Interview with Joe Clifford

Kate and Dan Talk To…Joe Clifford

Kate & Dan: Congratulations on your new novel THE ONE THAT GOT AWAY, out December 3rd from Down and Out books! Alex Salerno is a fascinating, complex character. Please tell us about her, and what makes her story so unique.

Joe Clifford: Well, from my POV, this is my first time writing a female protagonist. Which went quite well. I think. (I hope!). Alex, like Jay Porter (my series character), is wounded. I like wounded characters. I like “less than” characters. This goes back to something I read by Mailer, who said heroes need to be “more than.” I am not as interested in the more-thans. I don’t know many more thans in real life. Maybe it’s the company I keep. Most of the people I know have been hit hard by life, because life hits everyone hard; and still they ahead, best they can, scars and all. It’s the Sam Jackson line in Pulp Fiction about trying real hard to be the shepherd.

K&D: You’ve made an interesting decision to tell this story from two different points of view. What kind of preparation and consideration did you need to tell Benny’s part of the story?

JC: I thought it was essential to the story to have Benny’s POV. There was a mild disagreement with my agent at the time, and, at the time, I took her advice and cut Benny’s POV. And we got a few rejections before I had her pull it. I think that was a mistake, cutting Benny’s POV, and later on when I revisited the story, I put the Benny section back in, and I think it’s made all the difference. In fact, when I’ve passed out the book for blurbs and early reviews that is the part people always mention. Benny. I can’t tell this story without his POV. Benny is an interesting case study. He suffers from a mental degeneration (what exactly that is, I explain in the book) that allows his thoughts to continue, albeit stunted. But he can’t talk, and to many seems catatonic. So how you tell a story from that perspective was a challenge. But it also opened up doors. I leaned pretty heavy on this book call The Ha Ha by a former instructor, Dave King. His book featured a similar protagonist. And though I didn’t “steal,” I did draw inspiration.

K&D: With the publication of the OTGA stand alone, will fans of your long running Jay Porter series ever see the more stories of Mr. Porter?

JC: Who the fuck knows. I mean, I love Jay. I really, really do. But after five books, I am not sure my vision of who Jay is came across the way I intended. That’s not true. He did come across the way I intended. He just wasn’t received as warmly as I would’ve hoped. Rocky if Rocky wasn’t Rocky. A guy who gets the shit kicked out of him, but he keeps going on. I’ve known a lot of Jays in my life. Hell, I’m part Jay. My half-brother is Jay. I thought everything the poor guy had been through—losing his brother, being divorced, an inability to get along with the shit-kickers in his town, and most of all seeing that the Manafort Brothers are raging assholes who helped kill his brother, might cut the guy a little slack. Freudian slip. I don’t know, man. Who’s to say, right? I can tell you this. The readers who love Jay? They really love him. And the ones who don’t? They don’t. Which is a long way of saying, he’s probably done. I told the story I wanted to tell, the way I wanted to tell it. It got me on the map (if not among the Hollywood stars). As a 5-book arc, I think we, Jay and I, went on a helluva ride and shone a light on some pretty fucked-up shit. But, no, there’s no happy ending. Not in my books. And not in real life. Some people call that “morose.” I just call it reality after you’ve watched most everyone you love die.

K&D: If someone has never read a Joe Clifford book before, how would you describe your writing to them?

JC: Hmm, after that rant in the previous answer? Ha! I don’t know. I write the world the way I see it. When I was a junkie and homeless and eating out of garbage cans, I saw a different world. I can’t go back and scrub my eyeballs clean. And the thing is, it wasn’t all misery. There is something beautifully tragic in the streets, an en extremis way of existence that embraces carpe diem in the truest sense of the term. I try to tell that story. The marginalized, the messed-up, the wounded, the people doing the best they can even when it’s not up to other’s standards. I also try to weave tightly plotted, entertaining mysteries. That is paramount. Nothing matters if the story doesn’t work, if you, the reader, don’t want to see what happens next. So there are themes, and there is my distinct voice, but these things do not come at the expense of the narrative.

K&D: With regular Bouchercon appearances, and Murder and Mayhem in Milwaukee this year, you are a pretty constant presence on the convention circuit. With all that travel, how do you make sure you get your word-count in for the day?

JC: Man, after my brother (Josh) died, I took a year off. I had to write the final Porter because I was under contract (and I’d already spent the advance!). I was surprised by how … professional … I was about it. I was in the middle of grieving and not up for, well, anything, but I had a job to do and I did it. I also had the final book mapped out, and pieces just fit together. There’s a weird symbiosis with art and life, and my brother’s passing, tragic as it was, fit the narrative for the fifth (and thus far final) Porter, coalesced, brought it all home. The books have always been about my brother. My dad and the Manaforts, too. But my brother was the heart. They were the conversations I wished I could have with him.

K&D: In the spirit of “Inside the Actor’s Studio” and the Bernard Pivot questions asked of every guest, we have our own set of questions we ask of every interviewee.

When did you finally say, “Yeah…I’m gonna write stuff for a living. And it will be AWESOME.”

JC: I’ve always written, but I think the first moment that I thought, “Y’know, I could do this” was when I found Jerry Stahl’s Permanent Midnight in a gutter back when I was junkie. I remember reading Stahl’s recovery memoir and thinking, “If I can get straight, I can do this.” Maybe not as good. Maybe not as successful. But I could be a writer.

K&D: What was your favorite moment in mystery writing? The moment that when you read it on the page, you smiled and said, “That was so cool!”

JC: When Paula Hawkins (Girl on the Train) generously agreed to blurb my book (The One That Got Away)

K&D: What was the moment that made you say, “Writing books is amazing”?

JC: I don’t know. The accolades and award (nominations) are pretty cool? Actually, I am writing a piece for a new book on power pop: Go All the Way: Making a Case for Power Pop, and I got to interview Franz Nicolay at his house. Which was pretty fucking awesome. He probably thought I was a little like Benny. I mean, it’s very hard to interview your rock-and-roll heroes.

K&D: The standard Beatles or Rolling Stones question: Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett?

JC: Chandler.

K&D: Parting thoughts?

JC: Thanks for having me, and I’ll see you at the next convention!