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Interview with Joe Clifford

Our featured author is Joe Clifford

I met Joe on social media during a chance exchange over a post from an author we both follow. He made an impression. I picked up his first Jay Porter book and I thought, “Man, what’s this guy’s story?” That Jay Porter—he’s a heartbreaker. One by one, I devoured Joe’s books starting with his autobiographical novel Junkie Love and most recently several standalones that are unique and fascinating. Joe is an engaging storyteller with characters who are deeply flawed and incredibly relatable. He’s kind, gracious, witty and so funny. I’m happy to introduce you to one of my favorite crime fiction writers. – Amy Rivers, NCW Director

Does writing energize or exhaust you?

Both? I think that’s the common answer for most, no? I mean, once you start doing this for a job, full-time, as I am fortunate enough to do, it becomes work. If you are mining harrowing depths of personal traumas (my favorite!), it takes its toll. But it’s also not working in a fucking factory, so how much can I complain? 

What are common traps for aspiring writers?

The biggest, I think, is equating being able to write well with being a writer. Pretty sentences are great. Clever turns of phrase and all that. The thing is no one really gives a shit about your wink wink dialogue because it references some obscure Russ Meyer film. People read for one reason: to be entertained. Not including us writers, who read mostly to steal. There are too many entertainment services—services that deliver satisfaction faster. I’m talking Netflix, video games, movies. A book is a serious goddamn commitment, and if you, as the writer, are putting your needs to wax poetic, thinking your sheer, unflappable command of language is enough above that goal to entertain, chances are you won’t be getting published. There are some navel gazing authors who’ve made the big leap. They are few and far. Like with real estate and location, location, location. Writing is story, story, story.

Does a big ego help or hurt writers?

Most writers I know fall into the AA slogan of “piece of shit at the center of the universe.” Fitting, since many writers I know are alcoholics. Everyone who’s ever written a book has vacillated between, “This is brilliant!” and “OMG, I’m a fucking fraud. I suck.” And I think you need both. The genius to let your words fly, and the critic that can self-edit and say, “Yeah, cool analogy, Joe, but it doesn’t advance the story and serves no purpose. Cut that shit.”

If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?

Quit. Find something else to do. The payoff exchange between heart and soul and what you get back, like exchange rates of bankrupt counties, sucks. But in lieu of that? Take this shit seriously. It’s not journaling. It’s a job. Show the job the respect it deserves, and toughen up, buttercup. The praise and successes will never be commensurate with the effort and work. But that’s life, right?

How did publishing your first book change your process of writing?

It didn’t? I learned with each book, writing drafts faster, avoiding pitfalls, and that kind of thing. But I still have to spend four hours after every book doing a search and destroy for adverbs. I guess in a way it was liberating because there was no 6-figure advance and the aura, the myth of “the writer,” disappeared. Plus, I got to tour Italy. So that was cool.

What was the best money you ever spent as a writer?

When I bought a bidet during the ’rona. 

What does literary success look like to you?

Money, fast cars, chicks? I don’t know. I just got that ITW Thriller nomination for Best Hardcover Novel (Rag & Bone), which blew my mind. ITW and Thrillerfest are huge, and someone, somewhere thought my little book deserved to be mentioned alongside David Balducci, Adrian McKinty, Blake Crouch, Rachel Howzell Hall, Denisa Mina. Out of how many books? Thousands and thousands and my book gets that honor? I don’t belong in the same sentence with those writers. That’s my first thought. Then I think, Whoa, maybe I do? Which is about as humbling an honor as I can imagine. So that I guess. 

Have you read anything that made you think differently about fiction?

Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. For writing guides? Novels? Anything by Mary Kubica, Wendy Walker, Jennifer Hillier, Paula Hawkins, Gillian Flynn, Emily Carpenter, Shannon Kirk, Cate Holahan. Yeah. 

What is the most difficult part of your artistic process?

Not having employer health insurance. 

What is your most unusual writing quirk?

I tend to inherit the characteristics of the characters I am writing about? For instance, the new book, my guy drinks a lot of tequila. Lately I’ve been drinking … a lot of tequila. But the moods too. If I am writing paranoid characters, I start thinking about conspiracies, that kind of shit. 

How do you think being a writer has helped you as a person?

That’s kind of presumptuous, no? 

Give a shout-out to a fellow author.

Tom Pitts!

If you didn’t write, what would you do for work?  

Be a criminal. I’m like Wyclef. I can’t do a 9-5. 

About Joe

After spending the 1990s as a homeless heroin addict in San Francisco, Joe Clifford got off the streets and turned his life around. He earned his MFA from Florida International University in 2008, before returning to the Bay Area, where he currently lives with his wife and two sons. His autobiographical novel, Junkie Love, chronicles his battle with drugs and was published by Battered Suitcase (2010).

Joe Clifford is acquisitions editor for Gutter Books and producer of Lip Service West, a "gritty, real, raw" reading series in Oakland, CA. His bestselling Jay Porter Thriller Series (Oceanview Publishing) has received rave reviews from Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, and the San Francisco Chronicle, among many others. Joe is also editor of Trouble in the Heartland: Crime Stories Based on the Songs of Bruce Springsteen and the forthcoming Just to Watch Him Die: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Songs of Johnny Cash. Currently Joe teaches online writing courses for LitReactor and around the country at various conferences and retreats.

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