return to the MAIN pageGo BACK PRINT this page
The Official Website of Andrew Vachss
 

Andrew Vachss Doesn't Fight Fair:
A Conversation with Clayton Moore

February 24, 2003 at Pete's Kitchen on Colfax Avenue in Denver, Colorado


CM: What made you decide to take a break from Mr. Burke?

AV: It's really much more simple than people like to think. I wanted to write a book about innocence. That series just doesn't lend itself to that. The narrative voice is not ... the experiences I wanted to describe are not Burke's.

CM: How did the book come about? I know you don't build a schedule around writing?

AV: Yeah. The idea of writing about innocence was in the forefront all the time. It had to be a first person narrative so it couldn't be in a series. Here, I kind of built the book in my head before, which is what I always do. I had a few weeks and just went for it as quick as I could.

CM: Was it written fairly quickly?

AV: I don't know how to explain that without explaining more than you want to know about the so-called "process," but it take a long time to write the book in my head. If you came into my office and said, "Wow, he's writing fast," I'm actually transcribing the book.

CM: I know how you feel. I tape everything and once I've listened to it for four hours, you know what the story is.

AV: That's really what it is. I don't know how long it actually takes.

CM: We've talked about your books being "Trojan Horses," so to speak. Are there ideas in The Getaway Man that you're trying to get out into the popular consciousness?

AV: Sure, and if they're not apparent, then I've failed.

CM: There's Eddie in youth detention and the story of Janine and Brenda...

AV: The point of the story about Janine and Brenda is not child sexual abuse—it's what constitutes kin. It's what constitutes bonding because I believe family is a term that is defined operationally and not biologically. I know that a person cast adrift will look to bond, will look to hook up, will look to connect and that's what this book is about. It's how an innocent person looking to connect will commit criminal acts. But Eddie's not a criminal and I don't think anyone is going to perceive him as a criminal but as an innocent man who commits crimes.

Another point is focus—to look at things from multiple perspectives. It's impossible to read this book, unless you're kind of quick, and come away saying you know the answers. You don't know if Vonda was actually abused by J.C. and Gus. You can't know. You actually don't know who lied to who and who betrayed who and who used who. It's never resolved.

The one thing you do know is that Eddie is a true person and may be the only one. I guess my point when you're done is what the consequences can be if you pursue without criteria.

CM: Is Eddie's prison experience representative of the youth detention system or is it more toned down than what you saw in ANDROS II?

AV: You have to understand that there is no way to be Everyman. If you want to write about prison experience third person, as I did in my textbook, I can give you the whole experience. If you want to write in first person, then it's that person's experience. That's what the system was like for Eddie. It would be different for someone who was himself different—a person of a different color or culture or class or different intelligence. Different physical confidence. Different set of bonds already in place when he came in. Different affiliations. Different experiences. This is not a generic experience.

There are things in common, but nobody's individual experience is generic. It was not intended to be an exposé of juvenile detention.

CM: Eddie is seeking a bond with others. Is Eddie a sociopath in the fashion of some of your other characters?

AV: I don't think there's anything remotely sociopathic about Eddie. Where's the lack of empathy? He feels empathy acutely. He feels for other people. He's not a person who is self-absorbed in his own pain and nobody else's. He has limits and boundaries on his own conduct. He doesn't say, "How can I get what I want and whatever is in the way has to go down?" The people he's bonded to aren't really J.C. and Gus. It's Tim and Virgil. Eddie's goal throughout is to accumulate enough money—not to buy houses and cars, to see if he can do something about Tim. He's not stupid. He understands the sacrifice that he's making and he has a good sense of his own helplessness. I don't see anything sociopathic about him at all.

CM: A lot of your writing comes from your own experience. Are there aspects of Eddie's story that comes from your own?

AV: I don't even know about the term, "A lot." I don't know anything that doesn't come from my own experience, but experience is a broad term. It's fair enough to say that I know getaway drivers and one very well. That's not to say that I drove getaway cars on bank jobs. You're asking me about my own experience and the answer is yes, but it's not as if I did everything specifically that I've written about.

CM: But you know an awful lot of people.

AV: And I've had an awful lot of experiences. If you've been shot at, it doesn't have to be that you were shot, at noon on a certain street in Denver, to write that authentically. You can take the experience of being shot at and put it on that street in Denver and it would still be just as real.

CM: Or in the middle of an African conflict....

AV: Or in the middle of an African conflict. That's one way to get shot at.

CM: As you've called it, your "little adventure in Biafra."

AV: Yeah. For one.

CM: Did you do any research in preparing this book?

AV: This book? I don't do research in preparing any book. I just live my life. I actually can't think of a book that I've done any research for. If by research, you mean look outside my own experience, I will look to my own notes, just as you would when writing but I don't know what experience I would have to research. I can't think of any offhand.

CM: David Morrell made a point in his blurb of referring to the old Fawcett Gold Medal books. Was there a conscious decision on your part to emulate that style or is it a matter of taking the piss out of reviewers?

AV: What I wanted to do was say very clearly to the sort of literary idiots who think that only hardcovers can produce serious fiction are wrong. Paperback originals have produced some of the best American writing and it shouldn't be dismissed as genre or pulp. That's why I got into everybody's face with that cover, knowing full well that some lazy-ass book reviewers are going to review the cover. I knew that.

CM: As they do often.

AV: I could have had a cover of a single leaf falling into a clear pool in the forest and gotten different reviews, but too bad. I believe some of the Gold Medal style in the fifties and sixties paperbacks were far more than they are now perceived to be.

CM: I was in a bookstore the other day looking at those particular books only to find that at some point a publisher had pulped up Steinbeck's Cannery Row as "a tale of love and lust."

AV: I think they're going both directions. I think it's fashionable now to say that Jim Thompson was a literary figure. I'm not going to participate in that but in my opinion, writing is not judged on this sort of level playing field. It's not a meritocracy. It's kind of ... there's no real working class fiction in a sense because to call something working class fiction when it costs $35.00 to buy it. I wonder what audience we're talking to.

I really liked the idea of a book that was inexpensive as well. That attracted me greatly because certainly when I was a young person, those were the only kinds of books that I read. Libraries, sure, but to actually own the books they would be paperbacks.

CM: I kind of liked that you published it in paperback as well because there's nothing wrong with paperback fiction. It's something else that has kind of gone wrong in the publishing industry.

