The IGN For Men Interview with the hardcore crime novelist and crusading lawyer.
By Spence D., IGN for Men Senior Editor.
Originally posted at IGN for Men, November 3, 2000.
A name with a somewhat hard to guess pronunciation (it's pronounced "Vax," for those of you experiencing tongue-tiedness). It's a name that reverberates amongst the crime fiction literati, thanks to a body of work that includes 13 plus novels and innumerable short stories. It's also a name that sends vibrant ripples throughout the corridors and courtrooms of the legal profession.
You see, Vachss, the man, is both a best-selling author of hardcore crime fiction and a vigilant lawyer specializing in child victim cases. That he's been able to bridge the gap between his two professions (although Vachss himself will be the first to admit that his law practice is his first priority and that his writing comes second) via his acclaimed novels (the bulk of which feature his rough-n-ready, streetwise, underground anti-hero Burke) is a testament to his verve, tenacity, and edgy passion.
In person, the first thing that you notice about Andrew Vachss is the eye patch. It's unavoidable, perched over his right eye, and frankly a little daunting, almost intimidating. The second thing you notice about Andrew Vachss is that he's unusually forward; he doesn't mince words. At first contact it's all too easy to dismiss him as terse, but in actuality he's a no-nonsense individual who cuts to the chase, is intensely serious, and passionately dedicated to his pursuits, primarily of which is his legal practice which centers around children and their rights (for a clearer picture of said pursuits, check out Mr. Vachss' official website, The Zero).
I first met Mr. Vachss back in 1995 when he was on a book signing tour for his novel Footsteps of the Hawk. To say that I wasn't a bit intimidated by his presence would be a lie. I spoke to him briefly at the signing about his writing technique, but that was about it. A few months later Mr. Vachss and I spoke over the phone at length about his foray into the comic book field (he has written two mini-series: Predator: Race War and Cross as well as having had a number of his short stories adapted for comics in the 10-issue anthology series Hard Looks. All three of these series were published by Dark Horse Comics). I remember that even over the phone he still intimidated me, but then I was still something of a greenhorn in the journalistic trade.
Flash forward to the year 2000, the month of September, and I'm headed to a downtown San Francisco hotel to meet Andrew Vachss face-to-face for a sit-down interview. Needless to say, all those memories from five years earlier came flooding back to me.
Upon arriving at the hotel I scouted out the house phone and dialed up the operator.
"I'm trying to reach a guest by the name of Mr. Andrew Vachss."
There was a faint click and buzz as the operator connected me to his room, followed by several rings before he picked up.
"Hello, I'm trying to reach Mr. Vachss," I managed to say.
"Yes" was the curt reply from the other end.
"Uh, yes, this is Spence Abbott from IGN.com, we had an interview scheduled ..."
"Yes, I know. Are you in the lobby?"
"Yes, I'm at the house phones on the lobby/restaurant floor."
"I'll meet you in the lobby," was what he replied, followed by the click of his phone hanging up.
A few minutes later Andrew showed up, dressed in jeans and a black sport coat. He was shorter than I remembered him being, but I was no less intimidated (mostly because he's pretty damn serious and I tend to be a smartass slacker, so it's not like our personalities are exactly on the same track). Yet my nervousness slowly dissipated as we sat down and rolled tape. In fact, my jitters were almost altogether assuaged some 90 minutes later as our interview/discussion began to wind down and Mr. Vachss took the time to bestow upon me some pointers in regards to publishing a book.
The clincher, however, came when I thanked him for the interview, especially given the fact that we were only scheduled for a half an hour's time and he merely replied "I wouldn't have stayed had I not enjoyed our conversation."
What follows is the first batch of excerpts from our conversation, wherein we discussed the concept of revenge as religion and the myth of the suburbs being the ideal place to grow up.
[Please note that the above "quotes" are not verbatim, but rather rough recreations of the conversations as recalled from my memory]
IGN For Men: I've spent the whole morning going through reams of interviews with you, so hopefully I won't be repeating any questions you've been asked a thousand times before.
Andrew Vachss: That would be so great if I didn't have to go through that again.
