In Conversation: Alex Segura and Joe Clifford on PI Fiction, Flawed Characters and Fighting Your Demons
Writing is a solitary, lonely process—don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. But, if like me, you write a series, you know that once a year or so you’ll get to pop your head up and promote your work. That can be anxiety-inducing, but it can also be fun. In the process, you often meet other writers who share the same literal shelf space. Sometimes, you meet writers who share your headspace and seem to be interested in tackling the kind of stories you aim to spotlight in your own work.
I’ve met many PI writers over the last few years—people that have inspired me or are contemporaries. Like my recovering alcoholic, ex-journalist hero Pete Fernandez, they write about flawed people who are struggling to face off against external problems while holding back their own internal strife: Dave White’s Jackson Donne, Rob Hart’s Ash McKenna, Erica Wright’s Kat Stone and Julia Dahl’s Rebekah Roberts books come to mind immediately. Another one to add to that list is Joe Clifford, who writes about part-time investigator Jay Porter, who, like Pete, is in recovery and trying to keep his own demons at bay while struggling to do some good in an increasingly bleak world.
I’m a fan of the Jay books and see a lot of overlap in how we approach not only writing PI fiction, but writing in general. I got the chance to sit down with Joe to talk about our views on the marketplace, how we handle feedback, and what’s coming up in our respective series, including new releases in the Pete—Blackout (May 8, Polis Books)—and Jay series—Broken Ground (June 5, Oceanview).
ALEX SEGURA: Joe, thanks for doing this. You know I admire your work, but before we get to that, I want to tackle the elephant in the room, because it's something I've been thinking about a lot: do you think there's a stigma surrounding PI novels? It feels like the market is ever-changing, and sometimes PI novels fall in and out of fashion. Where do you think they stand now? What PI novels are you digging?
JOE CLIFFORD: So much of what we do is audience-dependent. At least that's how I approach it. Meaning, when my work isn't getting the reception I'd like, I have to take a long, hard look. Lately, bad reviews have been getting to me, making me doubt, to quote the Boss, things I was sure of. And I only bring this up because it impacts how I feel about anything I write right now.
It's funny. I was talking to my sister the other day, and she was like, "Well, what about all the good reviews, and the people who like your work, don't you think about that?" And I was, all, "No." Perspective during times of stress gets skewed, and right now, closing in on Porter 5, Rag and Bone, seeing the divide widen—those who love Jay, really love Jay. But those who don't, really fucking don't.
I made a decision early on when writing the character that I wanted to tell the story of a man emotionally stunted; in the closed-off environs of this cold mountain town, he's a little smarter than the rest. But no one will see things quite the way Jay does. Basically I took me in 2004, when I was just getting off heroin, pissed off, back in school, kicking ass academically because I was ten years older than everyone, but flailing miserably as I tried to make sense of my new surroundings. Add to that family stuff, like my mom dying, brother in the book, and I had a man in the midst of an existential crisis, and he was going to be my hero. I know this is rather long-winded, but I guess what I'm getting at is I put Jay's personal life ahead of the PI tag. Yes, he's an amateur sleuth, but a lot of that is my playing with trope, trying to stay true to the rules while circumventing them enough that it's original.
I've been very happy with the Jay Porter novels; I feel like I've told the story I set out to tell (how the Manafort family killed my father, and to a lesser extent my brother). To me, that is the interesting part of investigation: the NEED to solve a personal mystery because in doing so, in finding out their place in the story, you find out yours. All that said: PI novels are an easy poke for critics. The alcoholic in the big city (so lonely) or small town (so trapped). Can't love anyone, all that crap. So, yeah, if you want to take a dig, you can. And it seems right now that is the low-hanging fruit.
Right now I am reading Robert Dugoni's Her Last Breath. The guy is a fucking genius with this stuff. Tracy (his hero) is a cop, with a personal interest. The writing is ... marvelous. And I don't know if I am supposed to say this here, but I am literally reading ... your Silent City. And, yes, Pete Fernandez and Jay Porter would surely get together for a beer.
You nailed something I think about a lot—and something that drove me to write the Pete books—I wanted to tell the story of a guy's personal journey, and to spotlight a flawed, imperfect and, at times, infuriating person. Pete is a fuckup from page one when you meet him in Silent City. He's still drunk from the night before, hung up on his ex, mourning his dead father and about to get fired. Things are not going well for him. And the books go from there. Does Pete get better? Sort of. He quits drinking, he tries to be good, but at his core, he still messes up because he's not done evolving, like any of us are.
