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Only Child: Andrew Vachss
Chat Transcript

Online chat at USATODAY.com, October 17, 2002


Only Child, a Burke novel by Andrew VachssAfter years on the run, Burke is desperate to return to his native New York, the only way he can reconnect with his outlaw "family." But to survive in their part of the City, where reputation is everything, Burke must take major risks to reestablish his presence. So when a Mafia man contacts him about the murder-as-message of his sixteen-year-old daughter—the offspring of what he calls an "outside the tribe" affair that he must keep secret at all costs—Burke's depleted bankroll persuades him to step out of the shadows and do something he hasn't done in years ... actually investigate a crime. Chat with Andrew Vachss about the newest installment in the Burke series.


Detroit, Michigan: Mr. Vachss, my sister and I have actively pursued your work and plan to enroll in the battle as soon as possible. My question: are you working on a specific project in Oregon that you can share/explain? e.g., a training program perhaps for new recruits?

Andrew Vachss: I am working on a specific project, but it's not so much in Oregon as based in the Pacific Northwest. This forum isn't appropriate to give a detailed account, but I can tell you that our focus is on violent juvenile offenders and some much more viable solutions than have been offered to date.


Silver Bay Minn: Will you continue to write the BURKE stories? And is he and his tribe based on real people?

Andrew Vachss: I will continue to write the Burke stories so long as there is a demand for them. Only a terminal narcissist would set out to write a 14-book series, but so long as I am loyally supported, I'm going to be loyal to my supporters.

As far as the characters being based on real people, the simple answer is yes.


East Northport, NY: Loved the SAFE HOUSE CD, any plans for another music CD—Blues or ...? Thanks!

Andrew Vachss: We love the CD too, especially the results. We were able to donate a really significant sum to our favorite organization, Licensed for Life. You can find out about it by going to our Web site. We do plan another CD as a soundtrack to a future novel, and it's either going to be blues or doo-wop.


Wadsworth, OHIO: Andrew, At this very moment, during this interview, I am away conducting a staff development class for new teachers regarding child abuse and neglect. I am also in the process of setting up workshops for teachers in Catholic schools. Could you respond to the ever present apathy on the part of teachers and child care workers in regard to suspicions of child abuse. It seems to me that a majority of educators prefer to stay ignorant of child abuse indicators so as not to have to deal with their responsibilities of mandated reporters. John M. Seryak.

Andrew Vachss: I think it's true that there are people who simply shirk their responsibility as mandated reporters. I think there's another component to the equation. It's really difficult to ask people to step forward if they believe they're going to be standing alone. Unless and until America supports its teachers and its social workers in all the appropriate ways, including with compensation, training, supervision, and respect, America cannot criticize those within the professions that don't live up to their ideal.


Cicero, Indiana: Will Burke ever hear from Flood again?

Andrew Vachss: I don't know. I literally don't know.


Comment from Andrew Vachss: IT's not impossible, though.


Spring Valley, IL: I haven't yet started to read your Burke series, but very well may as I do own and have read "Another Chance To Get It Right". I am very impressed with your advocacy work on behalf of children. My question: I had to address the Illinois Prisoner Review Board today to appeal to them on why I believed the man (a stranger) who abducted, brutally raped and murdered my 6 year old daughter should not have his death sentence reduced to a life with no possibility of parole sentence. There is no question of guilt, none whatsover and he isn't mentally impaired or anything like that, not sick. He is just a predator and sociopath who is very evil. I have read that you are opposed to the death penalty. Because I respect your opinion and you, I'd like to know why you are opposed to it. Thank You. Sincerely, SB

Andrew Vachss: I respect your grief, and even respect any desire you may have for vengeance. It's very easy for someone at a distance to pontificate. It's much harder to live the pain as you are. But that being said, there's no evidence that the death penalty deters crime. There IS evidence that the death penalty has been racially biased, economically biased, class biased, and the old adage that no one can name a rich man who was executed still holds true. But most important of all, reality is that the death penalty in America takes about 14 years to actually come into play in any given case. The death penalty has made media darlings out of serial killers. The death penalty has caused a tremendous drain of legal resources, which could be applied to protect our children. If this humanoid to whom you refer had not been given the death penalty and simply been given life without parole, he couldn't get anyone's attention. I think when you add all this up, and you accept the reality that it's possible to make a fatal mistake, and the further reality that very few countries that are not fascist actually use the death penalty, and that many states don't, it's too much like a lottery to me to call it justice.


Comment from Andrew Vachss: But I honestly confess that if I were standing where you stand now, I would be asking that the predator be put to death.


Los Angeles, California: California has recently changed the statute of limitations on child rape. What is your opinion on bringing a legal and/or civil suit against a child abuser when the events occurred twenty or more years ago? Does a survivor of child rape really have a chance to receive justice? Thank you for your time.

