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Interview With an Author: Joseph Knox

Daryl M., Librarian, West Valley Regional Branch Library,
Author Joseph Knox and his latest novel, True Crime Story
Author Joseph Knox and his latest novel, True Crime Story. Photo credit: Jay Brooks

Joseph Knox was born and raised in and around Manchester, England, where he worked in bars and bookshops before moving to London. His debut novel, Sirens, the first in the Aidan Waits trilogy, was a bestseller and has been translated into eighteen languages. True Crime Story is his first stand-alone novel and was a #1 Sunday Times bestseller. Joseph recently talked about it with Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog.

What was your inspiration for True Crime Story?

I originally had the first spark of the idea over a decade ago, when I was reading an oral history book about L.A. singer/songwriter Warren Zevon. It was the first book I’d read in that style, and I thought it would be a terrific format to try and present a novel in—I liked that everyone in it seemed to have different recollections of the same events, and thought that would work particularly well in a mystery, as it would allow the reader to become the detective.

But I knew at the time I wasn’t a good enough writer to pull it off (all those voices!) and I didn’t know what exactly it would be about, either. The advent of true crime podcasts provided a theme and dovetailed perfectly with the oral history style. I also wrote and published three noir novels in the intervening years, which gave me the confidence to tackle something more ambitious.

Finally, what I really wanted after writing three much more conventional books was to try and show my range as a writer—that was the real thrill and challenge of it—so I guess it was all those factors coming together at the right time.

Are Zoe, Kim, Liu, Jai, Andrew, Fintan, or any of the other characters in the novel inspired by or based on specific individuals?

None of the events are exactly analogous to anyone's real true crime. I wanted to avoid that for a few reasons, mainly out of sensitivity to real murder victims and their families, but also to allow myself the freedom to create without any boundaries.

With that said, as with all fiction, the characters come from amalgamations of myself, my world view and the people I’ve met. Some of them are more close to reality than others. I can see a lot of myself in Kim and, unfortunately, in Andrew. I hope that I’m quite different from the Joseph Knox character in the novel…

What drew you to include a fictionalized version of yourself in the novel (as opposed to creating another character)?

It’s an interesting question. I think when writers usually insert themselves into novels, it’s to postmodern effect. I always think of Paul Auster suddenly appearing in The New York Trilogy, Martin Amis in Money, or John Fowles in the French Lieutenant’s Woman. Their appearances seem to draw attention to the artifice in each of their respective novels, asking questions about reality, creation, perception, etc.

Bret Easton Ellis seems to have done a similar thing with his wonderful new novel, The Shards, presented in full over the last year on his podcast. In fact, he really leans into the idea by making so much of the book hinge on the perceptions of a teenage boy called Bret Easton Ellis! It’s a brilliant portrayal of how writers can sometimes continue to invent and make things up, even off the page—something I’m often accused of by friends and family…

I think my appearance in True Crime Story serves a much more functional purpose in the book, though. For the original UK publication, I wanted it to look as much like a work of true crime as possible (and I’ve received a lot of mail from people who bought the whole thing hook, line, and sinker). As such, I needed to explain why MY name was on the cover, instead of Evelyn’s, since she’s the character who conducts most of the interviews/does most of the work.

Since so much of the novel was already about skewed power dynamics, manipulation and sexism, I thought it might be fun to have the Joseph Knox character become a kind of custodian of the book in Evelyn’s absence—but with increasing suggestions throughout that he might have conducted himself quite badly with this young female writer. I guess it makes me look bad if people read it and believe it, but books always demand what they demand, and you just have to give it to them.

How did the novel evolve and change as you wrote and revised it? Are there any characters or scenes that were lost in the process that you wish had made it to the published version?

Joseph Knox certainly didn’t appear in the original version. At first, I was hell bent that the book would be the interview transcripts alone, and it was only my agent, Antony Topping, who kept on insisting that we include more material like emails, letters, forewords, conclusions, etc. He’s usually annoyingly right about these things, so finally I gave in.

I definitely think the version we arrived at was the best one, though—there was nothing cut out that I wanted in there—I got to throw in every wild idea I had.

Music, singing and performing, is integral to True Crime Story. Do you sing or play an instrument? Have you ever performed publicly? Have you ever studied music?

Ha! That’s so funny, I hadn’t thought of it like that. Music is my favourite thing in the world—life would just be a shame without it—and I was in a few college bands, but never anything really serious. If I had one wish it would be for serious musical talent, because I think it’s a beautiful thing.

Twins, their similarities and differences, are also major themes in True Crime Story. Do you have an idea or theory regarding why/how twins fascinate those who aren’t and continue to be a source of inspiration to writers?

Well, for a writer like me, I’m always drawn towards ideas that others would disregard as hack or played out—because it’s often by playing with the fire of those discarded things that new sparks emerge. I think when you say the word ‘twins’ in relation to a crime novel, people are expecting two people to swap places, which is of course the oldest trick in the book and exactly the kind of thing you have to avoid. Also, since Zoe is missing for the entirety of the novel, we only ever meet one of the twins in this instance, which felt like another interesting pivot from the norm.

Again, as with Knox’s appearance in the book, I really went for the idea because the work itself seemed to demand it. It’s a novel where we hear first person accounts of everyone involved—everyone except the missing girl. But I knew that some of the roots of her disappearance had to be in her childhood, and so I needed someone who’d seen and experienced all the same things she had. Then it seemed fun to make Zoe’s twin sister, Kim, be as different a person from her as possible—a bad twin, in the sense that she always feels like people are disappointed that she isn’t more like Zoe.

