigate a British town during a heat wave in the summer of 1976, the girls and the reader wonder why the residents aren’t as concerned about this disappearance as you would suspect. It becomes clear the community is not a fan of Mr. Creasy, or his wife, for reasons not immediately made clear.

The mystery of Mrs. Creasy’s disappearance sparks the girls’ interest in understanding their community. They convince those on the block to let them come in their homes and visit and ask questions. Some of their questions are about finding God; others try to ascertain, essentially, What Happened.

Through these conversations, and flashbacks to an earlier time, the girls and the reader begin to understand that something happened in the past – something people don’t talk about openly. One person in the neighborhood was seen as weird and so… something happened…. but we’re not exactly sure what, though there are references to a fire. The neighbors avoid the man, and tell the girls to avoid him too.

The girls visit a vicar for answers and he quotes scripture about goats and sheep, giving this book its unusual title. The girls try to understand who the community would be a goat and who would be sheep, coming to the conclusion that the metaphor is as difficult to understand as what’s happened, or is happening, in their neighborhood.

I won’t give away any results of their investigations except to see there are some surprises and the girls succeed (sort of) in finding God, and, in the process, in bringing much of the community together. The more you read the more you get into the story, now invested in knowing what exactly happened and who was involved.

The book successfully uses the device of shifting perspectives from chapter to chapter. I say “successfully” because this technique can sometimes hamper a book but works perfectly in the context of The Trouble with Goats and Sheep – through multiple viewpoints we get other clues and glimpses of what exactly happened.

If you’re looking for a quick, fast-paced book, this is not it. But if you’re looking for something that moves a bit slower, that gets you more interested in a neighborhood than with the plot, then The Trouble of Goats and Sheep should satisfy your cravings.

The book succeeds in being an interesting exploration of a place and time, fictional yet capturing, I suspect, many places. The neighborhood is typical, in that some residents are pushy and more aggressive than others, there are leaders and followers, there are men who are mean to their wives and others who seem to be better male specimens, and there are plenty of secrets.

Joanna Cannon, the author, was kind enough to allow me to interview her via email.

A Long Hot Summer on the Edge of Society: Joanna Cannon talks with Blogger Scott Butki about The Trouble with Goats and Sheep

Scott Butki: How did you come up with this story?

Joanna Cannon: When I’m not writing about goats and sheep, I work as a psychiatrist, and I meet a lot of people who live on the periphery of life. People who are ignored and humiliated, and are only ever really noticed when something goes wrong. I very often wonder how it must feel to be ostracised in that way,based purely on how you look or how you choose to live your life. We are incredibly prejudiced as a society, and we often use very strange criteria to decide if someone ‘belongs’. I wanted to explore that idea in a story, and show that we’re all a little different, we all have our quirks of behaviour. It’s just that some people are better at hiding it than others.

SB: Which came first: the wonderful protagonists, the girls named Grace and Tilly, or the plot?

JC: Grace’s voice has lived in my head for a very long time (at the risk of sounding slightly psychotic!), I just needed a story for her to tell, so I would have to say Grace and Tilly popped up first.

“I think we all want to leave an echo, we all want to think the world will be ever so slightly different because we existed, but sometimes, it’s difficult to see how that might happen. Book Two is about growing old, what makes us who we are, and how the echo we leave might be louder than we first imagine.”

SB: Why did you decide to use the goats and sheep analogy which, if memory serves, is from the Gospel of Matthew? Can you summarize it? Which are you?

JC: I never set out to write a book with any kind of religious themes in it, and Goats and Sheep is more about communities and prejudice. I was looking for things which bring a community together, and whether you’re religious or not, you have to admit that religion is a huge driving force in gluing people together. When God separated the goats from the sheep, he was dividing people dependent on whether they supported Him or not. In Goats and Sheep, it’s more to do with standing out and being different (the goats), or blending in and being accepted. It’s interesting to see the idea of goats and sheep has crept into our language: scapegoat, following the herd, and so on. And to answer your question, I am most definitely a goat. I think we all are, if you scratch the surface.

SB: Some of the wives in the avenue the book focuses on are treated quite badly. Are they – or the husbands for that matter – based on anyone?

JC: No, all of the characters in the novel are works of fiction!

“Both psychiatry and writing are very much based on narrative, and the importance of narrative, and the two jobs very much walk side by side.”

SB: Why did you decide to set the book in England at 1976? Was it related to that being a particularly warm summer?

JC: Goats and Sheep is set on a very ordinary housing estate, on an avenue where everyone seems very respectable and upstanding. I needed a catalyst to break down those respectable exteriors, and what better catalyst than heat? Human beings are incredibly vulnerable to the weather. Our behaviour changes quite drastically with temperature, and in hot weather especially, we find it less easy to hold things together. This especially applies to England, where we’re just not used to anything above lukewarm! The summer of 76 was a huge drought here in the UK, so it seemed an ideal backdrop for the story.

