Since getting off of the streets, where he spent most of the 1990s, Joe Clifford has made writing his life. He is a “rock ‘n’ roll” writer who comes from a cutting-edge background and has successfully transitioned to the mainstream, which allows him to keep afloat in both worlds. Joe is the acquisitions editor for Gutter Books and managing editor of The Flash Fiction Offensive. He is also the producer of Lip Service West, a “gritty, real, raw” reading series in Oakland, California, and the author of three books (Choice Cuts, Junkie Love, Wake the Undertaker, and Lamentation).
His latest novel, Lamentation, “straightforward and edgy, gnaws with nail-biting tension on every page” (Robert Dugioni).
In a frigid New Hampshire winter, Jay Porter is trying to eke out a living and maintain some semblance of a relationship with his former girlfriend and their two-year-old son. When he receives an urgent call that Chris, his drug-addicted and chronically drunk brother, is being questioned by the sheriff about his missing junkie business partner, Jay feels obliged to come to his rescue.
After Jay negotiates his brother’s release from the county jail, Chris disappears into the night. As Jay begins to search for him, he is plunged into a cauldron of ugly lies and long-kept secrets that could tear apart his small hometown and threaten the lives of Jay and all those he holds dear.
Powerful forces come into play that will stop at nothing until Chris is dead and the secrets he holds are destroyed.
Joe was interviewed by Justin Bendell for Sliver of Stone Magazine.
You were raised in Connecticut. You live in California now. Lamentation is the first of your books exclusively set in New England. How did you come to the decision to return home (I use home loosely here) in your fiction?
When I was at FIU, my first attempt at a thesis novel revolved around two brothers set in New England (where I grew up). I got about seven chapters in and abandoned it. Lamentation is, in a very, very loose definition of the word, a reworking of that novel. I mean, the two brothers part remained, the setting, but you can’t really say it’s a reworking. I didn’t know how to fucking write a novel until I got to FIU and Lynne Barrett got a hold of me. Lamentation retained exactly one line from that first attempt (“a talking chicken named Buck Buck”). Lynne Barrett taught me causality, which is how you write a novel. Or any story, really. My first efforts, like that of a lot of new writers, I think, tended to revolve around scenes. Clever bits of dialogue, two characters in a bar or coffee shop getting pithy. Call it the Tarantino effect. Great filmmaker. Lousy guy to emulate. The thing is all that “Royale with Cheese” stuff in Pulp Fiction actually advances the plot. When most of us try it, we just end up with two dudes talking about cheeseburgers.
Lamentation features a relationship between two brothers. Is the sibling dynamics in the novel, which I found to be well rendered, born of personal experience? In other words, how much of you is in the characters of Jay and Chris? Do you have a brother?
Well, Jay Porter (in Lamentation) deals in secondhand antiques in Northern New Hampshire. I have a half-brother named Jay Streeter, who used to work secondhand antiques in Northern New Hampshire. I certainly pictured my half brother Jay when I was writing the character of Jay, although they are not very similar. I just like to have a mental image. Jay Porter is really me. I’ve had siblings and family members who’ve battled addiction, as have I (obviously—Junkie Love details my relationship with my other brother). But Chris (the addict brother in Lamentation) is also me. I’ve been on both sides of addiction—the scumbag addict, and the straight-and-narrow one dealing with the fallout, which allows unique perspective. It’s also fiction. That’s the nice part about fiction: you can make shit up. Junkie Love is, for all intents and purposes (except marketing and legality) true. Lamentation is still steeped in that world (drugs), but just being a novel affords greater latitude. And it’s a plot-driven story. Character-driven too. But I wanted a page-turner.
What lured you into the world of gritty pulp/crime fiction? Did you read it as a young person, pre-California drifter phase?