I guess the final thought on why twins are enduringly appealing goes to the current vogue of individuality. We live in a world where everyone seems to have their very own well-defined slipstream or lane—and it must be a strange challenge to be continually associated with/mistaken for somebody you’re not. I guess with all of those challenges, Kim just seemed like an interesting character to hang a book on.

What’s currently on your nightstand?

I’m a few pages away from finishing Natasha Brown’s brilliant debut novel, Assembly. It’s the kind of book that makes you ashamed because it’s so well written. After that, I’m taking a stab at Celine’s Journey to the End of the Night. I’ve recently moved house, though, and finally have the space for an entire ‘to read’ bookcase, which seems to have sped up my reading and made it even more fun. I’m a loser, and I’m comfortable with that.

Can you name your top five favorite or most influential authors?

In chronological order (and changing ALL the time):
Charles Dickens
Raymond Chandler
Dorothy B Hughes
Bret Easton Ellis
Joan Didion

What was your favorite book when you were a child?

The first book that really showed me what a novel could be was A Tale of Two Cities, which I read far too young as there was an old copy on the shelf at home and I was a chronic insomniac. I could see where it was going, but on the night I finally reached the conclusion, I woke up my mother because I was sobbing. I’ve loved fiction ever since.

Was there a book you felt you needed to hide from your parents?

No, not really—I like to read all over the map, from romance to graphic novels to noir to lit fiction to poetry and on and on. I tore through things too fast for it to ever really be a problem—and plus I loved edgy, problematic stuff and there was just no way of keeping me away from it.

Is there a book you've faked reading?

Probably—Crime and Punishment appears as a plot point in my third novel, and I certainly haven’t read that (yet!)

Can you name a book you've bought for the cover?

Oh man, millions. And I still do it now if I have the book in an inferior-looking version. Most recent examples being The Talented Mr. Ripley, which was recently reissued in the UK with (imo) a bad jacket. I was very happy to find an older one, which I added to the shelves. I’m also very fond of the American noir writer Ross MacDonald, and although Penguin have published a handful of his books here in supposedly classy editions, I’m in love with the more pulpy looking American Black Lizard paperbacks of his Lew Archer series. I recently completed the entire 18 book set in that range.

Is there a book that changed your life?

Heaps! A Tale of Two Cities because it opened my eyes to the possibilities, The Magus because it was the first book that I truly loved (and its author John Fowles became a strange teenage obsession for me, strange as he was essentially finished by then and not far from death, and also he was (is?) considered quite unfashionable—don’t care, he’s great). There’s something that puts a writer to shame in the work of Joan Didion as well, her spareness and control is always whispering in my ear when I feel like I’m going overboard. I probably wouldn’t have found my way to writing noir without Raymond Chandler, and the books of Ian Rankin and David Peace showed me that you could write shocking, bold, socially conscious fiction set in the UK. But I could go on forever, and I still feel like I read books that changed my life and outlook all the time.

Can you name a book for which you are an evangelist (and you think everyone should read)?

Out of Sheer Rage by Geoff Dyer. All of his books are wonderful—essentially being exercises in his own highly comic but often bracingly serious and true style. This is a great place to start, as it’s nominally about him trying to write a nonfiction book about DH Lawrence. While it flirts interestingly with that, an idea it’s really a book about writerly frustration and the fact that if you’re going to honestly follow your instincts, they might sometimes lead you away from the respectable or sensible options in life. It’s painfully funny, as most of his stuff is, as well as subtly cerebral and stylish, a perfect holiday read—or just as something to lift your spirits after a few stinkers in a row.

Is there a book you would most want to read again for the first time?

I’m hoping to do a massive James Ellroy re-read this year. His books were, again, massively formative for me—but I read most of them long before I had any real grip on American history, and I think I’ll get a big kick out of reading them again now that I actually know who half the main players are.

What is the last piece of art (music, movies, tv, more traditional art forms) that you've experienced or that has impacted you?

My favourite song of 2021 was Cassandra Jenkins’ "Hard Drive". It’s just a strange, endlessly unfolding miracle of music that has such a soothing effect on me. I’m so glad it exists and so happy it appeared in the world at a time when people really needed and deserved something like that. A moment of beauty and serenity, reminding us that life can be a wonderful thing sometimes, I love it.

What is your idea of THE perfect day (where you could go anywhere/meet with anyone)?

I recently became a father for the first time—something I always felt far too cynical for when I was younger—and I love it more every day. I think the perfect day would be a wonderful sunny fun trip out with my girlfriend and the kid and absolutely no responsibilities or agenda. The seaside, some cold drinks, something nice to eat, and a romantic walk (with a pushchair).

What is the question that you’re always hoping you’ll be asked, but never have been? What is your answer?

Would you like a cocktail?
My answer is yes.

What are you working on now?

After a few false starts, I’ve begun a new novel that I think will be set in London (making it my first set outside of the north of England). I lived in London for ten years or so until very recently, so it’s fresh in my mind, and I guess it will be about class/privilege, and many of the themes present in True Crime Story, but in an even more direct and possibly more shocking way…

Book cover for True Crime Story
True Crime Story
Knox, Joseph