Left Coast Crime 2016: A Lamb Is a Baby Sheep

lcc-2016-e1448205825557Just got back from my first Left Coast Crime. (Actually I am sitting in the airport waiting to board my flight. I have a feeling upon returning home, where my wonderful wife Justine watched the boys for the past three days I am not going to get a lot of “me” time to write this.)

As you may’ve noticed (or maybe not), I don’t blog much these days, and if I promise to do better, it’ll be like Dave Pirner says, “One more promise I couldn’t keep.” Just no time to blog. And I can’t get over the feeling that blogging has become like playing music live, a terribly invasive, in-your-face medium. At least with blogging I don’t have to haul my amp up a flight of stairs on a Wednesday night to “headline” (i.e., play last). Plus I get to include memes, which I realized at LCC is 99% of my material.

That and stories I’ve told a hundred times.

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Rock and roll IS a crime, as evidenced by this pic.

Sharing a cab ride to the airport Sunday morning with S.W. Lauden, he joked he was going to finish my “A lamb is a baby sheep” story that I’d told the previous night at the bar, which was probably the 7th time over the weekend I’d told that same story, replete with the same inflection, same manufactured observation, same, well, everything. (The story: about 2 years ago I dropped Holden off at preschool where they had adult and baby animals on the wall–cow, calf; pig, piglet, etc. When I got to  “sheep/lamb,” I exclaimed, rather loudly, in a room full of moms and kids, “Holy shit! A lamb is a baby sheep!” Just never dawned on me. There’s more to the joke, which I am sure I will repeat another hundred times. See you all at Bouchercon.)

Reminded me of I Heart Huckabees and Jude Law’s Shania Twain story. (I can’t find a clip from the actual movie, but here is the audio over Adventure Time.)

cockroach-far-side-1-780x1024It’s a default position, I suppose, and I imagine I’m not alone, especially at a crime writers conference. Left Coast Crime features many of the same players as Bouchercon. This year when AWP rejected all three panels, I was, like, fuck it. Why give AWP money to feel even weirder? I’d rather be among my own kind at LCC. And it was a great decision. Because, let’s face it, I am going to feel awkward and out of place wherever I go. It’s a feeling that only gets worse as I get older. I become more self-concious, feel more like a phony, but every time I come back from seeing my fellow crime writer friends I also experience a strange sensation: I feel loved.

Don't even ask...
Don’t even ask…

And I know that sounds a little goofy. I’m six foot one, covered in tattoos, have a criminal record. At this point I should be able to get a coffee and not feel like my buddy Clayton once described David Byrne (“He was getting a coffee, all twitchy like everyone was watching him. No one was watching him!”). But it’s important to recognize your limitations, know what you are good at. I suck at math. Don’t ask me to hang a curtain rod. Some things I do well. Some I don’t. Just like everyone else in this life. In the middle of the conference we got a great write-up in the Washington Post about a new anthology I am in re: gun awareness, and some yahoo called me a “social justice warrior,” which caused me to panic, which makes no logical sense. He wasn’t even talking about me, but every author in the collection. I am an introvert. Big deal. But the only time I get close to feeling like I belong is a crime writers convention, where (like Frank sings) the best people I know are looking out for me.

11990408_10153248763672737_4992777054754062145_nI could list all the names–Sara J. Henry, Steve Lauden, Holly West, Josh Stallings, Matt CoyleLou Berney, Hilary Davidson, Jay Stringer, Tyler Dilts, Christ Faust, CW DeWildtMichael PoolJohnny Shaw, and so many more names I am forgetting (I am not including Rob Pierce because I see that mutherfucker almost every day). I am doing the whole stream-of-concious thing. Oceanview sent me the final proofs to December Boys. These people, my mystery-writing friends, continue to hold me up. There is a line in the new book, which I steal from Scrubs, the best sitcom ever, a variation of, “Only the weak need help.” I know that’s not entirely true. But there are grains.

I am glad I made the switch to genre and get to go to conferences like Left Coast and Bouchercon because as much as I fear/hate/loathe leaving my house, it is necessary. Unless I want to be one of those weirdoes with a car packed full of newspapers who listens only to transistor radios, I have to force myself to mix and mingle, and not only because my career demands it; it’s part of being human.

Drugs-Not-Hugs-Don-t-Touch-MeSo that’s it. A big goddamn thank you to Left Coast, and specifically Ingrid Willis and Deborah Lacy, and all the folks who put these things together and make oddballs such as I feel so welcome (and a special thanks to Catriona McPherson, one of the very few whom I willingly hug!). As I prepare to hunker down indoors until New Orleans, I can’t express how much I need to do this. It’s a lot like working out. You don’t exactly look forward to the process, you know it’s going to be hard, but when you are done it was so fucking worth it.

Joy of Series

meandmylittlebrainjohndfitzgeraldBefore I started doing this writing thing as a career, I’d see a novel series and wonder what the appeal was for the author. I mean, as a reader–and more accurately movie viewer–I enjoyed going back and revisiting the same characters. (I’ve seen The Force Awakens four times so far. For my son’s sake, you understand.) My favorite book as a kid was The Great Brain series. I loved Tom Fitzgerald’s boy genius. I devoured those books. Mostly because I secretly hoped that I, too, was special and could have the run of my hometown (it didn’t quite work out that way). We get invested in characters and their worlds, and when a book is really great, we don’t want it to end; we want to stay there.

dreamsdemotivatorFor the author, however, this is tricky. I figured a writer creates a book with a beginning, middle, and, most importantly, an end. Closure works because of that whole “ending” part (and that’s really the most important part of the ending process). Of course back then I was a kid, and I believed silly things like dreams come true if you follow your passion and do the the thing you love most. But you eventually have to grow, and for me that meant waking up naked in a Massachusetts’ jail on my 30th birthday (unfortunately for me, the thing “I loved most” was heroin).

