Amazon Crime Author Joe Clifford: a tortuous Ink-Quisition interview with Crime Writer Jesse Rawlins
Season's Greetings ladies, gents and miscreants. Your Center Stage host Mick Rose here. Today crime writer Jesse "Heels" Rawlins closes out her 2019 interview schedule with San Francisco author Joe Clifford. Life isn't always pretty ... and this interview ain't either. If f-bombs offend you? Now's the time to haul ass outta here.
But if like Authors On The Air host Pam Stack you enjoy a good roll in the dirt? I trust you'll enjoy this show.
Photo: Amazon Crime Thriller Author Joe Clifford
Welcome to the wooden rack in my brand spankin’ new torture chamber, Joe Clifford. I spent three years cursing your tattoo-stained hide. Then the last two working on repentance, reparation, and forgiveness. All this history … though we’ve never met. And yet here we are at last. Funny isn’t it? I’m about to achieve closure by opening fresh wounds in you.
You’ve authored 10 published books. The 5-tome Jay Porter thriller-mystery series launched with LAMENTATION in 2014—followed by two stand-alones THE ONE THAT GOT AWAY in 2018, and SKUNK TRAIN—which just rolled off the tracks and into readied book racks this December. Eight of these works precluded by your essentially-non-fiction debut JUNKIE LOVE in 2013. Which I just pleasurably finished reading.
A slew of spilled ink in a seven-year span. True that doesn’t compare with the blood loss you’ll suffer today. But impressive none-the-less. I’m also stunned to learn maiden JUNKIE LOVE wasn’t your cherry-popping payday. The first words you got paid to string together instead involved “poetry.” Care to spill your guts about that, Joe? Or should I peevishly carve ’em out?
Yeah, poetry. The only bigger colossal waste of time than prose, Jesse. Maybe I should temper that comment with something like “that’s just my sense of humor.” Sorta. Not really. I mean, writing is rejection and dejection, and anyone who tells you otherwise, to quote Wesley, is trying to sell you something. The older I get the more I understand the world needs more construction workers. I enjoy writing. As much as I “enjoy” anything. And, sure, the world needs art. But the “world” is presently constructed. Good fucking luck making it. I don’t know.
What was the question? Oh, yeah, poetry. I’d been in bands for years, even during the Junkie Love days. Although when I moved from Connecticut to San Francisco we didn’t play as much because all our instruments were in hock for drugs. But you write lyrics, and that’s a form of poetry. So when I went back to school, it was a natural transition.
But lyrics are not poetry. Form of, maybe. But poetry is a school with a rich history and tradition, and there are some people who are great at it. I realized I hated most poetry. There’s a snippet of a Tony Hoagland poem I love.
“I know there are some people out there
who think I am supposed to end up
in a room by myself
with a gun and a bottle full of hate,
a locked door and my slack mouth open
like a disconnected phone.
But I hate those people back
from the core of my donkey soul
and the hatred makes me strong
and my survival is their failure,
and my happiness would kill them
so I shove joy like a knife
into my own heart over and over
and I force myself toward pleasure,
and I love this November life
where I run like a train
deeper and deeper
into the land of my enemies.”
― Tony Hoagland, What Narcissism Means to Me
Which to me is as good as writing gets. I can’t tell you how much I love that excerpt. Because it applies to me and my life and my attitude toward shit. I guess that’s my point. Prose, poetry, music. Unless is speaks to me and where I’m coming from, I don’t have much use for it. Most poetry doesn’t speak to me. And what I want to explore, thematically, it doesn’t seem like poetry is the best outlet or avenue. Plus, no one is adapting a chapbook into a movie.
You’ve dished a lot a lot I could dissect here. Let’s see if I can snip one tendon at a time.
You spent years immersed in your Jay Porter series. Porter’s a flailing rural New Hampshire handyman hankering to keep his tattered life stitched together—while often butting heads with powerful forces he deems evil.
But you veered from Porter to pen the stand-alone THE ONE THAT GOT AWAY. Enter Alex Salerno, small-town gal from upstate New York—who gets nabbed by serial killer Ken Parsons. While Alex survives his clutches, she can’t escape the trauma.
What are some of the themes you’re trying to present and explore in these books, Joe? And do they share common themes? Or is Alex Salerno’s tale a completely different venture?