IGN4M: One thing that I didn't see in any of the interviews I read through was actually how much of you is in your character Burke and vice-versa?
AV: Well, I'm trying to give you a straight answer to that, but except for similar tastes in women and music and automobiles, and somewhat similar politics, I don't think there's a great resemblance. Burke is meant to be the prototypical-abused child. I'm not.
IGN4M: You've mentioned on numerous occasions that Burke's religion is revenge and even in one interview you even remarked that it was your religion as well...
AV: Sure, sure. You can call that his politics, to me that covers a way of looking at the world. I think it's relatively similar. The difference is that Burke is purely reactive individual who's lookin' to survive his existence and continuing on a day-to-day basis. He's not looking to change anything around him. That's the reason for my existence, so we're quite separate in that regard.
IGN4M: Based on my limited understanding of the definition of religion, can revenge actually be a religion?
AV: Well, why not? If human sacrifice can be a religion, why can't revenge be a religion? If mumbling a bunch of talismanic phrases is supposed to alter the cosmos, why can't revenge be a religion? It's a belief system that you live, you can call it a religion because it's a simple, shorthand way of saying it, but since entire religions are based on forgiveness, how can you say none could be based on vengeance.
IGN4M: One of the things I've always found interesting is that numerous "critics" are always wondering what is real and what is not in your books. Like for example when you wrote about kiddy porn being transported via modems long before the whole Internet boom ...
AV: That's only because it's such a classic example.
IGN4M: Right, but the fact that you mentioned how a lot of these "critics" approach your work as works of pure fiction as opposed to fiction with basis in the reality that you are surrounded by in conjunction with your legal work ...
AV: Yeah, it's worse than that, though. I wouldn't care if they approached it neutrally saying 'I don't know anything about this.' But they approach it from the basis that their reality has been formed by crime fiction and comic books. So whatever deviates from that, therefore, is not realistic. If they came blank, I wouldn't have a problem.
IGN4M: Well, that's what I was leading up to. My concept of revenge is obviously based on crime fiction and comic books.
AV: If you have no knowledge of it in your own life then we certainly don't have a basis for shared communication. You see? Obviously I'm not Batman. I mean those kind of comparisons don't work. But here's the clue, there is no Batman ...
IGN4M: Oh, I'm well aware of that.
AV: Right. So if you're well aware of that, then you can't base anything on that, including your concept of revenge or your concept of honor or your concept of justice. You can't base that on what somebody fantasized. But all of those things exist in your life. And the extent to which you've experienced them is the extent to which you can understand them. But there's no abused kid who has not gone through the internal dialogue about forgiveness/revenge. It's just not possible.
IGN4M: And that's something that I can't relate to, since I haven't been in that place in my life.
AV: Sure. That's one example of many. Nobody's ever wronged you in your life?
IGN4M: Sure, but not to the point where I want to seek vengeance on them. I mean I'd have to sit down and seriously think about who has wronged me over the years, but off the top of my head there really hasn't been anyone who's wronged me so severely as to warrant drastic action against them.
AV: Which is not your taste to do that, right?
IGN4M: Yeah. Let's put it this way, up to this point in my life, I haven't been wronged to a point where I want to put aside everything else in my life and dedicate all of my time to righting said wrong.
AV: I can't know if that's a function of the life you've led or the personality that you have, you see?
IGN4M: Well that would be something else I'd have to sit down and think about. I would think some of it would be due to the life I've led. I mean for all intents and purposes I've had the classic suburban WASP upbringings more or less, so it's not like I've grown up in an environment where I had to fight to survive ...
AV: That's more comic book crap. Because there's plenty of ... I've represented kids from homes so rich that you'd be embarrassed to step on the carpet, who have lives worse than you would have in a POW camp. And suburban kids, to think that they're different because they don't say $%&! every other word or because there aren't a lot of gangbangers running around their school, that their lives can't be full of pain and pressures, is silly. I don't have that kind of disrespect for people where I say 'Only this particular subculture has tension or survival issues or pain.' That's not my experience, either.