Now that I have been blessed to write books full-time (mostly due to a bus God threw in my path. The Lord works in mysterious ways), I see why authors enjoy writing a series so much. And it’s pretty much the same reason readers enjoy reading them: familiarity.

December Boys high-res copyLast October I began a new novel, Through a Glass Darkly, which I aimed to finish before starting the new Jay Porter novel, already sold to Oceanview on spec, final product due June 2016. We did the same thing with December Boys (which will be out when the next installment is due in June) last year and the timing worked out well. Start new book in January, be done by June. I like patterns. Appeals to the OCD in me. The first week of January, I was still wrapping up Darkly, and my wife was nudging me to get started on the book I’d already sold. But I had to finish Darkly because it’s fucking awesome and it features a female protagonist (a first for me), and I couldn’t enter a new world until I left the old one. Just how I am wired.

12540637_10208069719197515_5028869841085160058_nI was pretty shocked to finish an 80,000-word novel on January 10, only to begin the next Jay Porter book on the 11th, writing another 30K more in less than two weeks. While that is a #humblebrag, it’s only a slight one. Because it wasn’t very hard to slip back into the world of Ashton, New Hampshire (really Berlin, CT). Darkly was a very difficult novel to write. The subject matter is particularly gruesome, I was writing a female POV, and experimenting with narrative (going 3rd person, which is more of a challenge for me than 1st). This’s both good and bad. It’s good to be challenged and to push yourself. Returning to Jay Porter was effortless. Like an old pair of running shoes* (*note: wait for motif payoff next paragraph).

There are other challenges, of course. I think December Boys is an improvement on Lamentation, and I can’t write a 3rd without trying to up the ante. I don’t want to tread water; I want to forge new ground* (*I didn’t say it would be a good payoff).

A Force Awakens: A Sort of (Not Really) Review

aqBeym1Yes, we get it. You don’t like Star Wars. All six of you.

I waited 33 years for last week. The release of a brand-new, actual sequel to Star Wars. Of course, there was an actual sequel called The Empire Strike Back, and then a few years after that we had Return of the Jedi. There were the dreaded prequels. But for most Star Wars fans, of which I am very, very much one, these movies fall in two groups: the awesome original trilogy, and then the nearly unwatchable drek, Episodes I – III. Of which only the last 20 minutes of III is watchable. (Although I do enjoy Ewan McGregor’s Alec Guiness impersonation.)

10437325_972875009438388_8955436106138305972_nWe are a funny lot, us humans. Or maybe it’s an American thing. I don’t know. I don’t leave my house much. I used to joke that one day I’d live virtually, and that has sorta come to fruition, given the amount of time I spend online, which is where my job is, my writing network, etc. As such, my take on reality may be skewed. But I have picked up patterns–and maybe this is accentuated by the online, anonymous culture–but the reaction to mainstream, populist culture always amuses me. And by amuses I mean bugs the fuck out of me.

funny-man-halloween-smallDoesn’t matter what the “thing” is, if it’s popular enough, someone is always there to tell you how much they hate it. Which is really quite silly if you think about about. You have hundreds talking about how much they love something, but Bob over there feels compelled to let you know that he doesn’t like that … thing!

I wish I could say I was better. But I’m really not. Ask my wife.

bmlj6cpcaaanwxsAnytime Justine is watching some insipid reality show, whether it’s The Bachelorthe Bachelorette, or American Idol (or any number of the crappy ones she watches), I can’t walk in the room without letting her know how much I hate it. What does it matter if I think reality television is stupid? It’s not like my wife is asking me to watch it with her. But I do it every time. I’ll walk by and have to make a snarky comment about how lame I think that shit is. They get millions of viewers, every week–or else they wouldn’t be on the air–so clearly many, many people enjoy them. But I don’t. Like Ray Davis, I’m not like everyone else.

Of course I am right and they are wrong, my tastes correct, and if you don’t agree with me you are fundamentally lacking in aesthetic appreciation and artistic acumen. Duh. In short, I am no different than anyone else.

starwars_forceawakens

 

tumblr_nruaxcLzVS1uvm6rjo1_1280I bought advance tickets for Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens, and was super stoked to see it (so much so that I am using phrases like “super stoked”). For the past 20-odd years (or whenever I got off dope/signed on to the Internet), I’ve had my morning ritual. I make my coffee and I click through my sites. The pattern has always been the same, some sites get added, others get dropped, but it’s basically this: Email. Social Media. Sports. Pop culture. Book sales. It became habit to type one of the two phrases into a search engine: “Pink Floyd reunion album” and “New Star Wars movie.” Did this, regularly, for years. Nothing on the former (I want a new record with Roger), but about two years ago, after all the fruitless searches, I got a hit. Disney had bought Star Wars from George Lucas, and we were getting an honest-to-God sequel. Everyone was happy. Then came the haters.

I hate the term “hater.” Much like I loath the phrase “disrespect” (respect is something you give–how can you impact in the negative?). But it’s part of the lexicon, and it fits here, so who am I to rage against?

