A lot of people complain about today's online world depriving us of flesh and blood relationships. I find that I've met an impressive amount of the writer types I know from the online world. The latest two were Tom Pitts and Joe Clifford.
Joe and Tom are both Snubnose Press alumni and we had traded dozens of emails as I designed book covers for them both. Impressed with their individual writing and their tag team approach to book touring and publicity, we invited them down for Noir at the Bar and they killed it.
I hit them with a few questions and got some truly great, insightful answers. I can unequivocally recommend their books and short stories and safely say these are two guys to watch in the crime fiction world.
Eric: So guys, both of you have come a long way from your misspent youths, how has writing been used to get you to where you are now in your lives—to a time when I think I'm safe in saying you are settled and happy?
Joe: Happy is a loaded word, and one that got me into a lot of trouble. An old drug buddy used to say that was our problem; we wanted to be “happy” all the time, and being happy isn’t a grown-up expectation. It’s why girlfriends always want to do stuff and go to free concerts in the park (that’s an Onion article). But, yes, I am…content to be on the path I am on. And writing is a huge part of it. There’s the community and a feeling like tomorrow might bring something better. Not that today is bad. But you want to keep moving.
Tom: For me, the “settled and happy” had to come first. I was such a mess when I came off the streets, I had no idea how much of a mess until much later. I got together with my wife almost immediately (against the advice of the folks in AA. Still happily together, so stick that in a meeting and share it!), and she had two young boys. From junkie to father in a matter of months was a challenge unlike any other I’d faced. I spent a good ten years adjusting to real life. I’d contracted Hepatitis C back when I was doing drugs and it wasn’t until 2009 that I was able to cure it with a harsh six-month treatment of interferon. After I’d gone through that unique hell, I was able to put things in perspective. It was then I decided to do some of the things I’d always wanted to do. Okay—one thing: Write. I sat down and was finally able to focus, and it’s been non-stop ever since.
Joe – I discovered you have real degrees and stuff in writing. How does one go through actual writing programs and still come out writing genre stuff about life in the gutter? Don't they beat that out of you?
J: Actually, where I went to school, Florida International University (home of Dennis Lehane), it was sorta the opposite. I went in as a literary fiction guy and they were genre-oriented. Maybe that’s not fair to say. They were conscientious of plot, which lends itself to genre. There is some great literary fiction out there, like… Um. No names are coming to mind, but I’m not trying very hard to think of them, honestly. I just don’t read the shit much anymore. Part of the reason I hate it is because I hate the kind of writer I used to be. Lots of long boring scenes of people talking in cafés, planting subtle clues for college students to pick out 200 years from now. Gutter writing (I like that) is about the story. It’s about good writing too. But the story (i.e., foundation) comes first.
Tom – on the flip side, Joe sold you out as being largely self-taught or at least writing from a place more of instinct. How did you take those first instincts that made you want to write and get something down that was coherent?
T: I believe—because I have to—that one has to rely on instinct. You can spend all the time in the world writing a synopsis, but ultimately it’s your innate ability to tell a story that’s going to separate you from the herd. Sure, I get intimidated when Joe and his other MFA buddies are throwing around terms that sound like Swahili to me, but I remind myself that some of my own favorite writers were educated at the same place I was: The School of Hard Knocks.
You both live in the Bay Area – how does your setting affect your stories, if at all?
J: San Francisco is huge in my writing. I remember when I was getting my (second) divorce, my wife (soon to be ex) screaming, “Why don’t you just go back to San Francisco?! It’s all you ever talk about!” It’s true. When I left SF to get sober in 2001, I almost refused to make new friends (even after cleaning up). No one could measure up to guys like Tom and Dan and Gluehead. So why bother? I was pretty immature. Hell, I still am. It’s silly and overly nostalgic. But there’s something special about the city. Even if I can’t actually live in the city anymore. It’s too much, the energy and youth and shit. I like being in the suburbs, where I can view it from (as Tom calls it) my “ivory tower in the hills.”
