We are shaking things up again on Prose & Cons. Two of our own, Sue Coletta and Joe Clifford, sat down for an in-depth interview.
As an artist, Joe explores the dark places, the uncomfortable places, the dingy bricks and concrete cracks of a cold uncaring city. He writes about the criminals and dope fiends, the dealers and the dreamers, the cops with their heels on the throat, closing in on the kill. He knows this scene well, because he once moved among them. His books, Junkie Love, Choice Cuts, and Wake The Undertaker can be found in local bookstores and online. His new thriller, Lamentation comes out October, this year.
After all the rave reviews of early released copies I just had to read the sneak peek, and I was instantly hooked! I consider Joe a friend, as well as one of my favorite authors. He’s a talented writer and a great storyteller.
Sue: Hi, Joe. Thank you for agreeing to take the time to do this interview.
Joe: Thanks for having me!
Sue: Do you recall how your interest in writing originated?
Joe: The short answer is I’ve always been, for lack of a better term, an artist. I make things. Which I have been doing since I could hold a pencil. Writing, specifically? I’d always scribbled (crappy) poems and made up stories. The first time someone told me I was good at it, was my 10th grade English teacher, Mrs. Virostek. That’s what got me … on the path. Which is funny. Because when I did my book tour for Junkie Love, Mrs. Virostek (who now insists I call her Carol because I’m no longer 15) came to the reading. Talk about full-circle. I am a musician. I paint. Of all those enterprises that earn you no money, writing seemed to have the greatest growth potential.
Sue: (*Barbara Walters question*) You have a very diverse background, a background that a lot of people couldn’t recover from, never mind grow to the status of published author and editor. So my question is, while sitting under that bridge—cold, high(?), homeless—what inspired you to write Junkie Love, your first novel? And, how did you break out from that life?
Joe: Under a bridge is a figure of speech. I mean, I am not sure how many nights I actually slept under a bridge. If at all. I used to cop under a bridge. I was a homeless drug addict for about five years. The first five of my addiction I still had apartments, albeit shitty ones. By the end, I didn’t have a home of my own. But even then I didn’t spent too many nights sleeping outside. For one, I did a lot of speed, so I wasn’t sleeping. For the times I crashed, there was an old music studio I used to break into, and there was a stairwell that led to the roof that no one ever used. I dragged a mattress up there. I had a truck for a while. Wasn’t exactly my truck. But I’d sleep in the bed. Or there were couches around town. Sometimes, if the day’s scamming went well enough I’d be able to afford a skid row hotel room, or one of my junkie buddies would put me up. A few nights in a shelter, here and there. That kind of thing. As for how I broke out of that life? I grew up. The #1 method to getting off drugs and/or alcohol is not AA (as they would like you to believe), nor is it Moderation Management or any other self-help group. You mature out of it. You don’t see many old junkies for a reason. That said, AA (and other groups) can be immensely helpful. I used AA for a while (and Rational Recovery, too). But the truth is, I got, as they say in AA, sick and tired of being sick and tired. It’s a dead fucking end. Wasn’t easy. Almost killed me. Getting off dope was, hands down, the toughest thing I’ve ever done. But in a way—stretching tenets—it was also the easiest, because there was no other choice. I was either quitting heroin, or I was going to die. I wasn’t going to keep living like that.
Sue: I understand you go back to the streets occasionally. Why?
Joe: I’m not sure I’d say I “go back to the streets.” A few months back, my friend Joe Lapin interviewed me (and fellow ex-junkie turned novelist Tom Pitts) for a piece in the LA Weekly. I spent a little time in L.A.’s Skid Row (and I mean little, like a few days). Lapin had us walking around Spring and 5th, asking how it felt to be back, and then Tom and I were, like, “What the fuck are we doing here? Dude, they are going to steal our cell phones and stab us!” I am a suburban, happily married dad these days. I go to bed at a reasonable hour. I try to revisit the streets through my work, because I believe there is beauty there, and I want to share that story. When I moved among them, I saw heartache and tragedy, but there’s something to be culled from like en extremis. But I ain’t fucking hanging out at 16th and Mission. No way. I go into the City now, I get angina.
Sue: What books have most influenced your life and why?
Joe: I named my son Holden, so that should answer that question. As for why Catcher in the Rye resonates so much? All I can say is people (who like the book) often say how it meant something to them at 16, and then when they reread it at 30, it meant something else, and so on. When I read CITR at 16, it meant the same damn thing it did at 40. I thought Holden was right then. And I think he’s right now. I heard the other day, from a fellow parent, that we tell our kids the way we think the world should be. Like, “sharing is fun!” I told my 3-and-a-half-year-old son that a few weeks back. He looked at me like I had two heads, and said, “No, it’s not.” Of course he’s right. Sharing isn’t fun. But as parents we say that shit to our kids. Just like our parents fed that BS to us. When we hit our teens, we realize how the world really is. And that we’ve been lied to. I never got over that, being lied to. Which I guess makes me a phony bastard for telling my kid that sharing is fun. But what else can I do? Raise a Republican?
