Joe Clifford was my 2014 Bouchercon revelation. Following up with his heavily autobiographical novel, Junkie Love, put the hook in me deep and earned him an instant spot in my reading rotation. His latest book, Lamentation, dropped last fall and showed so well he already has a contract for its successor.
Joe has the engaging and endearing quality of being able to talk about his strengths and weaknesses without exaggerating the former or making excuses for the latter. His blog, Candy and Cigarettes, has become a must read for me, for those qualities, and the quality of writing.
The timing worked out and I was lucky enough to catch Joe for Twenty Questions on his way to AWP; he was gracious enough to turn the interview around the same day. Let’s get to it.
One Bite at a Time: Tell us about Lamentation.
Joe Clifford: It’s a mystery, revolving around two brothers and a missing hard drive, which may or may not contain secrets involving a prominent, small-town family. I mean, that’s the elevator pitch.
OBAAT: Where did you get this idea, and what made it worth developing for you? (Notice I didn’t ask “Where do you get your ideas?” I was careful to ask where you got this idea.)
JC: Lamentation, interestingly enough, began as my thesis for grad school. I mean, sort of. The end result is so radically different from the inception that I’m not sure it’s even fair to call it the same book. The final version retained exactly one line from the original: “A talking chicken named Buck Buck.” The gist of the story I wanted to tell, though, remained the same: two brothers, one a drug addict, one the straight man. But that is such a loose definition. More a guideline than a plot point. Anyway, so back to your original question. They say that the first novel you write is your autobiography. Junkie Love is my autobiography. Lamentation is actually the fifth book I’ve written, but it retains many autobiographical elements. The town in the novel is called Ashton, which is fictional and set Northern New Hampshire, but the geography I use is based very much on my real hometown of Berlin, CT. And at its heart it is still the story of brothers and all the weight that comes with that label.
OBAAT: How long did it take to write Lamentation, start to finish?
JC: Not counting the aborted grad school attempt? About six months. Once I learned how to write a novel, all my books take about the same amount of time: three to draft, one-and-a-half to sit on (as Stephen King tells us), and another month and a half to rewrite.
OBAAT: Where did Jay Porter come from? In what ways is he like, and unlike, you?
JC: I think every character—certainly every hero—contains bits of the author. Maybe I shouldn’t speak for everyone. All my heroes contain parts of me. But Jay is also very much based on my half-brother (also named Jay). I find it helps if I can picture someone as I write him/her. When I was writing the character, I’d envision my half brother, who’s a sweetheart of a guy, but someone who never can … quite … get … it … going. You know the type. Save $900, and the transmission goes. Jay is also a stand-in for the everyman chasing the illusion of the American Dream.
OBAAT: In what time and place is Lamentation set? How important is the setting to the book as a whole?
JC: Around 2010. Ballpark. As I mentioned, the setting, well, the fictional setting, is Northern New Hampshire, by the Canadian border, and it’s the dead of winter. I know there is an edict that talks about how authors should use setting. It might’ve been Elmore Leonard who said never describe the weather. And rules like that are good as general rules. You don’t want to be lazy. But in this story, I felt the weather very germane to what I was trying to do. I’ve lived in three distinct regions in my life: San Francisco, New England, South Florida. And in each case, the weather has played a huge part in my life. So I have always been drawn to that element, so to speak. Here, though, in Lamentation, setting is even more integral to the story I am trying to tell. Which is one of the reasons I couldn’t use my hometown in Connecticut, which is south and not quite as brutal in the winter. I needed that hard, cold, infertile landscape (of Northern New Hampshire) to mirror the scrounging and fruitless digging of these characters.
OBAAT: How did Lamentation come to be published?
JC: Lamentation is my first effort with a house this big (Oceaview Publishing put it out. They’ve also picked up the sequel, December Boys). The short version is my agent sold it! The longer version is I had to first get that agent, the wonderful Elizabeth Kracht with Kimberley Cameron and Associates. Which was the harder of the two really, honestly. Agents are so inundated with requests for representation that you need to find unique—yet organic—ways to catch their attention. In this case, Liz declined (regretfully) to rep Junkie Love (a book she saw as too gritty for commercial appeal). When that book sold and started to do well, albeit on a smaller, cultish scale—and, more importantly, Liz saw (through Facebook, of all places!) how hard I work at promoting—I think I was on her radar and that she wanted to work with me. Which flipped the dynamic a bit. Which touches on another HUGE point: authors these days have to be willing to do their own marketing. I know a lot of writers who think their only job is to write the damn thing. Not true. Even the big houses expect you to do a lot of the legwork to help guarantee a book’s success.
OBAAT: What kinds of stories do you like to read? Who are your favorite authors, in or out of that area?
JC: I always make the same joke, but I named one son Holden and the other Jack(son) Kerouac. That answers that.
OBAAT: What made you decide to be an author?
