Interview with Joe Clifford

Categories: ISSUE 03: Edgar

Recently our Editor-in-Chief, Mike Joyce, conducted an interview with Joe Clifford. From Literary Orphans' inception, Joe has been a major influence. He was one of the very first submissions we received, and one of our first acceptances. You can read the piece we published by him in the inaugural issue, "Stuck Between Stations," right here

Joe Clifford is a rising star in the noir community--Choice Cuts, a selection of some of his best short stories, was released by Snubnose Press. He also has two novels forthcoming, Junkie Love due out in 2013 by Vagabondage Press, and Wake the Undertaker by Snubnose Press which is scheduled to release later this year. Read below to learn more about some of the writer's other projects--we asked everything from his taste in music to his opinions on self-publishing.
You can follow him at www.joeclifford.com.

O Typekey Divider

1.) How would you describe your writing? What will a first time reader walk away with after reading a short-story of yours?

In a word? Accessible. I strive to, to quote Willy Wordsworth, use the language really used by men. At least that's my style. In terms of subject matter, I've always been drawn to the struggles of the disenfranchised. It's fairly fertile ground. I think that's where you find the real heroes. Trolling the dead end jobs, navigating volatile relationships. The drug addicts, the criminals, the losers who trudge ahead, refusing to surrender, despite hopeless plights.

It's the Rocky mentality, and that's a deeply American aesthetic and ideal. This idea of going down swinging against insurmountable odds. What'd Rocky want to do? Win? No. He wanted to survive and go the distance with Creed. That's it. It's this idea that if you can just stand in that ring and take your beating, stay on your feet, you've somehow won. Or at least haven't lost. And there's something beautiful and tragic in that.

Having lived the way I did for years (as a homeless junkie) I spent a lot of time among the rank and file on that bottom rung. Not that I write strictly about the lower class. In fact, many of my characters are decidedly well off, or leaving that world behind. They are pulled toward the fringe, fascinated by the darkness. That was my journey. I come from solid middle class suburban CT stock. And in a lot of ways I've reclaimed my birthright. Upward mobility isn't as easy as the DIY set would like you to believe, but you can almost always reclaim your birthright. When I returned from living on the streets, I resumed a suburban life. Went back to school, got a Masters. I have an 8-lb poodle named Lucky, house in the hills; I count carbs. But I'm not interested in tennis club conflict. Where's the story in that? I'm more a Bukowski kind of guy. Lapping the swill in the gutter, men and women pushed to the brink, who do unspeakable things, but not because they are "bad" but because it's the best they can do with limited tools. It's just like The Pogues' "Fairytale of New York." I mean, if I had to pick a soundtrack. This is what I try to write about, these are the stories I try to tell, using the manner of speech and vernacular of the everyman. Although maybe I shouldn't say "vernacular," since the only time I'd have a character use that word is if I wanted him or her to come across as pompous.

 

2.) From what I've read about you, you have lived all over the country. Where are some of the places you have lived?

Yeah, I'm a bit of a hobo. Well, not so much anymore. When I was younger I read a lot of Kerouac, and hit the road. Like everybody who reads a lot of Kerouac when they're young. There's something terribly romantic about the idea of being a drifter. At least it was for me. Although those are mostly pop culture constructs. But I liked this thought of going town to town, falling in love with a new girl every night, working as a ranch hand. Only I despise manual labor. And I am strictly a one-woman guy. I suppose that's the appeal of being a writer; you can be all these things you want to be safely from your own kitchen. I spend a lot of time in my kitchen these days. We have an island at the top of the stairs where I write, like lording over the manor.

To answer your question specifically, I have lived in: CT, CA, FL, MN, VT. Mostly those five, and really just the first two. I grew up in CT, moved to CA when I was 20, went to grad school in FL after I got sober. My ex-wife (the one I loved, not the other one) lived in MN. I'd bounce around. Especially when I was a junkie. A few nights in Ohio. A few in Massachusetts, upstate New York. Then it's like, "Holy shit. How did I get to Nevada?" Drugs. Drugs and a Greyhound bus usually.

