Tuesday, October 21, 2014

A Conversation with Novelist Joe Clifford

Omnimystery News: Author Interview with Joe Clifford
with Joe Clifford

We are delighted to welcome novelist Joe Clifford to Omnimystery News today.

Joe's new novel of suspense Lamentation (Oceanview Publishing; October 2014 hardcover and ebook formats) hits bookshelves today and we had the opportunity to catch up with him to talk a little more about his work.

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Omnimystery News: Introduce us Lamentation and its characters.

Joe Clifford
Photo provided courtesy of
Joe Clifford

Joe Clifford: Lamentation is the story of Jay Porter. Well, Jay and his brother, Chris. Their relationship mirrors, explores the real-life ones I have with my brothers. It's a little more convoluted than that.

In the '90s, drugs were introduced into that dynamic, and, though I stopped doing drugs, we still deal with the long-term ramifications. I quit heroin in the early 2000s, but the damage done doesn't get swept away so easily. Having lived that way does afford some insight, which is useful in my work. I have experienced both sides, life as an addict, and life affected by living with an addict, which I think helps in crafting a realistic depiction of addiction. Not that Lamentation is all about drugs. My novel Junkie Love covered that particular experience.

Lamentation is a mystery novel set in a small New England town. It is very much plot- and character-driven. It tells story of two brothers, whose parents died early, and who've drifted apart while remaining a degree of loyalty, if obligatory. Jay Porter, the narrator, possesses that everyman quality I find endearing, someone who knows he deserves more in life but feels guilty about getting it. Jay has to fight that daily battle between comfort and risk. How do we break free from our lives of quiet desperation?

OMN: Did you write Lamentation as a stand-alone thriller?

JC: I set out to make Lamentation a stand-alone, yet left the wiggle room for more, knowing how much publishers like a series. And sure enough, Oceanview (my publisher) has asked to see a follow-up. I think you need to have each book function as a stand-alone, regardless. You want people to read every entry, but you can't be presumptuous, and you don't want them to feel lost if they don't. The tougher part is that character growth. How do you continually have your character develop? For me, the story is Jay Porter's struggle. He's a thirty-year-old man, with a son, trying to make a relationship work, attempting to shake free from the small-town confines that seek to shackle us all. I know that guy. He was, is, me. He is a lot of people. Which is inherently interesting. We connect to him. In the world of Lamentation, there is a distinct have and have-not demarcation, a line of economic viability that is tough to cross, which pits a lone hero against immovable forces, and you can always exploit that element. Jay Porter is a guy who's been beaten down but still has some fight, an intense, burning desire to do the right thing, to see justice, which I think appeals to most readers' sensibilities.

OMN: We've called Lamentation a "thriller". Would you agree with that characterization?

JC: I write mainstream fiction, albeit with a darker bent. I am not big on blood and guts. People do die; I just tend to keep the gnarlier graphics off screen. While there is violence (I have a fairly bleak worldview), I am not without hope. That is the driving force in my work: that tiny pinhole of light we instinctively move toward. We all want something better. Richer life. Better circumstances. It's more than just the more money or bigger house or whatever. As a race we aim to ameliorate our existence, like a generational shedding, regrowth.

That said, I write genre. I like reading genre more than I do literary fiction. I want to read a book where stuff happens. It's funny. Back in grad school, I started out as a literary fiction writer. Every writer doesn't need grad school, or college even. The only real prerequisite for a writer is that he/she reads a lot. But I, personally, needed grad school. I couldn't write causality. I worked in scenes. I love the films of Quentin Tarantino. But he is the worst example for a writer to emulate. Like looking to Jack Kerouac for punctuation tips. Tarantino can employ two guys talking in a car to great effect. Most of us can't. Grad school taught me to make B develop from A, organically.

OMN: You mentioned that you were, and are Jay Porter. How much more of your personal experience have you included in the book?

JC: Lamentation is very much a biographical novel, at least in terms of its setting and characters, if not circumstances. Like I said, I base a lot of the two leads on my brothers. But there is also a great deal of me in both Jay and Chris.