IGN4M: I think it manifests itself in different ways.
AV: Does it? I don't. Do you think incest is different if it's performed in the suburbs?
AV: Then what are we really talking about? You think that kids don't get into fights in the suburbs? As near as I can remember, Columbine wasn't an inner city school. But then I'm confused about that, too. Think about that. Most of the school shootings and most of the school suicides [happen in the suburbs].
IGN4M:I guess I've just been fortunate.
AV: Well, if you've been fortunate, bless you. And that's great. But I certainly would never, from my experience, look at cultures and say 'Well, things aren't happening here.' That's a popular thing for people to do, say 'Middle class environments don't really test you.' But that's silly.
IGN4M: Well it is easier for me to make a brash generalization that the reason I grew up okay is because I'm from a white, suburban, middle-class neighborhood. Obviously there were greater factors at work. My parents never violated me, my teachers never molested me, I've never had friends that beat me up. I hate to use the word, but I guess I've had pretty normal life ...
AV: I wish your life was the norm, actually, but I don't think it is.
IGN4M: But for me it is normal. I'm going by my own personal experiences on this, of course, which is the only thing I know and as such is the norm to me.
AV: You know, I would be more comfortable with people doing that then getting their norm from third party references like books or comics. If they went by their own norm, at least they would have some valid experience that they could actually look at and check.
IGN4M: Well I don't take my 'norm' from a Batman comic book or a Bruce Willis action flick. My 'norm' is growing up in the 'burbs with mom and dad, building birdhouses, being a Boy Scout ...
AV: Plenty of people did Boy Scouts and suffered grievously.
IGN4M: I was lucky on the Boy Scout front, as well.
AV: I'm not really sure that it was luck. I have a theory about that which can't be as yet field tested, but what I've been working on for a long time, I've actually stood with predatory pedophiles outside one-way glass in a daycare center while they picked out which kids were vulnerable. No conversation with the kid, they just picked them out watching their interaction with other kids.
IGN4M: Which kids they are most attracted to?
AV: No, which kids would be most vulnerable. They're attracted equally to all because [to them] humans are objects to them.
IGN4M: So these predatory pedophiles exhibit true predatory traits, much like lions zeroing in on the sick and weak water buffaloes as their targeted prey?
AV: That's exactly right, but what creates that vulnerability? They spot the unbonded child. The child most at risk for that kind of access is the child not bonded deeply to anything or anybody. Although it's not perfect, although this is not 100% guaranteed, but those children who are most deeply bonded with parents, parents who are protective, it's almost like, I don't know if you've seen predatory animals that put a kind of smell on their young to protect them? Okay? I think you "luck" was much more likely due to your parenting than it was to any blind confluence of the planets.
IGN4M: That makes sense. Hell, it's not like I have conversations like this on a daily basis at my work, though.
AV: Sure enough. Well the people who do this, from their own biogenetic instinct, they protect their young and they make it clear that if you step into that zone there'll be consequences. They say that to the whole world, they never think about it, they never analyze it. It's the most natural thing in the world for them to do.
IGN4M: That makes me think about the story I read about your father where the neighboring kid came to your house and asked if he could sleep in your basement because he was being abused by his father. And your dad told him he could sleep in a bed and then he went out and confronted the father in the street. I don't have any instances of that type of protectiveness in my life ...
AV: Well, you gotta remember that that was part protectiveness and part because my father liked to fight. You know one excuse to him was as good as another. I mean he was clearly a protective person and he thought that someone who hurt a child should be hurt. He wasn't like Oprah, you know? But that kind of thing wasn't so much an extension of how he felt about me, but just how he felt about the whole world. My father himself was very badly abused when he was a child, physically abused. And the abuse didn't stop until he got physically strong enough. So he saw the world in those terms. That peace was for the strong, you see? Since children weren't old enough to enforce peace, he didn't have a problem doing it.
MORE WITH VACHSS IN PART 2, wherein we discuss the intricacies of his writing, his law practice, and various other aspects of his dualistic career.
Spence D. is neither hardboiled nor gritty.
This interview was originally posted at IGN for Men.