Saturday, February 28, 2015

Author Insides: Joe Clifford, Author of JUNKIE LOVE

Interview with Joe Clifford

Joe Clifford is an editor at Gutter Books and producer of Lip Service West, a “gritty, real, raw” reading series in Oakland, CA.He is the author of the short story collection Choice Cuts and the novels Wake the Undertaker and Lamentation: A Novel.

His novel, Junkie Love, was published by Vagabondage Press in April 2013, and of course we needed to grill him about this breathtaking tale of redemption and his inspiration in creating it while we had the chance.

How did Junkie Love come about? 

That’s a loaded one. The first part is that it is based on the roughly ten years I spent as a drug addict in San Francisco in the 1990s. Even when I was mired in that life, on the darkest of days, I knew there was a story in there somewhere. And not just mine, but that of some amazingly wounded and wonderful people I met, many of whom sobered up (if they didn’t die first) and who are my friends to this day. Except that it isn’t really a story about drugs. It’s a story about growing up and trying to find a place one belongs. The heart of the novel is about a need to be loved; it’s about redemption and reconciliation. And, of course, rock ’n’ roll. It’s very much a book about being an artist and an outsider, and to that end some other authors figure prominently, the biggest probably being Jack Kerouac. I like to joke the novel has taken up half of my life: the first half making the mistakes, and the second half (straightening out and) writing about it. I suppose in the end, Junkie Love, like all novels is concerned with relationships—to ourselves, each other, and to that person we hope to one day become.

Why did you want to share what essentially is your life story?

I’ve always believed the job of the writer is to render the unique universal, and the universal unique. It’s communication. This is what good art is supposed to do: make a connection with another so we don’t have to feel so alone, can glean some meaning and comfort, joy, empathy, whatever you want to call it, from our time here. To me, even though the novel uses addiction and some harrowing settings, the story itself is a classic bildungsroman. It’s Catcher in the Rye. It’s Portrait of the Artist. To Kill a Mockingbird. It is a book about growing up. There are a lot of people—not everyone, but a lot, especially in America—who drag their heels becoming an adult. Part of that is obviously a luxury other places don’t have. But it makes this theme, I believe, pertinent. Crossing from boy to man isn’t neatly delineated, 17 to 18, or even 20 to 21. Sometimes it takes a lot longer than that.

What was the hardest scene to write and why?

Probably the very last one. When writing a book, it isn’t always true that the last scene was the last one written. But it is here. The Epilogue was added long after the final draft. Without giving the ending away (not that the book relies on any great twist), that final scene was a goodbye. To someone I cared a great deal about, let down, and can never fully make amends to. That’s a tough burden. And in terms of writing, giving such a scene the proper respect and weight isn’t easy.

Who should read your book?

Everyone! Even though the subject matter can be grim and gritty at times, I tried to invoke and infuse some brevity, some humor (if you can’t laugh, you cry). I didn’t want to write a book about a junkie. I wanted to write a book about someone trying to find his way, who happened to succumb to drugs. And I love language, the rhythm, the cadence, the musicality of words. Much of the novel takes place in San Francisco, and in many regards the city itself is a character. Who should read it? Certainly fans of Kerouac. But honestly the writing itself draws on the hardboiled probably more than the Beats (I write mystery/noir novels, mostly). Raymond Chandler. Hammett. Jim Thompson. And it’s not just a “boy’s book,” either. I mean, the heart of this thing is a love triangle and forbidden love. Wuthering Heights is very present in terms of influence…

What do you hope people take away from your story?

The first goal of all creative writing should be to entertain. I sought to evoke a mood and deliver the reader into a particular world that he or she might not normally see. But even if some of the situations in the novel seem exotic or outlandish, I’m hoping a few universal themes do come across. You can’t find what you’re looking for without searching, and it’s never too late for a second chance. Those are the big ones.

When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer? 

From the earliest age, I’ve identified as an artist. Musician, painter, writer, all those things that make it tough to earn a paycheck. Writing specifically? I began making up stories and acting out narratives soon as my mother first bought me a Star Wars action figure. I began to think I’d like to do it professionally I suppose in my teens when I read On the Road and Catcher in the Rye.

