Last time I had the pleasure to interview Tom Pitts, who has been many things over the years, most recently co-editor for Out of the Gutter‘s The Flash Fiction Offensive. So I thought we’d piggyback Tom’s interview with his co-editor, friend and fellow survivor, Joe Clifford. The men two share many things in common, from writing to recovery to music, but having worked with them both I can say the most important thing they share is themselves. Joe is very candid about his life prior to writing, and his words bleed redemption. While every story, long or short, is as varied as snowflake, they each sing of Joe Clifford.
Aside from being co-editor of one of the best flash fiction sites, Joe has released his short story collection Choice Cuts through Snubnose Press, who is also soon releasing WAKE THE UNDERTAKER, as well as the memoir novel JUNKIE LOVE from Battered Suitcase Press. Joe also organizes an open reading series called Lip Service West featuring stories addition.
How’d you get the gun? Or rather what drew you to crime fiction?
What gun? Who told you I have a gun?! I have a felony. I can’t own a gun!
Crime fiction, eh? Few things. 1.) My thesis advisor in grad school, Lynne Barrett, pointed out in workshop one day how my stories seemed like they could go noir at any minute. Her words. To which I said, “Wow! Because that what I like to read!” And she gave me a “Well, no shit, that’s how it works” look. And that is what I like to read. Jim Thompson. Day Keene. Chandler, of course. So there’s that. Plus coming from the life I left (junkie, streets, etc.), it makes sense to write about that element; it’s the world I know best. And, also, because I was sick to fucking death of literary fiction. The purveyors tend to be douches. Furthermore, I don’t want to read literary fiction. I’d rather shoot myself in the fucking head than read David Foster Wallace. Even writers I like, like, say, Don DeLillo–I was reading White Noise, and I thought the writing was great, and it was gripping. For a while. Then nothing is happening halfway through the book. I put it down. And who cares? Because there’s no story to finish. Last, there is the community. It’s overly simplistic, but noir writers tend to be nicer, more supportive, less pretentious/elitist. Noir is the story of the common man. I don’t give a shit about lacrosse or rowing or using summer as a verb. Ain’t what I’m about. So all those things combined led me to crime.
You’ve been very open to readers and fans that follow your site about your drug abuse and addiction, and the choices you’ve made to feed the next fix. You’ve written a memoir of that time in your life, JUNKIE LOVE. Can you give us a glimpse of that period?
It’s hard to answer that question without the obligatory, “You’ll have to read the book!” But you really can’t summarize an experience like that. You’re right. I am pretty open about that period, almost to a fault. It’s harder for my wife, I think. Because Justine’s 85-year-old grandmother is going to read a novel called Junkie Love that details how I injected heroin into my neck and stole money from banks and had dirty sex. I mean, she doesn’t have to read it. But there it is. For me, though, I don’t see any reason to shy away from it. I spent so long as an addict, sniveling and ashamed; I’m not going to do that anymore. I made some bad mistakes, and I hurt a lot of people. I’ve got a lifetime of guilt I have to carry on my shoulders. The choices I made in those days weren’t the result of malice. I was young, aching, searching for a place to belong. It seems stupid, often regretful now. I get hate mail occasionally. Some people don’t like addicts, reformed or otherwise. But Junkie Love will get into the particulars more. The whys, wheres, hows. There was still beauty in that life, no matter how dark days got. It’s fueled by the Kerouac mad ones, roman candles and shooting stars, all that shit. The book will be released as a novel (i.e., not memoir) by Battered Suitcase Press in April. If you read it, you’ll see the book is less about drugs and more about just growing up. Plus, y’know, you can see how I met (Gutter Books co-editor) Tom Pitts (hint: we shot dope together in a shooting gallery called Hepatitis Heights).
Whoah, let’s roll back here a minute. The memoir’s a novel now?
