Predator-Hunter/Child Abuse Activist/Writer Andrew Vachss Sets Latest Novel In Vancouver/Portland Area
By Tricia Jones, Columbian staff writer
Originally published in The Columbian (Vancouver, WA.), April 6, 2000
Writer Andrew Vachss has no scorn for people who enjoy fishing—just the idea that he might want to take up the sport. Moving to the Northwest from New York about 18 months ago was no signal that the novelist-attorney-activist was on the verge of retiring.
At 57, Vachss says he takes no vacations and has no interest in hobbies except one. He hunts.
Few of his readers couldn't name the prey.
Society calls them child abusers or molesters or predators. Vachss has called them freaks and monsters since a post-college job had him tracking sexually transmitted diseases for the U.S. Public Health Service. That's where he first heard men giggle as they described what they did to babies.
Vachss—rhymes with "max"—says his anger hasn't let up from that time.
It's been the high-voltage cattle prod behind his campaign to separate kids from their attackers, a campaign played out in courtrooms, legislators' offices, seminar rooms and the pages of his novels and story collections.
His operations center has shifted from New York to Vancouver-Portland, but its focus hasn't changed: to jab the public into outrage over the evil he's seen.
Vachss' ongoing wrath doesn't mean area drivers should fear cutting him off in traffic. He dismisses road rage as an emotion for the impotent.
"I would have burned up long ago if I didn't ice the rage," said Vachss, seated at the Vancouver office that handles his marketing. "I stay angry, but not flaming out of control. I have a place to put it. I have specific targets I want to see go down."
Come September, readers will see the target range expand to the Vancouver-Portland area.
That's the publishing date for Dead and Gone, Vachss' 12th novel featuring the single-named character Burke. Much of the book's action is set in the two cities.
Brutality against the young and defenseless is usually at least a subtheme of the Burke novels, whose recurring characters link up to carry out vigilante justice against the brutalizers.
Ex-convict Burke and his allies aren't the sort of people honored at Rotary Club banquets. That doesn't matter to the readers reviewing Vachss titles at bookstore Web sites. "Film noir on paper" and "New York haiku," praised one. "Easily offended? Read 'The Bridges of Madison County' and SHUT UP," advised another.
Vachss isn't saying whether his new home is in Vancouver or Portland, or even on which side of the Columbian River he lives.
He's made enemies
Security is one reason. Vachss said he still gets threatening letters from cranks, would-be stalkers and enemies he's made over the years. Former occupations thrust him into the company of prisoners in state mental hospitals, high-risk juvenile offenders and warring factions in Biafra. His childhood was less than cuddly, as well—a teen-ager walloped him in the eye with a bicycle chain when he was 7.
But privacy also is an issue with the writer. Vachss said he's no celebrity, just a serious person with a serious job to do.
"I'm not into talking about what my meaningful experiences are," he said.
Nor about the nuances of the writing craft. Vachss insists he writes all his books in his head, then gets the words down in readable form when he has time. No surprises pop up in the interim.
"The characters do not take on a life of their own," he says, dismissively.
The no-nonsense attitude seems to apply to Vachss' business dealings.
Lou Bank of Vancouver's Ten Angry Pitbulls, which does marketing for Vachss, said he soon observed the author does not tolerate people fawning over him. That's not to say Vachss is the most difficult of clients.
"He's the most honest, honorable person I've ever met," said Bank, who also called Vachss the smartest human being he knows.
"His mind moves at the rate of a particle accelerator—he's always eight or nine steps ahead, so it's truly difficult to have a conversation with him sometimes."
No one nods off when Vachss has the floor. He rarely drops eye contact; he punches up sentences with cheerful profanity.
To drive home one point, he flashed a knife and confronted an imaginary assailant.
Vachss reveals little about his reasons for moving here, referring to business links with Los Angeles, but admitting he could do much of his work from anywhere. Income from the books allows him to pick and choose his court cases and to represent juveniles at little or no cost to clients.
In New York, he was part of an independent panel of lawyers appointed by the courts to represent children in cases where parents were accused as abusers. Parents could retain him in cases of third-party abuse, or children could approach him directly seeking defense. His Web site, www.vachss.com, posts guidelines for the type of cases he'll consider taking.
Vachss' clients vary in age from 7 days to 17 years.
To children old enough to have an understanding of what's at stake, Vachss said he has to prove he's more powerful than their abusers.
"I don't sit them in my lap and pat them; I'm not a social worker," he said. And the children can't be passive.
"A child has to be prepared to fight, to be a player in this game," Vachss said.
Fighters are valuable in Vachss' world. Through his Web site, he accepts offers of help from people serious about doing what they can to get tougher penalties for crimes against children.
High on the list is support for the CARE Act of 1999. The proposed act would force states to abandon the so-called incest exception, which in essence allows a lesser penalty, often probation, compared with a 20-year prison sentence for people who molest their own children rather than a stranger's child. Not all states have the incest exception; Washington and Oregon are two that do.
Vachss said the act would stop making it advantageous for predators to "grow their own" victims. More information about the CARE Act is at www.careact.org.
For a man so often identified with rage and revenge, Vachss is quick to express gratitude for the many volunteers who step forward to aid in his mission. Sentiment isn't his style, but his esteem can be earned.
"I don't respect people; I respect conduct," he says. "When people have the conduct, I respect the person. But it's got to be consistent conduct.
"In my world, we say: if you can't be counted on, you can't be counted in."
Click here to see the award-winning photgraph that illustrated this article when it ran in The Columbian.