Why do you write? 

When I was in grad school in Miami after getting sober, I helped run a true story reading series (which I later brought with me back west to San Francisco) called Lip Service. I remember a line from one of these stories, which has always stayed with me. It was about a man trying to swim the English Channel, and he wakes up one miserable, cold, overcast, gray morning to practice, which is the last thing he feels like doing, wishing he could just crawl back in bed. But as he stares out into the frigid, blacks, he knows that isn’t an option. He gets in the water because he has to. The line was something, like, “This is what I do. It is who I am.” I can’t say it any better. That is why I am a writer.

Is being a writer anything like you imagined it would be? 

Ha! That’s a good question. Yes. And no. The image of writing as a profession, like many occupations I suppose, has been shaped—and distorted—by pop culture. Writing is a little like piracy in the lingering romance that surrounds it. With the latter, you disregard the scurvy and starvation, thinking only of the splendor and riches. Same with writing. Well, maybe not the scurvy part. When you make writing your job it is work. This is the biggest difference from starting out. Novice writing is mostly throwing words down about how you feel. I did it too. What I do now, however, is write books for an audience. A lot of writers don’t make that transition. I have many good friends who want to be (published) writers but can’t get over that hump. (Good) writing isn’t about your enjoyment; it’s about providing that experience for others. It is the trade-off any writer makes: you give up on the magic. Anyone who wants to do this professionally discovers that. When you first start reading books as a kid, and on through adulthood, you are transported to another world. It is magical. When you opt to become a writer, you make a choice to strip away the casings and shells and veneer and get inside to see how it all works, so that you can produce that magic for someone else. I still love reading books—you can’t be a writer if you don’t read more than you write—but it will never be the same again. Once the curtain has been pulled back, you can’t un-see it.

What do you think makes a good story? 

In a word, conflict. “Everyone was happy and they loved each other very much and nothing ever went wrong” doesn’t make for a very compelling read! It’s all about those things we want—love, money, acceptance, whatever—that we can’t have. Or at least not right away. And not for long. And it’s insatiable. It’s like the Boss says: “Poor man wanna be rich, rich man wanna be king, and the king ain’t satisfied till be rules everything.” What you have you don’t want. What you want you don’t have. And when you do manage to get it, you lose it or give it up or piss it away, and then you want it back more than anything. Human beings are forever searching. And they are equally unsatisfied. In one regard, of course. Not that we all walk around as one big ball of yearning. But for me a good story is built around a lack and a want.

What's your favorite genre to read? 

Hardboiled pulp. My window is pretty narrow there, at least in terms of my favorite books, 80% of which seem to have been written between 1939 – 1955.

Who is your favorite author or poet? 

That isn’t so simple. My favorite author is Jack Kerouac. Even though I wouldn’t put any of his books in my Top Ten all-time, and even if I haven’t read one of his books in over a decade. His influence on my life is simply too great to ever knock him from that mantle. My favorite book is Catcher in the Rye. The writer I enjoy reading the most is probably Raymond Chandler. Currently I am all about Hilary Davidson and her Lily Moore mystery series. That question is sorta like asking who my favorite band/musician/singer is. Depends on the day. Usually involves some combination of Springsteen, the Replacements, and Pink Floyd. And a whole bunch of other bands too.

What books or stories have most influenced you the most as a writer? 

Catcher in the Rye; Razor’s Edge; Wuthering Heights; a Phillip Marlowe book (take your pick); Slaughterhouse Five. Those are probably my Desert Island Five. Knockemstiff is the best collection I have ever read (although I recently read another amazing one by Jordan Harper, American Death Songs). The best short story I have ever read is “Ordo” by Donald Westlake. But influence? I am probably as influenced by pop culture as I am anything else. My story stories are very influence by The Twilight Zone. Bruce Springsteen is a major influence on my work, from lyrics to prose. I mean, all my interests, from to Richard III, impact my writing. Like the fellow Bay Area writer Will Viharo, my three biggest literary influences in my work and life are Holden Caulfield, Philip Marlowe, and Batman.

What books or stories have most influenced you as a person? 