AV: I think so. I think paperback originals are unfairly maligned. They tend to be ... I don't know. There are bad decisions made about how stuff gets marketed but I wouldn't have done it in a mass-market paperback because I don't think they're a value for the money. The difference between mass market and trade isn't much, but how many readings can a mass-market book go through before you have to toss it? Whereas a trade you can actually keep and you can lend to your friends.

CM: You've said also that books should be published without covers.

AV: I would like it that way. I don't believe it's a clever observation at all. It's just an attempt ... My life has been about justice. Ironically, my major sort of media source for justice is a field in which the decision-making process is somewhat unfair at best. How many books even get reviewed?

CM: A small percent, generally decided by how much publicity material is sent out.

AV: A tiny percentage, and I'll bet that's right. If you're a writer, how do you compete? How do you even get in the ring? It's hard enough to get published but once you're published, how do you get anyone to take a look? I would love books without covers and better yet, I would love to get rid of book reviews and just create sampling. Say every author was given 750 words out of his book. You pick the 750 words you want and it goes up on some kind of giant website that organizes them into categories. Then, you can search and read an excerpt from each book and get the one that you like.

CM: Get a flavor for it and whatever is your taste, it's yours.

AV: That's my great hope. When you go into a bookstore and see a cover of one of my books, what I'm hoping for is that you'll pick it up and read a couple of pages. That to me is fair but I don't know that most people even get that chance.

CM: Did you make the decision about the covers of your trade paperbacks?

AV: Oh, yeah. I have cover approval on everything.

CM: Eddie is a fan of films like Moonshine Highway and some very specific cars.

AV: He's not really a fan of films at all. Driving means something to him and it's very important and very special. The closer a film comes to replicating how he feels about it, the more he's a fan of it but he has almost a hatred of films that trivialize what he does or don't get it right. That's pretty much the way I feel about movies involving child abuse investigations detective work.

CM: That's why you don't watch television.

AV: Well, I don't boycott it in some aesthetic sense. The thing about individual shows is that there's this childish idea that they are 'authentic,' because they hired an actual police officer or an actual D.A. to be a consultant.

CM: In Only Child, there's a little bit of talk about "the retirement score." Is there an inkling there tying these together.

AV: Burke tried that once and ended up going to prison.

CM: And I think he says it's a nonexistent deal.

AV: Not for everybody. There have been people who have successfully pulled off the retirement score. It's not all mythology but you have to be willing to live small. That's much more likely to trip people than not getting away with enough money.

You can steal a million dollars but you can't live as though a million dollars is your income. If you live as though $30,000 is your income, you can live the rest of your life. It's changing the lifestyle that is the hard part.

CM: Do you intend to do more work that is in a different voice?

AV: You know, here's the only truthful answer. It depends on how well this book does.

CM: You write for the market?

AV: I don't write for the market. I write to say what I have to say but I'm willing to pick the venue that works for the publisher. If this book is a screaming success then they're going to say they want more of these. If it's not, they're going to say go back to ... whatever no wins. Either way, I'll get to have my say.

It's a fight, so you use whatever works.

CM: Let's talk about Burke for a little bit. Do you actively pick a theme for each novel or does it depend on what you're working on at the time?

AV: No ... I pick a theme for each book because I multitask. There's no way I can say, "Well, this year I'm going to do incest." Whatever rolls in is what I take and I try to, with each book, be ahead of what you've read in the newspapers, knowing full well that you're eventually going to be reading it in the newspapers because I didn't make it up. Outside of that, nothing is really driving each book by my work. I've already done the work.

CM: That being the case, is there an issue that you have a burning desire to write about next?

AV: Oh yeah. It has to do with this whole business of terrorism and I will do that soon. We'll see about the form but it's up next.

CM: Terrorism as it's generally used by the popular media or terrorism within families?

AV: No, we're now talking about the large-scale terrorism. I've written about so-called internal terrorism all along. I do think there are parallels and I'm going to show them but I think most people just don't get what is actually going on. I don't think they even understand why it is that there is an El-Quaeda. I think I do.

CM: In looking at parallels, I can see where you could write about that because you're often aiming at root causes and not symptoms.

AV: I'm only interested in causes and responses. I'm not interested in body counts. I think I have a way to do it. I'm sure I have a way to do it and I will do it soon.

CM: Is that in the context of a Burke novel or something else?

AV: It's logically going to be a Burke novel because Burke is a lot more experienced and a lot smarter than an Eddie could ever be. He has the contacts and the connections and the life experience that Eddie doesn't have. So, he's the logical narrator for that story.

CM: Is Burke able to accomplish things outside the law that frustrate you in working inside of it?

AV: Nah. The best Burke can do is to eliminate a particular person or problem. He can't actually change anything and truly has not. He's not an outlet for my frustrations. I'm not living vicariously. He's not a release valve. He's a tool by which to communicate through a book. That's all he represents for me.

It's all in his name. Have you ever looked up Burke in a dictionary? Look it up sometime. When you get down to the four or fifth meaning, you'll see that it means to kill without leaving marks. It comes from one of the first known serial killers—part of a duo—Burke and Hare. The body snatchers for the medical schools. Before refrigeration, you needed fresh cadavers and when they ran out of bodies, they started making them. You couldn't stab or shoot the bodies that you were presenting as cadavers so you had to strangle them without leaving marks.

I'm writing Trojan Horses. So if somebody is reading they might find something exciting but they don't understand that they are also absorbing the material that I put in there. His name's Burke. He was a tool from the beginning and he was always intended to be.

CM: The last several Burke novels have made him more and more isolated, on the run. Is Burke moving towards a logical conclusion or is he just living his life the way you live yours?

AV: Well, he's back with his people now. He's a lot less isolated than he was although he's still cut off but that's his nature. I don't know where he's ever had a rich, full and complete life.

CM: He's never going to be a citizen.

AV: I don't see how. Not only do I not see how he could be a citizen but I don't think ... you know, the 'You're not from around here,' syndrome? That's the way he would always feel. That's the way I feel when I live temporarily someplace that is not my home.

It would also mean complete alienation from his family and he's never going to go there, so that's not in his cards. I was ready to let Burke go several books ago and I don't mean to sound like some kind of raging egomaniac but the public wouldn't accept that.