 

3.) Do you feel that geography has an impact on your writing? Which of those places has left the most impact in your work?

I'm a West Coast boy. Although I've always said, if a Civil War breaks out between the East and West Coast, I'd have to fight for the East. In a lot of ways, I never really left there. I mean, I like the West Coast (Northern California) better, its progressive politics, ideology, but after a while, it's like, please just shut the fuck up about going green and recycling. I mean, these are good things; I'm not arguing about the benefits of organic produce. It simply gets exhausting after a while, all this trying to make the world a better place. We have seven bins for garbage. It's garbage! Maybe it's just the knee-jerk reaction, like Springsteen's "Growing Up." "I hid in the crowded wrath of the crowd / when they said 'sit down,' I stood up." Which is also a bit juvenile of me. But I don't really run from perpetual adolescence.

Yes, geography shapes my writing. I don't think I could do what I do without having travelled so extensively. My work is grounded in a sense of place. I just finished the draft of a new novel set in upstate Northern New Hampshire. It's a distinctly New England book, couldn't take place anywhere else. There're a lot of stiff upper lips back there. What do you expect? Place was founded by Puritans.

A lot of my short stories are set in San Francisco. In fact, most of my work is very San Francisco, a city I love. I hate it too. A little bit of both I guess. But mostly love. San Francisco stands for all the things I respect and ideals I aspire toward: inclusion, diversity, artistry, tolerance, anarchy. Just have to put up with the seven damn bins for recycling. And Burning Man. Jesus, I fucking hate Burning Man. Best time of the year is early September, when all the dirty hipsters make for the playa in their rusted VW buses, toting their shitty metal sculptures to do yoga and transmit STDs. My friend Carmela calls it "Burning Man Rapture." We've been left behind! My hope is that one day, they don't come back.

 

4.) You mentioned Springsteen--do you feel there is a strong relation between your writing and music?

Oh, without a doubt. I originally set out to be a rock 'n' roll star. Playing music is certainly more fun than writing. Then again, I'm pretty sure rock star is the greatest job on the planet. Junkie Love (my autobiographical drug novel that comes out in the spring) has entire sections dedicated to my failed attempts at being a musician. Most of my friends were failed rock 'n' rollers, too. Even now I can say I am as influenced by lyricists as I am traditional writers. Springsteen especially. Paul Westerberg too. Lately Brian Fallon (of The Gaslight Anthem).

 

5.) Looking back from this point of your life, as an author, what five albums had the greatest impact on you?

Ah, the High Fidelity question! Good. Might be my favorite movie of all time. Or at least...in the top five.

My Desert Island, All-Time, Top Five Albums (in chronological order)...

  1. Darkness on the Edge of Town, Bruce Springsteen. You could put just about any album by the Boss here. This one's a little darker, though, a little more despondent and desperate. You can feel the urgency more. It's the disillusion of the American Dream. Once you figure out you really can't be whatever you want, man, that hits you hard.
  2. Wish You Were Here, Pink Floyd. The height of their creative powers. I'm a huge Gilmour fan. I didn't care as much when Roger took over. The whole album is a rumination on madness and becoming unglued, which is something I write about. A lot.
  3. Heart of Saturday Night, Tom Waits. If we were choosing strictly in terms of my life, I'd probably have a different list, but in terms of my writing, this one's a big deal. It's the first album I fell in love to; it's the soundtrack to my move west, and my early years in San Francisco. And Waits' boozy hole-in-the-wall world is where I lived for a long, long time.
  4. Tim, the Replacements. It's tough to pick one 'Mats' album, since every one has a killer track, for certain moods. But if I had to pick one complete effort, it'd certainly be the last with Bob. Plus, it has the line that made me want to move to San Francisco.
  5. The '59 Sound, The Gaslight Anthem. I honestly don't know how much of an impact this album has had on my work, but I can't have a greatest albums list without it. The best band in America. (The only band that even comes close is The Hold Steady.) Fallon's lyrics of hardscrabble youth are the most cutting since Springsteen, and the GA's sound is vintage East Coast romantic despair at its Americana finest.

