Joanna Cannon, author of the hotly anticipated, The Trouble With Goats and Sheep, provides some valuable insight into the creation of her new novel.
Working in psychiatry, I meet a lot of people who ‘unbelong’. Those who live on the periphery of life, pushed by society to the very edge of the dancefloor, where they try to copy what everyone else is doing, but never quite get it right. There is a silent herd of unbelongers out there, not just on mental health wards, but stitched through the landscape of everyone’s day, walking around supermarkets and standing in bus queues. These are the ‘goats’. The people who just don’t fit in, who ‘aren’t quite like us’. It’s only when something goes wrong, and society needs someone to blame, that the sheep turn to the goats and say that we knew they were strange all along, and of course they must be guilty, because they just look the type, don’t they?
I decided to write Goats and Sheep, because I believe there is a little unbelonging in all of us – it’s just that some people are better at hiding it than others. In the story, everyone on The Avenue has something to conceal, a reason for not fitting in. It’s only in the thick, suffocated heat of the summer, that the ability to hide these differences becomes impossible, and along with the fractured lawns and the melting tarmac, the lives of all the neighbours begin to deconstruct. Through the eyes of Grace, out ten year-old narrator, we discover that if we scratch the surface of most sheep, we might very well find ourselves with a goat. And the biggest problem of all, is trying to work out the difference.
I wrote Goats and Sheep at four o’clock in the morning before I went to work, in a wide variety of NHS car parks during my lunch break, and occasionally on a night shift (on the very – very – rare occasion when all my patients were asleep at the same time). It was always a battle between time and words, but the story was so important to me. I wrote it because I hope it will remind us that we should always ask questions of ourselves. I thought it might help us to be a little kinder to those who stand at the edge of the dancefloor, and I hope that if we spend time looking through Grace’s eyes for a little while, it might just help us to realise that unbelonging is actually a belonging all of its own.
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.