On the Road and Catcher in the Rye. I moved to San Francisco, a decision that triggered every major event in my life, because of Kerouac (and a line in a Replacements’ song). Junkie Love wouldn’t have been written without my reading that first book. And I named my (only) son Holden. It’s really those two, and then everything else.

Where/how do you find the most inspiration? 

Man, this is going to sound schmaltzy, but my son is pretty tough to top in that department. If you read Junkie Love, you’ll see that I probably should be dead. But for the grace of God I am alive…and my son seems to be the reason.

What does your family think of your writing? 

My lovely wife, Justine, is supportive. Although I am sure it helps that I am proving successful at it and I have money to play the bills. Being a writer at 42 is a little different than being one at 23. Outside of the occasional glass of wine with dinner, I don’t drink much. I don’t go out much. My work is pretty much my life. To quote Philip Marlowe: I work it; I don’t play at it.

What is your work schedule like when you're writing? 

I try to keep as regimented as possible. I know there are writers who claim to write 8 hours a day. Not to call them liars or anything, but I don’t believe them. Still, when I am writing, I strive for a solid 3 or 4 (the Internet willing). Part of what a writer has to do these days is hustle—I guess he’s always had to do it. Now, though, with the Internet and social media, there are different avenues to promote your work. And the rub is that that can’t be all you are doing. The best advice I received with social media is not to forget the “social” part. You can’t just be linking your own work and ignoring your peers. You need to see what others are up to, say hello, be, well, social. I think of Facebook as “the Office.” It can also be a colossal waste of time. All of the Internet can. But that is where I work. I am also an acquisition’s editor for Gutter Books, and one of the flash fiction editors for Out of the Gutter. I also produce Lip Service West, a “gritty, real, raw” reading series in the Bay Area, managing subs online, working with venues and authors. Then there’s my actual paying job, which is also online (and thankfully from home). I am literally on my computer 10 – 12 hours a day. Plus, I also almost died in a motorcycle accident a few years ago, so daily exercise is a must, or my body shuts down.

Do you have any writing quirks or rituals? 

I have severe OCD. Does that count?

Is there anything you find particularly challenging in your writing?

First drafts. I deplore them. I once heard that a writer doesn’t like writing; he/she likes having written. It’s different for everyone, I know. My good friend and fellow writer Tom Pitts (who is a character in Junkie Love) is the exact opposite. He loves first drafts, hates re-writing. I would seriously rather spend the day at the dentist getting 10 root canals than writing a first draft. In fact, that is a pretty apt comparison since both entail pulling teeth. The part of writing I enjoy, love, is that final stage where I’ve rewritten and I can start to play with the language a little more. Until I get that foundation down, though, it is, frankly, hell.

Do you have any advice for other writers? 

This what someone told me. And I hated hearing it at the time because I didn’t have any books out. But… If you are good, keep at it, and you will get published. Simple. And true. Writing is all about rejection. But like Rocky says. “It ain’t about how hard you can hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit—and keep moving forward.”

Where else can we find your work?

Any additional thoughts/comments?

Thanks to Battered Suitcase & Vagabondage Press, Fawn Neun and Nanette Morges for having faith in Junkie Love and taking on this book and working with me. To say it’s dear to my heart is woefully underselling. This book is the story of my life and the people I loved and lost and won’t forget. A lot of heart and hell (and humor, too, I hope) went into writing it. I hope readers walk away seeing that effort on the page and feeling touched.

Junkie Love is available in print at booksellers like Powell's as well as in eBook for Nook and Kindle.

From the cow fields of Connecticut to the streets of San Francisco, Joe Clifford’s Junkie Love traverses the lost highways of America, down the rocky roads of mental illness to the dead ends of addiction. Based on Clifford’s own harrowing experience with drugs as a rock ’n’ roll wannabe in the 1990s, the book draws on the best of Kerouac & the Beats, injecting a heavy dose of pulp fiction as it threads a rollicking narrative through a doomed love triangle, lit up by the many strange characters he meets along the way. Part road story, part resurrection tale, Junkie Love finds a way to laugh in one’s darkest hour, while never abandoning its heart in search of a home.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Author Insides: Charlotte Rains Dixon, Author of EMMA JEAN'S BAD BEHAVIOR

Interview with Author Charlotte Rains Dixon

Charlotte Rains Dixon is a writer and writing teacher. She has published numerous articles and stories as well as three non-fiction books. Charlotte received her MFA in creative writing from Spalding University and teaches in the Loft certificate-writing program at Middle Tennessee State University.  She lives in Portland, Oregon.

