A Lot of the Story Left to Tell by Joe Clifford

Joe Clifford
It’s an honor to welcome Joe clifford to the site today. Anyone with even a passing acquaintance with the crime fiction community has known about Clifford’s work for quite some time. From getting short stories published places like Shotgun Honey, Thuglit, and A Twist of Noir, to working as the editor of the The Flash Fiction Offensive, to his first two novels Wake the Undertaker and Junkie Love, Clifford has been a mainstay in the crime fiction community. He took things to the next level, however, with the release of the first book in his Jay Porter series, Lamentation, in late 2014. Lamentation was well received by readers and critics alike, garnering a starred review from Publishers Weekly and earning an Anthony Award nomination for Best Mystery Novel. Now, with the second Jay Porter book, December Boys, about to drop and the writing of the third already under his belt, Clifford has stopped by to talk about what it’s like to settle in to writing a series.

Joe CliffordA Lot of the Story Left to Tell

A week from today, December Boys, my second book in the Jay Porter thriller series, comes out with Oceanview Publishing. I won’t say I almost forgot about it because that sounds terribly disingenuous and ungrateful, neither of which I am. But the release did creep up on me a bit, only because since writing DB, I’ve completed two more novels, including the follow-up, Cold, Cold Hills (technically you don’t italicize until the book is actually published. My editing nerd runs deep), and a standalone.

I feel almost guilty writing that. Raised Catholic, I’ve had that particular emotion hammered deep. I was talking with my buddy Tom Pitts the other day, remarking how strange it is that we both published our first books little over five years ago. Time is relative (as is, well, everything), but it seems nuts when I think back to getting out of grad school in Florida, hobbled from a motorcycle wreck, $100K in student loan debt, and living, to quote Craig Finn, in a rented room. Back then having a single book published seemed so fantastic. Perhaps the only thing stranger is that I’d find myself writing a series.

When I was penning Lamentation, the first Porter book, I did leave enough threads for a possible sequel. But in all fairness, I’ve always been delusional when it comes to art, where I’ve employed a Go Big or Go Home philosophy. My friend Joe Loya says a writer needs to know his/her audience, and then write the hell out of his story for that audience. Meaning, if you want to write an old-timey yarn with a hard-drinking PI come Sin City, which is what my first novel, Wake the Undertaker, is, fine. Just know you are going to have a different (i.e., smaller) draw than if you target a bigger, broader crowd. Niche is nice; I’d rather be Gillian Flynn or Paula Hawkins.

While at Florida International University (home of the Golden Panthers and Dennis Lehane), I studied under Les Standiford and James W. Hall, both of whom wrote a series. Les had his John Deal books, in which he wisely used Deal in every title—Done Deal, Raw Deal, Deal to Die For, etc. I say wisely, because as I head into Book 3, I am already leaning very hard on Jimmy (my title man), and since Jimmy himself went back for his Masters, I am on my own. I can be hit or miss with titles. (Both Wake the Undertaker and Lamentation are Jimmy’s. December Boys is mine, but I stole that from Two Cow Garage.) James W. Hall has the Thorn books, which extended considerably longer than Les’s.

I recently heard an interview that Jim Hall gave with Pam Stack for Authors on the Air, in which he remarked on the challenges of writing a series character. He said when he set out he never envisioned publishing . . . seventeen of them. I can’t imagine writing seventeen Jay Porter books, but honestly with each one, it does get easier. You get attached.

Joe CliffordThe hardest part of writing December Boys was knowing I’d have to go back in and fuck up Jay Porter’s shit. Lamentation ends with the hope of a contented life. Which in fiction—especially the dark variety I write—can’t stay for long. “They loved each other very much and nothing ever went wrong” makes for a wonderful life. But it’s a lousy book.

But that’s the cool part too, and why I think so many authors embrace writing a series. You get to work on both the micro and macro level. Instead of looking at character arc in terms of 60,000 to 80,000 words, you get a lifetime, which is more lifelike.

At this point, I know Jay Porter pretty well. It’s like method acting but for, y’know, authors. I am not much of a beer drinker. Except when I am writing Porter, who has been known to knock back a case a night. And while my two-beer limit pales in comparison, I can say any consumption is directly tied to that character (otherwise I’m more of a wine guy). Jay has a nervous disorder, too. When writing Jay, I develop a left eye tic. And Jay’s tendencies impact my personal relationships. The other night I got in an argument with my wife, Justine, who said, “Knock it off! You’re acting like Jay Porter.” Jay is hardly a reasonable man. Or as Tom Pitts likes to say, “He is guided by a broken moral compass.”

But there is comfort in going home again, and for me Jay is home. The setting, the town, the weather, the people. It’s a very New England series. Jay Porter is based on my half brother Jay Streeter, but Jay is really me. And the longer I write the character (and it looks like I will be writing him for a while), the more I realize just how much of his story I have left to tell.

Joe Clifford writes from experience. He spent a decade on the streets before getting back on track to make writing his life. He is the award-winning author of Choice Cuts, Wake the Undertaker, Junkie Love, and Lamentation. Clifford lives in California with his wife, Justine, and their sons.
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1 Comment

  • Sue Coletta

    June 8, 2016 - 6:19 am

    So nice to see you here, Joe. As you know, I loved Lamentation and I’m sure December Boys will intrigued me as well. The post you wrote about the eye tick was hilarious; I couldn’t help but chuckle that it’s returning with each novel.

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