 

6.) So far, what has been your biggest moment of satisfaction as a writer?

Probably when I landed my first agent. Because I thought that spelled the fast track to the big time. Which led to probably my greatest disappointment as a writer. Having an agent doesn't guarantee anything. She was terrific, worked hard for me, but in the end we couldn't get the big publishers (and those are who she worked with) to bite.

After this, I went the DIY route and started trying to publish more short stories and give more readings. I started my Nor Cal reading series Lip Service West. I created the blog. I began targeting smaller indie presses, writing reviews. Anything to get my name out. Which is how I ended up getting three books accepted for publication in 2012. Strangely though, as cool as all that was, it paled to landing the agent. I think that moment--I was standing in my wife's grandparent's back yard, high in the Berkeley Hills, looking over the Golden Gate and Bay--resonated because it meant after all the shit I'd been through, the shooting galleries and psych wards, I'd arrived. Whatever the hell that meant. At least I knew I was a writer, for better or worse.

 

7.) You recently published a collection of short fiction, Choice Cuts, can you tell us a bit about that?

This is my first full-length book, published by Snubnose Press. The day I found out they were publishing two of my books (Wake the Undertaker comes out later this year), I also found out they were publishing my friend Tom Pitts's novella Piggyback. If you've seen some of my stories about my drug days, you've seen that name. Tom was my running partner during the darkest of the dark. Somehow we both disappeared, reunited, and both were writers. That was pretty sweet. Most of your friends who live like that tend to, y'know, die or go to prison, or never clean up. I had a remarkable number who made it out, who I am still friends with to this day.

The experience of those times are clearly present in the collection, although very few short stories are about drugs. When I was going to grad school, my thesis advisor (Lynne Barrett) pointed out how my stories, which were..."literary"...felt like they could turn at any moment into noir. FIU, where I went to school, had quite a few writers of that bent (Les Standiford, James, W. Hall--it's where Denis Lehane got his MFA), so maybe it was fortunate, fate, whatever, that I ended up there. Anyway, after that comment... Actually, it was funny. I remember when Lynne said that, it was during workshop, and she said, "It sounds like these stories could be hardboiled." I was said something like, "Really? Because I love hardboiled! It's what I read!" She retorted with a quick, "Yeah, that's how it works." Anyway, I began writing more crime-oriented stories. I still wrote the literary version, and would send them off to the fancy print magazines and get my "Dear Writer, please get fucked" form letters. I got a few published. The cool thing I found about the crime stories, though, which I sent off to places like (the newly revamped) Thuglit, was even when they got rejected--and my first efforts did--the editors of these magazines were very encouraging. They'd take the time to respond personally, with notes about what wasn't working, what was.

It is odd, because here you have magazines where the stories are about murder, dismemberment, unspeakable acts of violence--but everyone who writes in the genre tends to be really nice and friendly. It's not fair to stereotype. But I have horror stories of going to AWP [a very large writing conference, -ed] and being surrounded by literary fiction writers. Maybe I just fell in with a particular bunch of jerks, I don't know. More likely (or just as likely), I'm really sensitive. Whatever the case, writing hardboiled made my career take off a bit.

All the stories in Choice Cuts are pretty hardboiled, noir, dark, crime-related, though I don't think without humor. If a dark, twisted variety. A lot of these pieces were born from conversations and ideas from my friend in CT, Jimmy. If you read the collection, that name comes up a lot. He's a character, a muse, in a way (although I hate the word muse), but I'd be remiss if I didn't drop his name. I've known Jimmy forever, and a story like "Red Pistachios" came about because I'd be talking to Jimmy. Like, "You should write a story about a serial killer who loves red pistachios." When people find out you are a writer, you can expect an avalanche of lame ideas. You'll be at a party, and hear, "Oh, a writer? You should talk to me! Have I got some ideas!" And they do. And they all suck. Jimmy, though, it always clicked. I was like, "Fuck! Red pistachios! Of course! So he always leaves behind fingerprints!" And then one time Jimmy, who loves film noir, was like, "Man, I want to live in film noir. I'm getting the color removed from my vision." So I wrote "Tripping for Biscuits," about a guy who loves film noir so much he has the color removed from his vision. There are certain people in my life--my brother, Jimmy, Tom--who have had such a profound impact on my life, they--or versions of them; this is fiction after all--make their way into my work. My brother especially. The story "The Captain" is all about my brother. Fictionalized, of course.