The One That Got Away? Oh right, the book that was read by about 10 fucking people. Best goddamn thing I’ve written. Nothing. No one gave a shit. Oh, wait. That’s my internal voice. (No one likes our internal voice, Joe. I know. I know. Did you remember to get the cocaine? I mean, coffee?)
Ah, yes, literary themes. Or to borrow from my academic nomenclature/vernacular and make the word less offensive to the high-minded: the center. I think “theme” turns people off because it reminds them of high school and not being able to get a date and all that. One of my first writing professors, Steve Ostrowski, introduced me to “center,” and I find that infinitely more palatable.
Both Jay and Alex are … prickly characters. Which is another word for “unlikeable.” The dreaded “unlikable protagonist.” If I’ve heard one criticism of my work it’s that my main characters are “unlikeable.” I think it’s a bullshit response and an easy target. Don’t get me wrong. There are plenty of reasons not to like my books, and characters like Jay and Alex are a fine place to start. I will not argue they are “likeable.” My problem is I don’t know what fucking world other people are living in, but 90% of the fucking people I meet are unlikeable. We manage to get along because we have to share this spinning blue ball.
But “likeable”? Then again, seeing as how so many cite the same criticism … I don’t know how to address it, really. I can only say that I find most people “unlikable,” and those are the people I “like” the best. I don’t have any use for the common, normal, and ordinary. I like the junkies, fuck-ups, and losers. The marginalized and downtrodden. I find that character fascinating. How these people can keep getting knocked down and getting back up, striving for a prize they will almost certainly never get. The folks who wake up and give themselves an earnest pep talk in the mirror and set out to attain the American Dream because they believe it is possible to attain pies in the sky are not the people I am writing for—
Which probably answers some of my self-posed questions above!
To answer your actual question: Is there a common theme or center? Yeah. But I can’t say it any better than John Mellencamp—although I think he was still Johnny Cougar when he said it: Life goes on long after the thrill of living is gone. How these people make it to the end of the day without putting a fucking gun in their mouth and pulling the trigger is the real mystery in my books, and the story I’m interested in telling.
If I knew anything about “normal” Joe, I wouldn’t own a torture chamber—and you wouldn’t find yourself lashed to this wooden rack. You’re not the first writer I hold in high regard who’s shared with me that one of their books has sold 10 copies or less.
But to give our chat some context—for the sake of people who are influenced by this stuff, rather than simply the words inked on the page—your 2012 story, “Stuck Between Stations” earned a Pushcart nomination; in 2013 you were gifted an Acker award, a tribute to Kathy Acker and given to folks in the avant garde arts community who’ve made outstanding contributions in their discipline in defiance of convention, or else served their fellow writers and artists in outstanding ways; and setting aside for the moment your labors as an editor—your first and third books in the Jay Porter series, LAMENTATION and GIVE UP THE DEAD earned Anthony nominations for Best Novel: with the latter winning the Bill Crider award for Best Novel in a Series.
These achievements noted, you were literally born in the middle of fucking nowhere: the central town of Berlin, CT—incorporated back in 1785, but home to less than 20,000 souls. Berlin lies roughly 15 miles south of the capital city Hartford, which despite its tall buildings ain’t very big either: fewer than 130,000 eat, sleep, and piss there.
No big surprise you yearned for something different. And inspired by the likes of Jack Kerouac, in 1992 you moved to San Francisco, seeking to pursue a career in rock-n-roll. You spent nearly a decade shunning different kinds of traditional commitments. But you eventually made a major one: deciding to pursue a Master of Fine Arts Degree in Creative Writing at Florida International University (FIU)—where you studied under writers James W. Hall, Les Standiford, and Lynne Barret from 2005 to 2008.
Besides possibly suffering from early onset dementia, got any clues as to why you wanted to try your hand at fiction writing, Joe?
New phone, who dis?
Sorry. I just reread my answer to question 2. Holy shit was I in a pissy mood or what? Jesus. I’m bad. But I’m not that bad.
