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The Virgin Installment: The Joe Clifford Interview

Joe and I meet in an abandoned warehouse. Early morning. Dirty Oakland sunlight cascades through what’s left of the high, broken windows. It filters down through dust motes circling in the air like buzzards. There’s just a small wood table in the center of the vast space. Joe sits quietly, a coffee steaming snakes into the air. Next to it, a gun is pointed where I’ll be sitting. The first thing I notice isn’t that Joe’s armed, but that he has no pants on.

Well, this is what I signed up for. Let's do this.


Joe, thanks for meeting me.

Hurry up. Rainbow Brite is coming on in a half-hour.

Sure thing. Your definition of noir?

There's a David Lee Roth quote from after he left Van Halen and Sammy Hagar took his place. I'm too lazy to look up the exact wording, but it was something like, "Classic Van Halen makes you wanna drink, fight and fuck. His new Van Halen encourages you to drink milk, drive a Nissan, and have a relationship." That's how I look at noir versus the more respectable "literary" brand of fiction.

Or how about this: literary fiction is what they assign in school; noir is the shit you want to read, the well-worn paperback rolled in your back pocket as you climb trees to watch the neighborhood cheerleaders change. Only you're 36. So now you have the cops on your ass. Which sucks. Because you also have an outstanding warrant. So you got to run. Doesn't let you think right. And when you think wrong, bad things happen. That's noir. Go read Jim Thompson and back issues of Thuglit; they're probably better examples.

You began in literary fiction and crossed over to noir. Why this and not sci fi, horror, et cetera?

I have nothing against science fiction. But it's kind of for nerds. And the dude who writes the Ender's Game series is a right-wing fascist. Horror's cool. I mean, I like Stephen King, who is as good a writer as this place has ever produced. (And FFO co-editor Tom Pitts swears by his book On Writing.) Dead Zone is an All-Time Top 20.

And there's a lot of great writers of that genre down here in the trenches—Lily Childs and the fine folks over at Thrillers, Killers 'n' Chillers (where former FFO editor David Barber now works), but that's the thing; TK 'n' C is a horror AND noir site. Which makes sense. They're fucking cousins. Both embrace the darker, and you can have that in sci-fi, too. Add another tit to a mutant hooker. Sorry. Just saw the Total Recall reboot. Do yourself a favor. Don't. See Lawless instead.

The second part of your question... I wrote a piece a while back about going to AWP and the problem with literary fiction. I can't do it again. I don't write much literary fiction these days. I find that the purveyors of and houses for that shit tend to be, well, douches. You can't stereotype with such broad strokes—OK, you can; that's why it's stereotyping—but I had a bad experience. I read somewhere "AWP is where middling writers go to feel like rock stars," and after 3 days of that dance—MFAers trying to cram their collective noses up the pasty, un-toned asses of middling success—it really turned me off. There's a snobbery in lit fiction that doesn't seem present in noir.

I've always said the irony of comparing the two is that while lit fiction writers tend to craft sensitive, flowery verse about Christmas dinners with dying grandmothers (usually in some foreign country), in real life its authors often prove less than helpful; whereas noir writers—with their dead hookers and guns and junk and armed robbery and ex-cons and more dead hookers, outside of their fiction, they tend to be some of the nicest, most helpful, supportive mutherfuckers you'll ever meet.

I missed everything you said after add another tit to a mutant hooker. Yeah, I’ve heard bad things about the new Total Recall. Too bad. Since the director did Underworld I and II. I had higher hopes. They’re re-doing RoboCop as well. I refuse to see that. You?

Total Recall sucks. It passes the time but adds nothing to the original, while losing all the campy fun. The new armor suit for RoboCop looks like they’re trying to cash in on The Dark Knight. I don’t have higher hopes. That’s part of my problem. It’s…frustrating…knowing so many writers, with so many great ideas, while Hollywood and the Big Six continue to rehash and churn out crap like 50 Shades of Mommy Porn and A Shore Thing. But you can’t exactly blame them. They’re in the business of making money, and that shit, inexplicable as it is, makes money.

Do you envy my sideburns?

Son, I could grow a full mustache when I was nine.

I’ll take that as a yes. How have you gotten to write what you write?

