MSN Guest Author Chat with Andrew Vachss
Here is a transcript of our chat with author Andrew Vachss, whose latest book is "Safe House: A Burke Novel." The chat took place on Wednesday, July 29, 1998 in Microsoft Network's Books and Reading Forum chat room.
Host Stevo: Andrew Vachss is a lawyer who represents children exclusively. He has been a federal investigator in sexually transmitted diseases, a social case worker, and a labor organizer. He also directed a maximum-security prison for youthful offenders.
Andrew has written eleven novels, three comic-book series, a "children's book for adults" and a collection of short stories. Most of his novels feature Burke, a New York P.I. who investigates cases involving abused children.
His latest book is "Safe House," which finds Burke and his extended "family" protecting a safe house resident who is being stalked by a neo-Nazi organizer. Welcome, Andrew, to Microsoft Network's Books and Reading Forum chat room.
HighPockets: Tell us about "Safe House." I know that you are a lawyer. Is it based on one of your cases?
Vachss: I'm not John Grisham. I've held a number of positions in my life that have given me a unique perspective. My books are based on the totality of my experience: an investigator, fighting a war, working for children. They are not repackaged cases.
HighPockets: I hear that "Safe House" has a soundtrack. Can you tell us about it? How do we get it?
Vachss: It does indeed have a soundtrack—it contains all blues cuts selected by myself. It is the brainchild of Lou Bank of "Ten Angry Pitbulls." The CD cuts are mentioned in the book. You can get it from CD Now, Amazon, and lots of other outlets.
Erma: You have a worthy cause. If you could give one bit of advise on how to help what would it be?
Vachss: I don't give advice. But I will say that the only thing that works in America is force, and unless/until people are able to make child protection as important as guns are to the NRA nothing will be done.
HighPockets: How did you research "Safe House?"
Vachss: I don't do research, if what you mean is go to the library and look things up. I was a federal investigator. I was in a genocidal war. I ran a maximum security prison. I went to law school and have worked exclusively for children. So I already did my research.
Janna: Your book, "Another Chance to Get it Right," is described as a personal vision of hope and challenge for children and parents alike, do you feel it should be required reading for parents?
Vachss: You can't possibly ask a writer if their book should be read. It would be dishonest to say "No." But I would like to see a copy in every baby basket going home from the hospital with the bundle of joy.
Janna: Do you hear from many new parents who have read it?
Vachss: I am reluctant to speak of adjectives. I can't deal with "Many." But I've heard from thousands in reaction to what I've written.
Janna: That's many.
HighPockets: If your writing style can be summed up in one word, it would be "unflinching." Do you agree? How did this style develop?
Vachss: In order for me to answer that, I would have to agree with the statement. Actually, it's what comes most naturally to me.
HighPockets: Are any of your novels based on cases? I know that Patricia Cornwell is being sued for giving too many details about a case in her novels.
Vachss: Asking me if I avoid doing something because of Cornwell makes me laugh. Everything I write about occurs. But the reason I don't let my clients be interviewed by the media is not because I fear a suit. When I wrote about computer pedophiles on the Internet, in 1987, I was accused of having an over-active imagination, and that is what reviewers focused on, not whether my books were based on cases.
HighPockets: You say that Burke is best described as "a criminal." What do you mean by that?
Vachss: I mean that Burke is a person who breaks the law habitually as a career.
Janna: How can the average parent teach their child to cope with the abusiveness of others, yet not become an abusive child?
Vachss: I don't know what you are asking me. How a child copes with a bully or a pedophile?
Janna: Suppose you become a foster parent?
Vachss: I simply don't know what you are asking.
Janna: How might that affect your own children? Might they be influenced by the abusive child?
Vachss: I don't have a sound bite answer. If you have a specific question, send it to my website (URL below).
AnnaB: Isn't motive important in defining a criminal? Burke has pure motives.
Vachss: I appreciate your sentiments, Anna, but to whatever extent Burke might have the purest of motives, he has no legitimate occupation and was a garden-variety criminal before he more narrowly focused himself.
KatS: How do keep from being emotionally "drained" dealing with abused children?