JC: Brain damage from years of drug abuse? I don’t know. I think I bought into that romanticized notion of the author. The great man of letters. Which is bullshit, really. It’s work, like anything else. You want to get good at it, you have to dedicate your life to it. On the one hand I say if I had known how much work that was, and for how little pay off, I would’ve picked another career. But that’s bullshit, too. I, like other authors, entered this field because it’s who I am. Also, I was too old for rock and roll.
OBAAT: How do you think your life experiences have prepared you for writing crime fiction?
JC: I was a criminal, so that helped.
OBAAT: What do you like best about being a writer?
JC: Not having to wear pants to work.
OBAAT: Who are your greatest influences? (Not necessarily writers. Filmmakers, other artists, whoever you think has had a major impact on your writing.)
JC: Man, this is going to sound cheesy as fuck. Especially from a crime writer, but, man, as I get older, my mother and the kind of woman she was stands out more and more. She died in 2004, about two years after I got off heroin. So she never got to see this, the successful parts, my sons. I try to be the man she always believed I could be. Sentiment aside—Rocky. No shit. Rocky Balboa, while a fictional creation, played a huge role. He is such an iconic character, represents such an indefatigable American ideal, and one that touches on what I, as a person, do well. In the end, my biggest skill is I can bang my head against a wall longer that you. It’s a useless superpower often times, but it has saved my ass more than once. (Kicking heroin comes to mind.) Others? Philip Marlowe, Holden Caulfield, and Batman.
OBAAT: Do you outline or fly by the seat of you pants? Do you even wear pants when you write?
JC: Ha! No. I don’t. Y’know, each book has been different. Junkie Love took about ten years to write, but that’s not a fair assessment. I didn’t know how to write a book when I started, so I had a lot of scenes. Lamentation, too, began before I had craft down. I owe a great deal to Lynne Barrett, my thesis advisor at Florida International University, who got it through my thick skull that two dudes sitting around a café talking about girls isn’t a story; it’s self-indulgent, navel gazing, pap. But the quick answer is no, I don’t outline. I have for one novel (Skunk Train). Love the book. But in the end I think that outline added time, not saved it. Made the process feel too much like work. (Like most writers, I’m sure, I am lazy. Or rather, I don’t like to feel like I am working. I probably “work” sixty-plus hours a week. But it’s for me. On my terms. Big difference.)
OBAAT: Give us an idea of your process. Do you edit as you go? Throw anything into a first draft knowing the hard work is in the revisions? Something in between?
JC: This and that. I generally stagger. By that I mean, I get a bunch out, say, 50 pages. Then I go back and reread, tighten, get the voice in my head, then write another 50, and do the same thing.
OBAAT: Do you listen to music when you write? Do you have a theme song for this book? What music did you go back to over and over as you wrote it, or as you write, in general?
JC: I do! Each book gets a soundtrack. This one was heavy on Springsteen. For the sequel, I steal the title, December Boys, from the Two Cow Garage song, “Jackson, Don’t Worry.”
OBAAT: As a writer, what’s your favorite time management tip?
JC: Twofold. Be consistent. And stay off the Internet. The brain is a muscle, man; it needs to be stretched. Even if you are writing/typing “I don’t know what to write” over and over, eventually something clicks. I don’t believe in writers’ block. Not that we all don’t get sopped up, from time to time…
OBAAT: If you could give a novice writer a single piece of advice, what would it be?
JC: Quit and get an MBA. If that doesn’t dissuade, don’t give up. This shit is a marathon, not a sprint. Just because that is a cliché doesn’t make it any less true.
OBAAT: Generally speaking the components of a novel are story/plot, character, setting, narrative, and tone. How would you rank these in order of their importance in your own writing, and can you add a few sentences to tell us more about how you approach each and why you rank them as you do?
JC: Plot and character are 1 and 1.2. The others don’t exist without it. Plot is the most important thing because that is what is fucking happening. Coming from an MFA program, I experienced a great deal of a resistance to plot. I mean, that’s the world of literary fiction. Like plot is a dirty word. Fortunately for me, I went to FIU, which, unlike most MFAs, embrace genre (which relies heavily on plot). As readers we like to be swept up by a great narrative. As writers, we tend to resist plot. Lynne used to say this is because writers are so internal; it’s our go-to position, our default. But you can’t have a best seller without plot. And I want a bestseller.
OBAAT: If you could have written any book of the past hundred years, what would it be, and what is it about that book you admire most?
JC: Catcher in the Rye. It’s a perfect book. Which is a little funny since the plot in that one is a little light. But stuff does happen. Holden’s trip home after getting kicked out of prep school is fraught with adventure and peril. Shit happens. It’s just that his voice is so strong, and what he represents as the disillusioned teen so compelling, that we sometimes overlook the storyline re: Pency and Jane and Maurice, etc.
OBAAT: Favorite activity when you’re not reading or writing.
JC: Fantasy football and weight lifting. (I’m a closet jock.)
OBAAT: What are you working on now?
JC: The sequel to Lamentation, December Boys, which has already been sold to Oceanview, and is slated for 2016 release.