When I was creating Pete I wanted someone like me—similar background, similar vices and flaws, to a point. And I wanted to throw him into these extreme situations to see what would happen. Pete's story, his journey—that's what interests me as a writer. I love the PI stuff, of course—and Pete was inspired by a long line of imperfect and shambling PIs, like Nick Stefanos, Matt Scudder, Tess Monaghan and Pat Kenzie, but I always think about Pete first, mystery second—like, what's Pete's arc here? That's why I think the series is finite and I'm okay with it, because at a certain point, you really push plausibility and risk the character becoming an evergreen concept, as opposed to someone that feels real, and I’m less interested in writing that.
As for reviews—yeah, the bad ones always linger. They sting. We want to be liked. It's how we're built, especially when you labor over something for a year of your life. The good ones are great, but I think writers' brains are wired to gobble them up and ask for more, because praise doesn't fill you up—they’re empty calories. But I am happy that the good words outweigh the bad, because like Jay, Pete is not your typical, chiseled, steel-jawed hero. Even in Blackout, the new book, he makes mistakes. But I feel like that's what makes him relatable and interesting. I hate to read about boring characters and I don't think your heroes have to be likable to be liked. People want conflicted and compelling characters that sometimes do bad things. Otherwise, why bother?
I think Pete and Jay would get along, for sure—though putting them in a bar might be a bad idea, at this point. I just finished rereading Laura Lippman's Sunburn, which is not a PI novel (though, there are PIs in it and Lippman’s PI bonafides are without question), but is really a master class in modern noir. I know you've read Miami Purity, and there's an essay to be written about modern noir takes on James Cain, but it hit the same nerve with me in terms of being dangerous, sexy, tightly-plotted and compact. That last word sounds like faint praise, but I find that a lot of books just go on too damn long, and Sunburn was just so perfect in its pacing that I'm still jealous of it.
I talked a bit about Pete's PI lineage—the work of people like Pelecanos, Lehane, Lippman, Block—but I'm curious about yours. What PI writers inspired you before you started on the Jay books?
Y'know, as soon as I said that I was, like, Fuck, that sounded so whiny, the part about the bad reviews. I don't know why I still take them so hard. Anyway I've just gotten (a bad) one, so it’s on my mind I guess. But let's get to the far more interesting part of your question: the fucked-up anti-hero/screw-up. I remember Mailer saying something like heroes should be greater than. And that works for a lot of terrific authors. Certainly Jack Reacher is a greater than, and Indiana Jones and Superman and a whole bunch of others.
But I've always liked the opposite, the lesser than. Maybe it's because I spent so much of my life as a fuck-up. I just don't have interest in writing about larger-than-life heroes. To me, personally, most folks are smaller than life. And, again, this is just a preference. I get why escapism would dictate not wanting to be reminded of the pain, the suffering, the mistakes. We all want to be Rocky. In reality, most of us are Spider Rico. So when you're taking a break from reality to read or just catch a movie, why would you want to be reminded of a deadbeat dad who can't pay his child support or an ex-con who can't hold down a job? You can look out your window on any given Wednesday and see that shit.
But, again, to me, that is where the art is, the struggle to do the right thing even while knowing you probably are going to fail. To me, that is heroic. John Lennon, Working Class Hero. Typical "chiseled, steel-jawed heroes" bore me. To write about, myself. I'm not denying that two of my biggest literary influences are Philip Marlowe and Batman. But even there Marlowe, while sporting the steeliest of jaws, is also pretty damaged. And Batman, to quote College Humor, well, his only superpower is he's rich and nuts.
I guess this is a nice segue to the other part of your question, my influences. Well, certainly Marlowe. I'm not sure anyone can write PI fiction without an appreciation of Chandler. And Batman, too. He's the world's greatest detective. But I'm not sure I write PI fiction. I mean, I fall under that delightful umbrella, but the investigation is a device to explore, like you mentioned, the flawed journeys. So even though I read mostly genre, my bigger influences are mostly literary. And more characters than the authors. Heathcliff, Holden Caulfield, Amy Dunne, Wade Whitehouse. I'm inspired by the characters who are broken inside, motivated by baser instincts. There is a beautiful tragedy in such lives.