CM: You do have some absolutely rabid fans.

AV: The ones that I have are with me. I am review-proof as of today. I'm ad-proof, I'm book-proof. It doesn't matter. There are enough of them so that they're guaranteed. Because of the communication where anyone can write in, people made it very clear that they would feel betrayed. They got the hint.

Bottom line, they'll send me the message when it's time to go.

CM: In the online chats, your fans ask extremely good and intelligent questions, for the most part.

AV: They do. The early chats were not that good but people learned. People have seen the live events and they understand that I can engage in answering good questions for a real long time but if we're going to do the celebrity thing, it's going to be over like that.

CM: You should be allowed to dismiss those stupid questions.

AV: I don't even necessarily mean that they're stupid but people are trying to be nice and they're used to "writers" who are happy to talk about their inspirations for an hour without drawing a breath. Some people just don't know what to expect and I guess that's what they do expect. But there are people who just want to talk about the movies, for example. Who would you cast and that kind of crap.

CM: Oh. I don't have any of those questions because I know they keep buying your books and they keep not making them.

AV: And that's what I believe will always happen.

CM: That must be the perfect world for you.

AV: This book? They can make a movie of this book. I can see why the Burke books haven't made it but why they keep buying them, I don't know. This book we already got offers on. This book could make a good one without spending a zillion dollars. We'll see.

CM: It's a smaller scale story than some of the Burke stuff.

AV: Absolutely. It hasn't got this huge back story and there's no issue of character rights. There's no questions about at what point in the series do you enter? The cast is smaller. The scale is smaller.

CM: And it's a contained story versus the Burke novels which go through big story arcs that are hard to pick up in the middle.

AV: The Burke books? They're one book and these are just chapters.

CM: That's an interesting way to think about it.

AV: Look, you're not going to meet anybody who's more blunt than I am. I never expected there to be a second Burke book. I didn't set out to write a series. I get a headache talking to people who have never been published but they have the first four books in a series written. I don't know what that means. That's why Flood is my worst book. I thought it was going to be a one-round fight so I threw every punch that I had. I would have cut that book by a third if I had known there was going to be a second book.

Immediately after it came out ... I don't know, it had only been out a week or ten days or something and it became clear from the offers that came in that people wanted me to sign these multiple book contracts for the same character. At that point, it became clear that it would continue.

CM: Do fans identify with Burke or is he just their hero?

AV: Both.

Some people very specifically identify with pieces of Burke. So, for example, I get a lot of fan mail from convicts—old-school convicts—who completely share his values across the board. But I also get letters from younger convicts—from skinheads to the same kind of people we help prosecute. They take some individual piece of Burke, and that seems to work for them. Some fans you might call "survivors." I put that word in quotes because it's not a word I use; it's too broad a term. I hear from people who are angry. People who have had family members who have been victimized, and they identify with his feelings. As far as a "hero" is concerned, I don't think there are so many people that totally hero-worship the character, but plenty who want to know everything about him.

By and large, you—anyone—can emulate certain qualities that Burke has for legitimate purposes. Beyond that, I mean, what kind of hero is he? He's a good man in very small ways but in large ways, he's not a very good man at all. But there are all these little tributes to Burke I appreciate deeply. There are all kinds of Neapolitan mastiffs running around America named Belle or Blossom or Strega.

Clearly people use the information about character and personality more than they would "detective" information. And there's people who are fascinated by specific aspects of the series more than others. Look, I don't know how into cars you are? But the last book contained virtually a build sheet for the Plymouth. The earlier Plymouth was described more generically. Motor guys wanted the actual specs, so we did that. Now we've got people who have written in saying they're going to build one. It's not that they want to be like Burke; they want his car. Understand? Some part of him they can relate too. That's generally the way it works. And that's why I gave you this kind of kind of split answer.

CM: Moving on from Burke, how goes the war?

AV: There's been great progress. Great, great progress. There has probably been more progress in the past 30 years than in the previous 3,000 years but not enough progress for me to say we're winning. Not enough progress for me to say that victory is inevitable. Not enough progress for me to say within a certain timeline, you'll see change.

Measurable objectives have been achieved. The very existence of Protect.

CM: You've been talking about doing this for years.

AV: That's the point. We've been talking about it for years and now it's real. We've been talking about defeating the "incest exception," and we've gone to North Carolina and knocked it down. We still have other places to knock it down.

I get all kinds of mail from young people saying, 'I want to join this war. In what way could I serve?' The books are in a bazillion languages and they are a great forum but things are not good for American kids and it's silly to pretend that they are.

CM: That's something Eddie says in The Getaway Man. It's not good to be a kid.

AV: That's right. It's not good to be a kid. It's really not. For some kids, it's the most perfect and blissful time of their whole lives and for other kids, it's a P.O.W. camp. It's still a country where there are more people casually committed to the protection of whales than the protection of children. It's still a country where you can run for the highest office in the land and all you have to do is say, 'I love kids and I respect the American family,' even if you don't.

The family values are ... that's what I told you earlier. I hate these flabby terms. I just gave a speech in Texas and I said, (holding out one hand) "Leave no child behind." {holding out the other hand) "It takes a village." Both sides have said ... there's no politics to child protection. Each side claims the issue as their own and neither side has delivered on it, unlike the issues where they're forced to deliver like abortion, capital punishment, and the environment. Politicians are forced to deliver, right? If they don't take a position, they're finished but not when it comes to child protection.

And the American public accepts it. If you look at child protective services, you look at the mess that it's in? When you look at a movement that kind of started right here with Henry Kempe? I mean, Battered Child Syndrome came out of Colorado.

So, I'm like swimming towards the horizon and I will drown and not reach it but I do not believe that I am the only wave. I know for a fact that there are much bigger waves coming behind me.

CM: I know that you consider yourself to be a soldier in a bigger war.

AV: Absolutely. That's all. I'm not a general and people always want to give me credit for every single advance that ever occurred in child protection. They believe I had a hand in all of it, somehow magically and that's just so not true. There are all kinds of people doing this that don't get any recognition at all. Yeah. A soldier, that's all.

CM: You just have different weapons at your disposal.

AV: I always had weapons but they were much more personal and close to home until the books. I could win cases in court. I could run an institution. I could run the whole operation. I could do investigations. I could do all kinds of stuff but in terms of speaking to that giant jury, it's only the books that have done that.

