I love the way Facebook and networking … well, works. I used to be a naturally talkative person, and to an extent I still am, although my own struggle with an introverted second nature often throw me for a loop. However, that aside, I recently ran a fantastic interview with author Court Merrigan, as a result thereof, I came into contact with my guest today. Joe Clifford is, to give you an idea of what you are about to read, a fascinating man. A man who has experienced highs and lows in many different permutations. It was my absolute pleasure to be able to talk to him, and while this interview was so epic, I have broken it into two installments, I could have asked twice as many questions again. However, for Joe’s own sanity, I refrained from doing so. However, the door is always open for a second interview (Hint, Hint).
Ladies and Gentlemen, allow me to introduce Mr. Joe Clifford.
I always like to start things off with a gentle warm up, so please, can you introduce yourself to us?
My name is Joe Clifford. Writer, lover, adventurer. Well, not so much those second two anymore. I’m married and I try not leave my house these days.
You have had a somewhat turbulent path lead you to where you are, do you think that is fair to say?
Yeah, that’s pretty accurate. In one sense, I don’t think it’s unique. Most people, especially artists, struggle in their 20s, which I feel is the toughest transitional decade, even more so than the teens. Or maybe it’s just that I dragged my teens out; I don’t know. But the drug use was a little more turbulent than most, at least the extent I took it to.
Do you regret your past, or adopt the theory that without it, you would not be here today?
I was just talking about this the other day. For a while I didn’t regret it. And then I did. And now I’m not sure. I mean, I lost a lot of years, but my best friends to this day (like fellow writer/ex-junkie Tom Pitts) are guys I used with and ran and stole with…back in the day (I hate that fucking expression). They will tell you in AA/NA that your using buddies aren’t your “real friends,” and I get their point; most addicts you meet are skeezy scammers, and the stereotypes are true. But your actual friends—and no matter where you are, it’s human nature to want to connect—well, if you can get out, get sober, which is no given, there’s a lifelong bond that forms for having survived the trauma (even if that trauma was self-induced). In a very real way, it’s like combat. Only without the heroics.
What changed in your life to make you turn everything around?
Not to play the “you’ll have to read my book” card, but my autobiographical novel that’s coming out in April, Junkie Love (Battered Suitcase), answers that a little more adequately. The short version, which is the same for all addicts, is you get “sick and tired of being sick and tired.” That’s the AA slogan. I have my issues with AA, and I didn’t go that route, but I appreciate the sentiment. I took some classes (before the writing started to take off and I was thinking of being a counselor to earn a living), and do you know what the most successful path to sobriety is? It isn’t AA or rational recovery or moderation management. All those programs, AA included, have about the same success rate (approx. 5%). Most people who get sober simply mature out of it. In other words, you grow up. I grew up.
Having lived a hard life, it should not really surprise anybody that your fiction is also hard, and very real. Do you make a point to write in such a way, or is it simply your natural style?
I strive, in both my life and work, to be candid and accessible. So yeah I make it a point, but it’s also my natural style. I don’t have much time or patience for, to quote one of my literary heroes (along with Phillip Marlowe and Batman), Holden Caulfield, for the phoniness. I fucking hate Jane Austen and now that I am out of school I will never read Pride and Prejudice again. Christ I hate the fucking book.
Have you always written or was it something that came to you later in life?
I’ve always been an artist. Writing is another medium, which itself is divided into several subsets. But art is art, creation. I play music. I paint and draw. I write. I write poetry (not much or I’d have to kick my own ass) and fiction and non-fiction. It’s the act of creation that is compulsory. And that, I’ve been doing since I crawled out of the womb. Well, maybe a few years after that.
Do you find a certain catharsis in writing stories based in the world you left behind?
It’s funny. I mentioned my friend Tom Pitts, who is my co-editor over at the Flash Fiction Offensive. We met at a shooting gallery called Hepatitis Heights in the late ’90s. Both disappeared and emerged clean on the other side. We are both pulp writers now and cover that world and experience. But while Tom tends to write from the POV of the criminal and junkie, I’ve noticed I often write from the other side, the non-addict sucked into the addict’s world, the “regular guy” who observes and has to navigate the criminal underworld. Not sure what that says about me (or Tom). Maybe I still identify with that farmboy from Connecticut. But, yes, the effect is still catharsis. That word means something different to everyone, but writing has to be a process of sorting shit out. That’s what you’re doing. It’s the appeal. Making sense of the nonsensical.
We were introduced by a mutual friend Court Merrigan, who I also interviewed the other week. How do you two know each other?
Court is another editor over at Out of the Gutter. He helms the Bareknuckles Dept. Tom and I man the flash fiction side (the FFO). We also just opened our doors to publishing books. I met Court like I meet most writers/friends these days on the Facebook (the Office). I’d first encountered the name across the pulp e-landscape. A story of his, “The Vacuum Man,” caught my eye. I liked his bleak worldview but also the high art part of it. Court and I share a bond, in that we both come from a very literary side of pulp. Most of the pulp writers in our little gang were born and bred in it. Court and I started out trying to write “literary fiction,” y’know, lots of Christmas dinners in foreign countries, an older sister’s first date (when she gets the menses), assigning disproportional weight to cicadas and shit. I think we both found that world to be less than satisfying, primarily due to the pretense and pretentiousness. Pulp is more fun to read. And it is more authentic to write. And the purveyors of it are a fucklot nicer than lit fiction scribes who can be, well, pompous douches.
You say that no matter how dark it gets, beauty can always shine through. Do you mean this in the sense of salvation or simply that when viewed from a certain angle, the beauties of the world are still there, but in a different form?
I wrote that specifically as it relates to the world of addiction. But it’s fairly universal, I think. Not to start floating plastic bags on you or anything, but it’s a variation on a common theme. If you don’t laugh you cry. It’s also a question of vantage point, how one chooses to see the world. I’ve never been confused with a positive, upbeat guy. Still sitting around wallowing in misery isn’t much advancing any cause. When you are an addict, obviously days can get pretty dark and desperate. For me that time coincided with other monumental events shaping my life—moving to SF, playing music, being young, shedding religion. Growing up in suburban CT, I was sheltered, so it was like my world blew up all at once. It’s like Neil Young says, “Every junkie is like a setting sun.” That’s what I meant about the beauty shining through. Writing is a way of preserving. Of course that is through the lens of nostalgia. Not sure at the time I saw much beauty shining through shooing mice from my hair at Hepatitis Heights.
The second part of this incredible interview will be on the way soon, but in the meantime, feel free to find out more about Joe from his Website www.joeclifford.com