Interview with Joe CliffordYour short story collection is called Choice Cuts. Why that title? Is there a common thread tying it all together? The challenge with any collection is how does it hold together, as a whole. I come from a rock ’n’ roll background. It’s not much different from putting an album together. You can have some kick-ass songs that you end up leaving off because they don’t gel with the rest of the tracks. Each song—or story—tells a bigger story. When I was assembling Choice Cuts, I had a lot of individual pieces to choose from, and many really good selections were left off because they simply didn’t fit with the overall arching theme.
What is that theme? Well, it’s in the title CChoice Cuts. Every story in there references “meat,” however loosely defined, either in terms of setting, imagery, human life being nothing but pieces of. etc. It felt like a very apropos title given the subject matter.
What is that subject matter? Do you draw your conflict from real-life predicaments? To what extent are they based on yourself or someone you know? I am not a cheery person. I don’t know many writers who are. That’s not to say I am terribly morose or depressing. I simply mean that writers, at least the ones I know, focus on parts that can go wrong. I suppose that isn’t a surprise. “And they loved each other very much and nothing ever went wrong” doesn’t make a very compelling story. Also I tend to work in the hardboiled genre, which amplifies this edict, ten fold.
The second half of that question, to what extent do I draw on real people—I’d say quite a bit. In the 1990’s I had a pretty bad drug problem, and most of my milieu draws on that experience, for better or worse. Even when I am not tapping that well, I end to use real people as inspiration. My friend “Jimmy” appears frequently in the collection. First name. Last name. His plot ideas (credit where credit is due; “Red Pistachios” and “Tripping for Biscuits” couldn’t have been written without Jimmy). In fact, speaking of “Red Pistachios,” that piece is based on a former professor I had. I use his name, straight up. With permission, of course. I find it helps if I can picture someone in my head when I am writing. In the case of “RP,” the inspiration is nothing like the character outside of name. But simply attaching a name with a face helps me propel the narrative.
How do characters change or evolve throughout the course of the story? Is that even necessary in modern fiction? You don’t want to risk oversimplification with sweeping statements, but change has to be at the center of a story. I had a terrific professor, Lynne Barrett, amazing writing, amazing teacher, who hammered this point home. Until I met her, I resisted this idea. Lynne said I wasn’t alone. Writers tend to be introverts. As such, we are most comfortable in our own heads. How many beginning writers have their stories set in a bar or café? And then use “Hills Like White Elephants” to back them up. You are not Hemingway. Can a story without action or change work? Sure. But your odds go greatly down.
In what ways do these stories reflect your worldview?
Like I said, I am not a cheery person. There’s a staying in AA: Every day is a gift, that’s why it’s called the present. I get why some people—especially those in recovery—accentuate the positive. And again, that isn’t to say I sit around the house draped in black listening to Robert Smith or Morrissey. I mean, I do listen to the Smiths and the Cure, but that’s only because Meat is Murder is such an amazing record.
Great fiction is born from conflict. I don’t care who’s writing it. If we had all the answers and everything was sunshine and puppies, we would be too busy hugging unicorns to tackle literature, right? Books are escapism, true, but they also provide some answers. You can’t hit a reader over the head; didactic is a bad, bad word in fiction (see Ayn Rand). But you don’t put down Catcher in the Rye without having a firm grasp on Salinger’s worldview.
Given that you write so much about crime and even murder—let’s just say “the darker elements” of the human condition—do you ever make yourself uncomfortable? I mean, your stories are, well, dark.
They are. But not without brevity or humor. This is important. It goes back to not wanting to hit a reader over the head. Job #1, I believe, of any writer is to entertain. Weave a compelling narrative, which can grip and enthrall, deliver, if only temporarily, to another world, is paramount.
So I wouldn’t say “uncomfortable”… A fellow writer, Joe Lapin, came up from L.A. to read for my reading series (Lip Service West) a few weeks back. Joe studied under Lynne Barrett as well. We were talking over coffee. I said, something like, “You know what the read tragedy of being a writer is?” And he said, without missing a beat, “You lose the magic.” That’s the trade-off. In order to create—for others to enjoy a sense of wonder—you must surrender the ability to appreciate it yourself. I can’t read a book or story—or watch a movie—without dissecting plot and character. Don’t worry about thanking me. Just adds to my already massive messiah complex.
Do you have a routine? A certain amount of hours every day? I’ve heard of some authors creating entire backstories for their characters. Do you go that far?
I am always skeptical when I hear stuff like that. I suppose that might be a defense mechanism to my feeling inherently lazy. Writing isn’t easy. But it’s also not ditch digging. I actually did ditch digging. Back during the drug years. Labor Ready in Minnesota. 1999. I lasted seven hours (a story based on that experience comes out in an upcoming All Due Respect anthology).
That said, I treat writing like a job. There’s a great Raymond Chandler line. I think it’s from The Big Sleep. I could be wrong. But in it a client is surprised by Marlowe’s relentless investigation. He says, something like, “Get it through your pretty head. I work at it, lady. I don’t play at it.” That sums up my attitude toward craft nicely.
How do you get past writers block or distractions like the Internet?
The million dollar question… I had a professor in grad school, Dan Wakefield. Wrote Going All the Way, New York in the Fifties. I asked him once what it was like before the Internet. Like if you needed to find out the chief export of Finland. He was, like, “Joe, oh, it was awful. We’d have to go to the library and fill out a card with a question. Then give it to the librarian, and she’d get in these metal cages and go up to the reference section on the 6th floor, and go through the stacks, find the book on Finland, write down the answer, get back in the cages…” And I was like, Man, yhat’s terrifying.
So it’s a necessary evil. The Internet. So much of what a writer does today is self-promotion. That simply wouldn’t be possible without social networking sites like Facebook. It’s where you link your book, ask people to check out your latest story (or interview). There is also the potential to be a colossal waste of time.
Favorite book from childhood?
I named my son “Holden.” That should answer the question.