T: Almost all my work is set in San Francisco and the Bay Area. It’s where I live. If I spent any time anywhere else, it’d figure into my work. However, the city itself has changed so much in the past ten years. Sometimes just driving around town will depress me. I think, how the fuck can anyone afford to live here? Then I remind myself that I still do. Sheer luck, I guess. If I arrived here today, a young, green Canadian, I’m sure that I’d be living in Daly City, Oakland, or some other adjoining suburb. San Francisco doesn’t want you if you’re not hemorrhaging cash.
San Francisco has a great pedigree as a location in film noir, but not so much in fiction. It's not non-existent, but it doesn't have the lineage as LA of NY. Why do you think that is, and do you agree with many who think SF and the bay area is more “noir” than L.A.?
J: Part of it is the size. The city is literally 7 miles by 7 miles. L.A. and NY are huge. Noir is contingent on feeling lost and alone surrounded by strangers, mostly in an urban environment, which is a seeming dichotomy. SF is pretty quaint and cozy. Of course, the fog adds a little diabolical to the mystery. Both my novels are set in SF, and at least half my stories. And we have some great noir writers here now—Seth Harwood, Eddie Muller, David Corbett, Will Viharo. So maybe we can change that.
T: San Francisco has a great literary history, though. But like its literary history, it can be a little snobbish. In the noir game we still claim Dashiell Hammett. Christ, there’s even a street named after him (off Pine after Stockton). My own glory days were in the ’80s and ’90s, when the city still had a little grit left in it. The city is so upscale and expensive now, it’s hard to imagine anything interesting happening in it at all. If I want to have some grit in my stories, I find myself turning more and more to Oakland and the Central Valley.
Joe – we have a lot in common, including a music background. I've been finding out since the start that the publishing business is alarmingly similar to the music biz. Do you agree?
J: You mean in the sense that both like to take a giant dump on your dreams? Yeah, pretty much. Of course part of it is on us. Y’know, stars in the eyes syndrome. I don’t know about you but rock ’n’ roll seemed the shortest line between laziness and glory. What you find is that like anything in this life, if you want to be good, you have to fucking work at it. Music. Writing. Being a fucking veterinarian. Very few people can just do what comes naturally, with minimal effort and no regard for criticism and/or audience, and succeed. A male model, I guess. Which would’ve been my 2nd choice after rock star. You should ask Tom. He actually was a rock star for a while.
T: Thanks, Joe. Geez Beetner, I’m hurt that you aren’t giving me props for my short, but illustrious, career as a rock ’n’ roller. As for the question, I always lean back on comparisons to the music business. From the foolish belief that you can “fix it in the mix” being exactly the same as “I’ll tighten it in the rewrite” to rise of the indie press upending the industry, the same way that independent labels turned the music business on its ear. I think the parallels are endless. The most important thing I gleaned from my band’s (Short Dogs Grow) experience is: You can do it. There was a do-it-yourself attitude back in those days that extends to writing now. You can’t measure success by six-figure contracts, but by writing something good and getting it out there to be read and enjoyed.
Proof of Tom's rock star past.
Perfectly put, Tom. I totally agree and you summed it up well. Music for me was always proof that you could create something from nothing. First there is silence, like a blank page, then there is a song. And I’m so sorry I didn’t know about your rock star past. But I dare either of you to name a single one of my bands.
Tom – Piggyback (which I loved) is your first long form thing published, right? Was it the first story of that length you wrote or were there many other projects before that we can look forward to seeing? And why choose the novella length for Piggyback?