Her humorous novel, Emma Jean's Bad Behavior, was published byVagabondage Press in February 2013, and is a hilarious and clever mash of chicklit, romance, contemporary women's fiction.

When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer? 

I spent hours as a child writing poetry and illustrating it with crayon pictures.  From an early age, I wanted to be either a writer, or a fashion designer.  As a young adult, I dabbled in fashion, designing and selling children's clothing, but the writing won out, simply because I find it more compelling than anything I've ever done.  One of the best things about being a writer is that there's always something else to learn about it—mastery (if there is such a thing) is a lifelong pursuit.

Why do you write? 

I write because I can't not write.  Truly, if I'm not writing I get cranky and ill at ease.  The world seems a bit off kilter and I'm not quite sure of my place in it.  Conversely, when I'm writing regularly, I'm in love with the world and everything in it.

What was your inspiration for “Emma Jean”?

I had the idea to explore what it might be like to get pregnant at an age far past when most women are having babies.  And then Emma Jean started talking to me and I couldn't get her to shut up.  Her voice came out strong and unique from the moment I started writing and she told me a lot about herself along the way.

How, if at all, is Emma Jean like you?

Well, we both struggle with our weight.  We both tend to fall in love with places and people instantly (conversely, we both easily fall in hate as well).  And we both have a passion for quirky subjects that we want to learn everything about with a book-buying habit to match.  Beyond that, Emma Jean is much gutsier than I am.  She is the proverbial character who always has the perfect thing to say in the moment while I think of it a day later.  Emma Jean lives her passions large and out loud and me? Not so much.

What do you think of having children?

Having children has been the defining event in my life.  I can't imagine my life without them.  I'm one of those women who have always known she would have children, and I had names picked out for my two future daughters when I was in college.  (Alas, I ended up having a daughter and a son so the names had to be revised.)   I had to stretch a little to imagine a character who didn't want children, but learning the secrets to Emma Jean's backstory and true motivations helped.  Also, I have many good friends who are childless—it often seems to go with the territory of being creative—and so I've been able to see the issue through their eyes.

Do you consider yourself a wine coinsurer? 

I am most decidedly not a wine expert.  I drink hearty red wine exclusively, whether it's a hot summer day or I'm having fish or meat.  I keep telling myself I need to take a class in wine appreciation so I can figure out the correct pairings and all that.  And then I shrug and go back to my red wine.

What is your favorite wine?

Cabernet.  I'm especially fond of the Cabs from the Walla Walla region, one of the places Emma Jean visits in the book.  (This will probably earn me a few rotten tomatoes from fellow Oregonians, since we are known particularly for our Pinot Noirs.)

Have you ever experienced a scandal like your character? If so, what was it about and how did you deal with it?

Oh, thank the Lord, no!  Just the thought of it makes me tremble.

How would you describe Emma Jean’s actions and motivations?

Emma Jean believes strongly in the value of creativity and the art of story and because of this, she fancies herself as presenting a unique, authentic self to the world.  But in truth, the persona she's invented is anything but her true self.  Much of the novel details the process of her stripping away her invented self to uncover the real jewel that lay beneath.  She also has a strong, if at times misguided, drive to learn about spirituality after an epiphany she has in one of the novel's opening scenes.

Is being a writer anything like you imagined it would be? 

It's better.  There's just something about creating stories from thin air and putting them on the page that is magical.  I always say I have the best job in the world, and it's true, I do.

What do you think makes a good story? 

As far as I'm concerned, characters make a good story.  If you don't have characters with strongly defined desires, you don't have a story.  I tell my students this so often they don't want to hear it any longer, but I believe it's true—all great stories start with character.

What's your favorite genre to read? 

