Career Criminal With Andrew Vachss
Online chat at Washingtonpost.com: Live Online, October 24, 2000.
Andrew Vachss brings career criminal and ultimate man-for-hire Burke back for his new book adventure, "Dead and Gone." "I thought the best way to keep the Burke series alive was for Burke to almost die," says Vachss. This time Burke goes "missing and presumed ... a new face, a new identity, a new location" on the hunt for the killer of his partner. His search leads him to Chicago and the Pacific Northwest—locations out of his element and foreign to the New York-bred orphan.
Vachss has been a federal investigator, a social case worker, a labor organizer, and has directed a maximum-security prison for youth offenders. A lawyer in private practice, Vachss represents children and youths exclusively. "Dead and Gone" is his 13th novel; he has written numerous short stories and articles. He lives and works both in New York City and the Pacific Northwest.
Below is a transcript.
Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.
washingtonpost.com: How much does your personal experience in life affect ideas and plots in your books?
Andrew Vachss: Since what I write about is foundationally true, I wouldn't attempt to write about that which I was not personally and occasionally painfully familiar with.
VA: Hi, I haven't read your books yet but your character Burke sounds really interesting. What inspired you to start writing crime stories? Are they anything like "Mission Impossible?"
Andrew Vachss: I don't write "stories" and they don't resemble "Mission Impossible" in any way.
Arlington, VA: What makes you so interested in the underbelly of things?
Andrew Vachss: Because I think to understand any growth you need to look at its roots.
Columbia, MD: Okay, I know this is a stupid question, but is Burke going to get another dog someday? We know from Flood that Pansy wasn't his first. Pansy humanized him so much that I can't picture him without one.
Andrew Vachss: I agree. Just as when I lost my own Neopolitan, it took me awhile to find another partner and Burke will eventually do the same.
Nashville, Tenn.: What agency do you feel is most effective in aiding abused or neglected children? Which is least effective? Do you favor tougher legislation for foster family screening? Having been personally involved in a troubling foster care situation, I am appalled at the lack of very stringent guidelines for people who 'take in' unwanted children. It's a joke and just continues the victimization that has already begun. Your web site is first-rate.
Andrew Vachss: On behalf of the many volunteers who run the web site, thank you for your praise. I'm not in the business of evaluating agencies; however, I couldn't agree with you more that foster care needs to be professionalized in all its aspects, including not only screening for those who care for damaged children, but proper respect, recognition, and compensation for those who do it correctly.
DC: How did you get started in writing the series? And does Burke reflect anyone from your personal past (as an fed investigator)?
Andrew Vachss: I got started writing the series because I wanted a bigger jury than I could ever find in a courthouse and the forum the series has provided including in so many languages has far exceeded even my wildest hopes for it. As far as Burke, he's intended to be a participant, not an observer, in the Chandleresque sense of the term. I wanted a complete transparency between the reader and the material.
Washington, D.C.: As a lawyer for kids, what have you seen about the juvenile justice system that works? Does anything? And how do you find time to write?
Andrew Vachss: Writing is an organic extension of my real work so I don't need as much time as a conventional novelist would to "create" books. As far as what works, that's really an essay question. Please contact the web site for a more specific (and, I trust, useful) response.
New York, N.Y.: How did you get the idea for Burke? Where do you get your inspiration for the next chapter in the saga?
Andrew Vachss: My "inspiration" comes from the evil way that some humanoids treat children, and, unfortunately there's never a shortage. Burke is the prototypical abused child: hyper-vigilant, distrustful, but intensely bonded to his "family of choice."
Alexandria, Va.: Do you have any advice for aspiring mystery authors?
Andrew Vachss: Yes. Spectators don't win fights. With "print on demand" emerging as a viable means of penetrating the dishy-bitchy milieu of "critical analysis" I suspect we will someday reach a "open admissions" field in which "quality" will be determined by the people rather than by an elite few. It took a dozen years for my first book to be published, which validates my belief that the greatest weapon of all is tenacity.
MD: I believe in conspiracy theories, and I have to say that I'm a skeptic to what's going on in the news, esp. during the time of elections. Call me paranoid, but there must be a set of truths to your Burke series.
Andrew Vachss: The Burke series is truth, and requires no "conspiracy theory" for its validation ... the body counts have done that for me.
Arlington, Va.: What led you to set "Dead and Gone" in the Pacific Northwest?
Andrew Vachss: It was time for Burke to get out of town and the temporary move was integral to the plot as you will see toward the end of the book.
Cubicleville: Hello Mr. Vachss, I heard that you relocated to the west. You seem like such an entrenched New Yorker. Why the move? How does your wife feel about it? I also read her rather disturbing but excellent book. Is she still writing?
Thanks for taking our questions.