12391807_1653624958238446_7541737088376461463_n33 years of waiting came to an end last Thursday. I woke up in the morning, tingling with little kid Christmas morning excitement. Just like when I was 10. Star Wars has always been–like it is for most boys–something of a religion to me. Everyone has his/her favorite. I liked Luke. (I also like Springsteen, Catcher in the Rye, The New York Yankees, Taylor Swift, blue jeans, white tee shirts, motorcycles, tattoos, short jail stints, and am pretty much a walking talking American boy cliche. Even had a drug problem I kicked [and then wrote a book about it!]) The wheel works fine. I see no reason to reinvent it.

All day Thursday leading up to the movie, any time I’d check social media I’d see the gleeful masses waiting in eager anticipation, friend after friend brimming with (a new) hope that this new Star Wars wouldn’t suck. Resoundingly positive stuff, recollections of the first time they had seen the movie, or how, now, they were now taking their own children. Oh, what a glorious day! And then there would be that one killjoy who felt the need to let you know how much he didn’t like Star Wars. No, he just didn’t like it, he hated it, had never seen one movie, didn’t get, couldn’t understand what the big deal was and couldn’t care less (although they’d often phrase it “could care less,” but whatever). And he wouldn’t shut up about it.

Fuck that.
Fuck that.

I read some spoilers in Rolling Stone so it wasn’t that. Although some people felt compelled to do their best to ruin the experience any way they could, offering spoilers, trying to ruin the ending, etc. Again, I rag on the shit I don’t like, so this isn’t a “I’m better than” comment. More a commentary. What we don’t like shapes our identities as much as what we do. You have all these people super stoked to see a movie, with which they deeply identify, but it is every bit as important for another group (albeit statistically smaller) to let the world know they don’t like it! It’s the “I don’t watch/own TV” argument from Pulp Fiction.

121507_600I’ve been writing this blog for a while, so I know, like my 83-year-old shrink, that I repeat myself. But I’m getting old too. About the time Return of the Jedi came out, I was taking art in high school with Miss Wilensky (I think I have that right), and she introduced this concept called Notan, by which drawings are defined by negative shapes. That’s always stuck with me. I have a remarkable memory. I can’t remember stuff like receipts and taxes, but the important (barroom trivia) stuff stays in there.

Anyway, the movie was fucking awesome. I can’t talk about it because it just came out and I would’t want to spoil it for anyone else. Thomas Pluck does a good job capturing the emotions in a (spoiler-free) review over at his place. I can just say that it was worth the wait. I have a few minor quibbles, like I do with every movie, but Star Wars finally seems to be in the right hands (I love George, but anyone who calls Empire Strikes Back the worst in the canon clearly can’t be allow to oversee the project anymore. Once an artist creates, especially a defining work that resonates as much as Star Wars did/does, propriety is out the proverbial window). Overall, I was thrilled with The Force Awakens. Especially since I was able to take my boy. (The circle is complete.)

201206151258As for the rest of it, no big deal. Got a couple funny texts/emails, like, “Did you unfriend me over Star Wars?” And the answer is, yes. But I didn’t mean to. I tried to unfollow certain naysayers because I wanted to enjoy the movie and not deal with the negativity (how’s that for irony?), but when that didn’t work I had to block the worst offenders. Apparently when you block on Facebook, you unfriend, so that was a little embarrassing. But not really. I might have to do it again. The Force Awakens reestablishes the Star Wars franchise in a big, big way, which means we can look forward to a couple absolute certainties: more Star Wars movies, and more people who feel compelled to tell you how much they hate a make-believe galaxy far, far away.

A Search for Common Ground

12107217_10153787348414369_2670603592495987593_nYou might’ve heard there was another mass shooting this past week. That’s 294 this year, and closing in on 1,000 in the last three. Now, in terms of ways I want to spend a Monday morning, debating the 2nd Amendment falls somewhere between reading Jane Austen again and getting tested for the clap (again). Couple weeks ago, I wrote, what I thought was, a fairly benign, lighthearted post about Tom Brady’s support of Donald Trump. I still managed to upset a couple friends of mine who reminded me of a promise I made: no politics on this blog. So what I’d like to try to do here today is talk about a very touchy, incendiary topic, with wildly vacillating points of views and impassioned perspectives, and come up with common ground, however shaky. I want to write Hemingway’s one, true sentence re: guns in this country. So here goes:

We have a problem.

GunGraph copy 2Can we at least all agree on that? Is that even debatable? Not proposing background checks, more mandatory this or that, stricter regulations, whatever; I am not infusing this post with my own ideological beliefs. I’m not mentioning presidential candidates or legislation, just making a simple statement that there’s got to be a better way. Is there anyone who views 1,000 mass shootings in a three-year span as acceptable?

mass_shooting_map.0Now the tricky part is how to fix it, I know that, and I want no fucking part of it. At least not here, not now. Call me a coward or a pacifist, or just a dude who at 45 is way too busy to spend his day fighting with no hopes of resolution. I have good friends who love their guns. I have good friends who would love to see them outlawed. You guys want to talk, I’d be happy to put you in touch. Although if you are looking for a little discourse on the subject, you don’t have to look far.

I spend a lot of time on social media. I work (my paying job) online and so often I’ll have two laptops open. Soon as a mass shooting occurs, I watch the lines light up. And I tip-toe away from the inferno. It’s not that I don’t care–I care deeply–it simply gets exhausting watching the two camps splinter and say the same damn things. Nothing gets solved. And then there is another shooting pretty much the next day. Or later that same day. That isn’t hyperbole. 290+ mass shootings in 270+ days. Do the math.

mass_shootings_calendar.0So I wondered if I wrote a post, could I come up with a single sentence that wouldn’t offend anyone, the most base of assertions to achieve consensus. One as simple as 1,000 mass shootings in 3 years is too many. Again: Not advocating for stricter laws. Not championing arming every man, woman and child in a school. I take no position on here (right now) other than to say this: what we are doing isn’t working.

