“I was everything a young person should be. Furious. Drunk. In love.” - Joseph Knox discusses Sirens
Photo: Joseph Knox (c) Jay Brooks
To the reader casually picking up your novel for the first time, how would you describe Sirens?
Sirens is first and foremost a mystery. Aidan is a disgraced young detective given one last chance to come good. Because he’s a young and troubled man, there are also elements of a dark coming of age drama as well. In the course of the novel he has to brutally come to grips with what kind of man he is and what kind of man he will be.
Every review to date of Sirens has commented on how accomplished it is, and how it doesn’t really feel like a debut. How much writing have you completed beforehand? How many short stories?
It comes mainly from obsessive, unhealthy amounts of rewriting. I was an insomniac as a kid and spent many long nights with just myself for company. My parents knew that a notebook would stop me wandering round at night making trouble. I quickly got used to disappearing into my head for long stretches of time, and to rewriting the same pieces hundreds or – in the case of Sirens – thousands of times. I couldn’t tell you how many short stories. I couldn’t tell you how many notebooks, even. Hundreds. This fact has been brought horrifyingly to bear by old friends coming out of the woodwork with short stories, sketches or routines I’d written years ago and forgotten. They range from bad all the way over to awful.
Describe that moment of sending off the manuscript for Sirens for the first time. How did it feel to let go?
I’d driven myself, and even those just tangentially related to me, to the point of total madness. My family and friends had long-since stopped believing that the book existed, and I’d stopped looking in mirrors, ironing my shirts or having any other kind of ambition beyond Sirens. It was incredible relief to send it out. That said, I then entered a strange postpartum depression once it was accepted. I realised that it was the Act of writing rather than the Fact of writing which was good for me. Sitting up all those nights fiddling with the book was, on the whole, a better feeling than selling it.
How do you sense a novel is complete? When do you put the pen down?
When I physically couldn’t look at it anymore. I lasted longer than most. Funnily enough, once it was accepted I got a second wind. I was editing and rewriting bits of Sirens right up until publication. Someone from my publisher finally sent an email saying, essentially, please stop.
Growing up in Stoke on Trent, it was the big city to me. Where I wanted to run away to, where I did run away to once I was old enough. Where I had my first broken heart, first broken nose, etc. I failed prolifically and across all disciplines; financial, romantic, interpersonal. I was everything a young person should be. Furious. Drunk. In love. My heart swells whenever I’m there.
How long did it take to find the novel’s voice? How many false starts?
Many years of rewriting. I could write the facts but not the swing of the lines. I didn’t necessarily have false starts, though. Each time I picked up the book I just read through it, changing little bits as I went. I’d get to the end and then add a short line. Then next time I’d read the whole thing again, tweaking as I went, and adding a short line again. My writing style is a little like a tide coming in. It goes back and forth but covers a little more ground each time.
Who are your writing gods?
As a child, Charles Dickens and John Fowles were very important to me. One hero who wanted to build worlds and another who wanted to pull them apart. Probably the most instructive heroes to Sirens are Raymond Chandler, Dorothy B Hughes, Ross MacDonald, James Ellroy and David Peace. That said, I’m adding writing gods all the time. I’m currently reading everything Geoff Dyer has ever written and roaring with laughter as I do.
Is there any piece of writing advice you’ve taken to heart?
The one that I think is applicable to all people is: READ EVERYTHING. Now I have a book out people have begun to ask me how they might go about writing one. Stephen King said it best: if you don’t have the time to read, you definitely don’t have the time – or the skills – to write.
Although I don’t think anyone could describe Sirens as a procedural, the police sequences feel authentic, in terms of how police actually talk and work… how did you approach this?
Funnily enough, it was in writing the police that I had to make the most imaginative leaps. A killer you can understand…
What is it about crime writing that draws you in as an author? Why this genre over straightforward fiction?
Crime gives you the opportunity to utilise so many great dramatic moments; murder, violence, deceit, intrigue, etc. As soon as I started reading crime fiction seriously it just turned me on and started sending lightning bolts to my brain. I also love mysteries, particularly those as in the ending of Sirens. They send a shockwave back through the book and change everything.
It’s an open secret you work for Waterstones as our crime buyer. To what extent has your Waterstones experience been an advantage?
A huge advantage. First of all, I’d most likely have been out on the streets if I weren’t working for Waterstones. Secondly, it’s been my great pleasure to find myself surrounded by intelligent, thoughtful, funny people. Thirdly, obviously, the books. I did an English degree and didn’t read anywhere near the amount that I do now. And certainly not from such broad subjects. I go from non-fiction to fiction to crime to science fiction very comfortably – and having that range of influences has not only been a huge benefit to Sirens, but to me as a person.
Conversely, are there disadvantages to being on this side of the writer’s wall?
I thought it would perhaps demystify the whole thing, but in truth – it’s unbelievable how much work and thought and effort goes into a book behind the scenes. Watching it be published I thought I would have seen it all in the day job. I was very wrong.
For anyone setting out as a writer and facing the same hurdles as you have, what would be your advice?
Read everything you can get your hands on and don’t expect too much of yourself. It should be fun, just play around. Put those thoughts of publishing a novel in your twenties to the back of your mind. The world doesn’t need that book again.
Do you find writing a cathartic experience, the ‘whispering swarm’ Michael Moorcock writes of?
It’s terrifying how quickly I vanish into my own world. I can walk past my girlfriend, start doing the dishes and literally forget she’s in the house. The main result seems to be that I jump a lot.
Did you have any preconceptions about writing? If so, were these answered or shattered?
I thought that it would satisfy me, make me proud, accomplished. But in my day dreams, I thought of events, talks, awards, fame, all that shit. Writing has satisfied me, but I see now that it is the act which is of most importance, rather than the end result.
Sirens is available now: the exclusive Waterstones edition includes bespoke endpapers inspired by the culture of Manchester and the short story The Ghosts of Deansgate.