CM: You're in this fight for the species. Do you think there is ultimately an answer to this issue or is it just a matter of keeping up the fight?

AV: That's a really good question.

I don't think we can eliminate The Beast. I think we can make the climate in which The Beast has to live so inhospitable that the stress will make them reveal themselves earlier and once revealed, we will know what to do with them. Over time, that changes the species but you're talking about eons. Can it ever be eliminated? I don't think so. I don't think it can be done without the kind of monitoring that I, myself, would reject. That would retard human progress.

CM: Is there a base human evil we have to keep our eyes on?

AV: I don't think there's base human evil at all. I do think that there is conduct by humans that is evil but I don't think that is inherent in our system, nor do I think good is inherent in the system. If you look at a baby, a baby is completely sociopathic but it's not evil. A baby feels only its own pain.

CM: So, it's based on influences?

AV: For me, one hundred percent. I don't believe, and no one has shown me, any DNA for "rapist" or any biogenetic code for a killer.

CM: One of the things I've always liked about your writing is it's all about a person's actions.

AV: Behavior is the only truth. I believe if Ted Bundy and Squeaky Fromme had a child and some of the foster families that I've known raised that child, he or she would be a great person. The whole idea of eugenics scares the hell out of me. I think every experience that we have had with it has, in itself, been evil.

CM: I like concept of behavior as the ultimate scale.

AV: You can't concern yourself with motivation. I mean if I believe that I'm doing you a favor by killing you, it's up to a jury to determine if I'm insane but you're just as dead. I don't care to inquire into the belief systems of predatory pedophiles. I don't believe their belief systems but I'm fine if you do. If you believe that they believe what they do is wrong, I don't care, as long as we agree that they can't do it.

There's only a conduct. That's why I never use the term pedophile. I use the term predatory pedophile. If you want to fantasize about raping babies, have a nice life. If you want to do it...

CM: Is there a term that journalists should be using rather than the term you've called 'amorphous,' which is 'child abuse?'

AV: Sure, but it's not a term because it's not a conduct, okay? They should not use euphemisms. Of all the euphemisms that journalists use, perhaps my least favorite is 'fondling.' You know, 'Mr. X was accused of fondling children.' Fondling? That's interesting. It's not what the term means. Molestation? That's not what the term means. Rape? Now, that's what the term means. The sexual assault against a human being who cannot consent by virtue of some form of incapacity be it drink or drugs or intellectually impaired, or an infant.

Sexual access without consent. All these euphemisms ... call it what it is. Sure.

Even the word "pedophile" means lover of children and it refers to a philosophical position. You can be a pedophile and not commit acts. To call someone a pedophile doesn't work for me.

CM: But predator works real good.

AV: Predator works just fine because you can't have predator in that context without prey.

CM: There always is but in the past year there have been a rash of media reports about child kidnappings. A stranger pulls a kid into a van. Does that hurt your cause?

AV: Well, I think it focuses the cause away from where it should be focused. The most dangerous place for a kid in America is always in the home. This 'stranger-danger' is wildly exaggerated. If you look at the actual numbers as a journalist, you will see that actual stranger kidnappings went down. They haven't gone up. They get a tremendous amount of attention and as a result, you can get all the funding you want for preventing stranger abductions but if you ask Jeb Bush about missing children...

There are a whole lot of missing children in Florida who were known to Child Protective Services and they lost them, right? The only time it got press was when one of them turned up dead. I'm not saying that kidnapping a child isn't a heinous offense and doesn't deserve attention but it shouldn't be leaning away from the real problem.

The fact is since there are no child advocates as there are gun advocates ... I'm not saying, give my program more money, I'm a child advocate. I'm saying change the laws. Change the priorities. Change the budget allocations since that isn't happening, per se, because if you're putting all your money into stranger abductions, you're not putting it into staff and training and supervising the front line, which is child protective services.

CM: It's such a small percentage compared to crimes in the home when we could be putting money into reporting education.

AV: It's a microscopic percentage. The problem with reporting is that people aren't going to report unless they believe something is going to happen. People do not call 911 unless they think something is going to happen, right? Do you think people have the same connection about child protective services? They need to. It's not CPS' fault.

If you want to criticize someone, and I'm as willing to criticize them as anyone, you have to give them the resources first and then criticize the way that they perform. When the military fails to perform, our criticism is justified because they weren't short on funds. When CPS fails to perform, their innocent defense is that they didn't have enough money.

You see what I'm saying? Ante up. If we do that, then we're in a position to criticize.

CM: You've voiced a strong opinion on the Oprah Winfrey Show about the 'lie of forgiveness.' Is that your own gut feeling or is that something you've taken from the study of psychology?

AV: I don't do any studying about that sort of thing. I don't know how you would study it. I've experienced it over and over again. I can say unequivocally that the lie of, "To truly heal you must first forgive," has derailed more victims than the abusers themselves. Sexual abuse is the only crime that makes the victims feel guilty so they have this burden.

I've had so many people write to me to say they can't move forward. 'I'm stuck. I can't move forward because I hate this human being. I know I hate them and as long as I hate them I know I can't heal.' I always ask, 'Who told you that?' Somebody told me that. They're wrong. No, no, it's perfectly healthy for you to hate that person. Really? They say, 'I can't believe it. It's like this weight just fell off me.' There's no proof to that. I believe the whole myth was started by perpetrators. Who benefits most? Who benefits most from the idea that you have to forgive the perpetrator?

CM: It frees them up to go out and do it again.

AV: Sure it does. And it means that when we come to court, you're not going to testify and the judge isn't going to put them in jail.

CM: You're still the first one I've ever heard put it in such blunt terms.

AV: Everybody says that. That's me, and that was the opportunity. That show was supposed to be about me. It wasn't supposed to be about Oprah. She picked the five people who have influenced her the most and I was the only person on that particular show. She had all this footage of me but there was an opportunity there so I took it and I always would.

I mean, when I got to go to the White House because I helped to author some legislation and Clinton signed it, I didn't waste the opportunity talking about his golf game. Whether he listened, I don't know, but I spoke.

CM: You saw an opportunity and you took it.

AV: Yeah and I always will. My life teaches me that that window opens, you head through it. You prepare yourself and when the opening comes up, you throw the punch. You have to throw it. You can't say, gee, is this the time?