The town, Ashton, is in Northern New Hampshire, but it's really my hometown of Berlin, CT (right down to the crane in the pond). There are certain freedoms with fictionalizing locations. Which is why I don't actually use Berlin. Plus, I wanted a perpetual winter landscape. I felt that inhospitable climate was germane to this story. I think that is true of every writer. I mean, putting the biographical elements in, to picture real people when you write. Write what you know, right?

So much goes into writing a book. It's this hodge-podge of influences, bits of current events, family history, whatever — this cauldron we feed and mix up to extrapolate a greater truth — elucidate the human condition. On one hand, Lamentation is a murder mystery set in a small New England town centering on two brothers, a stolen computer hard drive, and a secret surrounding the town's most influential family. But on the other hand, it's got to be more than that. We have to transcend. That's the magic formula of all writing: rendering the unique universal, and the universal unique.

OMN: Describe your writing process for us.

JC: There's a balance. I like the EL Doctorow quote. "Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way." I've written one book where I outlined the entire novel from the start (Skunk Train), and in the end, while I think the work stands up nicely with the rest of my efforts, that particular novel was the least fun to write. At least up until a certain point. Or I should say, it was the hardest to write. I read the other day that writing is about discovery. For the reader and the writer. Personally, when you take all discovery out of the writing process, it becomes boring. With Skunk Train, it wasn't until I reached the parts where I didn't know what would happen next that the book really took off for me, as the writing. So, again, it comes down to that balance, striking that right chord. The Doctorow quote. I want to be a little ahead of the curve, see those lights. I want to know my next scene, not necessarily my next chapter. I want a sense of where I am headed, a vague idea of an ending. But I don't think I will ever do a full-on outline again. Felt too much like high school!

OMN: Where do you usually find yourself writing?

JC: I live the opposite of most people. The weekends are my weekdays, and vice versa. Saturday and Sunday, I got the wife, the kid, the poodle. It's family time and Costco and giant, 3-gallon jugs of grapefruit juice. It's swimming class and dog parks, messy houses and birthday parties and Target runs. But Monday morning rolls around, my son goes to preschool, my wife to work, and all is calm. Then it's just me and Lucky (my 8-lb. poodle) and my work. Our house is high in the East Bay Hills, on the outskirts of Wild Cat Canyon; you can see all the way to the Golden Gate. Lovely — and quiet! Perfect environment to write.

OMN: How important is setting to the story?

JC: Setting is a vital component in everything I do. It's one of the grounding factors I use, and so choosing where a novel will take place is paramount to the process. San Francisco, with its rain-drenched streets and noir pedigree, is a favorite. Skunk Train, for instance, is a very Californian novel, where the state almost plays a character itself, characters' paths tied in to the shape of the state, mirroring a north to south trajectory. Lamentation is a very New England book. Junkie Love, San Francisco. My latest, Occam's Razor, is a Miami novel. In each of these cases I use real cities with fictionalized elements, or fictionalized elements in real cities. The one time I made up both, created a totally alternate universe was in Wake the Undertaker. And I came up against some opposition (in terms of reader reaction). I don't think I'd go that route again. For me, what I write — the way I write — I need that tangible, definite time, place.

OMN: If we could sent you anywhere in the world to research the setting for a book, where would it be?

JC: France. I love the French. I've always said if I couldn't live in San Francisco's Bay Area, I'd live in France.

OMN: What are some of your outside interests? And have any of these found their way into your books?

JC: I lift weights and play fantasy football. So I don't think so! Actually, that's not entirely true. While I don't think I'd ever bore an audience with fantasy football drafting strategy (this year, I eschewed conventional philosophy and didn't draft an RB until the 4th round), I think a writer's influences and hobbies, his or her personal life, is going to sneak in somehow, someway. I was playing a lot of chess when I wrote Wake the Undertaker, and chess plays a pivotal role in that book. But I don't think it has to be that obvious. A few years ago, I almost died in a motorcycle accident. Shattered my pelvis, broke my back, collapsed some organs. I developed traumatic arthritis, which is one of the reasons I need to work out so much. In Occam's Razor, my hero, Oz Reyes, is a former football player who has the same condition. So there's overflow like that, which lends an ethos, a verisimilitude to the writing, since I deal with the same chronic pain. That kind of thing.

OMN: What is the best advice — and harshest criticism — you've received as an author?