I remember one of my first workshops with Lynne. She made a comment to the class how it felt like, at any minute, my stories could turn noir. And I was, like, “Wow! Really? Because I love noir. It’s all I read!” And she had this look on her face, like, “No shit, dumbass. That’s how it works.” But I still thought of myself as a “literary” writer back them. I looked down on genre. I wanted to write the (ahem, pompous cough) Great American Novel. Fuck the Great American Novel. I like what I like. When I dropped the literary pretension part, my work became imminently more readable. Also, it’s just who I am. I am a pop guy. I like Bruce Springsteen (and Taylor Swift!). I think The Rock is one of the greatest movies ever made. And I’ve read plenty of classics. I named my kid Holden. But I also read War and Peace (which is truly amazing), and I’ve read Crime and Punishment (equally brilliant). I’ve never read Finnegan’s Wake, but who really reads that book except to say he or she did? I don’t know. Maybe I’m projecting. Maybe there isn’t this divide between literary and genre, academic and street. All I know is I’ll take Jim Thompson and Charles Bukowski over David Foster Wallace and Liz Bishop, any day. Not saying my choices are “better.” Just that’s what I enjoy reading.
Since graduating with your MFA, you’ve had 4 books published. Not all MFA students find this level of success. I suspect the road from post-MFA to now wasn’t as smooth and easy for you as it seems. I mean, Publisher’s Weekly gave you a starred review for Lamentation a couple weeks back! Tell me about the time between MFA and publishing your first book. What were the major challenges? Did you ever have a “fuck this writing shit” moment?
When I graduated, I thought I had a good handle on the path of literary success: write great novel (check), get agent, become bestseller. I’m still not sure how it works. I just know it doesn’t work like that. Post-grad school depression is a very real thing. You spend 3 years working toward this goal (getting published), which you think will be the answer to all life’s problems. And then you’re time is over, the new crop is ushered in, and you feel, well, abandoned. At least I did. But the professors at FIU did their job, they taught me to write, and like John Dufresne says, If writing was easy, everyone would do it. Sometimes it feels like everyone does it. Or says they do it. But for a career? It’s hard. And, yeah, I wanted to quit. Up until things began to move, I used to tell Mike Creeden (another FIU alum), “Fuck it. If I am going to fail, I’d rather fail at rock ’n’ roll!” (Mike and I both play music too.) So, yeah, I had a lot of “fuck this writing shit” moments. It was especially tough when other classmates were getting book deals. I sorta hated them. Which is natural, I think. And I don’t want anyone to hate me now. Because it’s not that glamorous. And there sure as shit ain’t a lot of money. But the getting a book deal. That’s attainable. It’s just when you want something so bad, and don’t have it, that it feels impossible. And time . . . slows. After I graduated FIU, it felt like forever until I got an agent. But I graduated in ’08, and by the end of ’09, I had an agent. We live in this immediate e-culture. So you send an email with your submission and are checking it seven minutes later for a response. It produces extreme anxiety. And it’s unreliable. Prospective agents (or their assistants) aren’t even checking your e-mail for six months. (And it would take too long to talk about it, but cold-calling agents is a dead end.) The best writing advice I ever got: if you are good enough, and keep at it, you will get published. When I heard that, I didn’t have a book out, or an agent, and I was, like, Fuck you! But it’s true. The people I know who keep at it, don’t give up, they just find a way. It’s a crooked path, and I can’t tell you how to replicate it, other than to keep doing it and bulling your way forward. And don’t stop working on new stuff. Waiting for good news from the e-mailman will drive you nuts.
Now that you’ve dipped your literary toes into the ice and snow of northern New Hampshire, any thoughts of returning? Or perhaps you have a Miami novel up your sleeve?
Oceanview (Lamentation’s publisher) wants a sequel to Lamentation, so I will be drafting that before year’s end. I have the story mapped out, know the general plotline and arc, just a matter of making the time to get back in there. Funny you mention Miami. My new novel (which I am just about ready to have my agent start shopping) Occam’s Razor, takes place in South Florida. As you maybe heard my time at FIU was not exactly smooth. I went through a divorce and almost died in a motorcycle accident. I hated the place when I left. But my opinion of the place has softened a bit in recent years. Occam’s Razor gave me a chance to explore some of those feelings. And I know every writer says this whenever he finishes a new book, but I honestly think this new novel is the best thing I’ve ever written. So maybe it’s my reconciliatory opportunity to be friends with Miami again.
Joe’s popular blog, “Candy and Cigarettes,” provides him with a strong link to his fans. Clifford lives in California with his wife, Justine, and their son.