CM: Well, and you can't limit yourself to magazines or whatever that are considered mainstream.

AV: Nah. I've never... I don't shy away from comic books. I don't shy away from Batman or whatever. I write songs. I don't care. The truth is that I never know when the door is going to slam shut in my face because I don't believe for a second that this is about anything other than profit and loss. I don't know how long I would survive in the storms with the books themselves.

Now, I don't need the books to go on television. I was a frequent TV guest before I ever got published. I don't need the books to do nonfiction. But I do need the books to get someone to take me all-expenses paid to Australia or Berlin or Milan or London. That's what pays. I'm sitting here talking to you and we're not talking a whole lot about books but if it weren't because of the book, you wouldn't be talking to me at all. I know what got me here, see? I don't forget that even if I don't spend a lot of time on it.

CM: A long time ago, I kept running into women who gravitated back towards their abusers and would perpetually try to save them. It doesn't seem to be, though, a way to fight the war, to save one person at a time.

AV: That's not true. What causes all the problems that we speak of is the multiplier effect. If you don't accept the proposition that one person by what they do, then multiplies in that direction, you're not in the business. If I adopted that philosophy, why do I bother taking the case that protects the one kid?

CM: Because that one kid can be the one who saves others.

AV: Also, by not contributing to, not continuing on, not providing a climate for the acceptance of child abuse, I see that's one on our side. Then, he or she recruits more for our side than the other. It's always the people doing something that question themselves and the people doing nothing who don't. It's always the people who are actually trying who say, 'Gee, how can I do more?' when most people aren't doing a goddamned thing. So, my answer to them is, 'Get more people to do what you do.'

I would be thrilled. A person says, 'I serve as a Big Brother but I wish I could do more.' You've got to be kidding. If everybody did what you did, I would win this war. I would give you a date by which we could win this war. For most people, it's not their 'thing.'

CM: The worst crime is inaction.

AV: I think is absolutely is, which is why people don't want to say the word evil. They want to shy away. It's not happening.

CM: 'I want to go home, watch my television and ignore the world outside.'

AV: Sure and you know what, go ahead. Go ahead but at least, God damn, give me your vote. Now, with Protect, what's your excuse?

CM: It's amazing that you've gotten together an organization where you can deliver a block of votes.

AV: First of all, it's not my organization. But, you know how it started? By your question. During a chat.

A fan literally said, 'I want to do more. How do I join?' I gave that person the same answer I give everybody: what are your skills? And it's okay if you have none. He says that he's a political operative. He runs political campaigns. So I said, well, if you're serious and this isn't just chat-room nonsense, get in touch with me privately.

He did and I said, okay, we want to target the incest exception. He put together a campaign. I mean, sure, our guys helped, but he put it together and knocked it out. Off that victory, flushed with success, everybody said that we could do more of this. Protect was formed but it's Grier Weeks that you want to interview about Protect, not me.

But it does show the power of the writing. That's how we came to it, and the circle is complete.

CM: Congratulations on North Carolina, by the way.

AV: A perfect place to start. If you had won it in Vermont, people would have said, 'Ah, so what,' or the People's Republic of Berkely, or Boulder. North Carolina?

CM: North Carolina was a real kick in the teeth. You guys came in the door hard.

AV: We did and you notice that everything I said about that campaign worked. I said, if you get it on the floor, you won't find one person against it. Who's going to stand up and defend this behavior? Nobody. If we could have gotten it to the floor in Congress, it would be federal legislation today.

CM: Getting it to the floor is the problem.

AV: Well, if we get the kind of membership that Grier hopes to get—he's the political operative here, not me. I'm kind of the anti-politician. I'm not the guy you want for that. If we get the kind of membership he hopes for in five to seven years, there will be people supporting the legislation we want that don't give a rat's ass about children. So what? There are drunks that support Mothers Against Drunk Drivers.

CM: It's about the result.

AV: It's always about the result.

CM: Only Child takes Burke into this weird world of filmmaking that has changed as technology has improved. Is there any kind of place in society for adult films.

AV: I think we're talking about different things. The films in Only Child were manipulated. They were not cinéma vérité at all. That's like asking if there's a place for any crime? There certainly is room for independent filmmakers. There certainly is room for making films with the kind of equipment we have now, very inexpensive and having something to say. This guy wasn't making films. He was making reality and manipulating it in such a way that people got terribly hurt.

CM: Back on technology, how do you feel about virtual child pornography?

AV: First of all, I don't believe there's much of a market for it. What they always call it in underground speak when they're asking for this stuff is, 'the real thing.' They don't even want photographs of actual child porn. They've been around too long. I've seen that one. That's not fresh.

It's a red herring and, more so, I think it's an intentional red herring, so that defense lawyers can ask, "how do you know?" I think it's a deliberately created loophole, but I don't actually think it's much of an issue. I don't think a comic book illustrating child porn is outside the First Amendment.

To me, it's very simple. You want a definition of child pornography? It's a photograph of a crime or a movie of a crime. If it wasn't a crime, as much as I might personally find it vomitous, (a), I don't believe it can be prosecuted and (b), I don't believe there's a market for it. Show me one freak that was arrested with nothing but virtual pornography. Show me one.

It was a red herring kind of to give the right wing something to freak about. They're real quiet about incest but they're quite noisy about child pornography. They also think it's a continuum. They think Playboy down to child pornography is a continuum. Clearly, I don't.

CM: You have a great hatred of predators but you don't believe in capital punishment. Is that a lack of faith in the system or is it because the process is inefficient?

AV: It's not just inefficient. Everything that is wrong with the criminal justice system then gets highlighted. It's racist. It's classist. It's so much economically driven in terms of result. It doesn't work. It's not a deterrent. It costs a fortune. It makes celebrities out of degenerates because there's something about being on the row. There's nothing about it that works for me—and—none of that explains my opposition to it.

CM: Okay.

AV: You know what the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child is? Okay. You know the U.S. has not signed it.

CM: Because it bans the death penalty.

AV: For juveniles! We haven't signed it. Thailand signed it and we haven't signed it. Right there is all I need to be told. If you're going to execute children or execute people for crimes they committed when they were children, that's fundamentally wrong. Civilized countries don't do that.

