Joe Clifford on ebooks, blogging, self-promotion, and rehab

Joe Clifford’s collection of short stories, Choice Cuts, was recently published by Snubnose Press. Joe is the producer of Lip Service West, a “gritty, real, raw” reading series in Oakland, CA. His work has appeared in Big Bridge, the Connecticut Review, Drunken Boat, Fringe, Opium, Shotgun HoneyThuglitWord Riot, and Underground Voices, among others.

Joe was interviewed by Kacee Belcher for Sliver of Stone Magazine.

Kacee Belcher: Joe, now that you’ve popped my eBook cherry with Choice Cuts, your collection of stories published by Snubnose, who is also publishing your novel Wake the Undertaker, I’m a little shocked at how much I enjoyed reading your collection on my computer. I’ve been a print-only kind of girl until your publication. Call me old fashioned, call me a snob, hell, I’ve been called much worse—but I wonder how you feel about the different mediums of distribution for literature these days?

Joe Clifford: Yeah, I was the same way, really.  “No, I need to hold a book in my hands, be able to turn the page” and all that.  For what? So I can smell the fucking thing? I read books to read them, and this whole refusal to read work in an electronic medium, like it’s somehow disrespectful to the history of literature, started to seem rather stupid. I mean, it’s the same reason baseball is dragging its heels on using instant replay. You can’t stop progress. So until MLB wants to eschew air travel in favor of horse and buggy, the “maintaining the tradition” argument is invalid. I used to own hundreds of CDs.  Now I have an iPod.

It’s funny. I recently got an autographed copy of Hilary Davidson’s Next One to Fall (Davidson is as good a mystery writer as there is going, and I am in love with her Lily Moore series).  But a quarter of the way in, I just downloaded the e-version. It’s too fucking convenient. Plus, I read like six, seven books at once (not that I read quickly; I am an extremely slow reader). My Kindle keeps track of every place I stop. I can make notes. I do a lot of reviews, so that’s awesome. I mean, I still have friends who refuse to get on Facebook, who don’t have e-mail. And that’s OK. I don’t see much of them anymore. We live in a digital world. That’s not going to change. Last year e-versions outsold hardcover. Look for that trend to continue.

KB: On the blog, I loved reading a past post that said, “Well I hate to be a dick tease. But I have a pretty big announcement coming out this week.”  We then are left wet and waiting only to hear that not only have you made a deal with Snubnose, you’ve also signed with Vagabondage Press and Junkie Love is slated for release in 2013. My question in this is: are you in any way superstitious about your work? Are you ever afraid to jinx your work or do you think that superstition is bullshit?

JC: First, glad to hear that I still have that effect on women. Am I superstitious? Um. Yeah.  Plus, I have really bad OCD. If I enter a room through one door, I have to leave via the same door, that kind of shit. I used to fight it. But it’s easier to just go back out the same door. So, yes, I was very worried about jinxing. Plus, with this particular book, which chronicles the ten years I spent as a junkie in SF in the ’90s, we’d come so close, so many times. I’d landed an agent for that book, and we had several editors express real interest; it seemed like a deal was a foregone conclusion. Then nothing. Like overnight. Just dried up. Part of the problem I think was that James Frey had just been exposed as a fraud so folks were leery of the drug memoir (note: Junkie Love is being published as fiction, not memoir).  It’s also a pretty gritty book, which scared some folks off.  (One agent wrote in turning it down, “It’s just too gritty.  And I like gritty.”  Which I take a compliment, really). I’d sent out plenty of hopeful texts prior to Vagabondage’s accepting it. I’d get e-mails from my agent at the time, and I’d send out these texts that it looked like we had a publisher… Only to have to explain the next time I talked to someone that the deal had fallen through. I didn’t want to go through that again. This particular book has a special place in my heart. All books you write do, of course, but this one even more so. I’m grateful to Vagabondage for taking it on.

KB: Blogs—some say they’re crucial, others don’t seem to think they’re a make or break deal. After reading yours (which can be found at you write that it was, “designed to jumpstart an existing [career]. And to that end I have to say that it worked marvelously.” How much do you believe that your blog had to do with getting your work picked up? Obviously, writers have to write, but for those readers who haven’t scoured your blog, how much of a writer’s job is self-promo?