That statement has proven pretty instrumental in my life. Back when I was a junkie, it helped me get clean. When I found that proverbial bottom, lying, quite literally, in the gutter, without shoes and covered in sores, I said to myself, “Joe”–because I often talked to myself in the 3rd person in those days (Joe doesn’t do that anymore; he finds it hubristic)–“we don’t know what’s down that road over there, that road without drugs, where emotions run wild and feelings hurt, but one thing is for sure: what we are doing sure as fuck isn’t working.”

gun homicides per capitaAnd so I’ll evoke it once more, and that’s as far as I am getting into it. Everyone has a finger to point and something(one) to blame. I have opinions too. Talking about them would get me nowhere. Gun control is like abortion twenty years ago, a hotbed topic; bring it up, veins pop and people get fired up. I have a real problem with my temper. Or I used to. I learned to control my temper, mostly by not challenging it. Like Bruce Banner not riding the subway at rush hour. Not a good idea. People, places, and circumstances, all things to avoid. I just know something’s gotta give; something has to change. Because what we are doing sure as fuck ain’t working. And if at least we can all agree there is a problem, then maybe, just maybe, that means there’s a solution, too.

In Defense of Tom Brady (Sort Of)

No, this isn’t about soft balls.

the-most-interesting-man-in-the-world-meme-generator-i-don-t-always-keep-up-with-politics-but-when-i-do-i-laugh-at-donald-trump-d41d8cA couple weeks ago, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was spotted with a Donald Trump “Make America Great” ball cap in his locker. Brady’s comment to reporters that Trump has “done great things for America” led to speculation he supported Trump for president. Brady later ended any doubt when he said “[it] would be great” if Donald Trump were president. Some of my left-leaning friends were outraged, but many of them already hated Brady and the Pats so that was easy. But my liberal friends from New England were left reeling. How could they still support their team?

trump-catI know there are actually people who support Donald Trump for president. I don’t actually know any of them, and if you are one of these people, please don’t contact me or respond, or engage me in any way. Nothing personal. But we’d have nothing to say to one another. There’s a better chance of a doorknob and tuber collaborating on a wholly original fruit salad recipe than the two of us having a meaningful conversation. (Although the “trump your cat” is pretty much made for the Internet.)

meme10I should state here that I am not a Brady “fan.” Nor do I hate the guy. I grew up in New England, and always had a soft spot for the Patriots, going back to the great Steve Grogan. When my 49ers fell by the wayside after Eddie D. (the glorious, short-lived Harbaugh rejuvenation notwithstanding), I’d find myself rooting for the Pats. But even then it was mostly in opposition, love defined by hate. I hate the NY Giants. I loathe Roger Goodell. Even in the wake of scandals, I took the Pats side. I am also slightly contrarian. I get outraged at zealots and the righteous who isolate moments of unfairness when this whole fucking world is unfair. (Yes, Barry Bonds and Roger Clemons did steroids. And Babe Ruth didn’t play against black people and half his home runs bounced over the fence; every ball player in the 1970s was on speed.)

My point is I am not a Brady fanboy. I like him enough, but not enough that if here were caught pulling a Cosby I’d defend him. Though I might still have him on my fantasy team (as I do in one league this year, full disclosure).

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imagesAs an unapologetic liberal (in theory. Being a liberal, I apologize all the time. Sorry for my white privilege), I can’t imagine anyone supporting Donald Trump, or most right-wing candidates. Same as the other side doesn’t understand why we like Bernie or Obama. (I’m not saying who I am supporting in this year’s election, but astute readers might be able to read between the lines). Talking politics is pointless, and I sure as fuck am not letting it affect my friendships. Some of my best friends are on the right. We talk about movies or music, and if we broach touchy subjects, we find common ground. I honestly can’t recall the last political argument I had. My 20s?

11825673_964737956922041_7611139539374316021_nSo if my closest  relationships aren’t affected by political beliefs, why the fuck would I care what some bazillionaire athlete thinks? Most athletes lean right of center. If it’s not the “God thing,” it’s the simple fact that one side wants less of their money. No offense to the jocks out there, but they don’t tend to be the brightest or most progressive bulbs. Chris Kluwes are rare. Dumbing it down: we vote in our own interests. Usually. I’ll tell you this: I understand Tom Brady and Curt Shilling and whatever other 1%er voting the way they do way more than, say, someone from the reddest parts of Mississippi.

Jerry Stahl & 20 Years of Permanent Midnight

men_are_from_mars_151475Tom Pitts used to say, “Reading options suck when the gutter is your library.” They don’t let junkies into the actual library, because junkies immediately head to the bathroom, clog up the toilet, and get blood everywhere. The SF libraries have timers on the lock (and good luck hitting a tiny capillary in five minutes with that dim light). I once read Men Are from Mars; Women Are from Venus simply because I found that crap lying on the street. Oh, who am I kidding? I fucking loved that book (and it would go on to serve as the basis for my myriad marriages and subsequent divorces). Junkies collect stray books like broken men and regrets. You have nothing but time to kill and a life to waste. You see homeless selling these books for a buck on scabies-infested blankets next to broken toasters and one shoe, but that is wishful thinking. Because you can find books for free everywhere when you’re a bum. Just can’t be too selective. You read what you find. Can’t say I’d ever pick up The Unauthorized Biography of Art Garfunkel otherwise. There are, of course, divine exceptions.