Yeah, mental illness. I saw a meme the other day (God, I love a good meme), and the gist of it was something like, “You are so brave to talk about your mental illness,” and the response was, like, “Yeah, that’s the mental illness.” There’s a danger with being too forthright, I suppose. I strive to be authentic (named first son “Holden,” hate phonies, etc.). But it’s also, like, “Jesus, man, shut the fuck up and quit complaining.” And I get that too. I’ve lived a pretty charmed life. But what you see is what you get, I guess.
Anyway, your question. I recently got my hands on a copy of my high school yearbook. I know high school. Which I used to look back on and really, really hate, and I’ve come to realize I didn’t hate the school or the town or the people as much as I hated myself. I’ve actually become pretty good friends with a lot of my graduating class of ’88, and there’s no point mentioning that except to say that hating on high school is sorta passé and gauche. I was slow to mature. Hell, maybe I haven’t matured yet. Never will. Since we’re all Mellencholy (I know it’s misspelled): “Growing up leads to growing old, and growing old means dying, and dying to me don’t sound like all that much fun.” (Get it?) Or something like that. I’m not a walking John Fucking Mellencamp discography.
Anyway, my high school yearbook ambition reads something like “to keep writing.” It also mentions marrying my high school girlfriend, which thank God didn’t happen. But 1 out of 2, to misquote the great Meatloaf, ain’t bad (I have no idea what’s up with all the mediocre rock quotes). I was surprised to see that as a yearbook goal or whatever because I don’t remember writing being that much a part of my life in those days. I drew a lot of pictures, played in rock bands, was always “artsy,” but, yeah, I guess a part of me always figured I’d end up here writing.
And to clarify re: writerly bitterness. I have been extremely blessed to do this for a living. (It only cost me a piece of my heart and the ability to ever walk right again; and I make that trade 10 out of 10 times.) My books sell more than ten copies. I’m doing all right. And the fervor of my readership and passion of my fans more than make up for any lack of royalties.
It’s funny because I was just talking with my friend Mike TV (of the band Get Set Go), and we were both commiserating about the realities of being a professional artist. I mean, dude had a couple songs on fucking Grey’s Anatomy. That’s big time. I first heard Get Set Go in grad school, and their Ordinary World was on perpetual playback. To me, Mike was a rock star. He still is. But having gotten to know him more personally over the years, I also know, despite his successes, he’s also very much an artist trying to make ends meet, and that is just the grim reality of making art in America. I’m not going to get on my twenty-year-old soapbox and rail against capitalism. I don’t know if there is an economic system that fucks artists more gently. I only know that placing dollar values on works of heart and soul are never going be commensurate.
Then again, any monies received is a gift. Because I’d be doing this shit regardless of whether I was getting paid.
I used to be a Lennon dreamer. Spent several decades trying to change the World—
And the World kicked my fucking ass.
Finally I adopted the Mellencamp mantra: Nothin’ Matters & What If It Did? Expect nothing but fucking shit? And you’ll never be disappointed!
Might sound morbid to many, but I’ve found this Paradigm shift extremely liberating. Many of Life’s smallest and unexpected positives now feel magnified. Generous kindnesses from strangers—especially from Readers and fellow writers—I count chief among them, so I hear you loud and clear on that front, Joe.
One of these experiences took place in January 2019, and involved being asked to accept the publishing and editing torch for 11-year-old crime, pulp, and humor zine The Flash Fiction Offensive (FFO)—an outfit you spent five years of your life operating—alongside San Francisco crime writer Tom Pitts. In monetary terms the job pays Zero Dollars and Zero Cents: no matter how little or long anyone labors there.
If several other crime writers hadn’t kindly agreed to donate their time and jump on board on board with me? Flattered though I was, I would’ve declined the Invitation. Your tenure at FFO started back in 2012. And you mentioned earlier this year you loved working this mag. What was this Love Affair like for you, Joe? What turned you on?
Shit, it was so long ago I forget. No, oh, wait. Authors. I liked working with new authors especially, ones who hadn’t been published but were desperate to break in. That was legitimately fun. Because often the stories were almost there, and we’d work together to push them over the top. And the writers were so appreciative. And I felt like I was making a real difference in someone’s life. Yeah, it was small. We were just this little online zine. But you know when you aren’t published. It’s the top of the fucking world. So that was always really special.