SB: Why did you decide to alternate between Grace’s story and six other perspectives?

JC: I was originally going to tell the story purely from Grace’s perspective, but as I got to know the other characters, I realised they had stories of their own to tell, and in order to do that accurately, their voices needed to be heard.

SB: I understand you are a psychiatrist. Were you able to use your professional work to help you write this?

JC: I think psychiatry has definitely helped me as a writer. The stories I hear from patients are obviously confidential and I would never betray that trust. However, the skills I’ve learned in the specialty certainly come in useful. A mental health patient, through absolutely no fault of their own, is the ultimate unreliable narrator. They will very often not tell you exactly how they’re feeling, possibly because they’re scared or ashamed, or it might be they’re hearing voices telling them not to trust you. As a doctor, I therefore rely on other information to help me: how the words are delivered, how the patient is behaving, which words they choose to present their story. These are all qualities you need to bear in mind as a writer, too. Both psychiatry and writing are very much based on narrative, and the importance of narrative, and the two jobs very much walk side by side.

“I needed a catalyst to break down those respectable exteriors, and what better catalyst than heat? Human beings are incredibly vulnerable to the weather. Our behaviour changes quite drastically with temperature, and in hot weather especially, we find it less easy to hold things together.”

SB: Is there a moral or lesson to this book? If so, what is it?

JC: I don’t think there’s a lesson in there. If you start out to write a story hoping to teach something, I think you’re on a bit of a sticky wicket! However, I have found that my favourite stories, as a reader, have made me think more deeply (and there are books which have changed my mind about an issue, somewhere between the first page and the last). I think a writer has to feel very passionately about the subject of their novel, and with Goats and Sheep, I wanted people to perhaps think about how people at the edge of society are treated, and how it must feel to be subjected to that kind of prejudice.

SB: I noticed at least one review comparing your book favorably to another I love, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night, for portraying, at least some of the time, life through the eyes of children, and how oddly adults sometimes act. How do you feel about the comparison?

JC: I am incredibly flattered to even be mentioned in the same sentence as Mark Haddon. Curious Incident is a wonderful book. Not only is it a hugely enjoyable read, but it also has some important and extremely valuable messages threaded into the story.

SB: What are you working on next? A second novel, I hope. Is it related to the first or completely unrelated?

JC: I have just finished writing Book Two, which has been a wonderful experience. Book Two has different characters and a different setting, but the deeper layers and the humour of Goats and Sheep are still there (I hope!). When Harper Lee died, my first thought was what a wonderful echo she left in the world, and how people would forever read her words and be affected by them. I think we all want to leave an echo, we all want to think the world will be ever so slightly different because we existed, but sometimes, it’s difficult to see how that might happen. Book Two is about growing old, what makes us who we are, and how the echo we leave might be louder than we first imagine.

You can find copies of The Trouble with Goats and Sheep on our shelves and via bookpeople.com. 

Scott Butki has been doing interview with authors for more than 20 years, some of them in recent years for Mystery People. You can find an index of his interviews here.

The Platonic Ideal of the Criminal Antihero: MysteryPeople Q&A with Chris Holm

 

 

  • Post by Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery

 Last year’s The Killing Kind put Chris Holm on the map, telling everyone else what a small-yet-loyal band of us knew about his talent. The Killing Kind just took home a much-deserved Anthony Award, and we’re proud to bring you an interview with Chris about the next in the series.  

His second book with Michael Hendricks, a hit man who kills other hitmen, Red Right Hand, has Hendricks on the run due to events in The Killing Kind. Despite his precarious freedom, Michael Hendricks must protect a man who’s put away many of the top men in the criminal organization Hendricks is fighting. All of this happens in San Francisco after a terrorist attack has rocked the city. We caught up with Chris to talk about the book and his hero.

MysteryPeople Scott: Michael has gone from hit man to avenger, as well as being a survivor all the time. Has it changed him in a fundamental way as you write him?

Chris Holm: Oh, I don’t think we’ve seen the last of Hendricks hitting hitmen. That said, I think he’s changed significantly since the beginning of The Killing Kind, and he’ll continue to do so over the course of the series. Plenty of writers are capable of sustaining a series in which their protagonist remains essentially unchanged. Robert B. Parker and Lee Child come to mind. While I love reading stories like that, I’m lousy at writing them. I need an arc to sink my teeth into. A destination in mind. In Hendricks’ case, it’s either going to be redemption or a tragic end.

