In 1980 the shadow of the Yorkshire Ripper hung over the county. People were living in fear and listening intently to news bulletins as the killer seemed to outsmart the police at every turn.
This is the backdrop to Leeds-based writer Mark Connors’ latest novel, his second, entitled Tom Tit and the Maniacs, published last month by independent Leeds publishing house Armley Press.
The main character is a ten-year-old boy, Tom, growing up in Horsforth and trying to come to terms with the death of his grandfather, his mother’s increasingly fragile mental state and the fact that the threat from the Yorkshire Ripper is getting ever closer to home.
Connors’ well-received first novel, Stickleback, told the story of sixtysomething Black Sabbath fan Alan who is preparing to be moved into full-time residential care after years of struggling with mental health issues and spells in and out of psychiatric hospitals.
Published in 2016, it received excellent reviews – award-winning poet Helen Mort described it as ‘a brilliant rollercoaster of a book’ – and was longlisted for the Guardian’s Not the Booker Prize that year. Both novels candidly explore mental health issues in a sensitive and empathetic way.
“It is something I have always been fascinated by,” says Connors who is also an award-winning poet and short story writer. “Some of my family members were in High Royds psychiatric hospital in Menston and I spent time during my childhood visiting relatives there. I went to school opposite the hospital, I grew up in that environment, so I was always going to write about it.”
The central character in Tom Tit and the Maniacs, from whose perspective the narrative unfolds, is very loosely based on Connors himself. “Although I was a bit older when some of the events depicted in the novel took place, but I grew up in Leeds in the 1970s and 80s when the Yorkshire Ripper was around – and my mother was in High Royds at that time.”
In a relatively short space of time, Connors has made his mark as a writer and on Leeds’ spoken word scene. Shortly after completing a creative writing course at York St John University in 2010, his poetry was published in magazines and soon appeared in anthologies alongside established poets such as Simon Armitage and Andrew Motion.
He writes everyday, always early in the morning (“before anybody else is up”) and with his partner Gill Lambert runs a monthly spoken word night, Word Club, at the Chemic Tavern in Leeds. The couple also set up an annual poetry event, Poetry at the Parsonage, in partnership with the Brontë Society. His debut poetry pamphlet, Life is a Long Song was published in 2015 and his first collection Nothing is Meant to be Broken came out last year. But it was always an aim, he says, to write a novel. In fact, he began writing Tom Tit and the Maniacs around 20 years ago. “I started it in 1997/98 and revisited it when I was at York St John. I finished the first draft in 2010 but it needed more work – and now feels the right time to tell this story.”
Tom Tit and the Maniacs by Mark Connors, published by Armley Press, £8.99.