T: I’d written a shorter novella before that, about 17K. But really, Piggyback (Snubnose Press) was my first real go at something longer. Why a novella? Shit, I wrote that on a sprint. I didn’t know what kind of stamina I had. It was five short weeks of writing four days a week three hours a night. I just kept pushing and when it reached over 20k words, I figured I was done. Last summer I wrote a novel called HUSTLE. 74k—full length, like the big boys. I was trying to step up my game and take it to the next level. It came out of me fast, too, like a good shit after bad Chinese food. I figured they’d all come that way—faster than I could type! Right now I’m working on a new novel. The complex plot has slowed me down. Hopefully the longer gestation will result in an even better product.
Joe – you had a bunch of stuff come out all at once. What led to the flood of Clifford books in 2013?
J: Timing. Luck. A glut of work I’d finished and been pushing on publishers. Plus, I work hard at promotion. The sad reality of writing today—hell, probably any day—is you have to be your own publicist and agent in a lot of ways. I mean, we have an agent, and she’s great and I know she’s working for us, but I got these books published before I signed with Liz. And I think it made me more attractive to her. I mean, I think part of the reason she took me on (for my latest mystery LAMENTATON) is because she, well, she liked my writing (I hope), but also because she saw I’d work at this (Ray Chandler: “Get it through your lovely head, lady. I work at this; I don’t play at it.”) I know way too many writers who still think their only job is to write a great book, and then like these magical book fairies are supposed to fly down and take care of the rest, I guess. Guys who still won’t get on social media because they think it cheapens the process. You don’t need to be on Facebook or Twitter or where-the-fuck-ever to write a great book. That’s silly. But I think you do need to have a…marketing platform. I know. I hate the phrase too. I get it. It smacks of a side of writing we’d rather not acknowledge. But publishers want to make money. And you are, at least in part, going to be a brand. I don’t think of myself as a “brand.” No writer should. It’s like calling yourself a commodity. BUT you need to know others, i.e., publishers, will. So do what you want with that information. Hey, I’d love it if there was freedom for all and the good guys always won and nobody lied or did mean things. But like that writer who thinks all he/she needs is to write, I don’t believe that world exists.
T: I’d like to interject here and point out that Joe’s collection of shorts, Choice Cuts, was actually released in the summer of 2012. It only feels like an onslaught to those of us trying to catch up. Okay, resume the interview.
Do you guys see any trends in crime fiction these days? Is country noir the next big thing? Hybrid books that mix sci-fi and crime or fantasy and crime? What should we be looking for coming out soon?
J: First and foremost, good writing is good writing, and I think good writing can be found everywhere (except maybe Romance). Personally, I’ve always loved bands with a confluence of influence, alt. rock with a little country, that kind of thing. Jason Ridler, another noir guy up here, wrote a noir/hardboiled/pulp fiction novel called Blood and Sawdust, which combines detective fiction with…wrestling and vampires. Not sure how he got all those elements to work together, but he did. I am way more…mainstream…in my approach. Although when I was desperate to get Junkie Love published, I tried doing a find & replace, subbing vampires and blood for junkies and dope. Worked surprisingly well.
T: I don’t pay much attention to trends. That’s not as pretentious as it sounds; I’m really behind on following my peers. My to-be-read list is endless. I do, however, try to stay up on trends in publishing, how things are evolving. Thank God things are evolving is all I can say about that. I’m glad the negative stigma surrounding in the ebook is finally beginning to fade. The only thing I really look for in a book is verisimilitude. If I can buy into it, you got me. There has to be a believable quality to the story, and usually that starts with the characters. If the action and the tone of the characters is real, then it doesn’t really matter if they’re in outer space or a back alley.
J: Verisimilitude? Now who’s throwing around the grad school Swahili?
I want to know what old school writers you read and think others should read too?