Comic-3One day I found Jerry Stahl’s Permanent Midnight lying in the gutter. I’d probably been walking to Gluehead’s shack, a trek I made most every day to grovel for speed. Or maybe I was coming back from Martin De Porres, the soup kitchen on 16th @ Potrero, which cooked up the best oatmeal. I don’t know where I found the book, exactly, only that I did, and that I read it, straight through, riveted. Midnight fast became a favorite, like Catcher in the Rye or On the Road; like it was written just for me. The day the movie version came out, I borrowed my dead friend Troy’s car to take my crazy wife on a date down in Colma. Cost me half a gram. Best balloon I ever spent.

when i rocked
No, that’s all of me…

I just did an interview with the Last Bookstore, which will be hosting my upcoming reading with Jerry and Ryan Leone (Wasting Talent). Like I told them, I know this will sound hyperbolic: but Jerry Stahl saved my life. At least his book did. Or maybe not. Maybe I would’ve eventually stopped shooting junk all on my own, got off the street, gone on to earn my degrees, get married, have kids, publish a bunch of books, and buy a big house in the suburban hills regardless. I have no way of knowing. But the day I found Permanent Midnight, I was eating out of dumpsters and selling my blood (the UFO Study would give you $20 to test for diseases), I was at least 50 pounds lighter than I am now, my face was covered in pancake makeup to hide the sores and oozing pus, and I was dying. Permanent Midnight showed me there was another way for guys like us. Full of self-loathing and black, gallows humor, the story told of a deranged and damaged man who found the better parts of himself through words. Jerry Stahl offered me something in short supply in those days: hope.

And here it is, almost 20 years later. On Thursday, I get to read with one of my literary heroes, Jerry Stahl. I’ve written a lot of fiction since I picked my ass up off the street, but I could’ve have written a better script. No one would believe it.

Untitled copy

Conflict Avoidance, BMs, and Peace, Love & Understanding

10151307_10153325779439568_1591979413142075767_nDuring the Baltimore riots, a friend in Texas goaded that I should write about it, knowing damn well my aversion to conflict. Just the suggestion got me worked up, the thought of fielding antagonistic Facebook comments giving me angina. I’d say he was joking, but then someone might get offended that I am making light of a serious situation, which is the last thing I want to do and/or be accused of. In fact, let’s just forget I brought it up.

82d80e50bb899579afbb8f0a62e54664On Saturday, I received perhaps the nicest nasty comment in the history of trolling. Someone named Agoda was not very happy with my criticism of Burning Man. Which is understandable. The whole series I ran was sorta mean. I was trying to be funny, picking the low-hanging fruit. I have nothing against “burners,” not personally anyway. I mean, I find the concept, well, stupid. But, shit, I play fantasy football. We are all entitled to have our own opinions. After Agoda vented, it was really cute. He/she closed with a compliment about my writing and an apology for sounding so hostile, wishing me the best. Hippies, for all their faults, do really tend to be nice people.

originalI responded in kind back, because, like I said, this blog is designed to entertain, and picking on Burning Man became a running gag. I’m not backtracking. I’d rather gouge my eye out with a rusty spork than spend one minute on “the playa.” What’s funny is the complete 180° I’ve taken regarding the subject (i.e., stirring up shit). I mean, I used to love to cause trouble. I just loved to fight. 

954743_742273442544258_3256814792353958860_nI remember in my junkie days going back East, seeing classmates I hadn’t seen in ten, twelve years, and just pulling out my works and fixing in their living room. Forget how incredibly stupid, assholish, and immature I was in my mid- to late-20s for a moment. That’s not the point. I was a terrible, terrible person, and I am very, very sorry for my behavior. Trust me, I’ve paid the price for both my hubris and douchebaggery. I’m not going to run a laundry list of all the ways the Universe lined up to kick me in the ass. Suffice to say having to ride a fucking bicycle when I returned to college because my license was suspended in four states was as good as it got.

I used to thrive on making people uncomfortable. I was a mean, vicious little fucker. Now that I am older, a husband, father, more mature (I hope), I can look back on my brawling days and understand why. Home life, patterns of abuse, the cyclical nature of humanity. Basically just watch Welcome to the Dollhouse. As I’ve often said in this new life, Billy Joel was right: just surviving is a noble fight.

1fe005e3cTake politics, for instance. (Or let’s not.) But I used to be as far right once upon a time as I am now left. Back then, I did not shy away from discussing politics; I sought the controversy. I don’t wish to bash one ideology. I can only say that, in my case, when I was younger, the world was very black and white. People were poor because they were lazy, etc. I had countless examples to back that POV up from my lily-white suburban (ad)vantage point. Grounded rigid in my own (privileged) reality, I saw no reason to see yours.

11392981_10153440608577009_2971057579727184771_nEvery day seems like it’s getter tougher to go on social media. Everyone is so angry. And mean. And I get it. The world is a fucked-up place. Shootings and riots, people dying, tragedies exploited by everyone, on both sides, to advance agenda. It’s depressing as shit. I don’t want to be a part of it. Of course I have an opinion (the one on the left usually), but, damn, a few weeks back I wrote a blog post about that gay pizza thing, and I ended up spending my whole Monday e-arguing with a stranger. And for what? At the end of the day, did I change his mind? His mine? Nope. We both got worked up over nothing. Of course I was right. Just like he thinks he’s right. And neither is wrong.