Andrew Vachss: My wife is back in the ring representing victims of domestic violence, but, like my work, she could do hers anywhere in America.
Bethesda, Md.: Do you stay in contact with the kids you've represented, or the kids in the prison where you worked? Do they read your books?
Andrew Vachss: We maintain contact with every case at least until the child reaches adulthood or is adopted. I have stayed in contact with some of both the kids and the staff from the prison but not all of them are alive as of this writing.
They certainly do seem to read my books as do all kinds of people from my past. I know this because that's the way they tend to get in touch (through the publisher).
Washington, D.C.: What drew you to writing mystery novels?
Andrew Vachss: I don't think I am writing mystery novels. I write about crime, violence, and the maltreatment of children. In America, in the year 2000, I think this makes me as much of a "mainstream" novelist as you could hope to find.
Virginia: I think your web site looks cool. Need a webmaster to add some special effects?
Andrew Vachss: If you have specific special effects in mind that would not detract from load-speed or navigational ease, please drop us a line at the site and we'll talk about it.
washingtonpost.com: Have any of your books been picked up by television or movie producers? They seem ideal to the medium?
Andrew Vachss: Every single novel has been either optioned or purchased by Hollywood. I have no belief that a movie will ever actually result.
Arnold, MD: Your books are so completely different from anything I've ever read, and I find them compelling and riveting. It pains me, but also makes me feel hopeful, that it took you 12 years to get the first one published. I have tried to publish for two years and find the publishing industry to be almost (!) as sleazy as some of the worlds you write about. Would you recommend on-line publishing?
Andrew Vachss: I would certainly recommend investigating "print on demand" publishing and would not rule out any method of "sampling" your work to the public because the decision-making process in publishing is a bottleneck and very prone to stupid mistakes.
Washington, DC: Who, if anyone, in Hollywood do you envision as being a good candidate to portray Burke ina film version of one of your novels? Perhaps you feel otherwise, but I think some of your novels would make fantastic films... in the right hands, of course.
Andrew Vachss: I am opposed to the idea of painting a picture using such a narrow palate. There are better actors than you've ever seen who've never made it to the screen yet and the same goes for writers, musicians, artists, and so many others. If it were my choice, I would hold "open auditions" and let the best man win.
Frederick, MD: I believe you wrote that all abused children don't become abusers, but all abusers were abused children. Do you see any hope in breaking this horrendous cycle of abuse in our society?
Andrew Vachss: Right now you have two mutants running for this country's highest office. Neither has so much as spoken to, much less addressed, the issue of child protection. Unless and until the American electorate forces politicians to do so, such progress as we manage to make will continue to be incremental.
New York, N.Y.: Wow. You do really important work, and so does your wife. Heaven knows we need more people doing that work. How do you keep from getting bogged down in such serious subjects and so much suffering? Does writing help?
Andrew Vachss: Writing is simply another front we have opened up in the same ongoing war. I don't believe I am in any danger of getting bogged down in slime because rage is the greatest aid to traction ever developed.
Arnold, MD: Is there really a place that makes the Chinese food that you describe in your books? Makes me salivate while reading!
Andrew Vachss: There was such a place. In fact it was there that I had my first law office.
Arlington, Va.: I have somehow been out of the loop and missed your last book, so the description of your latest alarmed me. Please tell me that Max the Silent isn't dead? Or Pansy? I lost my dog last year, and I'm still not over it...
Andrew Vachss: I can't tell you that. I can promise you that the death was so heroic that my greatest wish is to die similarly when my time comes.
Columbia, MD: You write a lot of short stories (and in fact I have a comic book as well) about Cross. Is he likely to show up in a novel anytime in the foreseeable future?
Andrew Vachss: The Cross novels are actually written. However, we are holding them back because the material from the short story collection has also been optioned and we are waiting to see if a movie is going to result.
Workbreak: What drew you to the plight of abused children? Your work? What drew you to your work? If you are writing from your own painful past, has it helped you to create Burke and plunge him into the world he inhabits?
Andrew Vachss: I am motivated not by love of children but by hatred of those who prey upon them.
Follow-up: What was the name of the Chinese place?
Andrew Vachss: It had no name. It just said "Chinese Food" in the window and some writing in Chinese which made it clear this was no restaurant.
Washington, D.C.: Andrew: I'm impressed and moved by your commitment to children's rights. That being said, aren't you concerned that the abused children's movement has claimed a number of innocent victims? I'm thinking back to the bad old days of "repressed memory" evidence and "satanic ritual abuse". It's obvious that children can be coached, so shouldn't we be careful in pursuing prosecutions, particularly when there's a total absence of physical evidence to prove abuse? Thanks, love your books.
Andrew Vachss: All law enforcement depends for its validity on the quality and honesty of the underlying investigation.