Perfect characters—the Superman ideal—don't really call out to me as a writer. I can enjoy them as a consumer/viewer/reader for sure. And, if I'm being honest, my work is more character-driven than plot-driven, though I do spend a lot of time trying to make sure the mystery adds up and plays out in a meaningful way (no WTF-style endings or cheats). But most important to me is pushing the characters forward and exploring their flaws and strengths and how those traits make them do what they do. If Pete, for example, hasn't changed significantly from the beginning to the end of the book, then I haven't done my job—and thankfully, that's not been the case yet. I feel like you can say the same for Jay. I think there are a lot of writers who can write that kind of hero, the ideal as opposed to the flawed, very well—they make it compelling and it's all about the action and circumstances affecting the hero. That's not me. And I'm okay with that.
You mention characters you follow and I find that really interesting. Obviously, Chandler is an influence, mainly via Marlowe, and while I cite certain writers for their PI work as people I look up to, I should note the characters, too—like Moe Prager, Nick Stefanos, Tess Monaghan, Matt Scudder, Lew Archer and Pat and Angie. Because, as great as those authors are, it's the characters that drew me in and kept me around and opened the door for me to explore the writers' other work, so that's a good point. Outside of the genre, I have to point to Spider-Man/Peter Parker and Batman, too, as examples of the flawed hero. I mean, Parker is always struggling to survive in his personal life, and Batman/Wayne, while rich and handsome, has some deep-seated trauma and psychosis going on. It's compelling as hell.
I get what you're saying, but the Jay books, to me, do feel like PI novels. Thankfully for both of us, crime fiction is such a wide, sprawling and welcoming expanse that you're allowed to cherry pick the things you like while writing your books and discard the stuff that doesn't work, and you're still part of it. To me, it's the perfect platform for not only presenting messed up, real people, but showcasing them walking around the real world—warts and all. It's the purest social commentary aside from, well, actual social commentary.
What was the first drop of blood in the water for you, in terms of the books that got you hooked on crime fiction in general and PI fiction specifically? For me, it was grabbing a tattered copy of Mario Puzo's The Godfather from my grandfather's shelf. I was around nine, and probably shouldn't have been reading it (as readers know, the book is much pulpier than the epic Coppola films), but I was hooked right away by this story of bad people trying to be good. It blew my mind. Fast forward to a few years later, and a friend handed me a stack of books—Chandler's The Big Sleep, George Pelecanos's A Firing Offense and Jim Thompson's The Killer Inside Me—and it changed my life. It reintroduced me to the classic crime fiction I'd loved when I was younger, showed me an even darker, more sinister side to Chandler in Thompson and pointed me toward current writers who were pushing the idea of the screwed-up hero even further. It was a game-changing moment for me.
Jay certainly changes. Unfortunately he seems to be getting worse! It's a little goofy writing that, like I'm not in control. Obviously I am the writer, I'm fucking in control. Still, you know, as a writer we have to honor the character, and there are some things that, maybe, say, my publisher would like to see happen, but, to me, they'd be intellectually dishonest. Jay is a man driven by one purpose: the need for vengeance, to even the score. It might not have started that way. But with each loss, each injustice, he doubles down. The point of the Porter series has grown into a Pyrrhic victory.
Yeah, that answer might've been a little cheeky, implying Jay isn't a PI. He's obviously a PI. Every book has a mystery that he has to solve. But like Pete, Jay is driven by—or I should say like you, I am driven by another purpose. I want to tell the story of a flawed, broken man. Plot is huge to me (you can't study under Lynne Barrett and not have plot mean a lot). But I moreover wanted to tell the story of Marlowe before Marlowe. What I mean is when we meet Marlowe, we have the end product. He's jaded, clearly had his heart broken too many times, is unwilling to compromise morals for money, etc. We don't see how he got to be like that. What I wanted to do with the first 5 Porter books was show how a man is beaten by life; how he dies heroically for his foolish ideals (not saying Jay dies in book 5! Not saying he doesn't). If there were ever a 6th Porter book, I think I wouldn't refer much to the past (whereas now the past is paramount in every book, steamrolling toward its inevitable collision). So that if a reader wanted to see how a man like Jay becomes Jay, he or she could go back and read Lamentation, on through the 5th book (Rag and Bone) and learn the whole story.
And this is, y'know, my story, my interests. I haven't hidden my past, my drug years and criminal behavior. I am, pun intended or not, an open book. Telling the story of the marginalized—the downtrodden, the put-upon, the junkies and bums and ne'er-do-wells and losers—those were my people. Not so much now. As Tom Pitts likes to say, I live in an "ivory tower" these days. But I am, at heart, a hobo. Those ten years as a homeless junkie defined me, for better now, for worse then. But also in terms of what I saw while I was out there, the compassion it instilled.