And then we allow, because of this ridiculous system that we have, we allow a country like France to harbor Roman Polanski and dictate to us that we have to give a new trial to Ira Einhorn. That's the position that we've put ourselves in with the death penalty. It doesn't enhance us. It doesn't elevate us. It kind of demeans us.

CM: It's a political thing now.

AV: That's why I don't participate in debates about the death penalty. I don't participate in debates about abortion. I'm always invited and I always say you have to make it worth my while. No, they don't get it. You have to tell me what I get if I win. If I win this debate, if I beat you fair and square in this debate about capital punishment, do we not have capital punishment? No.

Get me an audience where they'll sign an oath that they're undecided. They can't do that either, so actually, I'm the entertainment for the evening. I don't do that.

CM: Speaking of Polanski, he won a British film award last night. Do you hope he shows up for the Oscars?

AV: I would like to greet him myself, yes, but I don't believe he would. One of the things that the website has done ... I don't know how many author web sites you've visited but clearly, ours is different.

We're the site. Type in Roman Polanski in Google and see what comes up first. It's our site. Why? Because we have no editorials. No fan stuff. We simply have the facts.

CM: And the original reporting.

AV: Did you ever read the piece I wrote about cyber chumps? Okay. How can we possibly take that position and then scream and yell. Instead, we're saying that here are the facts about Polanski and here are the sources. Don't tell me the girl was 16. Don't tell me he left before he was tried. Here are the facts.

CM: I'm glad to see it there, too. There's a story on Yahoo today that says the girl involved in the case says that Polanski's work should be judged on its own merit.

AV: Of course. He's been judged. He pleaded guilty. He split. He has nothing to do but come back and be incarcerated. If we are going to take a black guy who ran off a chain gang in Alabama, went to Detroit, lived for 30 years and is 60 now and got busted because he won some award—which we have done—how can we say, oh, he makes films so he doesn't have to serve his sentence?

CM: The guy is guilty. He just hasn't paid for his crime.

AV: He had a trial. He pleaded guilty. He thought he was going to get the deal of the century and he still got a real good deal but it was an incarcerative sentence. Hence the line in Only Child: Judge the art, not the artist. Yeah, right. You want to judge art, that's fine, but it's immaterial to this case. Adolph Hitler loved dogs and I love dogs so we must have something in common, right?

CM: You're not a criminal.

AV: Even if I was a criminal, I'm not a genocidal freak that killed millions of human beings. You can't genericize human beings. It's their individual conduct. I don't think a guy who stuck up a liquor store because his kids are hungry ... and I'm not saying he's a righteous person or that he's the same as someone who kills human beings for entertainment. To say they're both criminals is ... you might as well say they're both males.

And I'll go one further with you just so you understand.

Give me your money. You say, no, I work for the money. I pistol whip you, fracture your skull, break your nose, take your money. The law says I'm an armed robber.

Give me your money. Okay, sure, here. I pistol whip you, fracture your skull, break your nose. The law says I'm an armed robber. Those two people are on different planets. X wants the money. Y wants to hurt you and uses the money as an excuse to hurt you and uses the violence as a way to get your money. The law calls them exactly the same man. Where I've been, you don't see them the same and you don't report them the same.

CM: Back to the issue ... you've said that these people need to be incarcerated for life.

If you're talking about using the word freaks to say they're not proper members of our society, sure.

CM: As someone who deals directly with the prison system, is rehabilitation ever an answer?

AV: What does rehabilitation mean? See my hand? It's been broken a number of times. It's rehabilitated. It works fine but it got broken. They put it in a cast. I did the exercises and I can use it and I can write.

CM: But it's broken.

AV: No, no. It's returned to its former state of functioning: rehabilitated. Now, if you want to show me somebody who tortures small animals, set fires, molested kids, lied, cheated, stole, connived, manipulated all to the detriment of other human beings and you want to rehabilitate him—to what? What is his former state of function? Are you so naïve as to believe that when the guy is first arrested when he's 35 that's his first offense?

So there's no such thing, first of all. You're really talking about, if you will, habilitation. The answer to that is how early do you get the perpetrator? I believe that working with sex offenders who are quite young—sometimes—if you can get them before calcification, you can actually get a result. Working with the chronic? It's a waste of money.

CM: I'm extrapolating here, but I'm assuming that's part of your project in Oregon?

AV: The project in Oregon was to design—you never read my original textbook—but the textbook was how to really run a maximum security prison for the ultraviolent youth. This was an architectural design and program from the ground up. Oregon has kind of a unique system so you can do a life sentence at age 15 but from 15 to 25 they can hold you in juvenile corrections and then turn you over to the adult system. If you're ever going to make the argument that at 25, those kids can be returned to society instead of adult corrections, you need a special institution that focuses just on them.

The idea was to build it from the ground up, design it architecturally and programmatically, the whole deal. Oregon ran into the same financial crisis that other states did and just failed to pass a half percent increase in their state sales tax. As a result, the office that we hoped we would be working with just laid off about 25% of its staff. It means we took a body blow but we'll come back. What we built was an exportable model. It wasn't unique to Oregon.

So, the architects are still working and the project is going ahead.

CM: The ideas are still there. Are there elements that are unique or new or have you simply taken the best ideas from other places?

AV: Well, I can't say ... I don't have the kind of ego to say that anything in there has never been spoken because I don't know but I can tell you that merely the elimination of gang showers in juvenile institutions would change the way of assault. It would change the safety level. As an example, has anybody ever thought of this architecturally? I'm sure, but do you see it in juvenile prisons? No.

Anyway, the perfect building without the correct programming wouldn't work anyway. That's what I wrote the original textbook about and had that textbook reached the public, as opposed to the profession, I wouldn't have turned into a novelist.

CM: Another label that I kept running into during my years in volunteer programs was "At Risk." Is that an accurate term or is it just a convenient shorthand for uneducated and poor?

AV: No. I mean, properly applied, the abuse victim is absolutely at greater risk of further abuse. If you go down any prostitution stroll and grab any underage girls, you think they ran away from a loving supportive home for the adventure? The bad pimp grabbed them and forced them into this life? It does happen. Not the median at all.

A damaged child is at risk for drug abuse, alcohol abuse, for prostituting him or herself. There's no question about that. Poor kids are at risk of a lot more things because they lack the nutrition base that other kids have, the educational base, the safety base. But at risk for what? There are neighborhoods where kids are at risk for random gunfire, or arson, or rats, or disease. I think it's a fair term. I'm just not sure of the criteria I would use to apply it in a given situation.