This is the sort of shit that makes my head spin. Because like Matt Dillion says in Drugstore Cowboy, there ain’t nothing you can do to change someone’s mind. He’s talking about heroin of course, but it applies outside as well.

11254729_1089135127766719_3690733360577130048_nOf course, the irony (in the unofficial sense) is that I did have my mind changed. And, this isn’t a left or right thing, an atheist or God thing, a I’m right/you’re wrong thing. It’s how my mind was changed. How my entire being was so radically altered. The recipe was mostly, well, I got my fucking ass thoroughly kicked by life. And that’s the way I liked it. No one could tell me a damn thing. I had to experience it. I was a moron. I took the long way. But that’s just how I had to do it. Y’know, like Frank. Or Sid.

11390335_1488320761409369_3296956806427998264_nPart of the deal with getting off the street was the humility aspect. Empathy cannot be taught; it must be experienced. Recently Keith Rawson posted a video about a robbery gone horribly wrong. Which reminded me of the time back in my junkie days where, sixty or so pounds lighter, and deathly ill, I tried to steal a can of soda from the liquor store. I was caught. And while one guy held me, the other smashed my head with the soda can. Humility.

herpes-482x262I was grateful Agonda was so polite at the end. It quelled initial rage, which still surges whenever I am greeted with conflict. I mean I didn’t suddenly turn into some mellow dude; I still have that anger burning in me. I just learned not to fight so goddamn much. Because it is exhausting.

As I get older it’s much more live and let life. We are all different, all have different ideas about what’s right, and waging endless battle is exhausting. To thine own self. You want to hang in a desert for $400 a pop, taking drugs, sharing shitty art and spreading STDs? Have at it. I’ll be here worrying about whether to take Brady in the 5th round in my fantasy draft. I still have “Peace, Love, and Understanding” tattooed on my arm. And I mean it now as much as I did when I got that shit stamped at 23. Sure, now it’s more out of a desire to be left alone than it is to change the world. But the words stay the same. I guess some might say that makes me part hippie. I’ve been called worse.

Snatching Defeat from the Jaws of Victory: Anthony Awards / December Boys

10390911_10153312274921660_4410119602236735357_n-1The writing business is a funny game. It attracts a certain kind of person, ones who needs a lot of validation. This is a fairly common characteristic for artistic types, creativity springing forth from a place where self-confidence and -esteem normally resides. I am totally making that up. And probably projecting like a mutherfucker. I think we’re all self-conscious. But like Kayne, I’m just the first to admit it. (Or I guess that would make me the second.)

I don’t know why my world is so topsy-turvy, why, for instance I need outside validation, and yet, at the same time, have a tough time accepting praise.

Last week, I woke up to check the skunk traps (we have a skunk living under our house. Or did. I think the foxes chased them away). My four-year-old and 8-lb. poodle at my heels, we checked the traps, which had been tripped, food gone, but no animal. Foxes are tricky. Sleepily, I made coffee, told Holden to get dressed, heard the baby start crying, and turned on the Internet to see my Facebook page blowing up with congratulations over a pair of Anthony Award nominations.

anthonyThe Anthony Awards are a huge deal in the mystery writing world, and are at the top of my living bucket list (I guess that defeats the purpose of calling it a bucket list, but you get my point). I remember attending my first Bouchercon and seeing my friend/mentor/big-break-giver, Todd Robinson dressed in a … suit … and thinking, “Fuck, if I could get a nomination like that, I’d have it all!” Of course, that’s pretty much been my life. “If I could just…” Then I get it, and the high is like a speedball. And lasts just as long.

Don’t get me wrong. The Anthony Award nominations had me on Cloud 9 (or an equally high, less cliched cloud. Maybe Cloud 12.3 Optimum?). Felt wonderful, especially because the nominations come from peers, and as I’ve often stated, crime writing and its purveyors is a second family. Cheesy. But true. I wouldn’t have survived the cutthroat world of literary fiction (they’re mean over there). The flip side is I saw who I was nominated alongside.

anthony2Getting a “Best Novel” nod next to the likes of Tana French, Laura Lippman, Louise Penny, and Hank Phillipi Ryan, each a NYT Best-Selling author, is a little daunting. Or to put it in sports parlance, it’s Tanner from the Bad News Bears getting an All-Star selection with Derek Jeter, Nomar, and Miguel Tejada. Except in this case, I am the only man. Although it’s always tough to play the “marginalized privileged white man” card (I mean, for a Democrat. For a Republican, they call that Tuesday. Zing!) These other writers are the best of the best, and so, obviously, like Mike TV of Get Set Go sings, I had to snatch a defeat from the jaws of victory.

tumblr_mb27vkLEu11rw9jg4o1_500I just couldn’t feel good about it for long. It’s such a huge honor, an amazing recognition from the writers I admire and aspire to be like, so you know what I did? I went to the worst review I have on Amazon for Lamentation–a 3-star, mind you–and re-read it several times, so I could feel like shit. I’d like to believe it was a case of embracing the  inner Stevie, that when I saw myself getting high, I had to knock me down. But that’s not the case. Just about every ex-addict I know suffers the syndrome: the piece of shit at the center of the universe. Crave the attention, and then wonder what the fuck is wrong with the people who love you. If it’s any consolation, I don’t begin to understand.

