Joanna Cannon: The Story Behind The Trouble with Goats and Sheep

Joanna Cannon: The Story Behind The Trouble with Goats and Sheep

When I started working in psychiatry, I met even more people who ‘unbelonged’, but these were people who had never known any other existence. I met people who are judged, targeted and humiliated, and who are only ever noticed when something goes wrong and society needs someone to blame. There is a herd of ‘unbelongers’ out there, and not just on mental health wards. They are stitched into the landscape of everyone’s day. They wait at bus stops, and they stand behind you in the supermarket queue. They live in your town. They live on your street. These are the goats trying to survive in a world full of sheep, and this is never an easy task.

The Trouble with Goats and Sheep was my way of looking at life long before it became a novel. I strongly believe there is a little unbelonging in all of us, but we become very skilled at hiding it. We learn to present different versions of who we are, depending on the situation in which we find ourselves. We have a work version, an online version, a version only our friends ever see, and we turn the volume up or down on many aspects of our personality in order to be accepted; to fit in. This harmless duplicity works very well, but for some people, it’s not an option. They only have one version of themselves to show the world, and it might not be a version society is willing to accept.

I started writing The Trouble with Goats and Sheep as a way of dealing with the stress of my new career. I saw many upsetting things as a junior doctor, situations medical school couldn’t possibly have prepared me for, and writing was a way of dealing with the emotional impact of working on the wards. A way of emptying my head. I strongly believe reading, and writing, is the best method of understanding the world around us, of making sense of confusing situations. It teaches another perspective and gives us the gift of seeing life from a different viewpoint. I never, for one second, expected anyone else to ever read my book. I wrote it in secret. I wrote it at three o’clock in the morning, before I went to work, and in a wide variety of NHS car parks in my lunch break. I thought, perhaps, I might print a copy out for my mum.

To see The Trouble with Goats and Sheep published was such a wonderful moment. To be chosen for the Richard & Judy Book Club is even more surreal, and it makes me very proud. Not only because I’ve written a story people enjoy reading, but because I wrote it as a tribute to the patients I have had the privilege to meet. All the people out there who spend their lives at the edge of the dance floor, not quite knowing how to join in. I feel as if I have, in some small way, given those people a voice and finally, someone is listening to them.

As a writer, one of the most amazing experiences you can have, is for a reader to understand exactly what you are trying to say (exactly why you spent all those hours in a car park and set your alarm for some ridiculous hour of the morning). Since the book was published, I’ve heard from so many people who completely understand the philosophy of The Trouble with Goats and Sheep. People who, at different points in their life, have felt as though they don’t belong. I had no idea there were so many goats out there! It has reaffirmed for me how vital it is to celebrate our differences, instead of hiding from them. It has made me value the importance of showing kindness and compassion to those who stand at the edge of the dance floor, and it has made me realise that if we manage to do both of those things, in time we will come to appreciate that unbelonging is, in fact, a belonging all of its own.