I have fairly eclectic reading tastes.  I read a lot of non-fiction and I'm a sucker for personal development and spiritual titles.  As for fiction, I'd love to report that I'm fond of the classics and literary fiction, but alas, such is not the case.  I adore women's fiction, and that's what I read most often.

Who is your favorite author? 

Can I have several?  I love the early novels of Barbara Kingsolver and for classic, readable women's fiction, I enjoy Jennifer Weiner and Joann Mapson.

What books or stories have most influenced you the most as a writer? 

I love Animal Dreams, an early novel by Barbara Kingsolver.  I admire the sense of place and the characters in that novel.  A sense of place is important to me as a writer and because I'm a child of the west, I'm drawn to novelists that utilize setting strongly in their stories.  Willa Cather comes to mind, as do the mystery novels of James Lee Burke.  I had the great good fortune to study with Sena Jeter Naslund and Melissa Pritchard, and it is safe to say their work has had a big influence on me.

What books or stories have most influenced you as a person? 

Crossing to Safety, by the late, great and highly underrated Wallace Stegner.  He's brilliant and the first time I read this book I was blown away—in many ways it told a similar story to part of my own life.   What also comes to mind are non-fiction titles such as The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron, and anything by Marianne Williamson and Geneen Roth.

Where/how do you find the most inspiration? 

Everywhere.  I'm a web surfer and a huge blog reader—there's some pretty inspiring blogs out there, both on writing and creativity.  I'm a sometime knitter and stitcher (wish I did more of it) so I get inspired by craft blogs.  I started my writing career by writing about art, so visual imagery inspires me a lot, too.

What does your family think of your writing? 

They've been fans and supporters from the outset.  I'm blessed that way.  Though they might cringe a bit when they actually read some of the scenes in Emma Jean.

What is your work schedule like when you're writing? 

Since I teach and coach writing, much of my day is spent with those activities.  But here's something I wish more would-be writers knew: you can get a lot of writing done in a relatively short amount of time if you're focused.  I wrote the first draft of Emma Jean in a few months, getting up early and writing first thing in the morning for an hour or so.  That's a schedule I follow to this day, getting to the page immediately when I rise.  I'm a strong believer in working on the thing most dear to you first thing, if at all possible.

Do you have any writing quirks or rituals? 

Let's see, I always light a candle when I'm writing in my journal.  But not when I'm writing fiction. And I'm superstitious about keeping my desk too clean.  Or maybe just lazy.  Beyond that, no.  In truth, I've learned that every project has its own life and its own quirks and its own requirements.  The novel I'm working on now has been written largely by hand, in a spiral notebook while sitting in a comfy chair.  This is hell on keeping track of plot, but it is what the project demands.  Believe me, I've resisted and tried to go directly to the computer, but over and over again, the work sends me back to writing by hand.  So mostly I've learned to just go with the flow.

Is there anything you find particularly challenging in your writing? 

Balancing my desire to write fiction all the time with the demands of making a living.

What are your current projects? 

I'm about two-thirds of the way through a story about a woman of privilege who loses everything—house, marriage, money, business.  And I'm planning to resuscitate the novel I wrote while earning my MFA, either starting the submission process again or publishing it myself, though it needs some work first.  I'm an inveterate blogger, and I update my blog (on writing, creativity and spirituality) two or three times a week. I'm the Portland correspondent for a Nashville based literary journal called 2nd and Church.

What are you planning for future projects? 

I've got an idea for a mystery series set in a unique location that I'm quite excited about.

Do you have any advice for other writers? 

Yes, I do.  Write and read.  Write as much and as often as you can and don't worry about quality at first.  Just write.  Write in a journal, write short stories, play around with a novel or a memoir, start a blog, just put words on the page.  The more you write, the easier it gets.  And read!  I once had a client, who after we worked together for a year on a book, confessed that she never read.  I was shocked.  How can you hope to be a writer if you don't read?  Why would you even want to try?  Reading and paying attention to how other authors do it is a great way to educate yourself to become a writer.

Where else can we find your work? 

You'll find tons of articles—five years worth—on my blog,  Also check out  I've written for magazines such as Vogue Knitting, Interweave Knits and the online publications and Santa Fe Writer's Project.