The book was originally titled (I shit you not): The Prolonged Accusation of a Goldfish (subheading) The Diary of a Lunatic in Rehab (AKA) The Junkie Manifesto. The original text, written on 8 x 14 ” paper, longhand, a month into my sobriety was part memoir/part time-traveling, science fiction novel. Interspersed with narrative of my drug addiction, which was told in a series of non-linear, unconnected vignettes, there was a rambling, barely coherent plot involving very tiny monkeys on a top secret mission to kill god (small “g”). Obviously no one published that steaming turd (although a copy made it back to San Francisco, where it enjoyed some popularity with the underground tweaker sect. I still get notes, from time to time, how that book changed a life).
Then I went to school and learned how to write. I kept the vignettes as a foundation and then wrote a real book about my drug life around it. The title was changed to Junkie Love. But my agent at the time thought it might be causing us headache since that douche James Frey has gotten caught making up his junkie memoir. So we changed the title to Candy and Cigarettes. When I found out there was another book (by CS DeWildt) called Candy and Cigarettes, I thought it would be a clever to pitch it to his publisher, since at that time I’d parted ways with my agent. I sent my C&C to Vagabondage/Battered Suitcase Press.
They loved it. Wanted to publish it. But I’d have to change the title since they already had a Candy and Cigarettes (“So we were the new Originals…). I said how about Junkie Love? Great, they said. One last thing. Gotta publish it as a novel (since they don’t do memoir). Fine by me. That line between memoir and fiction is blurry with drugs anyway. I mean, I’m not a douche (like James Frey). All this stuff did happen to me. But I streamline trips, conflate characters. The experience is the same, but it doesn’t help the reader (or propel the narrative) to say, ‘Yeah, I got arrested in LA, then went back to CT where nothing happened for three months, then I went back to LA and lived in a shelter.’ Just say I got arrested and lived in the shelter in LA. I am using that as an example. I never got arrested in LA. I got arrested in San Francisco. And Massachusetts. And CT, too, I think.
Arrest records to the side, you’re readers have been able to reap the rewards of your writing. Having read, published and produced your writing in the past, your style is not easy to pin down. What should a reader expect from Joe Clifford?
I strive to be accessible. For me that is the biggest thing. I want a conversation with my readers. It sounds a little corny, I know, but it’s true. it’s the reason I made the switch to genre for the most part. Hardboiled, crime, noir, pulp, whatever you want to call it, it’s more fun to read. Les Edgerton made a comment in a thread the other day, something like, “Now that I am out of school, I don’t have to pretend to like shit I don’t like.” We were talking about our shared hatred of Jane Austen. She’s a good example of the exact kind of writer I don’t want to be. Superfluous layers. Phony, bloated. Comedy of manners? What the fuck is that? Pride & Prejudice could’ve been a fucklot shorter and saved me months of wasted time if Mr. Darcy had just asked the girl on a date on Page 1. Waiting 600 pages to try and get laid seems goofy to me. And it’s not just in writing, this accessibility. I try to do it in my day-to-day life. What do you want? What are you trying to say? Just say it, and then we can move on to the next part. Perfunctory drives me nuts. We have 70-something years (or 50-something if you are my family; the Cliffords are cut down early) to figure out what we’re doing here. Waiting 600 pages for a handjob seems like a waste of time.
600 handjobs in, what was your first published work? Do you look back and think, ‘What a turd, I can’t believe they published that?’
Actually, no. It’s pretty fucking awesome to tell the truth. It’s a…poem…called “Saturday Night in the Waning Days of San Francisco.” It’s a goddamn sonnet, too, dedicated to my ex-wife (it’s on the Internet and my website, easily found). I wrote it for an undergrad class after I sobered up. My professor at the time, Ravi Shankar (no, not that one), suggested I entered it into a contest the CT Review was having. I had so little faith in what I was doing (plus, I’m overwhelmed with any kind of paperwork) that I said, “Nah.” Ravi entered it for me. I won an award, was paid to tour the state as a CT Student Poet.
