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.
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