MPS: You deal with the War on Terror in Red Right Hand. What did you want to explore in that issue?

CH: I’m fascinated by the fog of misinformation that descends after a terrorist attack, and the countless acts of heroism and venality it obscures. By the way special interests swoop in to bend the narrative to their cause. By the privatization of global security, which turns public safety into a for-profit business. Red Right Hand afforded me the opportunity to explore all three.

MPS: How did San Francisco end up as the main setting?

CH: The story began as a single scene running through my head. A family of tourists, trying to make a cell phone video with the Golden Gate Bridge as the backdrop, who inadvertently capture what proves to be the definitive recording of a major terrorist attack. Everything else in the book stemmed from that scene.

MPS:  You’re incredibly well read. Are there any specific influences in this series?

CH: That’s kind of you to say. Richard Stark’s Parker comes to mind. He’s my Platonic ideal of a criminal antihero. Jeff Lindsay’s Dexter was something of an inspiration, because he too is a killer with a code who hunts his own kind. Carrie Kelley from Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns informed Hendricks’ new sidekick, Cameron. And while he’s not a literary character, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention 24’s Jack Bauer. In many ways, Hendricks is the guy that Bauer might become if his moral certitude abandoned him.

MPS: What’s the biggest challenge Michael Hendricks gives you as a writer?

CH: I feel as though I should say “keeping him likeable” or something, but the fact is, I never worry about that. I find him interesting, so I assume readers will, too. The biggest challenge is logistical. He’s not James Bond; he’s a fugitive. If he wants to get from point A to point B, he’s got to figure out how to do so without getting arrested. If he needs a weapon, he’s got to procure it himself. If he storms a building, he goes in solo—no backup, no air support, nada. In a way, though, that’s fun. It forces me to improvise, to play MacGyver.

MPS: What is the greatest pleasure he provides?

CH: The thing I love most about Hendricks is that I’m not always certain what he’s going to do. Sometimes, he’s a better man than I give him credit for. Sometimes, he’s a little worse. That unpredictability is what keeps me going. I write to find out what he’ll do next.

You can find copies of Red Right Hand on our shelves and via bookpeople.com

 

MysteryPeople Q&A with Beth Lewis

Beth Lewis stunned us all with her forceful debut, The Wolf Roada psychological thriller that follows a Elka, a half-wild girl, as she flees from her evil guardian across a post-apocalyptic landscape. As she flees through a Black Forest fairytale version of British Columbia, she works to come to terms with her own part in her guardian’s crimes. New friendships with a protective wolf and a sassy female traveler help Elka clarify the horrors of her past, reclaim her identity, escape the long arms of her psychotic guardian, and build the future she wants. We caught up with Beth Lewis about the perfect crossover read that is The Wolf Road. 

 

  • Post by Director of Suspense Molly Odintz

Molly Odintz: Some reviews of The Wolf Road have focused on the relationship between Elka and her dangerous woodsman savior, rather than the equally important dynamic between Elka and her female companion on the last leg of her journey. I spend a lot of time thinking about representations of female community, and I loved that Elka got a chance to form a healthy friendship with another woman as a counter to her previous replacement family unit. What did you want explore in the novel’s depiction of female community?

Beth Lewis: I love depictions of strong female friendship. Too often in my opinion female characters seem to be shown fighting over a man or competing in some way, otherwise the friendships are written as quite superficial. There aren’t enough deep and abiding friendships, ones with life and death stakes, and I wanted to write one that felt real and almost unconditional. Elka and Penelope save each other, physically and emotionally, multiple times and as such, their bond becomes iron. This is going to sound a bit precious but I’ve always felt that, when I’m writing, the characters appear. I don’t decide on their gender or appearance or voice, they just are, as if I’m meeting a real person for the first time. I didn’t consciously set out to write about these two women but I knew that I wanted them both to have ultimate trust in each other, which is something neither of them had before. It’s something special to trust someone so completely, it’s powerful and rare to know without a doubt that if you put your life and your safety into this person’s hands, they wouldn’t let you down.

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Hard Word Hits the Trail with…Mickey Spillane

The Hard Book Club meets to discuss The Legend of Caleb York by Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins on Wednesday, September 28th, at 7 PM on BookPeople’s 3rd floor.

Hard Word Book Club to discuss: The Legend of Caleb York by Max Allan Collins, based on the screenplay of the same name, by Mickey Spillane

9780786036141Our Hard Word Book Club always makes a point to discuss a western once or twice a year. This time, we are reading one from an author mainly known for writing about danger in the big city. In the mid fifties, Mickey Spillane was at the height of his his career, due to his tough guy private eye Mike Hammer. During this period, he was asked by none other than John Wayne to write a western screenplay. Unearthed after his death, it was adapted into the book The Legend Of Caleb York by Spillane’s friend and collaborator Max Allan Collins.