Among other endeavors, you’ve also edited two short story tribute collections for Matthew Louis’s Gutter Books—TROUBLE IN THE HEARTLAND: Crime Fiction Based on the Songs of Bruce Springsteen (December 2014) and JUST TO WATCH THEM DIE: Crime Fiction Based on the Songs of Johnny Cash, which released in September 2017—the same month I finally caved and created a Facebook account.
Perhaps about a year ago you gave some high praise on Facebook to freelance editor and All Due Respect book publisher Chris Rhatigan. Since my college days I’ve encountered a slew of writers who view editors as Public Enemy Number One—rather than as “partners” in the writing and publishing process. If I recall and understand correctly, you once compared “editing” to the task of directing a movie.
How do you view the relationship between Writers and Editors, Joe? And how would you describe your approach and style to editing? Heavy-handed? Lax? Somewhere in between? Ever tell someone who got their nose out-of-joint to suck it up and stop being a pussy?
I think the relationship is paramount to professional writing, and once you get published, you are, for better or worse, a professional writer. I know so many writers who had the chops but simply couldn’t take the criticism of having anyone dare tamper with their precious little words. And that’s a shame, because no one is going to get to see their work; no one is coming to the door to beg them to read their short story or whatever (except maybe their mom). There are just too many writers. It’s supply and demand, and the supply is overflowing, so editors—and if you’re lucky enough agents and publishers—don’t have to give into an author’s petty demands.
And, sure, sometimes it sucks. I’ve been on both sides. And as the author, even though I’ve worked as an editor, it always hurts when suggestions come back that your story or book isn’t perfect. But that’s the thing: it never will be. A good editor will take any book—and I mean any—and be able to find fat to trim, errata, whatever. And, sure, a lot of that will be quibbling and even needless (which some authors may use to point out how their little masterpieces shouldn’t be touched—but here’s the other thing: you and I aren’t J.D. Salinger or Gillian Flynn, whose work I guarantee was subjected to heavy editing!).
As authors, all we want to hear is, “It’s perfect! Don’t change a thing!” And you’re never going to hear that. Except from your mom. So give it to her, or just toughen up, buttercup. (And I say this as one of the more sensitive-to-criticism authors. That li’l pep talk is mostly for me!) I get it. It hurts, sucks, but that’s the game. Editors have a job to do. Authors have a job to do. Publishers have a job to do. Luckily, the goal is the same: to put the BEST work out there.
From the other side, as editor? It depends. I’ve worked with or been contracted for jobs where the publisher is like, “Yeah, take an easy hand.” And so that’s what I do. The longer authors are in this game, the more rights they’ve earned. So I get that too. But you see it all the time. An author whose early works are lean and tight (think: Hemingway’s Sun Also Rises). Because they took editorial suggestions!
Then you get Hemingway as he’s turned into Papa and crap like Over the River or Through the Trees or whatever that shit was called, and you know at that point, no one was going to tell the dude what to do, and the work suffers. Honestly, I think I’m a better editor than I am writer. Writing is like life: it’s very easy to see what other people are doing wrong. If I could only pinpoint the same with my work, maybe I’d have that illusive Big-5 deal!
Like most authors, you’ve got a blog, as well Twitter and Facebook accounts. When you ran FFO you instituted a policy that all submitting writers HAD to have a Facebook account. When you passed the Torch on that operation, this mandatory Facebook requirement remained in place. And that’s the reason I spent three years cursing your tattoo-stained hide—I didn’t want a fucking Facebook page … though I did want in at FFO.
Although FFO launched in late 2008, you created the mag’s ongoing Facebook account in June 2012—and you remain active on your personal Facebook page. Why do you consider Facebook a necessary evil, Joe?
Y’know, I feel guilty about this one. Sort of. I mean, I think I helped writers like you by forcing you to accept the fact, however begrudgingly, that you HAVE to get out there and do what the industry wants. If you want a chance, you play by the rules. I don’t back down from that. Agents and editors, they want a social media platform, and those who stubbornly cling to the idea that Facebook or Twitter or social media branding dilutes their work … tend not to get published. There are always exceptions that prove the rule. But, really, you want to get (traditionally) published, the fact is, it’s a fucklot easier if you just play the game.
