August calls for a little excitement, and you’ll get just that with this month’s book club pick: A Tidy Ending by Joanna Cannon. We’re pleased to have had the chance to have a catch up with Joanna, and discover more about the mind behind this gripping new novel that has us all turning pages at a rate of knots.
A lot of A Tidy Ending was written in lockdown, actually. It was a time of self-reflection and a time when we all had a lot of space and time to look at ourselves and to question what was important and what mattered to us, and whether we were happy or not. And that really sowed the seed for Linda. She was this dissatisfied middle-aged woman living their very ordinary, perhaps unfulfilling life, who’d gone through a period of self reflection and decided that this wasn’t the life that she wanted.
Before I was an author I was a psychiatrist, and I used to do a lot of outpatient clinics. I would see a lot of people with anxiety and depression, and when you asked them where they think it all started, quite often they would say “Oh, it was something I saw on Facebook”. And it’s this idea of comparison that we’re constantly encouraged to take part in, but we’re comparing ourselves to a show reel – it’s a very curated version of somebody’s life which will always make us feel like we’re falling short. And Linda was born out of that misery. This middle-aged, dissatisfied woman appeared, demanding to tell her story. And that’s how A Tidy Ending began.
I think there’s so many similarities between psychiatry and writing. Because when I worked in psychiatry, I couldn’t send somebody for a blood test or in for an MRI to diagnose them. It was just me and another person and a story. I had to listen to that story, and come to some kind of conclusion, and interpret that story. And it’s the same when you’re writing, I’m kind of giving you a history as a reader, and you are picking up on clues the way I would pick up on clues when I was talking to a patient. So you think, ‘why do they use that word?’ ‘Why are they dressed like that?’ ‘Why did they express that in that certain way?’ Because that’s all you have in psychiatry. And that’s what you have as a reader with Linda. I love unreliable narrators, .so I always write unreliable narrators, because I think as a reader, if you do some work, interpreting things is much more satisfying at the end. So really, you’re Linda’s psychiatrist, you’re reading her story, taking a history and thinking, ‘why did she say that?’ ‘Why did she do that?’ ‘Why is she fixated on that?’ So there are so many narratives, so many similarities, because it’s all about narrative. And people are made up of stories. Linda is made up of stories and all the patients I have met are made up of stories and it’s just a question listening, either with a good ear or reading with good eyes, and coming to the conclusion, like you would as a psychiatrist.
I think because there’s so much unseen. There’s so much curtain-twitchy business going on. And I love stories I can relate to. I love reading about different cultures and different countries and different experiences and timelines – but even then, there’s always going to be something in there that you can relate to. So I like that twitchy suburbia because there’s so much to explore. Everybody has a story. I don’t write stories about kings and queens and Kim Kardashian; I write stories about your next door neighbor’s cousin, because it’s far more interesting. I grew up on a diet of Ruth Rendell, and I grew up on a diet of Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads. I can remember sitting watching talking heads when I was a child. And it just blew my mind because I knew who these people were. And they were very ordinary people. There were people that I could think, ‘Oh, that’s a little bit like Mrs. Such and Such down the street,’ and I think there’s that connection and that that familiarity that appeals to people.
I think if you just have a dark story, people are going to get depressed or bored. And they’re going to shut the book and walk off and do something cheerful instead. I think you’ve got to have humour in there. And if you’ve got good characters, and a good voice, (because it all starts with a voice) they will be humorous, because people are even in dark, terrible, unhappy, depressing situations. People never lose their sense of humour. So I would be writing, and Linda would pop into my head and say something really hilarious. And I think, well I’m going to put that in, because, you know, it’s not just a story about misery. It’s a story about life. People need light and shade.
When you start writing a book, you’ve got to ask yourself, Why am I writing this book? What am I trying to say? What do I want people to leave with at the final page? What do I want them to think about? Not in any kind of preachy way, just so there’s a point to it. And I think if you’re trying to get a point across, you’ve got to include humour. In the same way that medics have to have a sense of humour because they’re dealing with such awful things every day, you have to have it there. So even even in a fictional world, there needs to be some light and shade, I think.