Emma Jean's Bad Behavior is available in paperback from Powell's, B&N, and Amazon, as well as for Kindle and Nook for eReaders.

Best-selling novelist Emma Jean Sullivan longed for a baby for years, but after she and her husband Peter were unable to conceive, she staunchly vowed to become the standard bearer for all childless couples. 

And she succeeds spectacularly. 

At age 48 (43 according to her blog, Life, Full Tilt) Emma Jean enjoys a rabid anti-baby fan base and her novels have sold millions. But now she confronts a dilemma larger than any that her heroines have faced: she’s pregnant. And the baby’s father is not her husband. 


Through no fault of her own (he was just so damned adorable), Emma Jean had begun a passionate affair with Riley, a fetching airplane mechanic she met at a book signing in L.A. 

Terrified of losing both her fan base and her identity, she struggles to maintain her sham brand and her marriage. But Peter is busy embezzling Emma Jean’s money and completely uninterested in fatherhood, and Riley has his hands full with problems of his own. Not only that, her latest novel is a miserable failure, and a Vanity Fair reporter, who plans to out Emma Jean’s pregnancy to her fans, is stalking her. 

What’s a suddenly broke, failing, middle-aged, pregnant novelist to do? 

Why, flee to a glamorous resort town, of course. 

There, Emma Jean plots her next move. 

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Author Insides: Paul Abercrombie, Author of TROUBLE BREWING

In TROUBLE BREWING, Paul Abercrombie takes a satircal look at just how far some ambitious microbrewers are willing to go to make a name for themselves and their company. With tongue firmly in cheek, Abercrombie delves deftly into murder, blackmail, and cover ups, all fine ingredients for an award-winning ale and a great read!

TROUBLE BREWING was released by Dark Alley Press (an imprint of Vagabondage Press in October of 2014, and is available in paperback and for Kindle or Nook.

What was your inspiration for Trouble Brewing?

Well, I like beer. And weird Florida stories. The idea for this book just popped into my head one morning in the shower. Maybe that’s too much information.

Beer and micro-breweries play a big role in this story; is this a passion of yours? Tell us about it?

I can’t pretend to be an expert on making beer. But I do enjoy drinking it. Especially some of the genuinely great craft beers being produced here in Tampa Bay.

If you owned a micro-brewery, what kind of beer would you make and why?

Ha, definitely nothing with added protein of any kind.

Is there any of yourself in your characters in this book?

I don’t think so.

What was the hardest/easiest part of writing this book?

Hardest was, as I imagine with most wannabe authors, forcing myself to sit and write. Easiest was fantasizing about having written it.

What about dark fiction is a draw for you?

Who doesn’t want to be scared and laugh at the same time?

When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer? 

High school.

Why do you write? 

Probably some deep character flaw of mine.

Is being a writer anything like you imagined it would be? 

Except for the curious lack of groupies, it’s about what I imagined.

What do you think makes a good story? 

The usual – good characters, nifty conflict, thwarted desires.

What's your favorite genre to read? 

Wow, can’t say that I have a favorite genre.

Who is your favorite author or poet? 
Again, I don’t really have a single fave.

What books or stories have most influenced you the most as a writer? 

I’d like to hope all the ones I liked.

What books or stories have most influenced you as a person? 

Stuff like Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises; anything by T.C. Boyle, Charles Portis.

What does your family think of your writing? 

They’re awfully tolerant.

What is your work schedule like when you're writing? 

I try to put in at least an hour or two every workday morning.

Do you have any writing quirks or rituals? 

No, but now I’m inspired to get some.

Is there anything you find particularly challenging in your writing? 

Yes, not sounding like a moron.

What are your current projects? 

I’m plotting out another novel.

What are you planning for future projects? 

I have all sorts of goofy ideas, but I’m trying to force myself to concentrate on the next one first.

Do you have any advice for other writers? 

Yes, change your name to J.K. Rowling.

Where else can we find your work? 

I write about travel and booze topics for publications such as The Washington Post, Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, Dallas Morning News, BBC Travel, Tampa Bay Times, Wine & Spirits, National Geographic Traveler, Penthouse and Wine Enthusiast.