Sue: You are a very busy guy. Can you tell us what you do on a weekly basis?
Joe: Depends if I am writing a new book or not. My year breaks down in quarters, with essentially half the year (in 3-month increments) dedicated to editing or writing. Roughly. First part of the year, I’m editing. I work for Gutter Books (along with Tom Pitts) as an acquisitions editor, and Tom and I also manage the Flash Fiction Offensive. I also co-produce a reading series, Lip Service West, with my lovely wife, Justine. And there is a lot of promotion that goes into that, as well as being an author. So basically from January through April, I am not writing, and doing this other stuff. Busy work in a lot of way. Answering emails from other writers takes up a huge chuck. What can I say? I’m a giver. I draft my novels in the spring, let them sit over the summer, while I go back to editing, promotion, whatever, and then in the fall I get back in to the writing, shoring up whatever that year’s book is. I’ve been doing it this way for the last few years, and it’s working out well. The idea is that each year, I get a book published. I am waiting on word from my agent (Elizabeth Kracht) that she’s sold my latest, Skunk Train.
Sue: Which authors had the most influence on your writing? Do you consider any of them a mentor, and why?
Joe: Jerry Stahl (Permanent Midnight) blurbed Lamentation, which was amazing. I read Stahl (also a former addict) when I was on the streets. I think I just found Permanent Midnight in a gutter somewhere, appropriately enough. I read that book and it blew me away, was such a revelation. I was, like, “Fuck, I can do this! I can get out of here!” These days? Hilary Davidson is a huge influence. She skirts that line between cutting edge and mainstream mystery I am after. And she does it so well. And, like almost every mystery writer I’ve had the pleasure of meeting, has been so giving and gracious with her time. Lynne Barrett was my thesis advisor in grad school. I couldn’t be doing what I do without her guidance. Kerouac has always been an influence. I am naming my next son Billy Pilgrim, so of course Vonnegut. But since Jack and Kurt are dead, and I never met them, I’m not sure I can call them “mentors.” Hilary, Lynne. David Corbett is another mystery writer who’s bent over backwards to help me out. Alan Kaufman as well. I’ve been very fortunate with mentors. I try to pay that forward to others now that things are rolling a bit for me.
Sue: What book(s) are you reading now?
Joe: I tend to read a few at once. And I am slow reader. But right now it’s Country Hardball by Steve Weddle, The Life and Times of Innis E. Coxman by R.P. Lester, and My Dark Places by Ellroy.
Sue: You have a new book coming out, Lamentation, scheduled to be released in October, this year. How did you come up with the title?
Joe: Same place I get all my best titles, my buddy in CT, Jimmy. Jimmy is a title machine! (My short story, which is probably my best, “Red Pistachios,” is also based on one of Jimmy’s ideas.) The novel is “set” in Northern New Hampshire, but I use my hometown of Berlin, CT, for most of the geography. There is a mountain in Berlin called Lamentation Mountain. (Not-so-coincidentally, another writing mentor, Tom Hazuka, who is actually the “killer” in “Pistachios,” lives on a street named after it.) After I’d written the book, I sent it to Jimmy. I think I had some shit-title like “Far from Here.” Working title. And Jimmy was like, “Um, why don’t you call it Lamentation?” Which was a no-shit moment. That mountain is central to the action, plus it has the biblical undertones, and works thematically. (In the novel, the character Charlie is based on Jimmy.)
Sue: Are the experiences in Lamentation based on someone you know, or experiences in your life?
Joe: I think anything a writer presents is going to be based on his or her life. Just a question of how much. In this case? Very. It’s sensitive subject matter, so we can leave it as the relationship between the brothers in Lamentation is drawn heavily from my own life, both before and after my addiction. I also used some topical current events as a backdrop. When people read it, that story I used will be clear. Hint: think Penn State.
Sue: Is there a message in Lamentation that you’d like readers to know?
Joe: Don’t do drugs? Seriously, it’s a tale of two brothers. I love my brothers, very much. The relationship with one of them is strained because of the drugs, but I think about him every day. In fact, most of my therapy sessions are dedicated to one of two topics: my brother. And my wife not being a blonde anymore.
Sue: Did someone you know inspire your protagonist, Jay Porter? Or is he completely fictional?
Joe: Jay Porter is based, in part, on my half-brother Jay Streeter. Jay is also in antiques up in New Hampshire, and a very down-to-earth “nice” guy. The rest is made up. (My half-brother is happily married, with three delightful kids, and last I checked, he wasn’t investigating any murders!) I don’t know about other writers, but for me, I’ve always found it useful to picture someone, a real someone, as I write. Especially when I start out. So I was definitely picturing my half-brother. But Jay Porter is really me. Chris is really me. My friend (screenwriter) Reed Bernstein once told me that every character he creates is just a side of him. I think that’s true to a large extent. When you sketch a character, you have to install truisms, to make him relatable, and no matter how much we think we know others, we really can only know our own motivations. That’s what writing is, a sort of pop psychology. Conversely, we also pile so much more in there that these final products are going to be wildly original, just by the very process. Jay Porter is part my half-brother, part me, part everyman, part you, part original, etc.
