Joe Clifford graduated from Berlin High School in 1988. He looks back on that time as a time when he didn't fit in. He struggled to find his voice. after graduation, he battled demons and had to overcome a substance abuse problem and homelessness to stay alive.
Clifford now lives in the San Francisco Bay area, is married, has a son and is working on his third book. His success has reached across the country as he has been asked back by his alma mater, Central Connecticut State University, to speak to aspiring writers. His first books, Choice Cuts is available on Amazon. His new book, Wake the Undertaker, is to be released soon and then there is Junkie Love, an autobiographical tale, will be out soon and Lamentation, a book based in New Hampshire but clearly it's Berlin.
Berlin Patch Local Editor Bob Mayer caught up with Clifford and had this question and answer period.
BP - Talk about your times in Berlin, what you remember, if you stay in contact with anyone, etc...?
JC - I do stay in contact with a lot of Berlin people, actually. A few years ago, the Class of ’88 had its, oh, wow, our 20th reunion! Y’know, when I graduated I never thought I’d attend a high school reunion. But, man, it was terrific. I saw so many old friends, Jim Case, Heather Richotte, Ron Lamontagne, all these folks I hadn’t seen in ages. I’d been talking to them a bit because of Facebook. Growing up, Berlin was tough for me. I wasn’t a small town guy, and being an artist (i.e., not an athlete), well, you know how high school is when, to quote the immortal Chrissie Hynde, “you hang with the ugly people in the art room.” I felt like an outsider and couldn’t wait to leave. Of course, wherever you go, there you are, and I later realized the tough part wasn’t being in Berlin; it was being me. After that reunion, reconnecting, all my old classmates have been so supportive of my work, reading my blog, buying my book, helping spread the word. It’s been wonderful. Being a parent now, I also think how great it would be to raise my son in Berlin. Go figure!
BP - How did you begin writing and before this latest, Choice Cuts, came out how did you make ends meet?
JC - When I got sober, I enrolled back in school (Central Connecticut State University—where I’ve been asked to come back and read! A dream of mine, honestly. May 1, Marcus White Hall, 5:30 p.m.), and there I learned not only creative writing but the technical aspect as well. I became editor of the school literary magazine, Helix, and studied grammar, hardcore. I love grammar. I have pretty bad OCD, and something about the minutia and specificity of grammar really appeals to me. There are so many rules, but once you learn it’s “bated” breath and not “baited,” or how not to dangle your modifiers, you know it for good. And that’s how I made ends meet. I’d edit. When I went on for my Masters, I’d help other students with dissertations, cobble together various projects. Plus, the school, Florida International University, paid me a stipend to attend. Being an artist is a little like being a shoemaker in that respect: you have to cobble!
BP - Do your Berlin friends know you are an author, would they be surprised?
JC - Well, I was voted Most Artistic. But please don’t go back and read my yearbook. It was the ’80s. Not the best time for fashion. I think I seriously rock the popped collar in my picture. Most of my Berlin friends are on Facebook, so they see the updates regarding my career (2012 was a really good year), and like I say, they’ve been among my biggest fans.
BP - Where do the ideas come from? Is there any personal experience in there or is it pure fiction?
JC - I think as an author, you are always drawing from the personal. The best advice any aspiring writer gets is to “write what you know.” As most of my friends in Berlin are aware, I grappled with addiction in the ’90s. This was shortly after I moved San Francisco. And I write a lot about that darkness and the characters I met there. So there’s that. And the city itself plays a huge role. At heart though I am a pop culture guy. I like Springsteen. I love Rocky. I named my son after Catcher in the Rye. And I work hard to be accessible. I would rather read Stephen King than David Foster Wallace. I mean, the single biggest influence in Choice Cuts is probably the old Twilight Zone, which was my mother’s favorite show, and one we used to watch constantly. She passed away in 2004. But she did get me to see me sober, something for which I’ll be forever grateful.