Andrew Vachss: I'm of the opinion that in appropriate cases, it's completely logical to pursue child sexual abuse cases even decades after they occurred, but this is not a slogan. It requires a case-by-case analysis. Without knowing more of the specific facts in any given case, I couldn't say whether I believe personally or professionally that pursuing the matter is the right thing to do.


Romford England, UK: I have just read Only Child which I thought was as fresh as your first Burke novels. How do you think you maintain this freshness, and will Burke ever be allowed another dog? Kris Russell

Andrew Vachss: Those are good strong questions! I think the key to maintaining freshness is to start real and stay real. So, for example, in the books the characters age. You have a different perspective at 48 than you did at 30. Another way to keep it fresh is to maintain my reputation for revealing truth about what's going on out here, truth that is always eventually vindicated by headlines. And I promise you that the material in Only Child, which will sound to some people like a horror movie, is in fact going on even as we speak.

As you know from reading the new book, the loss of Pansy is still haunting Burke; he even violated one of his cardinal rules about never marking his own body in order to have a memory of Pansy always with him. I believe that Burke's life will parallel my own, and that after a period of mourning he will have another dog. But not soon.


Phoenix, AZ: As Burke continues to fight the child abusers, etc. has he noticed any positive changes, becuase of his work, through the years?

Andrew Vachss: If I can separate myself from Burke, I think the honest answer is that Burke has never sought to make an impact on child abuse. Burke seeks to make an impact on child abusers in a very individualistic way, but Burke is not out to change a system that he holds responsible for his own abuse. Burke's only interests are in survival and revenge.


Columbia, MO: Have you or your wife been involved with any abuse cases involving priests? Any possibility that Burke might become so involved in a future novel?

Andrew Vachss: I certainly have been involved in cases involving priests and rabbis and ministers and elders. I've been involved in cases involving any religious organization you can imagine. I specifically wrote about a church that was not named in False Allegations, and I even referred to the safe houses for pedophile priests without giving their address in Dead and Gone. But this area has not been fully explored, and I agree that this is a place for Burke to go in the future.


Endwell, NY: What's your take on the sniper attacks taking place near D.C.?

Andrew Vachss: This is something I could literally write a book about, but the short form answer is that the motivation is either psychiatric, as was the sniper in Blossom, or political, and if I had to sit here and bet at this moment with the limited amount of data, I would bet the latter.


Dallas, Texas: Do you have a planned direction you have been leading your main character (Burke) over the past few years? Or, are your stories more motivated by some of your more personal experiences you've had with clients to create the situations you write that will force those tough issues that are current in the face of the public; as you originally designed the Burke stories to do when you created the character after your first nonfiction book?

Andrew Vachss: The stories are motivated by events as I experience them. When I come across a phenomenon that is not public knowledge, such as the type of "movies" which drive the plot of Only Child, that's what creates a new book. I've never had a master plan for the series, because this is a Darwinistic business, and I can write books only as long as the books are supported. Therefore, I have to make each book as though it might be the last.


Lake Worth, FL: I thought your comic stuff was great. Will you be doing any more in the future and will Geof Darrow be involved too?

Andrew Vachss: Yes and yes. I have two new projects coming out. One is called Hard Looks, which is the stories from Born Bad adapted to comic format, as well as a brand new series that I'm starting in this book. The cover, which I believe should be hanging in the Guggenheim, was done by my brother Geof, and he illustrated the new series start I just referred to. We're also going to be reissuing Another Chance To Get It Right with brand new material and a brand new cover, both illustrated by Geof Darrow. That should be out in November.


New York, NY: Congratulations on your victory in eliminating the incest exception in North Carolina! Do you now forsee being able to change the incest laws in other states too? And do you think that a national political action committe is viable for child protection issues?

Andrew Vachss: The elimination of the incest exception law began right in this chatroom. During a USATODAY.com chat a questioner asked a very simple question: "What can I do"? I told him that if he was serious he should send me an e-mail at the Web site and we'd talk. And we do believe that now for the first time that the political action committee that I've been calling for for many years, a group as focused on children as the NRA is on guns and just as dedicated, is now an actual possibility.


Leipzig, Germany: First of all let me give you all the best wishes from everyone here of The Zero Germany. The one question I'd like to ask is: did you (maybe in the beginning of your work as an attorney) ever feel not to be capable enough to cope with the difficulties of a client? I mean, have you ever been afraid to fail, afraid of the consequences a failure might habe for your client? Did you ever not take over a mandate for that reason? I hope this doesn't sound disrespectful to you.

Andrew Vachss: I really admire the thought that you put into that question, because you've penetrated right to the heart of how I feel about the work that I do. I began this work because I saw that children were not being adequately represented. I've always been terrified at the possibility of failure, because I know the consequences, and I cannot accept failure on behalf of an abused child. Finally, as you apparently intuited, yes, I've stepped in and taken over cases when I saw that the case was headed for a disaster, and I would do it again.



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