This month Anne Miller meets Joanna Cannon, whose debut novel, The Trouble with Goats and Sheep, sees two young girls tackling a mystery which highlights mental health stigma.
Prior to her debut novel’s publication Joanna Cannon had only thought about writing, in the way that one might imagine “having a number one single… or winning Wimbledon,” and didn’t know if anyone would want to read it (“I thought I might print a copy out for my mum”). The novel was released at the end of January and the goats and sheep have since been filling bookshop windows and jumping around the bestseller charts.
The Trouble with Goats and Sheep takes place in The Avenue – a British cul-de-sac – in the summer of 1976. It centres on 10-year-old Grace and her best friend Tilly. When their neighbour Mrs Creasy goes missing the two vow to bring her back. After the vicar tells Grace that the Lord is a shepherd who looks after his flock and will bring people home if they “wander off the path” the pair decide to spend their summer holiday looking for God.
Their detective mission, which sees them undercover as Brownies looking for good deeds to do, lets them in and out of the houses of The Avenue, seeing things in the unfiltered way that children do.
The story takes place during a heatwave, and as the summer intensifies, so does the pressure on the neighbours. All the secrets kept carefully behind neat lawns and neighbourly goodwill begin to unravel.
One of the joys of Goats and Sheep is the way that each household is drawn – you could read whole novels about the lives behind each of the doors and the book is a masterclass in human observation.
“If you specialise in psychiatry, other doctors look down on you. They say it’s the easy option. I’ve had doctors say to me, ‘Didn’t you want to be a proper doctor?’”
Goats and Sheep might be Cannon’s first novel but she has come to it with a richly varied backstory. Now a psychiatrist, Cannon left school with one O-level and worked various jobs, including time as a kennel maid, behind a bar and delivering pizzas. Long interested in medicine, particularly mental health, she started thinking of this more seriously after taking a first aid course and being encouraged by the instructor.
She enrolled for college courses and won a place at Leicester Medical School. She was later told by the professor who offered her the place that every year he chooses one wild card – that year it was her.
While working long and late shifts on the wards as a junior doctor, Cannon began writing about her experiences: “I used to get so distressed and I couldn’t switch off. I thought, I’ve either got to lose that and become hardened to it – which I really, really didn’t want to do because that’s who I am – or I’ve got to learn how to understand it, process it in my mind, so I just started writing. And that helped me make sense of things, which is what I think writing really is at the end of the day.”
Cannon watched Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads when she was a similar age to Grace and Tilly, and says it was the first time she realised “how powerful words can be, and how your opinion and your perception can be shifted.”
Her quest is to lessen the stigma around mental health, which also exists among doctors: “If you specialise in psychiatry, other doctors look down on you. They say it’s the easy option. I’ve had doctors say to me, ‘Didn’t you want to be a proper doctor?’”
Cannon emphasises the importance of being mindful and including people: “When I speak to mental health patients and I talk to them about feeling like they ‘unbelong’ – nobody speaks to them, nobody looks them in the eye… nobody acknowledges their existence.”
“Most people, at some point in their life, have felt out of place… they just modify themselves and I think if you just scratch the surface they’re underneath.”
The ‘unbelonger’ in the book is Walter Bishop (who lives in the only odd-numbered house on the street). The neighbours see him as an outsider, tell the children to keep away from him and don’t include him in their plans but his story is gradually revealed throughout the book.
Cannon, who was mentored through Kerry Hudson’s WoMentoring Project, began working on the novel in January 2014. She then received a tax rebate which she put towards a writing course run by publishers Faber & Faber.
Later that year she went to the York Writers’ Festival and read some of her work at an event that’s been described as a “literary X Factor”. An agent and publishing deal soon followed.
Are we all goats? “Definitely, to a degree,” says Cannon. “When we’re Grace and Tilly’s age we first start modifying our behaviour because we realise there are differences between us and other people, so we change our behaviour slightly. Most people, at some point in their life, have felt out of place… they just modify themselves and I think if you just scratch the surface they’re underneath. We’re a world of goats but like to pretend we’re sheep.”
Cannon’s path is one of an independently minded goat blazing her own trail. As she says, it’s important to celebrate difference – rather than live in a “giant homogenous porridge.”
The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon is out now.
Joanna Cannon is appearing at the Chipping Norton Literary Festival on 23 April and the Derby Book Festival on 10 June.
Anne is a QI Elf. She has two Blue Peter badges, reached the semi-finals of Only Connect and really likes puffins. @miller_anne