JC: The Best Advice: If you keep at it, and you are good enough, you will get published. Which I hated hearing at the time. Tough to hear. Very true.

The Worst Advice: You just have to write for you. That is a lie, and has done in more would-be writers than any other piece of advice. Writing "just for you" is journaling. It's a diary. Those are love letters to a pet. Real writing is done for an audience. You, too, sure. But that's secondary. You ignore who you want to read your work and, well, good luck.

Harshest Criticism? Came from my thesis advisor Lynne Barrett, when I told her I worked harder than anyone else in the program. She said, "That may be true, Joe. But you don't need to work harder. You need to work smarter." Also, really tough to hear at the time. But she was right. And part of that — a good part, a huge chunk — involved considering audience. This is push and pull, give and take is what we do. There's this misguided, foolish notion that if an author tailors his or her vision in any way, he or she is compromising an ideal, is a sellout. Blatantly untrue. If your work is continually being rejected, panned, not getting received the way you would like — what's more likely: you are the only sane person in an insane world? Or do you need to look at what you are doing?

OMN: What specific authors influenced how and what you write today?

JC: I named my first son Holden, and it's looking like the second will be named Jack Kerouac Clifford. So that should tell you everything you need to know.

OMN: What kinds of books do you read today for pleasure?

JC: It's one of the downsides of being a writer. I mean, it's tough for me to read or watch anything without dissecting it, taking it apart, to quote Steve Earle, to see how it works. So I can later use those same tricks, techniques in my own work later on. Every once in a while though a work will just sweep me up, an author will blow me away, and I'll be turning pages like any other fanboy. The latest example of this would be Gillian Flynn.

OMN: You seem to take a very visual approach to your writing. Do you think your books would adapt well into film?

JC: I write my books very much with film in mind. What author doesn't want to see their book made in to a movie (well, I mean, besides Salinger)? I try to keep that in mind as I write. I think it helps with vivid descriptions, as well as, let's face it — we live in a Twittersphere, a 140-word culture. Attention spans are short. Most folks have two hours for a movie. Getting them to commit and invest in a 400-page novel is tougher. I try to bridge the gap. I also write very short novels.

OMN: Give us a Top Five list on any topic … or topics.

JC: Top Five Movies
1. Casablanca
2. Rocky
3. Pulp Fiction
4. High Fidelity
5. Momento

Top Five Books
1. Catcher in the Rye
2. Razor's Edge
3. Wuthering Heights
4. Gone Girl
5. Slaughterhouse Five

Top Five Authors
1. Jack Kerouac
2. Hilary Davidson
3. Gillian Flynn
4. Jim Thompson
5. Kurt Vonnegut

OMN: What's next for you?

JC: Continuing to be the best husband and father I can be. And to write the next Gone Girl.

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As an artist, I explore the dark places, the uncomfortable places, the dingy bricks and concrete cracks of a cold uncaring city. I write about the criminals and dope fiends, the dealers and the dreamers, the cops with their heels on the throat, closing in on the kill. I know this scene well, because I once moved among them.

As a homeless junkie for several years, I stole with them, slept with them. I fought along side them. My work shows this world intimately, and ultimately it is not a loss I choose to lament; rather, it is a celebration I embrace. Because for as ugly as it gets out there at times, something beautiful can still shine through the darkness of that life. You just have to know where to look, and you only need to stay on your feet long enough to find it.

For more information about the author, please visit his website at JoeClifford.com and his author page on Goodreads, or find him on Facebook and Twitter.

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Lamentation by Joe Clifford

Joe Clifford
A Suspense Thriller

In a frigid New Hampshire winter, Jay Porter is trying to eke out a living and maintain some semblance of a relationship with his former girlfriend and their two-year-old son. When he receives an urgent call that Chris, his drug-addicted brother, is being questioned by the sheriff about his missing junkie business partner, Jay feels obliged to come to his rescue. After Jay negotiates his brother's release from the county jail, Chris disappears into the night.

As Jay begins to search for him, he is plunged into a cauldron of ugly lies and long-kept secrets that could tear apart his small hometown and threaten the lives of Jay and all those he holds dear. Powerful forces come into play that will stop at nothing until Chris is dead and the information he harbors is destroyed.

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