Vachss: I'll rephrase the question and ask you back: how do you keep from being emotionally drained from "not" dealing with abused children?
HighPockets: What is the case you are most happy to have worked?
Vachss: I have no one case that distinguishes itself. Just as I can't answer "What is the worse case I've worked?" To each child, it is their worst case. It's never about me... it's always about the client.
HighPockets: Are you the Andrew Vachss that writes the comic books?
Vachss: I don't know. Could there actually be more than one Andrew Vachss? I have written comic books under my name. They are hard to describe. That's why God made libraries.
Janna: I have a friend who hasn't yet read one of your books. Tell me, would a person like her, who has a difficult time reading about children being hurt, be able to read your books? If so, since the proceeds from them help fund your work, she hopes you wouldn't be insulted if she bought the book for support, but never read it. :o)
Vachss: I would prefer that you simply donate the money to another organization. My share of the take is minimal, and I would prefer that you do it that way.
Erma: You mentioned the internet earlier. Do you think this is a great threat to the safety of our children and will this be the child-porn arena of the future?
Vachss: The Internet is a piece of technology. It is neutral, like an edged blade or a serial killer's instrument. It is being used to market child pornography, but child pornography was here before the Internet. The tail shouldn't wag the dog.
Erma: What demons drive you?
Vachss: Hatred of those who prey on children for pleasure or profit.
HighPockets: Do you use the Internet? Where do you "hang out?"
Vachss: I do use the Internet, but I don't "hang out" on it. It's an investigative tool and I use it for a variety of purposes.
Janna: I am curious about how you acquire your clients. Are they all court appointed?
Vachss: That's a good question. I get my cases in a variety of ways. A great majority are court appointed. Since I also represent children injured by agencies and institutions, children accused in crimes, and adoptions, the sources are many.
Erma: If you could write or change one law to protect children what would it be?
Vachss: That's an easy one: the elimination of the "incest exception" provision of state laws. It is an abomination that it is different if you rape your own child versus raping a neighbor child.
Erma: I'm ignorant here. What difference? You mean the law treats it differently if it is your child?? If anything, that is worse.
Vachss: If a person has sex with a child not related to them, they are charged with whatever that act is: rape, etc. If the person is closely related to that child, by blood or marriage, they are treated less severely. There are different penalties for being charged with rape or incest. In other words, you are treated better under the law if you grow your own victim. Freaks get bonus points for creating their own sex partners. Only in America...
If you'd like to join the fray to protest this, visit the website and click in the search engine. Get educated and get involved!
Janna: What percentage of your cases, if any, are pro bono? You strike me as a person who would prefer to be paid for your books than for saving children.
Vachss: I don't know what you mean by "pro bono." My going rate is $25/hr, out of which I am expected to pay expenses. If you are going to be paid over $800, you have to file and the court says if you get paid. In some years, I'd have to get a big raise to meet the definition of pro bono.
HighPockets: Do you watch any of the crime TV shows like "America's Most Wanted" and "Unsolved Mysteries?" What do you think of them?
Vachss: That's a lawyer's question, like those trick questions children get asked on the witness stand.
Janna: No lawyers here. :-)
Vachss: How can I have thoughts unless I watch them? I watch just enough to make my answer "NO."
HighPockets: You have said that "the kids who are abused and raped today are tomorrow's murderers, rapists, and arsonists." How can we stop this spiral?
Vachss: First of all, I never said that. I said that some of them go that route. The straight answer is simplicity. Child protection is crime prevention. There is no biogenetic code for rapists, serial killers, etc. We make our own monsters and build our own beasts. But the earlier we intervene, the greater is the possibility we can get rid of deadly nightshade before it reaches full bloom.
HighPockets: Why aren't humans biologically driven to expel our predators, the same as animals do?
AnnaB: We are politically correct.
Vachss: Because we have crested the parabolic curve of evolution and are now on a downward slope.
Janna: Do you continue to see your clients after their trials are completed?
Vachss: We stay with our clients until they are adopted or they grow up.
HighPockets: Is child abuse really a national crisis?
Vachss: It is to me, is it to you?
Janna: How many do you see each year?
