Mark Connors is a Leeds-based poet and author. His debut novel ‘Stickleback’ was published last year by Armley Press and was nominated for the Not The Booker Prize. His latest poetry collection, ‘Nothing Is Meant To Be Broken’ was published by Stairwell Books in March.
Tell us a bit about Stickleback, and the themes it tackles.
Stickleback is the first-person narrative of a 68-year-old Black Sabbath fan called Alan Siddall, who is about to go into full-time residential care after years spent in and out of mental health units. It tackles what it’s like to live with enduring mental health issues – the years of being pumped full of drugs, the carers, psychiatrists and friends and foes he makes along the way – the limitations, frustrations – and the indomitable spirit of those who have to live through such hell. It also tackles the very system itself, its past, present and the realisation that, despite the improvements to the system, we’re really no more clearer on how to effectively treat such conditions with the drugs we do. As Richard Ashcroft once said, The Drugs Don’t Work! They may help control moods and behaviours but they never tackle the underlying issues.
You’re also a poet, how did the process of writing a novel differ from how you approach poetry?
I think writing is writing, first and foremost but the key thing to writing Stickleback was finding Alan’s voice. Once I got into his head, the book wrote itself. He just needed editing a lot when he was really going off on one! Whether writing poetry or prose, the most important thing is to turn up for work in the first place. I guess I’ll hang around more for inspiration for a poem but to write a novel is a different animal in that respect. You’ve got to write when you don’t want to sometimes or you’ll never get the bloody thing finished. I can write poetry any time but my prose head works as soon as I wake up so when I’m writing a novel, I tend to write in the mornings before I leave for work. Much of Stickleback was written between the hours of 5.30 and 7.30 am. People who never finish novels always say: “I just don’t have time.” The painful truth is you have to make the time yourself.
Did already having a following as a poet make it easier for you, as a first time novelist with an indie publisher, to find an audience for Stickleback, or were you aiming for a different readership?
I had no set ideas on how to promote the novel but as a reasonably well-known poet and a social media addict, I am a part of the writing community, particularly in Yorkshire, through being involved with open mic nights and working as a compere and organiser of literature festivals. When I turn up to events as a poet, I often turn up with copies of the novel too and have shifted a good few just by having them with me. I have also done many events with my publisher, Armley Press and its writers and we all support each other and help each other promote our work, which has proved fruitful and has been a lot of fun. To me, Armley Press is like a new family and I have loads of new brothers and sisters to play with! I think people are fascinated by mental health issues and stories that deal with them. We all know someone who has suffered from mental health conditions at some point in their lives. These issues resonate with people and word of mouth between people that work in mental health services has certainly helped promote the book too. I was also long-listed for The Guardian Not the Booker Prize and that helped increase the novel’s profile.
Stickleback has been praised for its creative using of swearing and sexual humour (Connors has been described as a working-class Wodehouse). Was this a deliberate choice?
Without sounding too pretentious or mad for that matter, the voices just came to me. Like many fictional characters, Alan, and many of the characters in the book are composites of many people – both male and female, I’ve had the pleasure to know and in some cases love, throughout my life. It wasn’t so much about choice as just letting my experience in and around the mental health system inform my work. My family on my mother’s side has a long colourful history in mental health, from the old Victorian Asylums, to the acute units and care homes. Also, being a Leeds lad, that playground and pub working class banter is a part of my DNA. I might not always talk like Alan but I know lots of people who have and still do. You pick up colloquialisms and sayings throughout life from the pub, work and other works of fiction in books and on TV. Language is language. Swearing is just a mode of expression and feeling, no matter what your subject matter is.
Your lead character, Alan, says and does some things that make him a challenging character to like. Howard Jacobsen once said that the audiences need to ‘like’ or ‘empathise’ with characters was killing literature. What’s your take on that?
My take is that a character has to be interesting and someone a reader would want to go on a journey with (emotional or literal) whether he/she is likeable or not. I wanted to earn the reader’s empathy for Alan. You shouldn’t have to like someone to empathise with them and there is often an obsession with sanitising the voices of characters in fiction to arouse sympathy without earning it. And the feedback I have been getting from reviews is that, although many readers don’t like a lot of what Alan says and does, they find themselves rooting for him in the story once they get to know him and his predicament a little better. Yes, he’s frequently offensive, profane and often behaves intolerably but he has his good sides too. More importantly, he’s just another flawed human being like the rest of us.
You run the regular ‘Word Club’ events in Leeds. What’s the thinking behind those nights?
When I became known as a poet on the local spoken word open mic circuit and through magazines and anthologies, I started getting offered work to compere events and this eventually led to being asked to take over a regular poetry night at The Chemic Tavern in Leeds. That’s when WORD CLUB was born. I won’t lie to you, my primary objective at the time was to get my own work out there to wider audiences and I knew that running my own night would help that happen. However, the best thing about WORD CLUB is not only providing an audience for established poets but to help promote emerging poets too and the latter is the most satisfying thing about running such a night. It became so successful that it lead to other work with festivals (Poetry at The Parsonage – in conjunction with the Bronte Society – the largest poetry festival to ever hit Yorkshire being a good example).When my novel came out, it made sense to start running a prose night also so I can do all of the above again. Personally, I don’t like mixing prose and poetry though a lot of open mics do. Each attracts different people, voices and styles and some prose writers don’t like poetry (at least in an open mic setting) and vice versa. It’s hard work but it’s something I love doing. I’ve also made loads of new friends through WORD CLUB too.
What’s next for you?
I’ve got a busy 2017 ahead. My first full length poetry collection is out in the Spring and I’ll be doing a promotional tour for that. I’ve just completed my second novel (one which I actually thought I’d finished in 2010) which will be heading to the inbox of my managing editor, Armley Press’s John Lake, very soon. If he likes it, I suspect that will be on its way towards the end of the year. I am also working on a sequel of a sort to Stickleback, where one of the other main characters, Janet Chandler, picks up the mic, so to speak. Alan’s in it again. You just see him through Janet’s eyes. I also have a whole year of WORD CLUB events to host!