There’s two components to that, really. How you write, and what you write. Subject matter and voice. Both are really the result of the same thing: what you read. You are what you eat, y’know? My favorite books and authors include everything from Catcher in the Rye to Batman, and I think you see that reflected in my subject matter. My hardboiled novel, Wake the Undertaker, which comes out in December (Snubnose), has been described (by FIU's MFA director Les Standiford) as “the secret life of Batman.” I like that. Comic books are hugely influential, as are the classics. War and Peace has turned into punch line. “What are you writing? War and Peace? Har Har.” But you know what? It’s one of the best fucking books you’ll ever read. Wuthering Heights is another one that’s made a profound impression (although don’t let Needle editor Steve Weddle hear me say that or I can kiss my chances of getting in his magazine goodbye; he hates that book). I can’t help it if the novel’s been taken hostage by a bunch of oversexed teenage vampires. Heathcliff is as dark and twisted as a hero/villain gets, and I’d place his black heart right at home in noir.

If I like something, I like it. I have a friend, for whom I played “Teenagers” by My Chemical Romance. He loved it. Then he asked who the band was, and when I told him, he said, “Oh. Then I don’t like it anymore.” That shit makes no sense to me. If it speaks to me, it speaks to me. So even though I classify myself as a “hardboiled” writer, there are a million parts that make that up. From the early mysteries of (the kids’ series) The Great Brain right on through to Philip Marlowe.

Then there’s the drugs. There’s no way around it. I don’t run from it. I don’t want to run from it. I spent a long time as a street junkie, shooting speed and smack, stealing, getting arrested, being homeless, and that history, the intimate acquaintance with that world, is ever-present in my work. Even a story about three escaped Russian prisoners (my story “The Meat” in Choice Cuts) is shaped by that experience. It was well over ten years ago. But when you live like we did—when you don’t know where you’re going to be sleeping tonight, or if you’ll eat; when you don’t know whether the abscess on your hand is going to heal and if they’re going to have to cut off your arm—when you are literally viewed as a walking disease—you establish a baseline that’s hard to shake. Which is great to mine for fiction.

What parts of Joe wind up in your stuff?

Same as any writer. It’s what you find interesting, what fascinates you. I’ve always been drawn to that darker side of life, the night, the SRO hotels and criminal, even before I became a junkie; hell, that could’ve been part of the reason I become a junkie in the first place. There’s only a certain kind of person who hears a Tom Waits song or reads a Bukowski story and is, like, “That’s what I want to do with my life!” And then takes active steps to make it happen. These are not normal, well-adjusted people. Though I am better now.

What direction do you see the noir community moving in?

That’s a question for more literary minded folk. Noir will continue to do what it’s always done: mine the depths of desperation. It’s a big ol’ well that will never run dry. Suspect people doing suspect things for suspect gains.

The pool of quality hardboiled authors today is as deep as it’s ever been. Hilary Davidson. Todd Robinson. Keith Rawson. Les Edgerton. Frank Bill. I could list off a hundred and fifty names. Most of them are giving their genius away for free, or damn near next to it. Check out any of the hardboiled ezines and anthologies, Shotgun Honey to the one (Tom Pitts, Court Merrigan and) I edit, Flash Fiction Offensive/Bareknuckles Pulp (Out of the Gutter); it’s like being around when Black Mask was Black Mask. Go to these sites and check out their blog rolls; go to Spinetingler, or Crime Factory. You can literally close your eyes and point, and you will find a great hardboiled writer. 

Pimp your stuff and give Tom Pitts a shout-out, please.

Tom Pitts was my running partner and best friend. We met at a house called Hepatitis Heights on Potrero Hill in San Francisco in the 1990s. We were as lowdown and worthless a pair of scumbag junkies as you’d ever find. Except for the part that we were good friends, and Tom was, and is now, a righteous mutherfucker.

There’s a misnomer in the recovery community, mostly promoted through AA, that your using buddies aren’t your real friends. Which is bullshit. Yeah, most using buddies suck. Because most people suck. Tom was just in my wedding party. When I got sober back in 2001—well, it took a while, but when I popped my head back up in 2004, the first person I tried to find was Tom. A lot of people die out there, and I figured there was a good chance he’d died; he probably thought the same of me. But he pulled himself out.

