Who: Joe Clifford
Where: San Francisco
What: Joe Clifford is acquisitions editor for Gutter Books, managing editor of The Flash Fiction Offensive, and producer of Lip Service West, a “gritty, real, raw” reading series in Oakland, CA. Joe is the author of four books (“Choice Cuts,” “Junkie Love,” “Wake the Undertaker,” and “Lamentation”), as well as editor of “Trouble in the Heartland: Crime Stories Based on the Songs of Bruce Springsteen”.
Interview conducted by email. Some answers have been edited.
How long have you been writing and publishing?
I started writing and publishing in earnest when I returned to school in the early-2000s. I’d just gotten off the streets, cleaned up, and needed something to do with my time. One of the perks of heroin addiction is you don’t have to ask these questions like, “What do I want to be when I grow up?” You don’t grow up. You don’t get to “be” anything. Which is sad. But, in a strange way, it is also much easier. You can’t fail if you don’t try. When I stopped being a selfish fuck-up, I needed a direction, somewhere to pour passions. I’d always been an artist, even on the streets. Musician, whatever, had bands. I went back to college, professors liked my writing, and it took off from there.
You are very open about your time as a homeless junkie. What do you hope that readers who have not lived the same kind of life will learn from your writing?
Can’t really run from my past. I don’t want to run from my past. It’s made me who I am, like anyone’s past. It would be nice to pick and choose which parts I get to keep—there were some miserable days and nights—but it doesn’t work like that. Plus, being a writer, having lived that way, affords an insight into another way of living, and that concerns more than just the drugs. There’s a desperation, a skirting death, a loneliness out there. And these are emotions and senses that everyone experiences, or recognizes, or fears. There is nothing romantic about being a junkie. I used to think there was. There’s not. It’s an awful way to live, and you have no one else to blame. That said, these are still people. Human beings. And they, like you, have hopes and dreams and want something more. They are just too screwed up to get it. I know a lot of people hate drug addicts. And I won’t go all Neil Young and say every junkie is like a setting sun or anything. But everyone is trying to do the best they can. I really believe that. Some results just, well, suck. I want to put a human face to the outcast.
If you had to explain your writing to somebody who has never read your work before, how would you describe it?
I’ve been grappling with this one lately. I write genre, for the most part, mysteries, noir, etc. But these classifications are rarely all encompassing, and I notice that my “noir” is very different from a lot of the people writing it today. I recently read “Cry Father” by Benjamin Whitmer. Remarkable writer. Remarkable book. Very noir. And it struck me how much I am not that. I guess I’d call what I do “literary thriller.” Sounds a little pretentious, but I started out in literary fiction, and so many of those characteristics remain, with the caveat that story comes first. That’s what I love about genre: the story is front and center. Literary fiction can get bogged down in too much … stuff. So, yeah, I write dark, but I am also deeply steeped in pop culture. I like commercial. I mean, I don’t think appealing to the masses is a bad thing. But like any writer I am searching for that deeper truth.
I really got a strong sense of New Hampshire through the descriptions and pacing in “Lamentation”. How difficult a task was that to maintain throughout the novel while simultaneously ratcheting up the action and tension?
The novel is set in New Hampshire for a few reasons. One, I wanted that brutal winter. I think that cold, infertile ground is germane to the story. Plus, the main character Jay Porter works in estate clearing. He is based on my half-brother, Jay Streeter, who lived in New Hampshire and worked in estate clearing. Even though Chris and Jay are really “me,” I find it helps to mentally picture someone as I write them. The truth is, though, the landscape and geography is based very much on my hometown of Berlin, CT. Right down to the crane in the pond…. But, yes, the setting plays a pivotal role in the tension and pacing. The dead of winter, the onset of early dark, creates a sense of desperation. Like time is running out. Which is what is happening to Jay and Chris, in more ways than one.
You are also one of the editors for Out of the Gutter Online’s Flash Fiction Offensive. How has being a writer helped you to be a better publisher, and vice versa?
Those two, editing and writing, are inextricably linked. For me at least. As an editor, I learn what not to do as a writer. When I write I have the insight of what bores the shit out of me as an editor. Of course, they are very different animals. I look at it as acting vs. directing. One (writing) comes with more glory, but really you get a bigger say as an editor, I feel. You get to put your stamp on an entire project. You also need to walk a fine line. When you edit, you want to be like a kid in the Victorian age, your presence felt but not seen or heard.
Bruce Springsteen probably influenced my writing more than any other author. He transcends mere songwriting. In a lot of ways, he is America’s author, right? He captures Americana like no one else in music or literature. Just these slices of broken lives and big dreams. Remarkable what he can achieve in just a few lines. “Remember all the movies, Terry, we go and see / trying to learn to walk like the heroes we thought we’d someday be / and after all this time to find we’re just like all the rest.” Fuck, right? Lesser authors can take 600 pages and not pack that punch to the gut.
Should we expect to see more music-inspired anthologies from Zelmer Pulp/Gutter Books?
That is the plan. Not sure what’s next regarding anthologies, but Gutter has carved out a nice little rock ’n’ roll noir niche for itself. We are soon releasing two rock/noir novels— “The Triangle: the True Story of the World’s First Terrorist Band,” by J. Buck Williams, and later “Broken Heroes,” by Mike Creeden (whose “Something in the Night” highlights Heartland).
The next music antho? We are talking Replacements, or maybe Gaslight Anthem. My first choice would be .22: Crime Stories Based on the Songs of Taylor Swift. But I might be alone on that one. Well, me and Brian Panowich (“Wreck on the Highway”).
What is the next thing you are going to publish?
In terms of writing, I have two new novels I’ve finished, which my agent, Liz Kracht, is currently shopping: “Skunk Train,” which is about two teens on the run in California with stolen pot; and “Occam’s Razor,” about an ex-footballer from Miami drawn back into a town he hates to solve a mystery surrounding an eccentric, wealthy family.
If you could recommend ONE piece of your writing to somebody, what would it be?
Your books really are like your kids; it’s hard to pick a favorite. You love them all, if for slightly different reasons. That said, it’s tough not to pick “Junkie Love”. It’s the story of my life, how I got into—and off—drugs. The crooked road taken that made me who I am. Which only makes my life and good fortune now that much sweeter.
Previous Interrogation: Travis Richardson.
S.W. Lauden is a writer and drummer living in Los Angeles. His short fiction has been accepted for publication by Out of the Gutter, Akashic Books and Crimespree Magazine. He is currently working on the novella, CROSSWISE, and his debut novel, BAD CITIZEN CORPORATION. You can read one of his recent short stories right HERE.