Joe Clifford is the author of several books, including 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. Joe’s writing can be found at www.joeclifford.com.
Last night I spoke at a meeting for the Napa Valley Writers. I get these speaking engagements periodically, and they are always fun. Had a lovely time. Wonderful people. Sold books, got paid. Afterward one of the group members asked me if I perform professionally. Like a monologist, Eric Bogosian or Joel Grey. Which was hysterical given my crippling fear of public speaking. But I’ve been doing it a while, forcing myself to perform live. I guess I’ve gotten okay at it. Then again, I’m pretty sure any success is due mostly to the story.
I used to be a junkie. And even writing that now, I want to roll my eyes into the back of my skull. It’s been years since I was shooting smack, homeless on the streets of San Francisco. I stopped doing that shit in 2001. Since then, I’ve gotten married (twice), earned multiple college degrees, had a couple kids, published close to a dozen novels, mainly mysteries and thrillers. Today I spent all afternoon golfing at the country club. But anytime I am contacted by press, asked to speak for whatever, it ain’t the mystery novels they want to talk about. It’s always, to quote Johnny Thunders, the junkie bullshit.
And if it sounds like I am bitter, tired of reading and performing from my recovery memoir Junkie Love—I’m not. I’m deeply appreciative that I wrote a book that means so much to so many. I’m not implying I’m a household name or famous by any stretch. My wife, Justine, calls me an “E-list celebrity.” Which might be overselling it. But I do get a lot of e-mails from folks who’ve read Junkie Love, which has become something of a cult novel. They write and thank me for telling the story of my addiction. Usually they have a friend, family member, loved one battling drugs, and they want advice, encouragement; and I try to give it to them. Because people can change.
No, any resentment you’re sensing is directed squarely at me. I accepted a while ago that, like Rick Springfield never being able to skip “Jessie’s Girl” at a concert, Junkie Love will always be my greatest hit. Which is fine. I love the book. I mean, I wrote the damn thing. What bugs me is getting credit for having crawled out of a hole I dug for myself. I have a tough time recognizing anything admirable in my behavior. I was cruel, selfish; I hurt people. Because I wanted to be high all day long, whatever the price, no matter whom I stepped over or disappointed. I can’t celebrate stopping what I never should’ve started.
As time goes on, as I move further from the drug years, I only feel regret. Regret that I couldn’t get straight sooner so that my mother might’ve lived long enough to meet my sons. Regret that I couldn’t save my brother, Josh, who did many of the same things I did. Only I got out. I got the nice house, some money, a family. He got cirrhosis. Josh died last November. He was 43. I suppose it’s a form of survivor’s guilt, what I’m experiencing. At least that is what my psychiatrists say. I suppose it’s a common enough reaction when you move on to better things while so many others suffer.
And yet those ten years I spent homeless and addicted paved the way to my becoming a writer. I don’t know if I would’ve published a book without the experience. Being stomped down daily, ground into dirt, you are forced to learn compassion, empathy. You can’t be a cocky, smug sonofabitch. You learn humility by being humiliated.
My son, Holden, is seven. And one day, trying to be a good dad, I was attempting to impart sage advice. He was commenting on how many books I had published. I said, “Son, if you want to be successful at anything in life you have to work hard.” To which my boy replied, “You just had to live without a house.”
He wasn’t wrong.
Most of my life has been a series of epic fuck-ups. Going left when I should’ve gone right, up when I should’ve done down, and somehow I’m okay. I don’t hear the good in that. I don’t hear, “Hey, nice job stopping being a scumbag junkie, getting your shit together, being a responsible father, helping other writers.” What I see instead is the dog that’s been rewarded for pissing on the couch.
All my work—short stories, novels, collections—tend to involve drugs. More than the drugs, however, I aim to share the story the outcast and the downtrodden, the ne’er-do-well and screw-up. The Jay Porter thriller series, which comprises five books, revolves around the subject of addiction. I’m trying to shine a light on what that life is really like, hoping the afflicted are treated with dignity, cared for long enough that maybe they, too, get to turn their lives around. Maybe that’s the real point of what I do. It’s not about me or my mistakes. Maybe this is what folks hear when they ask me to speak or read Junkie Love. Maybe that’s the important part. Not how I feel. I don’t get to be exonerated. But by reporting where I came from, what I saw, I can finally start paying back some of the tremendous debt I owe.
At an AA meeting, handyman and part-time investigator Jay Porter meets a recovering addict who needs his help. In the midst of another grueling northern New Hampshire winter, Amy Lupus' younger sister, Emily, has gone missing from the Coos County Center, the newly opened rehab run by Jay's old nemeses, Adam and Michael Lombardi. As Jay begins looking into Emily's disappearance, he finds that all who knew Emily swear that she's never used drugs. She's a straight shooter and an intern at a newspaper investigating the Center—and the horrendous secret hidden in it—or beneath it.
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I'm generally pulled in a million different directions and I wouldn't trade it for the world. Here's a glimpse of my life - hope you enjoy it! And if there's a big lapse between posts, well, that's the way life goes in Amy's world.
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