 

8.) Do you have any other projects in the works?

A bunch. I still wanted to get my band the Wandering Jews back in the studio, and my wife wants a hot tub. I'd also like to get to single-digit body fat percentage.

Sorry. You mean writing. Yes. I am working on two new novels, a mystery, Far from Here, and a YA novel, Skunk Train. The former is about two brothers in rural New Hampshire, drugs, and a hard drive. The latter, two teenagers on the run down the CA coast. I've finished a draft of the first (Tom and I have swapped novels for feedback), and the second I am about halfway done with. I'm excited about both. But especially about FFH, which I hope might break me into a more mainstream audience, appeal, etc.

A lot of writers think of commercial as a dirty word. I don't. I don't mean 50 Shades of Shitty Writing or American Idol or that shit. I'm talking mass appeal of something good. Rocky was commercial and popular and awesome. I had a friend once who, back in 1994, refused to watch Pulp Fiction. Because everyone liked it. Well, OK. You're a moron, and you're missing out on one of the greatest films ever made. I don't care if something is popular or not. I care if it's good, and sometimes good can be very popular. I'm certainly not missing out on Springsteen because he's been both a critical and commercial success. Popularity alone doesn't guarantee good, of course. Look at Nicki Minaj. But the other way around--if something appeals to the masses it doesn't automatically mean it sucks. I'd like to write a bestseller. I'd like it to be optioned into a blockbuster. Why wouldn't I?

 

9.) You mention movies and pop culture--do you have particular movies that influence your life and work?

Yeah, I'm a big pop culture guy. We already mentioned High Fidelity. When I was going through my last divorce, I must've watched that film 50 times. Seriously. I think I even started calling exes asking, "What does it all mean? Where did it all go wrong?" That movie is one of the few examples where the film beats the book. The Hornby book is terrific. But what they do with the film, in terms of its editing and pacing, what to extrapolate--it's genius. Rocky is another one. I've written a lot of blog posts on the subject of Rocky, the enduring appeal. I grew up around boxing. I love that shit. Plus, y'know, there is Star Wars, the mythology of that. I just bought my 2-year-old an authentic lightsaber so we can have duels. He kept wanting to use my (authentic) lightsaber and not his crappy plastic one. It was time to upgrade. The boy was ready.

 

10.) How much of yourself do you end up putting into your characters?

Certainly some characters are based more on me than others, but every character gets something of the author. It's the nature of creation. Honestly, I tend to put more of my friends in. I already told you about Jimmy, who is a character, or was the inspiration for a character, in practically half the stories in Choice Cuts. My brother too. There are certain characteristics we all share, or traits that appeal to us, the same Rocky quality. My brother has always been an especially tragic figure for me, coming so close to being a pro athlete, and then working in the same fields as our father. Of course, to him it probably isn't the same, doesn't resonate in the same way.

See that's the thing. An old guy eating alone in Denny's is just an old guy eating alone in Denny's. But a writer sees that and imagines his whole life story. The son that died in the war. The wife sleeping with his friend. The thankless job that took one of his testicles, whatever. Doesn't matter the specifics, but you imagine them because that's your job. I dream of subplots. Dude could just be eating alone in Denny's because he was hungry and likes really junky food. Who knows? But, yeah, real people, myself or others, go into the creation of a characters. I need to do it that way. My hardboiled novel Wake the Undertaker (another gift from Jimmy; that's his title. So much catchier than The Lone Palm) has a character called The Giant. It's a book about the mob. But the whole time I was creating this character, with thyroid-ravaged eyes and deep-welled goiter voice, I kept picturing ex-MLB pitcher Randy Johnson.

 

11.) You write about a past that included addiction to drugs, was there a particular moment when that changed? Also, have I noticed a trend in drugs having less play in your recent work?