I don’t write poetry anymore. My first piece of published fiction was “Unpublished Manuscript #36.” I added a number after every rejection. By the time it was taken, it was pretty good (it kicks off my collection, Choice Cuts). Not that I didn’t stumble. My first attempts at novels sucked balls. I’ve mentioned often the first draft of Junkie Love was originally about six monkeys the size of field mice trying to kill god (small “g”). It’s laughably bad in parts. Some parts were good enough though that they made the final cut (Junkie Love comes out with the Battered Suitcase in April).
Honestly, it’s hard to get turds published. I actually once wrote a deliberate turd for a literary magazine, mirroring the crap they published. And, yup, they loved it (and published it). I won’t mention the piece or magazine since that’d be a dick move. But if you look through my published pieces, one stands out not like the others. It’s funny with early writing, the unpolished. It’s a little like rock ‘n’ roll in that respect. The early drafts, cuts, takes can be raw and rough, and later versions smooth and shiny. The latter is more professional. But there is something appealing about the unbridled, untamed energy of the former. Like “Can’t Hardly Wait” by the ‘Mats off Pleased to Meet Me vs. the outtake version from Tim.
Choice Cuts, let’s talk about that. How did the collection come about and what’s the process in cohesively matching stories?
As I was gearing up for the Great American Novel, I was, of course, writing short stories. You don’t realize just how many you have, really. I’d been writing them (seriously) since I started this career back as an undergrad at CCSU after kicking junk. This would’ve been around ’01. And most were duds, so you throw those out. But you’re still publishing a four or five good ones a year when you get rolling. By the time I was ready to publish a collection, I had, y’know, 3 dozen short stories I was pretty proud of. Even though I didn’t make the official switch (not that I ever made an “official” switch; I mean, I never sent in my paperwork) to hardboiled and noir, there has always been an element of pulp in my work; it’s what I like to read (is this a good spot to say “Fuck Jane Austen”? I like to get that into every interview). When Snubnose started doing their thing, I wrote Brian Lindenmuth, Snubnose’s editor, and he said to send what I had. I scrambled to get something together. I had Wake the Undertaker ready (my old-school detective novel that Snubnose is publishing later this month). But it seemed like a good opportunity to get these short stories out, as well. And you’re right. What’s the…theme? We hate that word from school days, but you want some cohesion. Doesn’t have to be a Pink Floyd album, but something to tie the work together as a collective unit. And I found that a bunch of my favorite stories involved meat. I love meat. Got a goddamn grill in my fucking house, built right into the other side of the chimney. Eat a steak just about every day (I weight lift when my back holds up). Meat. Meat market. Human life reduced to nothing but pieces of. Parasites. Hosts. Butchers. Slaughter. Then it was finding the right title. Since all these stories also involve really shitty decisions, the word “choice” came to mind. And there you go.
WAKE THE UNDERTAKER is up next from Snubnose Press, drop our readers the pitch. Why do they need to buy it?
Every book is dear its author. This was the first real novel I wrote, and it was born from my first interests, pure in its execution, without the interference of market or viability (which are good things to pay attention to!). Wake the Undertaker is a love letter to my first boyhood obsessions–comic books, superheroes, pulp fiction, and later Chandler, Sin City. It’s based loosely on Chet Baker. Not really. I just saw a before and after picture of him (i.e., the heroin), and got the idea. It’s not about Chet Baker at all. Just how my mind works. The pitch? Something like…
Colin Specter is an up-and-coming singer at The Lone Palm, a nightclub in a darker, alternative San Francisco, owned by the Christos’ crime family. When Colin falls for the wrong girl, they order his vocal cords severed and he is set up for a crime he didn’t commit. After seven years in prison, Colin gets manipulated into working for his former tormentors, while he investigates citywide corruption and delves into the whereabouts of his former love, only to discover that nothing is what it seems in a rain-drenched underworld. The book draws on the rich tradition of noir novels like Jim Thompson’s After Dark My Sweet and Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye, but is equally influenced by more recent anti-establishment offerings, infusing a fast-paced story with a modern and hip vernacular. Wake the Undertaker’s championing of the disenfranchised and subversive makes it as much Slaughterhouse Five and Catcher in the Rye as it does any Sam Spade, private detective story.