I do try and leave things a little bit open ended. If anybody’s read any of my other books, they’ll know that this is a running theme. I like I like things to be open, because I like people to draw their own conclusions. I’ll read reviews and they’ll say “I think Linda is a little bit on the autism spectrum,” or “she’s got Asperger’s” or “she’s got a personality disorder”. But I would never blatantly just say that. Because it’s all to do with interpretation. It’s all to do with how you understand the book, how you connect to it and what you think Linda’s dad did. I mean, it is pretty clear what her dad did. But I don’t like spelling it out. And I think sometimes you read books where things are like a Scooby Doo thing where it’s all explained and presented to you at the end. I don’t like that, I like things to be more to do with what you take from the book, rather than me, forcing you or forcing an opinion on to you and forcing a diagnosis of a character.
No, I would have laughed in their face! Honestly. I’d never set out to be published. As you said, I sat in an NHS carpark writing for the fun of it because the wards were so stressful. And I was seeing such awful things. It really made me ill, mentally and physically ill, the things that I saw. I thought, I’ve got to find a coping mechanism. And I didn’t play cricket or rugby, like most doctors did. So started to write a book. I thought my mum might read it! So when I had a lunch break or sometimes I’d turn up an hour early, and I’d sit in my car and write. And nobody knew I was even doing it. I didn’t tell anyone. Except my dog – I would read it to him.
I got about a third of the way through and I thought, ‘I wonder if this is any good’, because I was curious. So I entered it into a competition, which I won. By the end of that week, my agent (who I acquired from winning this competition) sold it to Harper Collins. Then when it got to the Sunday Times top ten it was like I was in a Richard Curtis film, it was just bizarre.
They tell you that it’s going to be in the Sunday Times top 10 beforehand, so I remember that first night I didn’t sleep at all – I just stayed up eating crisp sandwiches and talking to my dog, waiting for the newsagents to open so I could buy it. I couldn’t quite believe it until I saw it. And it was just one of the most surreal things that’s ever happened to me. It’s amazing.
I mentioned it before: you have to ask yourself why you’re writing something. Because writing 90,000 words is a hell of a job. It’s a real journey.
When I wrote The Trouble with Goats and Sheep, I had one thing in mind to get across to the reader, and that was: how must it feel to be an outsider? It was at the time when Chris Jeffries, the Bristol landlord was taken in for questioning on the murder of Jo Yeates. He was a an unusual looking man, shall we say? He was a goat in a world full of sheep. He was on the front page of every newspaper, and I could remember looking at him and thinking, ‘Oh, you definitely killed her.’ He looks just the type. And everybody thought that. But I was so angry with myself, because I was judging him on the fact that his hair was a bit long, and his glasses were a bit thick. So I thought about how it must feel to be him or to be someone like him. Because being a goat among sheep is a terribly hard thing. And so that’s what was in my mind when I wrote The Trouble with Goats and Sheep. I think you always have to have that in mind when you write a book.
I think to treat it like a job is important, too. Even if you have another job, that you sit down each day and you write and you don’t wait for a muse to strike. Because I have done that and it doesn’t work; I end up playing Spider Solitaire all day! You have to say “I am going to write 500 words today. Come hell or high water. I’m going to write them.”
And I think another important thing is be aware of a voice. It always starts with a voice, especially if you’re like me and you like unreliable narrators. I heard Linda’s voice. I heard Grace’s voice and in The Trouble with Goats and Sheep. You haveto listen to what those voices have to tell you.
Another author, Julie Cohen, told me a brilliant idea: she said, “write down what your book is about in one word.” One word for A Tidy Ending is ‘envy’. That’s what the book is about. Write that one word down and put it on the top of your laptop, or wherever you write. Keep looking at that word, and everything you write needs to relate to that word. Come back to that word.
You also have to read loads! I hear people saying they don’t have time to read because they’re writing a book, but that makes no sense to me.
Thank you so much for giving an insight into writing A Tidy Ending, Joanna!