CM: Does race play an issue in your war?

AV: Nope, except in the sense that racism plays a role in service delivery and allocation of funds but if you mean is there any one race in which child abuse predominates percentage wise? No.

Is there even one country or culture? No. One class? No.

CM: One of the things I dislike about the media is that every time an eight-year-old blonde, white girl is kidnapped, it's all over CNN, and you know about the thousands of others among the disappeared.

AV: That's true but that's not the real danger. The real danger to me is this kind of retro racism. So you have a caseworker on the stand and ask, "Is it true that when you went out there, you found these children were routinely whipped with a belt, bleeding?" 'Oh, yes.' Well, then why did you not then make out the case then? 'Well, you understand these were black people and that's their culture.' You see, I'm being a good liberal. You see?

It's not as simple as talking about racism. Liberals contribute just as much with their own nonsense. The other thing you need to understand as a journalist is this. Do you know what a spiral fracture is?

CM: Sure.

AV: Okay. You understand the chances of getting one by accident are very, very small. Now, if you bring a child with a spiral fracture to the ER, you are going to get reported to child protective services. Bring the child to a private physician and the chances are reduced. It's not so much race there as class. The government keeps very good records so when you say there's a lot more child abuse in the Projects, that's because you're visiting the people in the project to make sure they're not cheating on their welfare benefits. You're not visiting the people in the middle class. There's a different degree of surveillance going on.

CM: You're represented a lot of times as a tough guy, but you're not a cynic.

AV: I don't know what ... if you mean I'm going to back up from you or step aside from you, you got that right. I don't know how being a cynic makes you a tough guy. Most of the whining little bums that I see are cynics.

CM: Why do you think people can't tell the difference?

AV: I don't think people can tell the difference because they have no life experience, which is a big thing with me. My favorite book review, and I have some real favorites, among them is 'I've been reading crime novels for 25 years and I've never read one like this Burke book so obviously the Burke book is an utter concoction.' These people who ... You go to the movies a lot?

CM: Yes.

AV: Okay. You ever fired a handgun?

CM: No.

AV: Trust me, no one fires a semiautomatic handgun sideways. Otherwise, they'd all look like me. But the emergency wards around this country are full of stupid kids who think that handguns are Bic lighters. They don't even know how to reload. They watch the movie and guess what happens.

So, 'cynic,' is considered tough by people who have no life experience. So they see someone on TV who says nothing matters and they think that's a tough guy. I see that person as a weakling because if you think that nothing is going to change then you have all the excuse in the world for not fighting. How does that make you a tough guy just because you've found an excuse for not engaging?

Sometimes you have to fight when you know you're going to lose, right? You know you're going to lose and the best you can hope for is to hurt the other guy. Bullies are smart. Bullies figure out very quickly, 'If I fight this guy, I'm going to win but he's going to hurt me. He's going to get a few in. If I fight this other guy, he's not going to fight back.' Guess who gets left alone?

Is there anything out there that says that you can't do anything about bullies? 'Oh, it's just part of life to get your ass kicked in high school.' No, it's not. Of course not.

CM: You break someone's nose and they'll definitely think twice.

AV: And you don't have to fight fair. You know? You want to fight me and you outweigh me by 100 pounds. I'm going to stick to your rules? I don't think so. And if, after you lose and say I didn't fight fair, what does that mean? I'm going to get my name on a trophy? I'll be fine.

I think there's a lot of tough guy writers who are in fact not tough guys. I think that's kind of obvious to anyone who's ever...

CM: I got dragged to see James Ellroy not too long ago....

AV: (chuckles) James is a performer. He's a total performer but James gives people what they paid to see. I don't think he pretends that you're getting the actual human being. He's a guy who gives you your money's worth and I think he's done that.

CM: It's not the same thing.

AV: No, but I don't think he claims to be. I don't know. I can't speak for James Ellroy. I can't speak for anyone but people who research stuff as opposed to people who have lived in it and among it won't report it the same way. I think most people like the research stuff. I think most people like Elmore Leonard's dialogue. I hope most people don't think human beings actually talk like that and I don't think Elmore Leonard is running around pretending that people do. He's not trying to persuade you that the world talks like his books. That's fair enough.

CM: As far as I can tell, you haven't affiliated yourself with any political party. Are you interested in politics beyond legislation?

AV: I never met a politician that I didn't feel somehow was my enemy because I've never seen one be my friend in terms of my issues. I see politicians as amoebas who move in whatever direction the light takes them. Students in this country distress me with their lack of study. They don't understand that George Wallace first ran with NAACP endorsement. They don't understand that politicians do what they do to get elected. The only true believers in politics are like the alien abduction guys or the Lyndon Larouche people. They never actually get elected to anything.

I don't believe that when Hillary Clinton said, "It takes a village," or George Bush says, "Leave no child behind," they're both saying the same thing: nothing. No, I'm not interested in politics. I couldn't be a politician. I don't have the physical appearance to be a politician. I don't have the background to be a politician. I don't have the ability.

CM: The innate ability to kiss someone's ass?

AV: Oh, these guys are using Preparation H as lip-gloss. That's their worldview.

CM: You've said you don't have any deep underlying love of children, but do you like the ones that you're around?

AV: Children are not generic. There are kids I like a lot and there are kids I don't like. In cases, I'm there to protect them. I'm not there to be their parent or their surrogate. I'm there to do my job and get them away from The Beast and get them to actual healers. I don't do the healing.

Do I like them or dislike them? That's not the relationship. With the teenagers, it's inevitable that you're going to have some sort of relationship with them. With the younger ones, it's inevitable to me that you're not.

But a teenager, I'm the bad kind of ... I'm the one that has to tell the teenage girl you can't wear lipstick to the trial because that's not the kind of look that I want, see?

CM: We touched a little bit on graphic novels. What appeals to you in comic books or other forms of alternative media?

AV: That they're an alternative media. That's it. I didn't read comics growing up. I can't give you any comic icons that I'm crazy about except my brother Geofrey Darrow, who I think is a genius in the field, but Geof's with me. It doesn't have anything to do really with comics.

CM: But there's Joe Lansdale, too, who is not an artist but works in the field a lot.