6a0f657fcf4859dba21a5ddf27099c94A couple days later, I wrapped up December Boys, the sequel to Lamentation. I’ve talked about the process before, the transference, to borrow a psychiatric term (or is it countertransference? I always get those two confused), how my protagonist’s suspect mental state had befallen me. Or vice versa. Still that’s the place I feel most whole. The creating part. Sorta the point of my being here. That and being a dad. The accolades and awards feel wonderful (before the self-doubt creeps in), but much of that is beyond my control. I can, however, do something about the art.

My Character(s) Flaw: Do Not Shake / Contents Under Pressure

giphyAbout a month ago, I developed an eye twitch. A persistent muscle spasm in my left eye. Not noticeable to an outside observer. Unless you’re standing two inches in front of my face. And no one should ever be that close to me. I first noticed the facial tic at AWP, where I was slated to play music in front of a live, studio audience. First I came down with a funky eye infection. Not the eyeball itself, but the bag under my eye. Since I have the darkest circles in the history of Man (it’s where I harbor the souls I steal), at first it was hard to see the raw red bags, and then on the day I had to actually play, people kept asking what was wrong with my eye. That’s when the twitching started. I crack under pressure.

I went to the doctor when I got home from Minneapolis, which is a very cool city. I finally understood the meaning of the Replacements‘ “Skyway,” a new knowledge made all the cooler when Paul Westerberg performed the song the very next night at the Masonic show. The doctor gave me a steroid cream (Not that kind of steroid. Which would’ve been cool because then my arms would be even bigger. But my balls would shrink. A trade off, a tough call). The infection cleared up. But the eye twitch remains.

11169806_729450480493221_1060825857531882773_nThere are few things that bug me as much as when an author talks about his or her “characters” as though there are real people. That’s not true. Everything bugs me. Neckbeards. Guys named Chad. Anything trendy, reality-TV-related or vapid. My engine runs on hate. I am almost done with the sequel to Lamentation, December Boys (you don’t italicize the title until publication. Nerd knowledge). As some of you may recall, we sold that sequel (which I am hoping will be the second in the series/trilogy) before it was actually written. Sold in January, due in July, I had little time to waste. Oh, and my son was scheduled to arrive in February.

11134051_1578241715777785_38533371852124271_nHaving a new baby is rough, but my lovely wife Justine pretty much keeps the li’l fella strapped to her chest like a mudwoman. The bigger problem, which is stressing me the fuck out, is that I am used to working alone. I work best that away. Such an arrangement benefits all. I am like a rich chocolate cake: best experienced after you’ve exercised and earned the right in small, sporadic bites. You don’t want to be around me 24 hours a day. Which is what my poor wife has been subjected to as I’ve stalk, skulk, and brood. I spend a lot of time talking to myself. During normal life, Justine is at work, the children at school; on my own, I remove my pants and flourish in private. Lucky Dog doesn’t mind my oddities. I can usually pull it together for a few hours every evening when the family comes home, playing the part of a believable suburban dad. (Weekends are rough.)

The new baby threw everything out of whack. Which would’ve been rough enough (I am a creature of habit), but throw in the new book and I’m cracking up.

The-Shining-the-shining-16869364-720-576I don’t want to blow the ending for those of you who haven’t read Lamentation, so I’ll try to avoid spoilage, but my … character … Jay Porter, the hero/protagonist of the first novel is not having an easy time this second go-round. I won’t say more than that, but his troubles lead to panic attacks and drinking a lot of beer. I never really drank beer until I started working on the novel, but lately I’ve found myself drinking beer (instead of my occasional dinner wine). Although I don’t drink much of either the coincidence that my … character … drinks beer and now I (for the first time in my adult life) do too isn’t lost on me. Jay also smokes cigarettes. I don’t smoke anymore, but I picked up candy cigarettes from Literary Orphans at AWP, and as I was drafting December Boys I’d suck on the things like I was still smoking.

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These delightful quirks morphed into something much more sinister when the eye twitching began. In the new novel, Jay and his wife Jenny fight a lot (can’t have a happy marriage in noir!), and I started to notice that the more they fought in the book, the more my wife and I would bicker (Justine and I don’t fight; we needle). The manifestation of the eye twitching, which Jay also develops in the story as he deals with his panic attacks, made me realize how my character’s problems had broken the fourth wall (or would that be the 5th one?). Life imitates art, art imitates life; it’s a vicious cycle.

tumblr_mtaj6grWdA1qlqqhoo1_1280I was writing seven days a week. A few weeks ago, I had to start taking weekends off. The book and its fictional world (I admit this most goofily) began adversely affecting my personal life. I hope eventually, with enough rest and/or book sales, my anxiety level will return to normal. Which is still off the charts but, unlike the San Francisco 49ers front office, manageable.

♦♦♦

Speaking of book sales… I still have several FREE copies of Lamentation to give away. All I need is an address and solemn promise (e-sworn in e-pinky blood), and we’ll ship one out to you, ASAP. Write me at joe@joeclifford.com with your contact info!

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Return from the Land of AWP: 2015

leo-cullum-the-flight-time-today-is-five-hours-in-first-class-and-twelve-and-a-half-new-yorker-cartoonI usually draft these posts Sunday morning, sitting at my island counter, while the wife catches up on sleep, my son, Holden, watches cartoons and Jackson lays there like a slug (newborns can’t do many tricks). Infants are basically pillows with arms. Today, though, as I fly back from AWP, I type this draft reclining in first class, drinking the coffee they bring upon request (every seven minutes–and made to order!), a conquering hero, a new man brimming with renewed purpose and oozing self-confidence.