JC: The blog was instrumental. When I didn’t re-sign with my agent, who had been targeting primarily the bigger houses, the Harpers, et al, I decided to take a DIY approach, soliciting smaller, indie houses, and getting my name out there however possible. One of the problems is I write as slowly as I read. If it’s going to take a couple years to write a novel, you really want to get the most bang for your buck.  Except this is writing, and nobody is getting paid.  At least not out of the gate.  It’s a process. Rather than sit back and wait—which was killing me—I wanted to stay as busy as possible until the next novel presented itself. I wasn’t going through writer’s block necessarily, but I didn’t have an idea for the next novel. Writing the blog loosened up my brain. I wrote the blog daily as an exercise. Get 1,000 words out a day, no matter what. And Candy and Cigarettes (the blog) got me fans, presented several professional opportunities, editing, anthologies, etc.  A lot of fan mail. Not as much now, but when we were going well we had several hundred a day reading it, consistently, so people liked it, I think, and that opens up doors. Now I’m too busy with the magazine (Flash Fiction Offensive), reading series (Lip Service West), and my own work to get more than a post a week up. But I feel like if nothing else the blog kept me sane until my books were published.

The second half of your question (about self-promotion) is the important part.  And the answer is very. It’s also fucking annoying. It hit me one day as I was posting whatever link on Facebook just how many blogs and websites are out there. I’d been pushing pretty hard, trying to get people to read my blog, and it was working.  Like I said, I’d get four, five hundred readers a day.  But I posted this one day, and it just hit me. Like, holy fuck. How the hell can I keep asking people to read my random thoughts on Kate Upton and cheese? Everyone has a goddamn blog. There are writers I love and I never read their blog. Or books. There is just so much shit out there. So it’s a fine line. You need to promote. But you don’t want to be a raging douche about it. I try to treat social media, well, socially. If all I am doing is posting links to my work it’s obnoxious. That said, I don’t see how one can be a writer these days without a Facebook account. I call it The Office. Damn near every good thing that has happened to me (in terms of my writing) has been somehow linked to Facebook, or at least electronic media. Hell, my best friends and advocates, guys like Todd Robinson (of Thuglit) and Ron Earl Phillips (Shotgun Honey), Court Merrigan (another editor at Out of the Gutter), I’ve never met these guys in person. But they are as good of friends as I have, and I like it better this way. No one’s borrowing my shit or trying to fuck my wife. Plus, being a writer, I’m a social retard. Most writers are.  That’s why we write. Alone. Away from people. If I had to network like they did in the 1950s, I’d still be drinking. That’s probably why they all drank so much in the first place.

KB: Not that I think your work is exactly the dime store novel but I get this Horatio Alger, Jr., Ragged Dick, feel while reading the stories in Choice Cuts. The American dream thing, rags to riches, gutter to ground, infested to cleansed, etc. Basically the underdog generally comes out not only alive but also on top—even if the underdog was set to be the villain, which I love. You mention other works, such as Junkie Love originally being a memoir but making the choice to go novel as much of the work has become highly fictionalized. Do you see yourself, as a human being, in this manner and if so, or not, could you elaborate?

JC: I’m sad to say I’ve never read Alger.  Nor have I read Moby Dick or seen Apocalypse Now.  So much great art, such severe ADD.  What was the question?  Oh, yeah.  The American Dream.  One of my favorite quotes re: the American Dream comes from Noam Chomsky.  And I’ll paraphrase because I am too lazy to Google it.  Something like, “The capitalistic ethic treats freedom as a commodity.  It is available in principle.  You can have whatever you can afford to buy.” I’m glad you picked up on that, because the American Dream, or rather its perversion, is a reoccurring theme in most of my stories. It’s the ultimate carrot on the string, this idea that you can be anything you want to be if you just try hard enough. It’s a bedtime story we tell kids. Economics and Reality weigh more than dreams. Of course, the irony is… I am now living the American Dream.  But I’m not pounding my chest with claims that “I built it” on my own. I was extremely fortunate and blessed. I work hard. I’m also very lucky.

My milieu is the dime store novel, and a lot of my heroes take their moral cues from them. Here’s another quote: “The tragedy of life is not that the beautiful things die young. It’s that they grow old and mean.” Raymond Chandler. So these wants, even if they originate from somewhere earnest and good, often get perverted. Basically, Breaking Bad. Fuck, I should’ve written that show.

My ex-wife (the one I loved, not the other one) used to say she considered her life a work of art. That sounds terribly pretentious but if you knew her, you’d know that’s just how she was. At the time, I thought it was pretentious. But I get what she meant now. Everything is a projection. Everybody. Everything. How you want the world to see you. My whole thing is to be utterly candid, as honest as possible (while not being a dick. I mean, if you ask a question, and the truth is going to hurt you, I’ll probably lie). Holden was right. The world is filled with goddamn phonies. At the same time, you need social graces. Do I contradict myself? Very well. I contradict myself. I contain multitudes. I think that’s the Whitman line, no?

