Wednesday, 26 April 2017

In Conversation with Joanna Cannon

By Gillian Hamer

Joanna Cannon graduated from Leicester Medical School and was working in psychiatry when she began writing in her spare time. Her debut novel, The Trouble with Goats and Sheep, spent sixteen weeks as a Sunday Times Bestseller and is now published in fifteen languages. She has been interviewed by BBC News 24, BBC Radio 4 and BBC Radio 5, The Times, The Observer, and The Sunday Times, and has written for The Guardian, Good Housekeeping magazine and The Sunday Telegraph, amongst others.

She continues to work in psychiatry, in a voluntary capacity, with Arts for Health, who give the opportunity for service users and their carers to engage with the arts, both on the wards and in the community.

Hello, Jo, welcome to WWJ. Tell us a little about yourself and your writing?
I live in the Peak District, in Derbyshire, and I was working as a hospital doctor when I started writing. It was just for my own pleasure (I never expected anyone to read it, let alone for it to be published). However, curiosity got the better of me, and when I’d written around 30K words, I entered a competition at a writing festival – just to see what other people thought of it. I won the competition, which was on the Friday night, and by the Monday, I had seven offers of agent representation. I thought I was having some kind of psychotic episode. The agent I chose went on to sell Goats and Sheep to Harper Collins, and in January of 2016, it became a Sunday Times Bestseller. Things like that don’t happen to people like me …

Your debut novel released last year The Trouble with Goats & Sheep has become a bestseller. Can you sum it up in a single paragraph?
Goats and Sheep is set on a very ordinary housing estate in England, during the long, hot summer of 1976. It’s about two little girls, called Grace and Tilly, who wake up one morning during that summer, to find one of their neighbours, Mrs Creasy, has mysteriously vanished. They decide to spend their school holiday trying to figure out where Mrs Creasy might have disappeared to, and why. There’s a mystery running through the story, but it’s really about community and prejudice, and how unbelonging is actually a belonging all of its own.

You’ve said that daily life during your work for the NHS inspired a novel and led to your writing career – can you explain that in more detail?
On a practical level, I started writing as a kind of therapy, to help me deal with the stress (and distress) of working on the medical and surgical wards. The story itself, however, was inspired by my time in psychiatry. I met a lot of patients who lived on the periphery, who were often ignored or humiliated, purely because of the way they chose to live their lives. I wanted to write a story about how it must feel to be subjected to that kind of prejudice, and how we all have our own quirks and secrets, it’s just that some of us are better at hiding them than others. If you scratch the surface of most sheep, you will find yourself with a goat.

You were lucky enough to be part of a mentoring programme, Womentoring, early in your career – how did that help and are you now a fan of mentoring?
Mentoring is a wonderful initiative. As well as guidance and practical advice, it’s so important to have a sense of not being alone. Writing is incredibly isolating, and therefore plagued with self-doubt, and anything which balances that out is truly valuable.

If you could choose your own perfect writing mentor – who would it be and why?
I’d have to say Alan Bennett. Although I’m not entirely convinced he’d be up for it! I watched Talking Heads as a child, and it was the first time I truly appreciated the power of words. I think he’s an absolute genius.

I read and loved The Trouble with Goats & Sheep (see link to my Bookmuse review below) – what was your inspiration for the novel?
As well as working in psychiatry, the story was also inspired by the case of Chris Jefferies, the Bristol landlord, who was taken in for questioning over the murder of Jo Yeates. Chris Jefferies was also an outsider, someone who chose to live his life a certain way, and when his photograph was plastered all over the newspapers, everyone (including me) said, ‘he definitely did it, he looks just the type’. But, of course, it turned out that he didn’t. It really made me take a step back and question my own inclination to judge, and the strange criteria we all use to decide if someone fits in, or if they don’t.

The novel is very nostalgic with superbly detailed observations. Why did you choose that particular period – 1970s – to set your novel?
Goats and Sheep is, partly, about community and power of communities (both as a positive and negative force). In the 1970s, communities were beginning to change, very much as they are today. New people were coming in, from different backgrounds and cultures, which changed the dynamic of the streets we lived in, and (sadly) it made some people very uncomfortable. In the middle of this chaotic decade, with three-day weeks and strikes, and a rapid succession of prime ministers, we had the hottest summer on record. No one knew how to cope, and the community was forced to come together to get through it. I also wanted the physical environment – the cracked lawns and the melting pavements - to reflect the emotional breakdown of the Avenue’s residents. I also love The Bay City Rollers and Angel Delight ;)

What three books would you have to take with you to your Desert Island?
Gosh, that’s a difficult one. I think it would be Three Men in a Boat (because I think it’s the funniest book ever written). I’d also have to take a collection of my favourite poetry, because when you are feeling alone or anxious, there is nothing more uplifting than poetry. I think my third book would have to be Rachel Joyce. I can’t think of a better desert island companion than Harold Fry.

Which author do you most admire?
I have huge admiration for anyone who finishes writing a novel. It’s a massive achievement, whether you go on to be published or not, and it deserves a huge round of applause. As far as published authors go, I am in awe of people like Nathan Filer and John Boyne. Writers whose stories, somewhere between the first page and the last, change their readers mind about something. I can’t imagine anything more incredible.

Can you tell us anything about your second novel?
Three Things About Elsie is the story of Florence and Elsie, who are lifelong friends, and who now live at Cherry Tree Residential Home for the Elderly. The book opens with Florence, who has fallen and is lying on a wipe clean carpet in her flat, waiting to be rescued. We learn that Florence has a secret – a secret she promised she would keep forever – only Florence is worried her forever is now. It’s a story about growing old and the power of small acts of kindness, and it’s about how the echo we leave in the world might be louder than we think.

See Bookmuse Review of The Trouble with Goats & Sheep HERE

Twitter: @joannacannon


Instagram: @drjocannon



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