Joe Clifford’s author photo shows a bearded man in a black T-shirt. Tattooed arms, one a colorful sleeve. He looks strong. Tough. Kind. He looks like a man who’s been through a lot, and he has. His first book, Junkie Love, draws on his battle with drugs and his life on the streets as a homeless heroin addict in San Francisco in the 1990s. His next, Lamentation, started as a sequel and ended up as a series of crime novels featuring handyman Jay Porter. They’re gritty and edgy, character-driven books that come across as unflinching.
Clifford’s latest book has a much younger protagonist. “SKUNK TRAIN is a strange genre,” Clifford says. “I mean, I’d call it ‘YA thriller,’ but you don’t see much of that. Add to it there’s still a lot of drugs, killing, profanity (it’s still a ‘Joe Clifford’ book, I don’t think it’s going to land in a Highlights magazine excerpt…But at heart, this one is about growing up and falling in love and discovering who you are.)”
Joe, thanks for joining us to talk about SKUNK TRAIN. Why don’t we start with a little bit about your writing journey and how you came to write crime novels?
Sure! Thanks for having me. I’m happy to talk about my journey. Although I must admit I am feeling a little like I’m beating a dead horse. (That’s a heroin joke.) It’s impossible to talk about my writing journey without mentioning the drug addiction. Which I am sure people are as sick of hearing about as I’m recapping. But, yeah, without that life as a scumbag, I probably am not carving out a career writing about … scumbags. Although that’s not entirely true either. The authorial depiction part at least.
There is a perception that every addict and criminal is a scumbag. And, yeah, a lot of them are. Then again, a lot of bankers and CEOs are scumbags. Just a different, more socially palatable breed. I met some really good people out there when I was using and on the streets, and this isn’t excusing drug abuse. I was wrong. I made the bad decisions. The onus falls on me and me alone.
But there is also beauty out there. I think there is beauty everywhere. Some places it’s tougher to find it. You think of the most harrowing events in history, how miserable people must’ve have been, how hard they’ve suffered—and again this isn’t to compare my own foolishness with true tragedy—but I do think that the worse the night gets, the more we search for the light of dawn. That is what noir and crime fiction is all about, really—this world of darkness and pain, life en extremis—and finding a glimmer of hope to go on. That’s what draws people to the genre. Some people. Others just want a good mystery. And I try to deliver that too.
Kyle is a seriously flawed character, yet the reader empathizes with and cares about him. How did you make him relatable, despite his personal failings?
I started writing SKUNK TRAIN around the same time as I started Lamentation (starring the surly Jay Porter; that book led to a five-part series). There are a lot of similarities between the two characters, starting with both Jay and Kyle being, well, prickly. I remember when I started writing, I asked my friend (screenwriter) Reed Bernstein who he based his characters on. He told me every author is writing, in some ways, a version of themselves. I believe that is true. Even the bad guys share commonalities with their creator. I am … a prickly person. I am not particularly pleasant to be around (ask my poor wife, Justine). I can be moody and obstinate and pretty bullheaded. But I also think I have a good heart and try to do the right thing.
I think Jay and Kyle have good hearts and try to do the right thing. The difference with Kyle is, he’s younger, which gives him a better chance at change. He’s 15 when the book starts out. Jay is already 30. Two of my biggest literary influences are Catcher in the Rye and Kerouac. I named my sons after those books/authors. I often think one path Holden might’ve taken could’ve brought him to Sal Paradise. With Kyle, the dramatic events in SKUNK TRAIN deliver him to, I hope, a better place.
Kyle and Lizzie come from vastly different backgrounds. How did you manage to capture two such opposite characters so convincingly? Especially when one is a teenage girl?
This one is pretty easy. Kyle is me; Lizzie is based a lot on my wife, Justine, who, like Lizzie, was born and bred in the Bay Area. Like Kyle, I came from a small Podunk sort of town. I leaned a lot on my wife for getting Lizzie right. I remember expressing my frustration early on in trying to write a teenage girl, and Justine telling me “girls that age are walking contradictions.” That helped a lot. Writing Lizzie, I leaned more on emotion and instinct than logic and rigidity.
You explore some dark themes in the book, but there’s also a fair amount of humor. How do you balance the two in your work?
Ha! I’m glad you say that. I think I am funny. A lot of readers find my work really, really dark. And I’m not denying it is. But there’s humor. It’s often twisted, warped, gallows humor. But it’s there!
What have you always wished someone would ask you?
Why do I keep doing it, writing, if it makes me so miserable? The job pays next to nothing, fills me with self-doubt, I hate writing (I like having written), and yet … when I am not writing, I feel lost. Strangest damned thing. But I think a lot of other writers will get that. Writing used to be fun back before it was a career, when I could just turn phrases and express feelings. But that isn’t professional writing; that’s journaling. I guess what I’m getting at is it’s a job. And it’s a hard job. No, it’s not 50 hours in a factory inhaling noxious fumes, but I still think it’s a hard job. And it’s an important job. I mean, I may never break through to the heights I’m hoping for. Same holds true for a lot of indie writers. But what we’re doing, interpreting the world as we see it and trying to communicate with other humans, I think that matters, right?
Joe Clifford is the author of several books, including The One That Got Away, Junkie Love, and the Jay Porter Thriller Series, as well as editor of the anthologies Trouble in the Heartland: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Songs of Bruce Springsteen, Just to Watch Them Die: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Songs of Johnny Cash, and Hard Sentences, which he co-edited.
To learn more about the author and his work, please visit his website.