The story is a play on the classic stranger comes to town idea. A crooked sheriff works to push a crusty rancher and his pretty daughter off of their land. The rancher sends word for a gunman who made a name for himself by killing the famed gunslinger Caleb York. Not long after, a man rides into town, dressed as a dude. He quickly dispatches some of the local ruffians. When he signs the hotel ledger, he gives the name of Caleb York. The mystery of this man slowly reveals itself as both factions make their play.

The Legend Of Caleb York is a fun read that should inspire a great discussion about genre, Spillane, and script versus book. We will also be watching the hour long documentary Mike Hammer’s Mickey Spillane, directed by Max Allan Collins and featuring many crime fiction greats talking about the hard boiled author. We will be meeting on BookPeople’s third floor, Wednesday, September 28th, at 7PM. The book is 10% off to those who attend.

The Hard Book Club meets to discuss The Legend of Caleb York by Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins on Wednesday, September 28th, at 7 PM on BookPeople’s 3rd floor. You can find copies of The Legend of Caleb York on our shelves and via bookpeople.com. Book Club selections are 10% off in-store. 

Crime Fiction Friday:”The Black Bird Heist” by Jesse Sublett

Thanks to everyone who came out to Noir at the Bar on Tuesday night and helped make the night something truly special. The following piece, read by Jesse Sublett as the last reading of the night, is a good example of the astounding creativity that has an opportunity to make its way into the world through our MysteryPeople programming. Thanks to Jesse for sharing this original short piece, “The Black Bird Heist,” with us for this week’s Crime Fiction Friday. It stars Austin’s favorite bird – the grackle.

You can find signed copies of Jesse’s latest on our shelves and via bookpeople.com. Our next Noir at the Bar won’t be till Texas Book Fest weekend – keep an eye on our blog for more details!

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Photo shared from KUT Website, Photographer: Nathan Bernier

The Black Bird Heist

by Jesse Sublett

Three birds on a wire

Middle bird says

I’m nervous.

 

He’s the New Bird.

 

Bird on the Right says

It’s simple. Stick to the plan

We rush the bank & say

We’re grackles! Nobody move!

 

Bird on the Left says

Two minutes to go

everybody set?

Right: Locked & loaded.

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Murder in the Afternoon Book Club to Discuss: SMALLER AND SMALLER CIRCLES by F. H. Batacan

 

– Post by Director of Suspense Molly Odintz

9781616956639What do Tom Rob Smith’s Child 44 (Soviet Union), Philip Kerr’s The Pale Criminal (Nazi Germany), and F. H. Batacan’s Smaller and Smaller Circles (Philippines) have in common? They are all superb examples of serial killer narratives where political agendas worm their way into an investigation, and they all  feature serial killers allowed by state authorities to run amok. This, to me is an essential quality in any plausible crime novel about serial killers, but I wanted to provide some real world examples.

Child 44 features a based-on-real-life serial  killer allowed to get away with innumerable murders because the Soviet authorities believed there could be no such thing as a serial killer in such a revolutionary utopia. The Pale Criminal showcases how scapegoating can lead an investigation off-track, as a detective seeks a serial killer while the Nazis use a series of murders for propaganda purposes.

In Smaller and Smaller Circles, set in the late 90s, two Jesuit priests, stunned by the failure of local police to solve a series of brutal murders of young boys in their community, decide to track down the killers themselves.  Unlike Child 44 or The Pale Criminal, however, Smaller and Smaller Circles has been hailed as the first Filipino crime novel, and by extension the first to use the genre for a social critique of inequality in Manila.

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MysteryPeople Q&A with Rick Ollerman

  • Post by Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery


Rick Ollerman will be joining us for our Noir At The Bar tonight at Threadgill’s South. Rick has a voice that has one foot in the modern and one in paperback classic. His latest, Mad Dog Barked, introduces us to PI Scott Porter who becomes the caretaker of a first edition of Murder In The Rue Morgue that draws all kind of disaster. We caught up with Rick to talk about the book and his writing.

MysteryPeople Scott: Mad Dog Barked is such a distinctive title. Did it come before or after finishing the book?

Rick Ollerman: It’s actually part of a line from a Jack Kerouac poem. I’d just started writing Mad Dog Barked and I knew the sort of character Scott Porter was going to be. When I read that poem, that particular line stood out, not just for being such an interesting phrase but for all the sort of meanings and complexities that reflected what I wanted to do with Porter. Was Porter a “mad dog” making noise? Was he driven to behave in a certain way? The title actually helped me shape the character and in the past, my titles have always been determined after the books had been written. This was more fun.

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