Sounds pretty cool, no? That’s the official pitch anyway. I liked what Les Standiford (my graduate program director at FIU) said: “It’s like the secret life of Batman if Batman wasn’t Batman…”
A lot of influences going on here, tell us who are you reading right now and who should readers be keeping an eye on? Besides you of course.
Y’know, I tout this woman and her writing so much, I really am feeling like a tween with a sparkly vampire on her wall. But Hilary Davidson. I am readying Evil in All Its Disguises on my Kindle right and highlighting damn near every other line, going, Wow, just wow. I think her Lily Moore series is fantastic. The thing is, I am a very male writer. Back in grad school, I was chided for my author list because it contained no woman (until Wuthering Heights cracked the list), so it’s a little strange to identify so much with a female author. I just can’t sing Hilary’s praises enough. Other than that? There’s this cache of noir guys coming up. I mean, you have the guys at the top. Hilary, Todd Robinson, Jordan Harper (Hard Bounce and American Death Songs make the early Best Of ’13 list), but I feel really fortunate to be working for Gutter Books with this current crop of noir & hardboiled authors writing their first novels. I can’t get them all in and feelings with get hurt. But Mike Miner, Mike Monson, Mike McCrary, basically a lot of Mikes. T. Fox Dunham. Nicky Murphy. I am continually impressed by the quality of work we receive.
Last time we interviewed you’re buddy, cohort, partner in crime, Tom Pitts. A lot of commonality between you two, which we’ve touch upon in the questions above. Tell us about your music.
We really are inextricably linked, aren’t we, Tom and I? It’s rare for one junkie as far gone as we to make it out. Two? Love the man like a brother… My music? I have a band called The Wandering Jews. We are currently in the studio wrapping up our latest, All the Pretty Things. It’s taken me a long time to realize the secret to make a good record. “Get the fuck out of the way, Joe.” My friend Gluehead used to tell me, “You know what you should do, Joe? Write your songs, play guitar so everyone knows what the song is. Then get rid of your guitar.” My wife was listening to the rough mixes the other day, and she was, like, “Which guitar is yours?” I said, “Hear that really, really soft one, way in the background?” Truth is I can play guitar OK. But I can’t play like (WJ guitarist) Joe Dean (Tender, six hundred other local SF bands). I have certain strengths. Play to those. Write, sing. Let everyone else do their jobs. Tom Mitchell (Inferno of Joy) plays bass. Jarret Cooper (Pirate Radio) plays keyboards. And they are total pros. They know how to take the few chords I string together and make it sound like a song. This time we got legendary rock drummer Michael Urbano to play drums. You can look him up. Dude’s been on a string of Top Ten hits. Sheryl Crow. Cracker. Third Eye Blind. You name it. Played with Paul Westberg, my rock ‘n’ roll hero. I am never going back to a regular drummer. Your band is only as good as its drummer. Playing with Michael was insane. Anyway, I mention the Wandering Jews a lot in Junkie Love, so Julie Kazimer (who read an advanced copy) told me I should have a new record up on iTunes for some cross promotion. So we got the band back together, man! Ryan Massey (American Steel, The Reckless Kind) is doing the recording at Sharkbite Studios in Oakland. Just a prince of a man with an incomparable ear…
Well, it’s come to the end. We appreciate the one on one, but before you go, can you give us, our readers, any parting shots or pearls of wisdom?
Oh, man, just like my MIL, I LOVE giving unsolicited advice on how others should live their life (Kidding. Sort of. Not really)… Every day is a gift, that’s why it’s called…the present? Probably Bob Roberts said it best: Don’t do crack; it’s a ghetto drug.
Thanks for having me!