The moment I stopped doing drugs came when I was looking at a long stint in prison if I didn't get my act together. That was back in 2000, which is when I enrolled back in school, got my degrees, my MFA, and went on the straight and narrow.

I have been writing about drugs less. In fact, this is part of the reason why publishing my novel Junkie Love, which deals directly with all the drugs, was so important to me (Vagabondage Press is putting it out in 2013). It gives me a chance to lay that life to rest. I mean, I don't want to be Rick Springfield trotting out "Jessie's Girl" for the Chesterton Fair at 62. I didn't want to write another drug tome. That's the book that chronicles my life in the '90s, the friends I met, women I loved and lost. Now I want to write more straight-up fiction. Commercial mysteries, that kind of thing.

But the truth is, the drugs are never going away entirely. That's the world I know. It's my area of expertise. If a writer enjoyed a past life as a coal miner, chances are his characters will be dirty and covered in soot (and die at the ripe old age of 27). My vantage point is from the gutter and the street, although you get to play with points of view. I grew up in a lily white suburban CT, so it's often fun to imagine one version (which was a close-minded Republican) encountering the latter-day version (a strung-out anarchist junkie). You write the world you know. I am not writing about playing tennis or being a fisherman. Plus, there's an allegiance I still feel to those people. Addicts and the homeless don't matter. There's a certain romance about addiction from film and pop culture, but the ones who actually inhabit that space get shit upon fairly regularly. I still can recall how disgusted and angry people would get on the sidewalks when I'd ask for a cigarette. It's not just not wanting to give a bum a cigarette; it's your fucking money; you don't have to give them anything. It was the looks I'd get. Like you're subhuman. And I guess when you live that way you are in a lot of ways. I mean, these days I'll walk across the street to avoid panhandlers. I try to be more sympathetic, but it's hard, y'know, especially in big cities where poverty and wretchedness is everywhere, and so I'm not blaming these people, or even faulting their disdain.

It's more that when you live like that, you get to see people for how they really are. As people. With hopes and dreams, doing the best they can, however piss poor. For instance, some of the addicts I knew were parents, had kids, and it sounds nuts to say, but they were good parents, even great parents. Most people reading this are going be incredulous that I could suggest a junkie with a spike in her arm was a good mother. But that's what I mean. You live like that, you look past these faults--albeit some big ones--and you can see a mother who desperately loves her child. It's not a social commentary about whether these kids should've been in child services. I'm not talking about that part. I'm simply saying some dope fiend mother in a Spring Street hotel in LA can still love her child. Simply being a drug addict doesn't automatically strip you of your humanity. I guess that's my point. And these are the stories I am trying to tell.

 

12.) You edit the Flash Fiction Offensive, can you tell us a little about that?

That one just sorta fell in my lap. Tom Pitts and I were talking about starting up a crime, hardboiled journal, and then David Barber, the former FFO editor, contacted me about helping out over there. Then David stepped down to focus a little more on his own writing—editing is pretty time-consuming, as you know—and Gutter Books' (the umbrella under which FFO falls) editor Matt Louis asked me if I wanted the gig. I also started doing editing for Gutter Books, which re-issues some classic writers, John D. MacDonald, W.R. Burnett, some real crime heavyweights. First thing I did was bring Tom Pitts onboard.

The Flash Fiction Offensive is hardboiled flash, 1,000 words or less. We also have a longer division, Bareknuckles Pulp, edited by Court Merrigan. The thing is, most editors are writers, too. If I had to pick one thing (besides incessant reading) that has made me a better writer, it's being an editor. Editing helps you look at the game differently. You read five stories in row where nothing is happening but people talking in a coffee shop and you know not to do that yourself. Plus, grammar is important. Too many writers think of it as an after-thought, something for nebbish types to handle after your genius is picked up, but the truth is, bad grammar is like bad breath in dating: a turn off. As an editor, I tend to work with writers more than most, I think. I'm hands-on, because a lot of the time people just don't know the rules, and I want to help writers gets published. Rejection sucks. Bad grammar doesn't help your cause. We really need college courses dedicated to grammar, and not just in passing.