I hate admitting this, especially given our current fucked-up politics, but I used to be a fucking Republican. I grew up in an upper middle class lily-white town. I started to drift left before San Francisco. But it was complicated. Life is easy when you grow up in Berlin, CT. Oh, you're poor? Work harder. Strung out? Don't do drugs. All that. When I was out there, without money, strung out, I couldn't rely on the easy, convenient excuses I had growing up. It was fucked up when I'd meet drug addicts who were good parents. And I know, doing drugs = not good parents. What I mean is, despite addictions, there were people I knew who still loved their kids every bit as much as I love mine. They happened to be addicted but it didn't necessarily turn them into movie versions of these horrible creatures beating their children. Hollywood tends to opt for the easy way out when it come to its portrayal of drug addicts. In reality, these were just fucked-up people, and unlike me, they couldn't run back home to lily-white Connecticut and beg Mom to check them into the Brattleboro Retreat. This was their life. They weren't getting out. And it was heartbreaking. And eye-opening. It's that Neil Young line, right? Every junkie is like a setting sun. I really believe everyone does the best they can. It's just that some people just suck at living. They can have good hearts, try really hard, but they can't get out of their own way. These are the stories I want to tell.
What book got me hooked on crime fiction? Right now my son, Holden, is 7 and just starting to read. So I'm trying to share with him the (age-appropriate) books that really got me. And I have to say, the fucking Great Brain series, man. Those were the books I fell in love with. And, yeah, they were technically crime, the stories of a kid conman. And I'm not going to lie (or be ashamed), soap operas. Guiding Light and Alan Spaulding. But, okay, to actually answer your question. Yeah, Jim Thompson was probably the guy for me too. My buddy Clayton in SF turned me onto him. Although I think After Dark My Sweet was more influential. (Behind-the-scenes fact that literally only one person will care about [Will Viharo]: I named the hero in Wake the Undertaker "Collie" after that particular Thompson book.) In grad school I gorged on Chandler, Hammett, Himes, Goodis, the classics, and by that I mean "dudes from 1930—1955." I am glad to say I quickly broadened my horizons. Right now all my favorite books were written by women in the last five years: Wendy Walker, Mary Kubica, Emily Carpenter, Shannon Kirk, Paula Hawkins, Gillian Flynn, Hilary Davidson, Jennifer Hillier. I tend to obsess.
I love that you said that—the PI before the PI, because that's what really got me jazzed about my own writing. I was not interested in writing about the PI sitting in his office waiting for the femme fatale to walk in. At least not right away. As I start working on what I think will be the last Pete book, Miami Midnight, it's interesting to reach the point where that situation might happen to him, because the first four books were all ramping up to this. I wanted to write about the origin of the PI and tell the story of what had to happen for him to become a private investigator, or at least a competent one. By Blackout, he's got a license and he's trying to make a go of it, but I'd be stretching if I said he was a stable one. By the last book, things have changed and we see Pete in his final form, for better or worse. But I don't want to get too far ahead of myself. Blackout changes everything for Pete, and whatever happens after has to be seen through the lens of that book. But to your point, yeah—I agree. I wanted to learn about what happened before the PI, before this flawed, messed-up guy got his shit together and became a hero of sorts. It's more interesting to us, I think. I love that you mention Lynne, because she's been a huge influence on me, and while I didn't have the same relationship you did with her as a student—I flaked out of the one class I took—her advice has lingered in my head and I'm so grateful to have reconnected with her as a mentor over the last few years.
My favorite modern writers are all mostly women, too—Megan Abbott, Laura Lippman, Kelly Braffet, Ivy Pochoda, Hilary!, Robin Wasserman, Emma Cline, Meg Gardiner, Alison Gaylin, Steph Post, Erica Wright, Julia Dahl, Radha Vatsal, Jen Conley, Emma Flint—and while I hate to generalize, my reading habits speak to the truth of what books resonate with me. I'd hand books by any of the people I mentioned to someone looking for not just good crime fiction, but good fiction, period.
And I think obsession is part of our own DNA, too, no? We're creatures of obsessions and that feeds into this need to write about messed up, addicted people.
That's just it. We all have areas of interest as writers. And, yeah, sitting around waiting for the girl with the "legs up to here" to saunter in doesn't interest me. And no one is doing Chandler better than Chandler anyway. Like you say, I wanted the "PI before the PI," a sort of prequels that don't suck. Although the irony, at least in my case, is the path I took Jay on (or Jay took me on), I'm not sure Oceanview (my publisher) will want a 6th book. Of course, if books 4 and 5 sell well enough, I'm sure that factors into any decision.
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