Our latest literary guest is Joe Clifford, a guy who lived a life we can only dare to write about. He is a productive writer, a published author of two novels (Junkie Love, Wake The Undertaker) and a short story collection (Choice Cuts), he serves as the editor at the Gutter Books and at the Flash Fiction Offensive, produces a reading series Lip Service West, and plays a guitar and sings in The Wandering Jews. Check his website, where you can find links to his books, online work and music.
Hi, Joe, it’s a pleasure to have a chance to talk to you – can you tell us in your own words who Joe Clifford is?
Lover, dreamer, troubadour? Man, I’m just a dude who spends most of his days without any pants.
How important is writing to you? When did you discover you have it in you?
I’m not sure it’s “writing” that’s important. I am, despite its connotations of pretention, an “artist.” I write, I draw, I play music. I’ve been creating since I was a kid, and it’s an essential part of who I am. Writing is the most viable part, in terms of a career, and after getting sober I chose to focus my energies there. (Viable, not a sure thing.)
You do so many things – what’s your typical day like?
Depends. Some days are more productive than others (laughs). The last few years, my goal has been to write a book a year. Often I feel incredibly lazy. My wife just reminded me that last year, I had two books published, wrote two more, got in several anthologies, edited two novels (for Gutter Books), and recorded an album. Still … lazy. There’s a great anecdote about John Steinbeck keeping a journal as he wrote Grapes of Wrath, where he complains about feeling lazy. Part of writing is simply down time. I hear about writers sitting at a computer 8 hours a day, but you better believe a lot of that is surfing cat videos and porn.
What about the social media – do you see Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, etc … as valuable author’s tools or just as a license to procrastinate?
Nice segue! Facebook is a little like doing meth: addictive, feels important, but about half of it is wasted in your piss. Quick answer, yes, social media is essential. I owe a great deal of my career to social media. It’s a simple question: you’ve written (what you think is) a great book—how are people going to know? Publisher? Publishers don’t do a lot of promoting, certainly not as much as popular perception. And small, indie publishers don’t really do any. Not enough time, manpower, or money. You can’t afford a publicist. Agents sell your next book, not promote your last. Social media is a direct link to fans. The important part to remember about social media is the “social” part. As author Julie Kazimer says: people want to buy; they don’t want to be sold. But, yeah, you are going to waste a lot of time, too.
It is very impressive to see writers support and promote other writers – you don’t find envy or unhealthy competition. How do you see other writers?
Fuck yeah I am envious. I check my buddy Tom Pitts’s sales figures as much as I do my own. I am extremely competitive. Here’s the thing, though: I want to see friends like Tom be successful more than I am petty and envious. Gore Vidal said, “Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little.” I think most creative types get that. But while it carves me up, I am also a huge proponent of helping one another. We’re all in this tiny boat together. I reserve my real scorn for the writers who aren’t my friends, and whose work I deplore and find trite and underserving. Not that they give a shit what I think.
How would you describe your style? Do you have a method that sets you apart from other writers?
Accessible. I strive to, like Bill Wordsworth said, “use the language really used by men.” The first novel I wrote had footnotes. I don’t write those kids of novels anymore. I want a conversation with my readers, not a dick-measuring session about who can use the biggest word. (Verisimilitude is about more than that.)
Let’s talk about writing and research – we can say that you’ve already done extensive research, but when you start a new piece, do you just sit and write out of your head, or do you google, visit libraries and bookstores, …?
It’s a long process, and one of the reasons I don’t write short stories unless I know they are going in anthologies or guaranteed acceptance somewhere. It takes me weeks to write a short story. I am envious of writers who can sit down and bang a short story out in a day or two. There’s a lot of mental plotting that goes on. My first drafts, like most people’s first drafts, suck, but I don’t allow myself the room to “just get it down” and let it suck till rewrites. So it’s a painfully slow process. Same with novels, but there the payoff is greater.
You’ve written both short stories and novels – which is your preferred literary form?
Novels. But it is a little cyclical. I tend to write short stories in batches. I just finished the last batch, begrudgingly. I am sure I will write more. Right now, I am burned out and anxious to get back to the novel I am working on.
What projects are on your work desk at the moment?
The big one is Skunk Train, a hardboiled novel set in California. It’s about two teenagers on the run with some stolen pot. I wanted to write a love story/thriller, but all the usual elements prevalent in my work are there too, namely brothers, fathers and sons, and drugs. It’s a crime novel, with lots of violence and subversion. But there is a little more … tenderness … than usual? Maybe not. There’s still plenty unseemly as well.
Who are your literary heroes and how important are they for your writing?
I named my only son Holden, so that should answer that. The first novel I edited for Gutter Books, Will Viharo’s Love Stories Are Too Violent for Me came about—well, Will’s and my relationship I mean—because we share the same fictional heroes: Holden Caulfield, Philip Marlowe, and Batman. And those three really do come through in my work. Wake the Undertaker, an old-school detective novel, owes no small debt to comic books; and Holden Caulfield is always present, especially in Junkie Love. Though you have to be careful not to read Catcher in the Rye before undertaking any project. It’s really easy to adopt Salinger’s voice, where everyone is a goddamn phony, y’know?
When you meet a young (or not so young) struggling writer, what is it you tell him?
Quit (laughs). I’ve been making that joke since people started asking me that question. Except it isn’t really a joke. Honestly and truly, if you can do anything else, you should. Writing doesn’t offer much upward mobility. And there is a lot of rejection. I mean, unless being a writer/artist is a burning/something you have to do, you are better off going into investment banking and making some money. It’s not a lot of fun and it doesn’t provide path toward inner peace, y’know? I just saw a great line from Bob Odenkirk (Saul from Breaking Bad and writer of many, many shows): “Whenever someone says, ‘I love writing,’ I always think, “You probably suck at writing.”
Thank you very much, Joe!