Sue: He’s such a well-rounded interesting character. Will we see him again? In other words, is there a sequel in the works?
Joe: Funny you should ask… I am actually supposed to be writing a sequel for Oceanview (Lamentation’s publisher). I have a treatment that was approved. When I set down to make that this year’s book, however, I had another idea I ran with. And I think that was the right call. I drafted that new book in about a month and a half. It’s called Occam’s Razor, and it is either the best thing I’ve ever written. Or I am insane. (Or both.) I am also a little leery about writing a sequel to a book that hasn’t been released. I’ve written sequels to books that haven’t sold before, and it’s depressing. I have a sequel to Wake the Undertaker (my favorite book to have written—I love that book—but it didn’t sell so well) that will never see the light of day. Guess I’m taking a wait and see approach.
Sue: Lamentation has been getting incredible praise from reviewers that read early released copies of the book. My favorite quote is, “The novel’s perfectly constructed plot unfolds with the thoughtful precision and menace of a cat burglar.”-- Hillary Davidson, author of Blood Always Tells. Can you share a little of Lamentation with us?
Joe: I love Hilary Davidson. It’s funny because I wrote Lamentation before I read my first Hilary Davidson book. But LM and her The Damage Done are really similar, thematically. At the heart of both are sibling relations and addiction, murder, mayhem, and the style, which, at least to me, feels very compatible. Reading The Damage Done in many ways gave me the permission to do what I was doing. I was striving for this commercial mystery slash edgy tone, vibe, aesthetic, whatever, which Hilary nails. I was, like, “OK. So this is a thing.” I’m not saying I did it as well as she, but just knowing I was on the right track proved paramount in completing the process.
Sue: What are you working on now?
Joe: Well, I’m going to let Occam’s Razor sit for the next few months (Stephen King’s advice of waiting at least 6 weeks between drafts), which means it’s back to editing and other stuff. I am wrapping up the highly anticipated Trouble in the Heartland: Crime Stories Inspired by the Songs of Bruce Springsteen, which features new, original work by Dennis Lehane, James Grady, and many more (including Hilary Davidson!), a project that benefits veterans and the Bob Woodruff Foundation. Gutter just released Mike Miner’s The Immortal Game, which I acquired/edited, a fantastic hardboiled mob/hardboiled take; and next up is J. Buck Williams’s The Triangle: The True Story of the World’s First Terrorist Band. (Gutter seems to be cornering a market on rock ’n’ roll noir.) Plus, y’know husband and dad duty, and I have an actual job-job copyediting. I will also be teaching a course on mystery writing, Demystifying Mystery, over at SF’s Writing Grotto (9/16 – 10/14, Tuesdays, 6:30 p.m. – 9 p.m.). Bay Area writers interested in taking the 5-week course can contact me personally: email@example.com. So I’ll be busy. I don’t really do “fun” (ask my wife). I work. And if I am not working, I am probably having a panic attack.
Sue: Do you have any advice for other writers?
Joe: I get this one a lot. And it’s a two-parter. A.) Quit. Seriously, if you can do anything else and earn a living, do it. Writing is rejection, heartache, and very little glory. B.) And those of you who weren’t dissuaded and are still here, who feel they have to do it because it’s who they are, well, sorry, because it’s a brutal profession, but I will give you the best advice I’ve ever gotten re: writing. And I’ve gotten a lot of good advice. This sucks to hear if you don’t have a book out or are struggling to find an agent and/or landing spot for your work. I mean, when someone said this to me, I wanted to punch him in the throat. But it’s true. And it’s encouraging if you think (really, really hard) about it: If you are good enough and you keep at it, you will get published. The trick is that “keeping at it.” Because writing is a lot of rejection and self-doubt, which feed off one another. Keep at it. Oh, and read the literary magazines you are trying to get into. Sounds like a no-brainer, but like my thesis advisor Lynne used to say, “Everyone wants to get in literary magazines; no one wants to read them.” The fastest trip to disappointment is to write a story, then try to find it a home. Square peg, round hole.
Sue: As I’ve said, I am a big fan of your books. Do you have anything specific you’d like to say to your fans/readers?
Joe: Thanks. Seriously, knowing you have readers, however many or few, who truly appreciate what you do, makes all the difference (between sitting down and writing and saying, Fuck it, I’m watching Law & Order).
Sue: I can’t wait to read Lamentation! Folks, if you are looking for nail-biting tension on every page, a book that you can't put down, and a story that stays with you long after you've read it, take advantage of the pre-order price and save 26% off the hardcover!
Joe: Thanks again for having me!
To find out more about Joe Clifford's books, click here, or go to: www.joeclifford.com.