J: I’ve already gone on record as saying Day Keene is brilliant. Besides the obvious Chandler and Co., guys like Goodis and Willeford and Westlake. I know Tom is a fan of Ellory and Cormac, two writers I sadly have never read. I tend to be rigid about incorporating new voices, and then when I finally do I wonder how I ever lived without them. My favorite authors are still probably the non-pulp guys. I mean, I named my kid Holden. And I’ll never get far from Kerouac. Not now. I mean, I haven’t read him in years, but in terms of influence it’d be hard to beat the guy. He (along with the Replacement and “Left of the Dial”) is why I moved to SF twenty-something years ago. And since I often get accused of not including female authors on these lists, I’ll just mention one of my three favorite books of all-time is Wuthering Heights, which in the character of Heathcliff features one of the darkest, nastiest, and most wickedly complex protagonists in all of literature (I would’ve considered naming my son Heathcliff, but then, y’know, he’d be Heathcliff Clifford).
T: I do love Cormac McCarthy. (Did Joe just admit to never reading Cormac? What the hell is the matter with you, Joe?) I recently re-read No Country for Old Men. Noir at it’s best by a guy who ain’t in that game. I love Don DeLillo’s prose, but his storytelling sometimes leaves me a bit unsatisfied. DeLillo’s Libra, his most noir novel, is great. Elmore Leonard makes me want to write. He’s such a natural. I love him. I always return to Elmore to clean my palette. I like Crumley, of course. I think Ellory may have pushed the envelope of alliteration too far, but I still love him ’cause he’s nuts. I still hold a place in my heart for the madmen: Bukowski, Celine, et al. Eccentricity can still be a selling point for me if you can lay down a line. I’m still working my way though a lot of those big boys. Right now I’m reading the loquacious Tom Wolfe’s latest Back to Blood. It’s just what you think a Tom Wolfe novel is like: well written, but in need of an editor who has the balls to tell him to cut it down by 75K words.
What do you think about some of the ex-junkie fiction out there like William Burroughs or Donald Goines? Does it capture the truth of it?
J: We all love William Burroughs, the man. But did anybody really enjoy Naked Lunch? Cool guy. I’ve just never been sold on Burroughs the writer. Jerry Stahl’s Permanent Midnight was pretty spot-on, although the writing didn’t hold up for me in subsequent readings. Which isn’t much of a knock. Like I said, my favorite writer is still Kerouac, and I can’t read him anymore either. There’s Ro Cuzon, another ex-junkie noir guy. I recently read his Under the Dixie Moon, which uses dope in the peripheral, and I think he nails it. But, again, it’s fiction, so you have some leeway. I suppose Jesus’ Son is fiction too, but it doesn’t read that way.
T: No shit. Good call on Burroughs. Junkie is his most readable book. He’s one of many who I realize I like the idea of better than the work of. Denis Johnson? I can appreciate Jesus’ Son, but it doesn’t compare to a master work like Tree of Smoke. But, really, the book I like best by Johnson is Nobody Move. It’s his take on noir and it’s great. His fans hated it, but it’s a clean, tight crime tale that’s worth picking up. I concur with Joe on Ro Cuzon’s book too. When I read Dixie I was amazed at how it kept getting better and better and better. The plot thickened to the point where I thought I was on the brink of its climax for three-quarters of the book.
Man, I loved Nobody Move. I only saw the movie of Jesus’ Son. Not bad.
Joe—is that why Junkie Love is a true story—because you could never capture the real thing in fiction? Or is it just so outlandish already there’s no need to embellish? (Even though you tell us at the outset that the “narrator” is unreliable.)
J: Well, technically, it is fiction. I mean, my publisher (Battered Suitcase Press) released it as a novel (they don’t do memoir). At first I grappled with that, because on the one hand it is true. I was a junkie. The things that happen in the book really happened. Sort of. Usually. Maybe. I address this in the introduction. For non-fiction to be truly non-fiction, you can’t make shit up (see James Frey). Yet, for the sake of making it the best book I could, I had to make shit up. Not outright lie like Frey did. More like combine two trips into one, move a doctor from one hospital to another, alter timelines. Plus, yeah, as the narrator “I” (I never actually give the narrator a name) am pretty unreliable. I was on a lot of drugs. How the hell can I remember where I was, exactly, in the fall of 1996?
