It’s an interview with this Sunday’s featured guest, Joe Clifford. Joe is acquisitions editor for Gutter Books and the author of several books, including Junkie Love and the Jay Porter Thriller Series, as well as editor of Trouble in the Heartland: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Songs of Bruce Springsteen and Just to Watch Them Die: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Songs of Johnny Cash.

Clifford’s success wasn’t smooth sailing. He overcame a a ten-year heroin and methamphetamine addiction, which culminated with felony arrests, overdoses, and homelessness. He found his light as he fought through the darkness to recovery.  Skating the edge of insanity is a concept that Clifford is familiar with and lays it all bare in his memoir.

Interview conducted by Berkeley CWC member Cristina Deptula.

Cristina Deptula: Your life seems to have been one wild adventure! What would you say to people who feel they should be working on developing their writing craft but are in a season of life where they really struggle to put keys to the keyboard, as you probably were when you were homeless?

Joe Clifford: Read! You can always find books (even on the side of the road). Long before I was a writer, I was a reader, and most great writers will tell you they’ve read way more than they’ve written. Of course one of the wrinkles is that as you start writing professionally, the time for reading for pleasure gets seriously cut into! You’re always reading for work, in one way or another. Also, writing is more than just the writing; it’s observing, practicing craft. I used to scribble poems on napkins when I was homeless, think about the scenes I was seeing, imagining the stories. Of course, this is in retrospect. When I was living on the streets and in skid row hotels, I wasn’t actively outlining novels; although I did always believe the material would, somehow, turn into art.

CD: You’ve edited anthologies of crime fiction inspired by Bruce Springsteen and Johnny Cash songs. What do you think in their music speaks to writers, and are there songwriters out there today who could have a similar effect on writers?

JC: I LOVE this question! I wrote in the introduction to Trouble in the Heartland (the Springsteen anthology) that if I had to pick one author as the most influential in my life, it would be the Boss. And the reason is simple. When I was a teenager, I rebelled and fought authority like a lot of kids, and this meant not doing homework, which included reading. In my defense, while I am certain Across Five Aprils is a wonderful book, to an angry sixteen-year-old, stuck “in a town full of losers,” it didn’t speak to me. Springsteen did. So he was part of my formative artistic years. I was studying story structure without realizing it. What Springsteen can do in a single line (“Remember all the movies Terry we’d go and see / trying to walk like the heroes we thought he had to be / and after all this time to find we’re just like all the rest . . .”) what it takes most authors three-hundred pages to do.

As for the best songwriter storytellers today? For my money: Brian Fallon and Craig Finn. But there are a bunch: Micah Schnabel, Travis Meadows, Frank Turner, and, yes, Taylor Swift!

Memoirist Joe Clifford

Join Joe Clifford this Sunday at Preservation Park in Oakland

CD: I notice that not long after coming out of homelessness, you went back to school and earned a MFA. Would you recommend that for other writers? Do you think that the degree adds to a writer’s career development?

JC: You mean going to school over being homeless? Definitely! But, seriously, without my MFA, I am not publishing books today. Just how my mind works. I had a tough time with causality, which is paramount to structuring a novel. I could do scenes; I couldn’t connect them the way one needs to propel a novel. And where I went to get my masters, Florida International University, is one of the few that actively promotes genre, since it’s a way to both write and make money.

CD: What drew you to crime/detective fiction?

JC: After I wrote Junkie Love, I’d told the story of my addiction, and I didn’t want to write the same book over and over. It seemed to me that, with my background, crime was the next logical place to go. Criminals, cops, lowlifes, junkies. As you can imagine, I saw a lot of stuff out there that would make for great stories! Plus, like I mentioned, FIU had several terrific mystery, thriller writers, like Les Standiford and James W. Hall, teaching there.

CD: In your blog you mention that the gatekeeper system of publishing has drawbacks but you “don’t want to criticize it because you don’t see any alternative.” Why do you say that, and what are your feelings about self-publishing? What do you recommend for authors who have trouble finding agents and publishers?

JC: There’re a number of reasons. The first being, no one wants to listen to a published writer complain about how hard it is to get published! Ultimately, though, there is no great conspiracy to keep good writers from going unpublished. The problem with the gatekeeper system, for writers, is that it can feel like it moves way too slowly. I still believe that if you are good enough and keep at it, your work will get out there. The timetable just stinks sometimes. It’s very hard to put your heart and soul into a book and then sit around and wait for the process to play out. My feeling on self-publishing is, more times than not, it’s counterproductive. Self-publishing doesn’t just mean the author getting the book into print themselves; it means he or she is responsible for all of it—the promotion, the booking events, the distribution, etc. And, yeah, when you are at an indie you can do a lot of that yourself anyway, but you still have a certified label behind you. Which means more reviews, a certain level of respect; and I don’t say this for any other reason than this can mean more sales. And not sales for money’s sake (although that part is nice). The bigger issue: once a book is published, traditional or self-published, it becomes part of your permanent record. If an author “only” sells 1,000 copies of a book, the next time he or she approaches an agent or a new house, whatever, those numbers come with them. Simply put, it’s very hard to move tens of thousands on your own.


Ask Joe your own questions at this Sunday’s monthly meeting. He will speak to how the truth will set us free in any genre, and any project. In his road to redemption, Joe has become a successful writer, editor and anthologist.   Clifford will share the lessons he has learned, insecurities about his success, and his insights of utilizing our struggles to become our strengths. He will be joined by featured CWC member Laurie Panther.

Joe’s writing can be found at JoeClifford.com. Find out about Laurie Panther at mixedgirlsurvivalschool.com

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