That said, Facebook sucks donkey dick. I’m so fucking sick of it. The politics. The fucking minutia and in-fighting and pack mentality, and God forbid you fuck up and say the wrong thing. Like piranha devouring a cow to the bone. And this isn’t a backlash against “cancel culture.” People SHOULD be held accountable. And I am so far left, just call me Che Guevara and give me a motorcycle (I think that metaphor works but who knows? I’ve been writing for hours and my brain is mush). Fighting for social justice is a mutherfucking noble pursuit. It’s just exhausting. The constantly having to … Facebook. And keep up with the trends and people and, Jesus, I think I’m just old and tired. I can tell you this. If I were writing my first book, knowing what I know now, and someone said to me, “You need a Facebook account …,” I’d book a tee time and say fuck it.
Before I turn you over to medical staff, Joe—and then dump you back in the gutter once again, speaking of promotional endeavors, your latest novel SKUNK TRAIN released on December 2nd.
Congrats on book ten. This saga launches in the backwater wilds of Northern California’s Humboldt County. And quickly jumps the rails when a drug deal at the sleazy roadside Skunk Train Inn turns into a murderous melee—that sends fifteen-year-old Kyle Gill hauling ass for San Franciso in a truck filled with drug money. With a cadre of cops and creeps wanting young Kyle’s ass … or more accurately the cash and his whole life, Kyle hooks up with a high school chick named Lizzie: and their tails wind up in Skid Row Los Angeles—
Not my idea of a romantic destination. Sounds like a case of young lust or delusional love at first site. But since this book centers on these two kids, do you think most readers will find them more “likeable” than Jay Porter and Alex Salerno?
In a word? Yeah. It’s a softer novel. More idealized, hopeful, romantic. There’s still drugs and crooked cops and death and guns and fucked-up shit, but there’s also more heart. Part of that is because the two protagonists, Kyle and Lizzie, are so young. When you are young, there is hope. I’m 49. It’s over for me. I’m not changing. So many goddamn parts are broken inside me, I swear, if I were a horse they’d have shot me by now.
While Mr. Clifford’s getting patched up? I consider his debut book JUNKIE LOVE an exceptional read. And I’ve shared some thoughts below for anyone who’s inclined. Meanwhile, thanks Mick Rose for hosting us here at Center Stage. We wish all a y’all a safe and sane holiday season. Cheers!
Photo: JUNKIE LOVE ... A rebel's decade-long journey through heroin's Heart of Darkness
Labels: Yellow. Pinko. Trailer Trash. Amateur. Wino. Addict. The Label List proves bloody endless.
Sometimes folks pin Labels on us. Sometimes we pin them on ourselves.
While this book bears the title JUNKIE LOVE? Woven into these pages I discovered Joe Clifford's love for many things. A Love of Infinite Possibilities. A Love for San Francisco. A LOVE for WORDS and music—often buoyed by Comradery. A deep Love for Beauty, yes. But a Love for the bizarre, the foreign, and the ugly as well.
But one of Love's biggest Pitfalls? Once its arrows pierce us we routinely tend to Over-Romanticize.
"Being a junkie was being part of a rich tradition," Clifford wrote in 2013. "Dee Dee Ramone, Lenny Bruce, Jim Carroll. A Johnny Cash middle-finger-fuck-you to the world.”
Psychologist Sigmund Freud is attributed as saying Love is a good psychosis. (I couldn't quickly find such a quote.) Nevertheless the strange doctor did write: "We are never so defenseless against suffering as when we love."
Clifford's experiences run the gamut of human emotions. Sometimes we laugh. Other times we cringe.
Just as my interview with Mr. Clifford drops f-bombs and we used words and expressions some would consider crass? So does JUNKIE LOVE. His tale at times also proves sexually explicit. If you can't handle that? I'd suggest you skip reading this book.
Anyone who checks out JUNKIE LOVE on Amazon may notice two different covers for this book. The cover for the edition I've used here includes an Afterword by Mr. Clifford—and that's one I recommend—not the first version, which portrays a hypodermic needle piercing a red heart.
While the rest of world typically rates books using 1 to 5 Stars? I award 1 to 6 Stilettos. I suspect my Stiletto Ratings ain't highly-coveted. YET. LOL. But I awarded JUNKIE LOVE a stellar 6 Stiletto-Rating—and this book's the first to gain one.
Crime writer Jesse Rawlins