The funny part is that after we reconnected, both Tom and I were sober and trying to be writers. And we both seem to be enjoying some success at the same time. The day Snubnose told me they were taking my two books, Tom learned they were taking his novella, Piggyback. And I just finished reading a draft of Tom’s new novel, Hustle, which is amazing. Read it on practically one sitting. It should punch his ticket to the big time.

My shit? Choice Cuts is my short story collection (Snubnose), which includes three stories that originally appeared in Thuglit, a magazine I pimp endlessly (along with its editor Todd Robinson), because they were the first place to really embrace my work and what I do. It’s called “Choice Cuts” because most of the stories have to do with meat, in one way or another, either in terms of “human life nothing but pieces of,” or the setting being an actual meat market, or images of slaughterhouses. 16 stories. Hardboiled. Taut and gritty. And my hot wife is on the cover. You can buy it here (for less than the cost of a latte).

Wake the Undertaker (Snubnose) is loosely based on Chet Baker, if Chet Baker had a little more Batman in him, and was a lounge singer turned jacked-up mob enforcer. It’s about a lounge lizard, Colin Specter, living in a darker alternative San Francisco who has to avenge his own disfigurement. Think Gangs of New Yorks meets Sin City.

And Junkie Love, that’s the big one. At least the one dearest to my heart. I originally wanted to release it as a memoir, but decided to put it out as a novel, which frees me up to take some…creative licenses. Most of the names will be changed (except for Gluehead, who has given me permission to use his name. Which is cool, ’cause I ain’t coming up with a better name than Gluehead), but the arc, at least in terms of what happens to me, remains unaffected. It’s about an unnamed junkie narrator who leaves rehab with a girl he meets, and goes on a final 7-month cross-country spree, running from cops, shooting dope, stealing shit, trying to win his wife back, hoping his mother doesn’t die before he can get back home, all the while clinging hard to his rock ’n’ roll dreams.

If people could read just one Joe Clifford story, which would you want it to be?

Junkie Love. It’s…special. Short story? That’s harder. I just finished one called “Day Tripper” that I think might be the best I’ve ever written. In Choice Cuts? Hard to say, Ryan; they’re all so damned good. “Red Pistachios,” “Rags to Riches,” and “Tripping for Biscuits” are probably my favorites. “Unpublished Manuscript #36,” which kicks off the collection, is up there, too.

I have to say my favorite of yours is “A Private Letter to My Crush,” which is, of course, your collected love letters to me. I realize you won’t let it get published because it’s just for us, but still. It’s great stuff. If you had a theme song that played every time you walked into a room, what would it be?

The theme to Rocky.  Or maybe the "Imperial Death March." That’s what we used for my last wedding party entrance.

It’s been a half-hour. I’ll let you get out of here so you can catch Rainbow Brite. Thanks for the interview.

And just like that, Joe is gone. Well, Joe touched on a lot of things. So, the discussion topics (including but not limited to, dear readers, get on here and steer things as well):

1. Somebody name a great example of suspect people doing suspect things for suspect gains. A story, something in real life. Don’t care.

2. Somebody name a story you’ve read that will make a better movie than some nobody director coming along and raping Total Recall and RoboCop. Please. Like the TR reboot? Fine. Defend it.

3. This interview shines a light on Joe Clifford, so I think it’d be great if someone were to give a shout-out to one of his stories that landed home with them. Here’s mine: "The Banyan Tree," which you can read here. That story just picked me up and put me in that car. I smelled the cigarettes, the thick, humid air in a South Florida rain storm, the whole nine. I got (well, I think I got) what Joe was doing in a very smooth way. That’s the kind of story that makes me wish I wrote it.

Next week—we have the honor of sitting down with Chris F’ing Holm, the man who single-handedly invented the Urban Fantasy genre. His second novel in his Collector series, entitled The Wrong Goodbye (Angry Robot), hit shelves on September 25, 2012. Might want to pick that one up. Stay tuned.


Joe Clifford is the editor of The Flash Fiction Offensive and producer of Lip Service West, a “gritty, real, raw” reading series in Oakland, CA. His short story collection, Choice Cuts, is out now, and his hardboiled novel, Wake the Undertaker, will be published later this year (Snubnose Press). His novel, Junkie Love, is slated for 2013 release (Vagabondage Press). Much of Joe’s writing can be found at www.joeclifford.com. He has been to jail but never prison.