AV: He's a brilliant writer but ... comics to me are ... They came to me and said your material, new audience that might not otherwise read your material. Perhaps you get some crossover. You take your shot. I did and it worked far better than I ever would have imagined. That's it.

CM: Did Another Chance to Get It Right start as a comic project or was it just to be a book of essays or whatever.

AV: It started with me being lied to.

I was asked to write the commentary to a UNICEF book of photographs, so I put together these essays and allegories and everything only to be told at the last minute that the people who were involved, who had the contract, didn't actually have a contract with UNICEF. They were hoping to get one.

So, I was stuck with this material and I ran a small piece of it as a Parade article. The reaction to that just stunned me.

CM: The Parade article was huge.

AV: So Dark Horse and specifically, Mike Richardson, who is the president over there, said, 'You know, this would make an actual book. Instead of photographs, we'll use illustrations.' Anyway, who could do it? At that time, I didn't know anything about the business. He did. He got fabulous people and that book has been kind of a ridiculous success. It sold out in every printing it's had in every version. Now, it's got a brand new version with new materials. That's lasted like ten years.

I know that people bought the new Hard Looks just for Geof's cover. I mean, they probably ripped the cover off and framed it, and I'm fine with that.

CM: You have a great love of dogs.

AV: I don't know. I have great respect for them and I love my dogs. I don't see a dog on the street and say, 'oh, look at the doggie,' or anything.

CM: What have you learned from your relationship with dogs like Simba and Gussie?

AV: Way before Simba or Gussie. I mean, you don't get to have a Simba or Gussie unless you understand. Did you read Another Chance? Did you read the part in the bed with the rats? That's me. I learned to love dogs and respect them because my little terrier pet protected me. Not just protected me but boy, I'll tell you what. If you've ever heard a rat's claws on linoleum when you're a child ... Pepper? His whole affect when he heard that? "Oh boy, oh man, a rat!" So while I'm scared, he'd leave that bed like an arrow when he would hear the sounds of a rat. And then jump back in the bed.

My dad, a genuinely tough guy, was bitten in the face by a dog when he was small and he's afraid of dogs. He's not afraid of anything else. My dad played football against Vince Lombardi. He was a tank commander. He's a very tough guy but he's afraid of dogs. He's like phobic of dogs.

But he got us a dog because that's what we needed. Way before I had my major beasts, I had Pepe, so I knew a dog would give you what the dog was capable of.

CM: You still use them for protection.

AV: Absolutely. I like guns. They're good things, but dogs don't jam and they don't rust and you don't forget where you put them. You don't worry about whether they have their clip in. And a dog doesn't hesitate. So...

CM: I like the point you've made, particularly about pit bulls, that a dog is like a child in that it's what you make it.

AV: That's why, in Another Chance, I'm sitting with the dog in my lap. Because I don't mutilate my dogs and the ears aren't chopped, people can't tell it's a pit bull. They say, I didn't know pit bulls can be that sweet. They can. They are. You get what you raise.

CM: I had shepherds as a child and now my apartment won't let you keep a shepherd because they're 'bad dogs.'

AV: Sure. And yet, anyone who's ever seen... Right now, it's Labs who are seeing eye dogs but in a previous generation, it was German Shepherds. Actually, brain cell for brain cell, I think they might be the smartest dogs. At least the most trainable. Pits can reason in ways that I haven't seen other dogs reason but in terms of trainability ... they're not so great. You have to work so much harder with a pit because they're very willful.

CM: What do you hear in blues artists that moves you?

AV: I'm a Chicago-style guy. I try to be eclectic when people send me stuff but it never seems to grab me the way the artists that I grew up around—Butterfield, Musselwhite kind of guys.

CM: It's purely Chicago style.

AV: It is, absolutely. I'm not saying that there's no other kind but west coast blues never really made a place for me. I do love Elmore James and Lightnin' Hopkins but they're sort of the exceptions. Delbert McClinton. I'm not saying I don't like any artists from outside the Chicago area but I'm not even like a Delta fan. I don't really like that old folk stuff.

It's not as urgent as some of them.

CM: Is it a city feeling that it has?

AV: It's harder. It's more competitive. When I would go to the bars in Chicago, you wouldn't have audiences sitting there rapt. They'd be talking and drinking and trying to get over and the music had to hit them and get their attention. Volume alone won't do it. I know you might think that from rock music but for blues, volume alone won't do it. There had to be an intensity to it. The crowd would let you know right away, too.

It was like what slam poetry was supposed to have been. You know what I mean? If you played the harp, you could get up with a group that you had never heard of and they would let you sit in for as long as the crowd would tolerate you. It was a real Darwinist environment that I really admired. Everybody competed, not just the winners.

Folk music has never raced my motor that's all. We call doo-wop, "Brooklyn Blues." It has that same sort of feeling.

CM: You've talked about doing another companion album in that vein.

AV: Someday. Someday. Safe House was an enormous success. It is good, isn't it? And that was like one tenth. I could have done another twenty of them. As a blues sampler, it worked great, because there was so much diversity in that one record.

CM: It could lead you to all these other artists, such as ... who's the female artist.

AV: Judy Henske.

CM: Without getting into any details, is it hard to balance a personal life with the crusade?

AV: Not now. All the people in my personal life are people who are engaged. If you're not engaged, then we're not engaged. I've stormed around for a lot of years and there was no balancing. I don't do balance well. But now, everybody in my personal life, everyone who is close to me, is close to this, so there's no problem.

CM: Well, you've got a lot of hate to get out there. It's a full-time job.

AV: Yeah, it is.

CM: Anything else to add?

AV: Nah, I never do. I don't even know how people can, unless they're talking about themselves, talk about a book for an hour. I think people are really interested in themselves. When they start talking, they won't stop for days. I wrote the books for a purpose and your interview ends up being about that purpose, I'm not the one who's going to be complaining.

An edited version of this interview originally appeared in Rain Taxi Review of Books, Spring 2003.



VACHSS    BIO    WRITINGS    ARTICLES    INTERVIEWS    FAQ    UPDATES
MISSION   FREE DOWNLOADS   GALLERY   DOGS   INSIDERS   RESOURCES

Search The Zero || Site Map || Technical Help || Linkage || Contact The Zero || Main Page

The Zero © 1996-2014 Andrew Vachss. All rights reserved.

How to Cite Articles and Other Material from The Zero
The URL for this page is: