Man With a Mission:
An Interview with Andrew Vachss
Originally published in Crime Times, Vol. IV/Issue 5,
Plenty of writers start out almost as hobbyists, working a "regular" job and writing in their spare time, until their books become popular enough for them to quit their jobs and write full-time. Andrew Vachss (the last name rhymes with "fax") is another story entirely. The chances that he will give up his legal practice, devoted exclusively to the defense of children, are slim and none. He views his novels as just another way to carry on the fight against the exploiters and abusers of children. If they can save one victim, they have done their job.
Vachss is a slim, intense man in his mid-40s, whose career has included a stint as the head of a prison for violent teenagers, a visit to Biafra in the last stages of its abortive secession from Nigeria and Midwestern community organization projects under the leadership of the legendary Saul Alinsky. His first novel, Flood, hit the mystery field like a truncheon when it first appeared in 1985. A look at New York from a vantage point well outside the system, it was a debut that instantly established him as a major player. Strega, Vachss' follow-up, was even more effective—and it made clear the author's major theme, the fight against child abuse.
With Blue Belle, his third novel, Vachss turns his sights to the theme of incest, examining the growing role of organized crime in catering to the tastes of pedophiles and others who exploit the helpless. CRIME TIMES called him at his Manhattan legal office, and his raspy but animated voice carried enough conviction to convert anyone to his cause. But we'll let the author speak for himself; without further preamble, here's the word from Vachss himself.
C.T.: Blue Belle is your third novel about Burke, so for readers just catching up to you, why don't you begin by telling us what sort of character he is, what his background is?
Vachss: It's a hard thing to do, because I don't see these as books but as chapters in a single book, and one of the things I'm trying to do is reveal more and more about the characters and motivations of various players as they respond to different situations. But essentially, Burke is a practicing criminal, who is kind of an urban version of a survivalist. He is a state-raised child, without any family—biological family, at least—and he plays by a set of rules that are just as rigid as society's rules, but they are not in fact society's rules. It's not easy to describe with adjectives; I think you have to define his personality by his behavior.
C.T.: Of course, the only way to really understand what he's about is to read the books, preferably in sequence.
Vachss: Yeah (Laughs), although I've tried to make that unnecessary. I never intended them to be so tightly connected that you couldn't pick up book two or three and enjoy it for its own sake.
C.T.: What is Burke up against in Blue Belle?
Vachss: In this particular book, Burke is willing to become a bounty hunter; not for the authorities, but for a coalition of pimps. What he appears to be up against is a van that's cruising through the city, randomly shooting teenage prostitutes. As the book progresses, he runs across another situation: a death-match freak, a martial arts expert who fights other people to the death for money. This character is not satisfied with his own reputation, and wants a duel with Burke's brother Max. That's not a resolvable conflict, as it normally might be, because this person is clearly psychopathic, and ups the stakes to include Max's new child. That's where Burke finds himself stuck, because he can't draw on the resources he normally has available. This character Mortay has taken away all of Burke's weapons, in terms of any hand-to-hand meeting with him, because Burke himself is not the type of guy who wins all his fistfights, or gets hit on the head with bottles and recovers half an hour later. He's really an un-macho kind of person. What he wants to do is survive, and his idea of surviving is to be around at the end. In his world, there are no rules about how you're supposed to fight.
C.T.: John D. MacDonald used to talk about the realistic hero versus the larger-than-life hero, who always finds a parking space and never gets a ticket. Which category is Burke in?
Vachss: Things don't always go right for him; that's pretty obvious. He doesn't use a lot of advanced technology, and he's not a heroic character, because he's always saying, "Donde esta el dinero?" ["Where is the money?"] His motivations, at least on the surface, appear to be oriented around money and survival. And he's not a guy who has a lot of happy endings. He's not Rambo or anything like that. He's not Spenser or Travis McGee, either. He's not somebody a damsel in distress can go to, not without money. He's not an cx-cop or an ex-soldier; he doesn't even have a pal on the police force that he hangs out with.
C.T.: He really comes out of an entirely different world from the protagonists we're used to seeing in crime fiction.
Vachss: Exactly. What I wanted to do is to show a world that I'm very familiar with, the world of child exploitation, and I don't think I can do that without having a pair of eyes that have inhabited that world. I don't think you can do it as an observer; your viewpoint character has to be a participant, as well. Burke's fight against these people is probably his one redeeming feature. He didn't really set out to do this, and it's not really his plan. He's a person who would much prefer to live by scams and confidence work than by violence, and he steals all the time. As it turns out, pedophiles are particularly easy prey, because they can't run to the cops. And they tend to have money. Finding missing children was something he got into not so much because he liked children but because the work was attractive, he could do it without a license, and people don't ask a lot of questions. It's never really clear whether it's a personal mission for him as well; he's not exactly the master of his circumstances. It's a marginal existence, a day-to-day kind of thing. He never makes the big score. He doesn't own any property; he got the place he lives in as the result of an extortion scheme. He's virtually a stateless person.
C.T.: The other characters in your cast are often very strange, to somebody who isn't part of the world they inhabit. A lot of people who met them on the street would probably not believe in them, or cross to the other side if they did.
Vachss: Maybe that's true. But I think there's a lot of deliberate denial in the American public's mind. For example, people who think that the whole idea of a kiddie porn ring is just somebody's fantasy are people who are just unaware of the reality of life. If you want, you could say that this character is exaggerated, or that one is, and it's a fair thing to say if you've never known such a person, but I don't know if you'd say that the characteristics they display are unlike those you've seen in your own, or anybody else's, life. And I don't know if you would run away when you saw some of these people coming, because there's nothing about them that would strike you unless you saw them behaving in a certain way. You can certainly find transsexual prostitutes in Manhattan, and "legless" beggars on carts who actually have legs. If you go out to Hunt's Point, you will see the prairie, and the junkyards, and the dog packs. To me, these are real people who do real things in a real world. I think it is true that people who are distanced from that world might find a kaleidoscopic kind of bizarreness in it, but I think if you backed it off to the level that they see as real, nothing much would happen.
C.T.: New York is really a major presence in these books, almost a character in its own right. Of course, you grew up there, and know the city as no outsider can. How important is it to know your setting that well? Could you move your stories to another place—Chicago, say, or Los Angeles, and still make them work?
Vachss: No. I absolutely could not. Even though I've lived in Chicago, worked in Chicago, I don't have anywhere near the intimate grasp of it that I do of New York. And L.A. would be out of the question. I would lose the sense of realism that's critical to me. I think that New Yorkers— well, it depends on how they live their lives—but if they simply go to work on the subway, they'll see a significant portion of what's in these books, on a daily basis. Whether they perceive it the same way is arguable, because it's true that people won't see a shark in their own swimming pool. But you're certainly correct about the setting. I couldn't transpose this to another setting and make it work.
C.T.: And yet, there's a sense that an outsider might react to things—somebody lying passed out on the sidewalk, for example that a New Yorker is desensitized to, and walks right past without paying much attention.
Vachss: It's also a question of what it is they believe they're seeing. If you get off the bus from Iowa in Port Authority, and somebody comes up and shows you a handful of crack vials, you may have no clue as to what he's offering you. And it also depends on what part of the city you want to tour. Guys who are in off the ships to spend an evening in Times Square see a good deal of what's in my books. It depends on what kind of tourist you are. If you're the tourist who visits topless bars, you're very different from the tourist who goes to Radio City Music Hall.
C.T.: Burke's "family"—Max, and Prof, and Mole and all of them—seem to be the one consistent value in his life.
Vachss: His family is really the only thing in his life, because he didn't have one to start with. He's more protective of them than a normal person would be—he's even a little insane on the subject. They're the people who've educated him and given him a sense of values, because the only value he was really raised with was surviving. Burke, in a way, is a rehabilitated human being. He would like to leave hijacking and gunfighting out of his life, and operate at a different level. This book is such a personal crisis for him that he is sucked back into types of behavior that he hadn't used in many, many years. He's not a hit man or anything like that, although that's the way the underworld may see him. This book represents an unravelling of the pragmatism of surviving. By the time he finally gets it together, and I think he comes up with a very good scheme, the scheme itself is a very high-risk proposition. It's not the way he would normally approach these things. At one point, he's offered an opportunity to walk away, and every instinct he's been raised with tells him to do that. In order to go after Mortay, he's got to betray the police officers who are helping him, so he's really ending up in a no-win situation. The tragedy of the book is that he sucks somebody else into that world, somebody who's never had any of what he also missed, and that person dies for it.
C.T.: Your villain here, Mortay, reminds me in some ways of the villains James Bond used to go up against, in that he seems to represent some dimension of evil larger than just the personal. Even the name is sort of reminiscent of Dr. No, for example.
Vachss: That's true, but his terror is an elemental terror, like dogs stepping aside when they see a wolf coming. The ultimate terror is a person who just doesn't care, doesn't give a damn. Unlike Dr. No, or any of those other people, there's nothing you can give Mortay. He hasn't got any idea about world domination or conquest. You can't frighten him, and in fact, you can't manipulate him. He represents a kind of evil purity that you don't often see in characters. He's an undeterrable force. There are people you either have to kill or be killed by, and he's certainly one of them. But his cohorts are not at all like that. He hasn't got any real organization, and Burke doesn't confront him in a penthouse, or anything like that. He's simply a crazy person with enormous skills.
C.T.: Of course, your own life work, representing children who are victims of abuse and exploitation, is the same as Burke's. The books began, really as a way of dramatizing the things you see every day, didn't they?
Vachss: Not dramatize, in the sense of exaggerating to make a point. I maintain, and always will maintain, that what I write about is in fact toned down. What's more important to me is to take the knowledge that I've acquired and make it available to a much larger audience than I would ever reach with non-fiction. The real theme of this book is that genetics don't count. Incest victims can overcome it, it's not the mark of Cain. The idea of all these books is to attract people who would read a mystery. I try to give them the best mystery I can, but I also want them to come away with a certain amount of hard information that's almost subliminally absorbed, as opposed to having digressions. If I weren't able to do that, I'd mark the books a failure no matter how many copies were sold. I don't fancy myself any great writer, but I do consider myself an extremely knowledgable person about the world of child abuse, and that's the well I draw from. Without that well, I don't know where the hell I'd go.
C.T.: Not long ago, we interviewed Ann Rule on the Diane Downs murder case, and Ann told us that all the neighbors knew Diane was abusing the children well before she shot them. This is really the central problem, reluctance to interfere with a parent, even if the children are clearly being mistreated. Is there anything we can really do to change that kind of turning away from something that makes everybody uncomfortable?
Vachss: I think that what drives the American public, which is like a huge, lumbering beast, is anger; and the other thing that drives it is self-interest. What I'm trying to do in my books is different from other people writing about child abuse. I'm not trying to engender sympathy so much as to say to the public, "Today's victim is tomorrow's predator." The things that you fear have a genesis, and the price of being safe in this world is early intervention. It costs you something to look away, not just in moral terms, but in practical terms. If Diane Downs had raised her kids instead of shooting them, I don't think you'd have Mary Poppins or Betty Crocker. These kinds of horrible acts mark the victim in ways that they express towards other victims. I have reason to hope that these books are working, because I get what I'm told is a really disproportionate amount (in terms of sales) of mail, hundreds of letters. And they're not from fans who say, "I love your books," or at least only a small percentage are. Most of them are from people who have been victims. The majority are clearly adults, and they talk very poignantly and eloquently about how nobody listened. I've had letters from people in their seventies who say that things are different now. The crime is the same, but the index of suspicion is different. Even a hundred years ago, if somebody was to talk about child sex rings or organized pedophile teams, they'd be looked on as a lunatic. But the one criticism nobody can make of my books is that I'm crying "Wolf," or organizing witch hunts. None of that is true. Just go to the graveyard. A dead kid galvanizes people for a very short time. In just a few years, people will have forgotten about Lisa Steinberg. It's the kids who don't die who are the ticking bombs. If the books are read as a totality, I hope people will start asking, "How do you get a Mortay?"
C.T.: Short of an outright monster like Mortay, can a pedophile be cured, or reformed?
Vachss: My honest feeling about practicing pedophiles is that they can't be interdicted; they can only be incapacitated. I know of no treatment program for pedophiles that is remotely successful. The only treatable pedophile may be someone who is feeling the feelings, but has yet to step over the line. I'm not talking about killing pedophiles; I don't think that's an answer. But I do think that they have a communicable disease. I do think they're toxic. I think they are the most dangerous presence in our society, worse than dope dealers. And they do need to be removed from society. It's an escalative phenomenon, in that the pedophile who's satisfied, at first, to look at Polaroids graduates to movies. And the fact that there is a market for snuff films is, I guess, the ultimate indictment. The complete reverse morality of such people—it's worse than just a lack of morality—is enormous; the more evil something is, the more it's worth to them. And because pedophiles are enormous consumers, far out of proportion to their numbers, you now have organized crime entering into an area in which they would have no personal interest, because the profit is so monumental.
C.T.: Yes, you touch on that in Blue Belle.
Vachss: That's the point, to touch on what I can. I can't write treatises, because no one's going to read them. The idea is to have a book that moves, and that works, with characters that you care about, or that you hate, and yet you come out—I hope—with more information and more of a sense of outrage than you had when you started.
C.T.: Did you have ambitions as a writer when you were younger, or did you turn to it later, when you realized you had something important to say?
Vachss: I wrote when I was in college. But going back and looking at the stuff, it was the same thing I'm doing now. Except that I had much less knowledge about the way things work. I knew things were out there, but I didn't understand very much about them. I never paid much attention to them. I did write a novel prior to Flood, but it was never published. I used to get these schizophrenic rejection letters; they were funny "Ah, the writing's brilliant, and the story is blah blab blah," and they'd end, "It's too disgusting to be published." The character Mortay is taken from that first novel. My editor, Bob Gottlieb, is a really smart guy. After Flood came out, I had numerous offers to publish this unpublished novel, and I asked him about it. He said, "Well, you have the same kind of drive in this novel, but you had nowhere near the knowledge that you have now, so instead of being lazy, why don't you cannibalize what's good and throw away the rest." So that's what I've been doing, using the information from that novel in the new books.
C.T.: Did you start out thinking Burke's story would grow into a series, or did that happen after the first book was done?
Vachss: I didn't intend to write a series in the way that Travis McGee is a series, but I knew I couldn't say what I had to say in one book. Believe me, I am not anywhere near as happy with the first book as I am with the second, because the constraints of its being a first novel and the need to establish things, meant there was nowhere near the specificity and leanness that I wanted. It was the price I had to pay; the book succeeded beyond my wildest dreams. It was always my intent to talk about the issues, but I didn't think that I could tell the whole story in a single book. One still doesn't know Burke's whole story.
C.T.: And when can we expect to learn some more of it?
Vachss: Really, the public will decide. I don't imagine that I'll run out of the ramifications of this theme. The way I write, a book is all done before I put a word on the typewriter. So the next book is in fact done, although not a word has been written. I work very fast once I'm done; it takes me a long time to sort it all out, to have everything work the way it's supposed to, but once that's done, the physical labor doesn't take very long. What I can tell you is if you look at all the books, you'll see that one book deals with individual offenders, the next with organized groups of offenders, one with an industry. The next book is going to deal with the impact of cults on child abuse.
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