10985311_10102789191050713_9017163734439812403_nNot really. I had to upgrade to first class because otherwise the fuckers were going to charge me a $75 oversized baggage fee for my guitar. The upgrade was the only way to ensure its safe passage onboard (and not let it out of my sight). After some of the horror stories I’ve heard, I wasn’t going to trust my baby to gorillas thumping luggage downstairs (I’m a child of the ’70s). When you weigh the extra dough I would’ve had to fork over to check the guitar against the day-of discounted upgrade charge, the price difference was rendered negligible. Still, I like the metaphor, given how much fun I had this year versus how miserable previous AWP experiences have been.

What’s changed? Well, I’m published, for one. I get recognized these days. Not a lot. But enough that I feel important. Which is another way of saying that before everything started coming my way I was a big baby. It’s not a good character trait. Every day can’t be white boy day.

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I think I actually lived in this hotel.

I had a girlfriend back before the bottom fell out (for those of you who’ve read Junkie Love, Amy. Her real name is Becky. I don’t think she’ll mind my telling you that. She’s read the book). Anyway, when I was a junkie, I was much like I am now, only, y’know, strung out and really, really skinny with open sores; I smelt bad. But I was still the same grumpy, surly bastard. Always bitching, moaning, whining about unjust fates.

11130169_10205346896904938_2870176557375269501_n
I used to weight about a buck fifty…

One day, we were sitting around an SRO. That’s “single room occupancy.” The worst of the worst hotels. Dumps, real pieces of shit, with blood on the ceiling from junkies unclogging their rigs, roaches the size of plumbs, lovely places to call home. And I remember someone saying to Becky, as I feigned a nod so I wouldn’t have to talk to anyone, “Wow. Joe really is a miserable sonofabitch.” And Becky said, “No. That’s not true. If Joe gets everything he wants, when he wants it, he’s a really happy person.”

It’s a rotten way to be, I know, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t carrying some of that over, even after I got off drugs. Part of it is sheer immaturity. When you get off drugs, development tends to lag; emotional catch-up can take a while. Of course, that is the defining characteristic of the addict: he wants what he wants when he wants it.

When I Used to Rock
Soaking wet…

My early trips to AWP were marred by all the things I didn’t have. Namely, a book deal. I’d see these authors, many of whom I’d gone to school with, enjoying more success than I, and it burned me up. I’d walk around the Book Fair, giving the stink eye to every two-bit, lit mag that ever rejected me. Silly and childish. And counterproductive. My work was getting rejected because it wasn’t good enough, not because of some global conspiracy. (Although I’ll admit, even with five books out now, walking through the Book Fair this past Friday, I saw a magazine that rejected me back in, like, 2006, and my first thought? “Fucker.” Old habits die hard.

But I also think these insights are important. They note progress, albeit in tiny, tiny increments. AWP is still a problematic conference for me. Mostly because 15,000 fucking people puts me on edge. Plus, it’s literary fiction. I am more at home at Bouchercon, which is the mystery writers conference. More my scene. Plus smaller.

just_like_dad_candy_cigarettesOverall the conference was a blast, though. I sold out of books at the Florida International table, where I did my signing. The panel I was presenting on, “Rock & Prose: Writers and Musicians Reflect at the Crossroads,” proved a hit. I shared the stage with two instrumental former professors, Lynne Barrett and Steven Ostrowski, a career highpoint, as well as bluegrass musician/writer Steve Yarbrough. I felt like each presenter brought something unique to the table. For my part, I shared the impetus behind the song that broke a 6-year songwriting lull, “Down on the Farm,” a tune inspired by the impending birth of my first son. And I played and sang live, a nerve-wracking venture I don’t do much these days.

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Right before the conversation turned … Tingly.

I also got to hang out with FIU alum and current students, Jen, Miggs, John, Neil, Cathleen, et al. Which was awesome, feeling like the elder statesman. I think I offered hope (I hope). Because writing is a soul-crushing profession that makes you want to quit every day. But everyone can get what he or she wants–you just have to keep at it and not give up. I know that sounds terribly hokey, especially coming from me. Fuck, it stops just short of “believe in yourself and all your wildest dreams will come ture.” But it doesn’t make it any less true.

Perhaps the highlight of the whole trip was the very, very loud conversation we had over pho in a crowded Vietnamese restaurant concerning the books of Chuck Tingle (Pounded in My Butt by My Own Butt, and its delightful sequel), books that, by the way, are far outselling mine. The looks we got from families on the way out: priceless.

2e8bb25783489d7d6f423332e804af0229db9bb4e94ab2da9c2f128d43608603Over the 3 days, I got to meet Tyrus’ Ben LeRoy, author Jim Ruland, University of Hell publisher Greg Gerding. Saw Nick Mamantas, and got to hang with Renee Pickup, Brandon Tiez, Rob Hart, Leah Rhyne, Bree Ogden, the LitReactor folks, and the Literary Orphans gang, who had the coolest fucking swag: candy cigarettes. (I brought home several packs to give to Holden. Mostly to watch Bay Area hippies and new age parents flip the fuck out.) Cool parties. Great pubs. Good times.

I use the quote often, but it’s still one of my favorites. Steve Almond once said of AWP: It’s “where mid-list authors come to feel like rock stars.” Playing music in front of a live audience, being greeted so warmly by friends and fans of my work–seeing the difference persistence and no surrender has made in my life–I gotta say that punch felt a little less pulled this round.