VA: How do you not get burned out? I worked with kidnapped and exploited kids for 5 years, and eventually the pain (and hours and low pay) took a toll. I had such a hard time because I think I am too empathetic. Are you able to maintain a professional detachment? I imagine that writing allows you to blow off some steam.
Andrew Vachss: Writing is no "catharsis" for me. In fact, it is often a painful re-experiencing of traumatic material. However, I am in no danger of "burning out" because unlike the many people who struggle on the front lines of job protection, I do not work for the government and thus, I'm not subject to the incompetency, lack of support, and outright disrespect suffered by so many of my colleagues.
Waterfront, D.C.: I've been told by a mutual friend (an author) that you're very secretive. Why is that? Are you in any danger as a result of your work?
Andrew Vachss: Don't trust whispered little rumors. I take steps to protect myself and my people. If that's being secretive, so be it.
Curious DC: How did you and your wife meet?
Andrew Vachss: Privately.
The District: Why do you wear an eye patch? Do you actually only have one eye, or is it for effect? Whoops, my friend just told me that she's seen your two eyes. So, why the patch?
p.s. My friend says she knows why, but I am looking for confirmation.
p.p.s. Please accept my apologies if this question strikes you as offensive or utterly distasteful. I promise to tell you about my prosthesis as a trade.
Andrew Vachss: Your question is offensive. Why don't you ask your "friend" why he or she needs to spend their time spreading malicious rumors?
Arlington, Va.: Do you get storylines from the kids you've worked with? Have you ever fictionalized their accounts?
Andrew Vachss: No. I don't get "storylines" from anyone. And the factual material which forms the foundation of all I write is known to anyone in the business from cops to criminals.
Columbia, Md.: I'm a reader and re-reader, and because of that I prefer to buy hardcovers instead of paperbacks. They simply last longer.
It's taken some work, but I've almost completed my Vachss collection. I'm curious however as to why your short story books (Hard Looks, Born Bad and Everybody Pays) only seem to be available in a paperback form.
Andrew Vachss: That was my choice because I thought the material lent itself to the trade paperback format more appropriately. We have been asked many times about producing limited editions of each volume and we're still thinking through that decision.
DC: Are you really as unfriendly as you are coming across in this forum?
Andrew Vachss: If your idea of honesty is "unfriendly" or if you think not answering offensive, personal questions concerning stupid rumors about physical handicaps is "unfriendly," then I guess I am.
Arnold, MD: No question this time—just an observation from the aspiring writer who already sent in questions. As I read your responses, I can't help but feel like we are conversing with Burke, himself. And I have to say, it is one helluva thrill. Thanks for putting up with all of these comments, some of them not so eloquent or tactful. I'll keep reading faithfully, and I need to find out about your wife's works, as I hadn't previously known about them.
Andrew Vachss: Thanks pal. Stay strong.
Columbia, MD: Amazon.com recently had your novel "A Bomb Built in Hell" available for download for free.
What kind of response have you gotten from that? Is there a chance that Wesley's story will eventually be printed? (You seem to be favouring alternative media in some of your answers above, but I must admit I'm very 'bookcentric'.)
Andrew Vachss: We are taking a poll on the web site—www.vachss.com—right now because so many people hold your same position and we want to determine which is the best print format in which to release the novel. See you at the bookstore tonight.
For one of my favorite bookstores, see me at Mystery Books at Dupont Circle tomorrow night.
Montgomery Village: Hi, I've read most of the Burke books and one collection of short stories. Have you ever considered writing from the point of view of one of your other characters, such as Max, or Terry, or Michelle, or someone else?
Andrew Vachss: That's a great idea but I'm not sure if I have more than one authentic voice in the first person. I will give it some thought. Thank you for the suggestion.
Columbia, Md.: Speaking of your wife's works... I've always assumed that she is the basis of Wolfe.
Have the two of you ever considered writing a novel together? I think it would be very interesting to see a novel where you were writing Burke's point of view and your wife wrote Wolfe's.
Andrew Vachss: Your analysis of the Wolfe character is right on the money and if you knew other people in my life you would see equal similarities. Thanks for reading so closely.
Andrew Vachss: For all those who participated in this forum in this spirit of honest interchange, you have my gratitude for your patience. For the terminally self-absorbed who revealed themselves by their discourse, you have my pity. For those who want more detailed answers to their questions, please contact us at www.vachss.com.
Columbia, MD: Thank you actually for writing such compelling books.
It is imperative for people like me (39 year old suburban mom of 3, girl scout leader, PTA volunteer, and all that implies) to have the opportunity to learn about all the sides of life, as difficult as it may be to admit that ugliness exists. Your novels make me think and make me want to learn more about how I can help.
Andrew Vachss: Thank you. Your response is the stake I'm always playing for.