 

13.) What advice would you give to a new writer just starting to submit for publication?

Read said publication. Seems obvious. But it took me years (and many rejections) to figure this out. Somehow it felt like…cheating. But it makes sense. Editors have their preferences and pet peeves, and learning what a particular magazine is looking for should be a no-brainer. Read the magazine. You want to be published by FFO? Read three stories, then write me one. My tastes are pretty easy to deduce.

 

14.) Do you feel that self-publishing will help or hurt a writer's career in the long-run?

That's the million-dollar question these days, isn't it? One of the cool things about being a writer in 2012 is the expanded access to getting your material out there. You can bypass the gatekeeper system. Agent, to publisher, editor, etc., which can be…well, cliquey. That's what I did. I didn't resign with my agent and got my books out there through smaller houses, through a grassroots effort, blogging, writing reviews, word of mouth, etc. And that's cool, and I'm working my way up that ladder, one rung at a time.

We all want to be with the Big Six. Just doesn't work like that. At least not for most. Certainly not right away. So do I think it helps to self-publish and bypass that whole process altogether? No. But that's easy for me to say now, since I found a way to get my books out there. I just think you need some system of checks and balances. Traditional. Small, indie publishers. Whatever. But a system where your work gets checked and passes before it's allowed to go to the next level. There are success stories of self-published authors. Mostly I think it's tantamount to a vanity project. You can do it and take your chances, but without a publisher with some credibility, you're unlikely to get any of your own.

I hated hearing this before I got a book deal. And time for an author is like watching pots boil. But if you are good, and you keep at it, you will get your work out there. It took me three years after I earned my MFA to get a book published. Honestly, it felt like 30.

 

15.) Given a choice, would you read a paperback or an e-Book?

E-book. Every day. Hands down. I started out as a purist, too, have to hold the book in my hand and all that crap. Not anymore. I read books to read the words, that's it. Feeling the crisp page as I turn doesn't enhance my reading experience; good syntax and characters do that. In fact, I recently went to a Hilary Davidson reading with Tom, and I got her latest The Next One to Fall, and she was kind enough to sign it, and I was reading it, and loving it (her Lily Moore series is terrific). And then I just downloaded it for my Kindle. E-books are too fucking convenient. I don't look at it any differently than the iPod. I don't need to own 500 CDs. At least with records, there is a distinction in sound. The words don't change with an E-book. Go on a trip, there's no packing up the books I want to read, it's all right there. Plus, I do a lot of reviews, and I can make notes, bookmark, highlight quotes for later.

E-books. Not even close. Plus, it's the wave of the future, man. I'm sure people were bitching about cars at one point too. But nobody stuck with driving horses and buggies. Except the Amish. And those people are fucked up. (That's the great part about making Amish jokes. It's not like they're ever going to read an interview on the Internet.)

 

16.) What are 5 books have had the largest impact on Joe Clifford as both a writer and a man?

Catcher in the Rye (I named my son Holden, which should tell you all you need to know).
Lonesome Traveler. You didn't say best books. This one isn't even Kerouac's best. That would probably be Subterraneans. But I read this at 19, and it changed my life. It's what got me to San Francisco. That and "Left of the Dial" by the Replacements.
Slaughterhouse Five. I've written more songs about Billy Pilgrim than I have about girls. Except maybe Amy Krois.
The Mammoth Book of Pulp Fiction. Not to be confused this The Big Book of Pulp Fiction. This is the collection of classic hardboiled & noir shorts, most from the '40s and an earlier era, that I started reading just as I dedicated myself to pulp, and it's chock full of gems, from Day Keene (one of the most underrated pulp writers, IMO), to the best short story I've ever read—not best for pulp fiction—the best ever—Donald Westlake's "Ordo."
• It's new, and I'm not sure how much of an impact it's had, since I read it for the first time a few months ago. But I have to include Donald Ray Pollock's Knockemstiff. Because it is the kind of book I hope to write someday.

 

17.) Is there any question I should have asked, but didn't?

Yes. Is it hard getting people to take me seriously when I look this good? Yes, Mike. Yes, it is.