Interview with Joe CliffordJoe 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 Cracked.com 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.