BP- Talk about the drug problems a little bit, how they started and how bad it got. How did you get through it. What was the bottom and now the highlights?
JC - Not to endlessly plug or anything, but in April my autobiographical novel, Junkie Love (Battered Suitcase Press) will be coming out, and I answer all those questions. In depth. I mean it’s tough to talk about that bottom. The thing with addicts and bottoms, when you finally hit it, you just keep digging. It got bad though. It was 10 years that ended with homelessness and no shoes, arrests, overdoses, all of it. How I got through it? Religion is a loaded word these days, I know, but in a word: God. I mean, how bad it got, how low I sank, how hopeless it looked, I’m sorry, I’m just not that lucky. I have to believe something/one was looking out for me.
BP - What is your status now? Married? Kids?
JC - I am married to the lovely Justine. She’s from Berkeley, a little more…hippy…than Berlin folks are used to! It’s funny. We just got a cat, clawed my leather chair to shreds. I was, like, just declaw her! Justine was aghast. “We don’t do that out here!” So every couple of days she has to—I’m serious—place these little teeny plastic caps over the cat’s claws. Of course they fall off in ten minutes. It’s also what I love about her. We East Coasters are harder. (Although, really, just declaw the cat!) We have one son. Holden. He’s two, and as I mentioned, named after Holden Caulfield (my Berlin High English teachers would be proud!) Catcher in the Rye is my favorite book of all time.
BP - Do you have a book deal or or they all on their own?
JC - No, they are all with publishers. My first book, which is out now, Choice Cuts, and my second, an old school hardboiled detective novel, Wake the Undertaker (the great title courtesy of Berlin’s own Jimmy Soyka) are both out with Snubnose Press. Junkie Love will be put out my Battered Suitcase Press. I recently signed with Liz Kracht of the Kimberley Cameron & Associates Agency, and we are shopping my latest novel, a mystery, Lamentation. Though I set the novel in upstate New Hampshire, it is clearly Berlin. I even have a scene with the crane sticking out of a pond…
BP - Were there any teachers who were influential in your writing success?
JC - Yes. The Berlin High School teachers were HUGELY influential. In fact, I can honestly say, Carol Virostek, was the FIRST teacher to push me toward writing. I remember the assignment too. We had to write a journal. This was the 10th grade I think. I didn't have a lot of self-esteem. But I'll tell you exactly what she wrote with my grade: "You have a fine flair for writing." No one ever told me that before. (I was a poor student.) I'll never forget that, though.
BP - Anything else you want to add?
JC - Just a thanks to all my old classmates and Berlin friends who’ve supported my work! Means the world!
A few reviews of Clifford's works:
“Rarely have I encountered a young writer with a voice so true, so clear, and whose work, while transcending genre, explores the dark, gritty underside of the human heart with such an accomplished sense of authority and authenticity. All of us here in South Florida have admired the talent of Joe Clifford for years, and with the right editor and a nurturing publisher, booksellers everywhere will be proud to handsell anything he has to offer.”
Mitchell Kaplan, Owner, Books & Books, Miami, Florida
"And that’s what makes Clifford’s writing so powerful. It is raw. It is unexpected. It isn’t concerned with what’s fair. It doesn’t tie things up with a pretty bow at the end. In short, it’s life. Life distilled into sixteen amazing stories which highlight how fragile life really is and how even the best intentions can have the worst consequences."
Eliabeth A. White
"Clifford’s debut short story collection Choice Cuts mines the fractured territory of the marginalized, misanthropic, and short-changed. From morally bereft television producers desperate for a hit, to veterans suffering psychotic splits, Clifford delves into the madness and desperation that plague those living on the edge, while never surrendering the search for the light that guides us all. In these fast-paced, hard-hitting tales of ne’er-do-wells, addicts, and gangsters, two predominant themes emerge throughout the collection: human life frequently reduced to little more than pieces of meat, and the bad choices we often make to escape that fate, however good our intentions."