KB: In your writing, on your blog, and in recent segments with the Huffington Post, you’ve been very open about your previous drug use. You’ve been to eighteen treatment centers (correct me if I’m wrong) and on your blog say that you didn’t go the traditional AA route. Without giving away too much of your forthcoming novel, Junkie Love, can you tell us a little more about your route toward sobriety?

JC: For a long time I really hated AA. In rehabs that shit is shoved down your throat. I remember a counselor (in a residential treatment) slipping me a copy of Rational Recovery and telling me not to let anyone else see it, and walking around with the book literally inside a magazine. Back then, it was all AA, all the time. It’s changed now, I hear, less of a “one size fits all approach.” And that’s good. One size fits all seldom works for hats; it works even less for sobriety. When I was getting straight, though, it was 12 Steps or nothing, and if you failed repeatedly, as I did, the answer for why was obvious. “Because you’re not working your steps!” I couldn’t do AA. I’m too headstrong, too stubborn. And you know what? It just made my road harder. The truth is AA can be a terrific tool. Just wasn’t for me. As I get older, I find myself quoting their sayings more, practicing their principles more. I think it’s just the group mentality that got to me. I’m not big on submitting to collectives. How did I do it? Willpower. Banging my head against the wall until something got through my thick skull. In the end, you know what the most successful method for getting out of the drug lifestyle? It isn’t AA. Or Rational Recovery. Or Moderation Management or any of that. It’s maturing out of it. You just grow up. There’s a lot of misnomers about drugs and that world, which I try on the blog (and elsewhere) to dispel. One is that your using buddies aren’t your real friends. Which is a load of shit. Some of the best friends I have today were guys I met using. I met Tom Pitts (my co-editor at Flash Fiction Offensive, and who also has a book coming out with Snubnose) at a shooting gallery called Hepatitis Heights. Of course he got sober. You can’t get straight and still be friends with people using, that’s true, but just because someone used drugs doesn’t make them a bad person or unworthy. You use drugs, at least most people, to escape the pain. Until, to quote Craig Finn (of the Hold Steady) “some nights the painkillers make the pain even worse…”  When you’re living in a shooting gallery, injecting mice feces, it’s time to go.

KB: With so many “feathers in your pimp hat” as you would say, what’s next? What can readers look forward to in the literary life of Joe Clifford?

JC: I just wrapped up a mystery novel I hope will deliver me some mainstream success. I don’t consider “commercial” a dirty word. Back in the ’90s, all my friends made fun of me for liking Springsteen. They all loved Fugazi. I fucking hate Fugazi. I’d rather play the Super Bowl, y’know? So you won’t do an interview in any publication that features advertisements? Great. You and your integrity have fun playing in Ed Pudding’s living room. I think one of the hardest things to do is a write a mainstream novel. I’m not talking about wanting to be Dan Brown, and even if it came with all her money, I’d rather go back to be being homeless than be associated with that 50 Shades horseshit. I mean good writing. A well-written, mainstream novel. But where shit happens and people aren’t just hanging around a tennis court. This new book, Far from Here (working title), is a rural mystery about two brothers and a computer hard drive, drawing on the recent Jerry Sandusky case.  But it’s got all the usual Joe tropes—drugs, hookers, seedy motels, more drugs. I’m really high (pun intended) on it. And I have another YA novel about a couple of teenagers from Humboldt fleeing to Hollywood. It’s a love story, thriller called Skunk Train. Very cool. I also have a draft of a sequel to Wake the Undertaker (which Snubnose Press is publishing in December) called The Payback.  If Wake the Undertaker does well, I’ll probably finish that up.  I love the world of Wake, and it’s fun to revisit old characters.  Plus, I have Lip Service West and Flash Fiction Offensive. I recently finished editing an old W.R. Burnett novel for Gutter Books, where I work as an editor. I love editing, and I hope to do more of that.  And I’ll keep at the short stories, of course, especially now that Thuglit is back in business (and paying!). It’s the best e-zine out there (including my own). And I’m hoping to get into publishing other authors. We’re talking right now, Matt Louis (Gutter Books Editor), Court, Tom, and I about putting out an anthology. Which will be fun. I can honestly say I get as much of a bang out of promoting other authors.

I’m very fortunate in that I get to treat writing like a full time job.


  1. […] Gutter.  Here’s another with Mike Joyce & Co. at Literary Orphans.  And another with Kacee Belcher and Sliver of Stone.  It’s fun doing these, as each interviewer brings his or her own voice, and you’ll […]

  2. […] still occasionally write and publish a poem, but my natural tendency is to tell stories. I also met Joe Clifford at FIU, and that alone was enough to make me feel like I got my money’s […]

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