Joseph Knox: ‘I wanted a book that could only exist in this night time city’
Manchester was the first place I ever had my heart broken, and the first place I ever had my nose broken, too.
For me that encapsulates so much of what I love about the city. There’s a kind of toughness on one hand and a kind of romance on the other. It’s a guy with LOVE and HATE tattooed on to his knuckles, and you never know which one he might hit you with next.
Arriving in my late teens, I was able to come of age in the city and see it with new eyes. To me it was large, gothic, rain swept and dangerous. I met men who’d happily hold my wallet for me, men who’d happily step over me in the street. Men who’d happily give me that kicking I’d been looking for all those years…
But there was also culture and literature, vibrancy and life. There were museums and bookshops. Slam poets and stand-up comedians, open mic nights and open bars. A legacy of incendiary music that chimed with my worldview. The heartfelt poetry of The Smiths, the beautiful doom of Joy Division. The banging beat of the Chemical Brothers and the anguished howl of Wu Lyf.
I read, I watched, I listened – then I stole it all.
A lifelong insomniac, I discovered with a thrill that it was a city made for the night time, that things were usually just getting started around midnight. The rainfall and the darkness put a shine on every surface, and even when they couldn’t, even on the bad days, there were still the bars. There were still the bands. There were still raves and drugs and girls for miles.
I drifted into bar work quite naturally, and I used to love watching the city change between the hours of ten at night and four in the morning. At some point I lost half my friends in a breakup, then steadily got rid of the rest myself. It gave me plenty of time to just walk round absorbing it all, and I spent the next eight years in any low wage job that would have me, writing my debut novel, Sirens. I wanted a book that could only exist in this night time city, this place that only I knew. It would be a devastating collision between beauty and ugliness, between the ultra-rich and the shit-poor, and it would change my life because something had to.
In writing Sirens I met my elusive protagonist, the ultimate lost soul, Aidan Waits. A young man traumatised by his childhood, who has grown up in care and become unmoored from his contemporaries, Aidan became my fearless tour guide through a city on fire. I still can’t say I know him that well, though…
When the book came out my life did change, for better and for worse, and the city kept on changing too. Across the Aidan Waits books, I tried to chart those changes, some personal, some abstract. I watched Manchester’s homeless population increase ten-fold. Watched it become ground zero for the sale and consumption of Spice, a drug that compares to meth in its potency and ability to ruin lives. I watched it become the centre of grooming scandals and terrorist attacks.
I found that some things hurt like broken noses and some things hurt like broken hearts.
A city, after all, can never really fix you, like you imagine it might as a kid. You get some good years out of it but sooner or later realise you’re still just that idiot in the mirror. But across Sirens, The Smiling Man and The Sleepwalker, I saw something else. I had a vision. I was privy to some kind of secret that even now I don’t fully understand. It was a blur, everything moved too fast, and I’m not sure I got it all down. But perhaps you can read these strange books in ways that I can’t? Perhaps you can live inside them for a while and see them with new eyes?
Perhaps you can explain it all to me.