What's next for you both? The current books are all fairly new, but what are you working on now?
J: Our agent, Liz Kracht (Kimberley Cameron & Associates) is currently shopping both our new books. Mine’s a thriller/mystery, LAMENTATION. Tom and I work as editors for Gutter Books, which will be releasing some new titles we’ve edited soon. My first effort, Will Viharo’s Love Stories Are Too Violent for Me, has already been optioned for film by Christian Slater. Plus we have the magazine (The Flash Fiction Offensive). I have a new novel I am about to get back to working on, Skunk Train, which is about halfway done. It’s a road, teenage love story, which (stealing a plot from Tom’s Piggyback) involves stolen weed. Plus being a good husband and father, spending time and nurturing my son and trying my not to fuck up my kid like my dad did me.
T: My answer is predictably similar. Liz is hunting for a home for HUSTLE (which ain’t easy. Try and find a big publisher that’ll take a risk on a story about two drug-addicted gay hustlers; tell me how you do.) Finishing my present novel, that’s halfway done. Yeah, the magazine with Joe, always fun. Publishing at Gutter Books, some killer work in the chute there from Mike McCrary and the irrepressible Mike Monson. Adapting some of my work into a screenplay for a project so vague I dare not mention its name. I’m busy, damn it. I work too much and don’t see my family enough, stop pressuring me, Beetner! What am I really working on? Getting more than five hours of sleep at a time.
What writers are you excited about these days? Old or new, doesn't matter, just who are you reading who is pushing your buttons?
J: I just finished Chris Walter’s East Van and have his Chasing the Dragon up soon. He’s another ex-junkie/punk rock guy. Great, gritty, urban fiction. Alan Kaufman’s Drunken Angel is, hands down, the best recovery memoir I’ve ever read, and I’m lucky to call the guy a friend (he’s been ridiculously generous with his time helping me crack into the industry). And there’s Hilary Davidson, of course. I feel like I bring her up every interview, but her three Lily Moore books prove you can be pop and pulp all at once. Todd Robinson. Just read his eagerly awaited The Hard Bounce; it didn’t disappoint. I want to read the latest Donald Ray Pollock novel. I have about 12 books I picked up at Noir @ the Bar in L.A. Niki Palamino’s Dazed. Josh Stalling’s memoir, All the Wild Children. Fuck, I have two books of yours I bought that I need to read. I am going to be busy for a while. I just read so damn slowly. My time to read is after a long day of wrangling with the kid, just before I go to bed. Then I’ll read one line and pass out.
T: I fell in love with Chris Walter’s stuff the moment I picked it up, and it’s not just because I’m Canadian. He’s got a from-the-bottom-up take on street life that’s hard to find out there in fiction. He made his bones writing some autobiographies on the unsung heroes of punk, but it’s his fiction that I really dig. Ro Cuzon. We’ve already talked about him. Just buy his books, damn it. Hmmn, other stuff that has fluffed my feathers? I loved your book, Eric, The Devil Doesn’t Want Me. Great twist on the main character. A different kind of hero, to say the least. Loved The Bitch by Les Edgerton, really dug having a protagonist that actually thought about the consequences of his actions. A rare quality in a crime story, one that shows Les has been on both sides of the street. Someone forced me to read Mule, by Tony D’Souza and I ended up really enjoying it. If I’m ever wondering what to read next, I always look to the Snubnose roster. It’s hard to keep up with all the new fiction out there, so I sample the anthologies quite a bit, dip my toe in the online magazine’s waters. It’s a great time to be a reader, so many options and so many resources.
J: That’s what the current crop of anthologies—Pulp Ink, Shotgun Honey’s Both Barrels, the revamped Thuglit—are great for: a peek at the who’s who in our current crime world. When you are pressed for time, you can at least sneak in a quick degenerate tale in between the madness and sleep depravation.