Radiohead, Tom Waits and Joy Division: Under The Influence with Joseph Knox
Joseph Knox was born and raised in and around Stoke and Manchester, where he worked in bars and bookshops before moving to London. He runs, writes and reads compulsively. Sirens is his first novel. Complex, urgent and genuinely gripping, it looks set to be one of the first breakout novels of 2017. The writing is crisp and precise; the characters dark, troubled and extremely well portrayed, and the tangled plot is perfectly managed to keep the reader puzzling and burning through the pages to the satisfying climax. Joseph Knox has made a very bold entrance in to the world of crime fiction. Below, exclusively for Foyles he talks about the music that influenced his debut.
Author photo © Jay Brooks
Sirens is my first novel and it took eight years to write.
In many ways, this made life difficult. I wrote around jobs in bars and bookshops, and it meant late nights, early starts, lost weekends, the lot. Friends and family ceased to believe in the existence of the book and, as I began missing birthdays, weddings and holidays, I think they ceased to believe in the existence of me too. After several years, I just started to vanish into it.
There were three benefits to this, though. First of all, as the years ticked by and any sense of even self-imposed deadlines evaporated, I could take the time to get it right. Secondly, I grew up and got older in the course of writing, adding some maturity to the work that it might otherwise have lacked. And thirdly, I absorbed a wider range of influences over this time than I could possibly have done over one or two years.
The books I ripped off have been mentioned in the reviews; Chandler, Hammett, Ellroy, Peace, Highsmith, Dorothy B Hughes, etc. But Sirens is a book coursing with influences, some acknowledged and some not…
The working title of the novel was: Women Who Love Men Who Love Drugs. It came from a song, an 8 minute epic of loss by Mancunian postrock band Oceansize. It probably wasn’t the zinger a publisher goes looking for, though.
Sirens came some time later, from another song, 'There There' by Radiohead. Thom Yorke sings ‘There’s always a siren, singing you to shipwrecks.’ My ears perked up. I’d been grappling with how I could update the idea of noir, the idea of the femme fatale, and adding some mythic power seemed to make sense. The word also imbued my female characters with strength. A siren can lure in, entrap and destroy a man. Perfect for the events that the novel described. I liked it, and the crossover with police sirens just made things perfect.
Character names are also a fine balance. My protagonist, Aidan Waits, had several that never suited him until the right influences came along. His first name is taken from the song writer Aidan Moffatt. The master of the dirty, sad, sexy love ballad, there was something at once strong and sensitive in his name. Waits came from another songwriter, Tom Waits. He’d been a favourite lyricist for many years when I first consciously thought how perfect his name sounded. Waits implies patience, thoughtfulness, even romance. True love waits, after all. In a world of detectives called Hunter, Wolf, Fox, etc, I thought perhaps there was room for a Waits.
The influence that looms largest over Sirens is that of Joy Division. The novel opens with a line from their 1980 gothic post-punk masterpiece, 'Heart and Soul': ‘The Past is now part of my future, the present is well out of hand.’ I’ve seen it said that good noir should feel like beautiful doom, and that’s always how Joy Division have sounded to me. A perfect marriage of dark, brooding soundscapes with club-ready beats and existential lyrics. The songs come alive in the dark, when the action of Sirens really takes place, and their connection to Manchester – its night life, its club scene, its own beautiful doom – was irresistible. The six parts of the book are all named for Joy Division releases; Unknown Pleasures, Substance, Closer, Still, Control and Permanent. But their influence on me, the sounds in my head, can’t be exaggerated.
In the end, of course, there are far more influences in Sirens than I could ever really acknowledge. Places, people, films, songs, books, failures, heartbreaks and elations all go into the blender of your head, get chopped up and pour out – hopefully – as something new. Over the course of eight years, I went out of my way to find as many as I could. To curate the blender of my brain and deliver something seamless, that still speaks to those influences.
Eight years was a long time, almost a third of my life. A lot of that went in there too.