Richard and Judy Interview: Joanna Cannon on The Trouble with Goats and Sheep

Richard and Judy Interview: Joanna Cannon on The Trouble with Goats and Sheep

Extreme weather makes such a colourful backdrop to a story; is that why you chose to place yours in the incredible summer of ’76?

Yes, absolutely. As human beings, we like to think we’re infallible, but we’re actually extremely vulnerable to temperature changes. In communities where no one ever speaks to one another, three feet of snow will cause spontaneous conversations about which roads are closed and how many loaves of bread are left in the supermarket. It’s very much the same with a heatwave. We also find it less easy to ‘hold it together’ in high temperatures. The Trouble with Goats and Sheep is set on a very ordinary avenue with seemingly respectable neighbours. I needed a catalyst to break down that respectability, and there’s no better catalyst than heat . . .

Your book poses a timeless question: how well do we really know our neighbours? Presumably you used Tilly and Grace as your investigators because children are far less reluctant than adults to ask the tricky questions.

A child narrator was the obvious choice for me for that very reason. We forgive children for their lack of an editing faculty, and we’re also much more likely to have unedited conversations ourselves when children are present. We forget the ever-listening small ears. I also needed a narrator without an agenda. In the story, everyone on The Avenue has something to hide, something they’d rather their neighbours didn’t find out. As 10-year-olds, Grace and Tilly see the world without any filter, and yet they are also at the age when we first start to seek out that sense of fitting in, of belonging.

Did you hesitate before choosing a biblical reference for your title (from the gospel of St Matthew, where God divides His flock into sheep, who are kind and have served Him well, and goats, who lack compassion and faith): so few people in our secular present ‘get’ such references.

Religion is definitely a tricky thing to reference, not least of all in a title. I do think the language of the gospel has drifted into common use, though. We speak of ‘scapegoats’ and ‘following the flock’ and we’ve assigned certain characteristics to these animals which has become removed from any biblical idea. I didn’t set out to choose a quirky title either, but as soon as it came into my mind, I realised it summed up the whole philosophy of the story and it felt like a perfect fit.

You were a hospital doctor before specialising in psychiatry – we assume a lot of what you observed in your patients is on these pages.

Whilst I’d never write about real patients, my experiences on the wards definitely influenced the story, you’re absolutely right. I spent a lot of time talking to those who live at the edge of society, who are never included. These are people who are judged purely on the way they look and the way they choose to live their lives. I wanted to give a voice to someone in that position, to say that we all have our quirks of behaviour, things we’d rather others didn’t know about. The only difference between us, is that some people are better at hiding it than others. If you scratch the surface of most sheep, you may very well find yourself with a goat . . .