Vachss: There is no average—a total number of hours in one year. It varies very radically.
Erma: Since the predator can often be a family member or friend, is there any way to spot an abuser and protect our children?
Vachss: It's very easy to spot abusers. They abuse. The problem is not preventing abuse, the problem is preventing a recurrence. I can't write an essay in a chatroom. Unless you are totally self-absorbed, you have read accounts of abuse and killings by those already known by Child Protective Services. How many times have you heard people complain but never did anything? Our system is grossly ill-equipped for the magnitude of its task.
Janna: What was your opinion of Lorenzo Carcaterra's book, "Sleepers?" It had a profound effect on me.
Vachss: I assume, then, that "Batman" would have the same effect. They are equally factual.
HighPockets: In your whole life, have you ever minced a word? (asked with a grin)
Janna: Do you not believe those things may occur and do? Interesting since they have been reported in the news here.
Vachss: I know damn well that juvenile institutions are crime factories and sodomy schools, but they didn't happen to Carcaterra. I thought you were asking about him and if his book was fiction or non-fiction.
HighPockets: Of the eleven books you have written, do you have a favorite?
Vachss: Yes, Highpockets. My favorite is the orphan "Shella."
AnnaB: Are you planning another book of short stories?
Vachss: Bless you, Anna. Yes. In fact, I am behind my deadline.
Erma: Any movie plans for Burke?
Vachss: I don't have any movie plans at all, not being a studio. But rights to a particular book are held by a producer, and the time is getting near as to if he will make a movie or the rights will revert back to me. If it's not done by this studio, others are interested.
AnnaB: Do you have any say in the casting?
Vachss: I have as much input into that as I have into the conflict in Bosnia.
Janna: Do you fear that your message would be distorted by the Hollywood mill? As so many authors have found.
Vachss: I have no idea whether my message will get distorted. With Hollywood, they might make the biggest flop movie, based on the best bestseller. I just want the biggest jury. With regard to the studio owning the rights to Burke, I'm not brain-damaged. I would not sell the rights to Burke to anyone.
HighPockets: You are fond of saying that you want your books to be read by "a bigger jury." Does "bigger" necessarily infer that your message will be increasingly understood and acted upon?
Vachss: Of course not! But it increases the odds of it.
HighPockets: Japan is the largest producer of kiddie porn. Can we tell another country what to do?
Vachss: We have a long history of telling countries to do things. Ask any Native American. If you are willing to give up some toys and privileges, you can use the method of boycott to get anyone to do anything. If you don't believe me, look at the way this country is treating China.
Janna: I understand you were not an abused child yourself. What led you to this work rather than any other cause? There are many who become aware of this plight, but not everyone sees it as their personal life's work. Each person must choose his or her own causes. Even Mother Teresa couldn't address them all (G), so why child abuse?
Vachss: I saw early in my career as an investigator such excesses of what humans can do to their own children that it was etched like acid into my soul. It's nice to choose your own path. Mine was chosen for me. I don't see many people choosing paths. Except the self absorbed.
AnnaB: Do you think the adult porn world had an impact on kiddie porn?
Vachss: I don't think they are connected. They have different audiences with different motivations, and a different profit pool.
HighPockets: Are you married? Do you have children?
Vachss: Why do you ask?
HighPockets: What are your current and future projects?
Vachss: My current project is a continuation of my past project: war against the enemy. I'm working on a book now that is somewhat of a departure. It might be called "horror." I'm not sure how it will play out, as it's a work in progress.
Erma: OH, goodie!
HighPockets: What words of wisdom do you have for Books and Reading Forum readers and writers?
Vachss: I don't fancy myself a writer. I don't have advice. What I can say is: go to the website and use the search engine. Take an issue for yourself. Join an existing organization or start one. There's plenty of room for your work.
HighPockets: Thank you, Andrew, for chatting with us in Microsoft Network's Books and Reading Forum chat room. "Safe House" is available in bookstores or at a special price from Barnes and Noble. Stop by Andrew Vachss' official web site, http://www.vachss.com, and read an excerpt from "Safe House."
Erma: The book is really good.
Vachss: Thank you, also.