BRYANT GUMBEL, co-host: The novels of Andrew Vachss are known for their hard-core gritty content and for the unusual persona of Andrew's hero, a no-nonsense social outcast named Burke. The 12th and latest Burke novel is just out. It's called "Dead and Gone."
Andrew, how you doing?
Mr. ANDREW VACHSS (Author, "Dead and Gone"): Doing fine. How are you?
Mr. GUMBEL: I—I'm all right. I characterize your novels as gritty and hard-core because I read them. How would you describe them to somebody who hadn't—hadn't read them?
Mr. VACHSS: As honest. I mean, they may be gritty and hard-core, but about gritty and hard-core things. I'm certainly not amping it up. In fact, if I had a wish, it would be that what I write about was fiction.
Mr. GUMBEL: Is—and we're going to get to that in one second. Is there somebody who you pattern your style after?
Mr. VACHSS: No. No, I wouldn't blame anybody for it.
Mr. GUMBEL: You say blame. Your novels center around the protection of children.
Mr. VACHSS: Right.
Mr. GUMBEL: Specifically children who are abused.
Mr. VACHSS: Yes.
Mr. GUMBEL: Ofttimes sexually abused.
Mr. VACHSS: Sometimes, yes.
Mr. GUMBEL: How did their welfare come to be your all-consuming passion and preoccupation?
Mr. VACHSS: OK. As you know, it's limited to what I could say on this kind of show, but I was a federal investigator in sexually transmitted diseases. So unlike the way most people discovered child sexual abuse, which is sort of in a media context with a lot of argument about whether it's exaggerated or not, I saw babies dripping gonorrhea. And it burned my nerve cells. So I've been essentially hot after predators ever since that time.
Mr. GUMBEL: You still work as an attorney.
Mr. VACHSS: Sure.
Mr. GUMBEL: Representing only children.
Mr. VACHSS: Only children, that's right.
Mr. GUMBEL: Do you use your case work as fodder for your novels?
Mr. VACHSS: I don't know about fodder. Remember, after that, I was a case worker for the infamous New York City Department of Welfare. I was in Biafra during that insane genocidal war. I ran a maximum security prison for violent youth...all before I went near a law school.
Mr. GUMBEL: So you have seen a lot of the things...
Mr. VACHSS: Yeah.
Mr. GUMBEL: ...that you write about without having to worry about necessarily getting it from your case law.
Mr. VACHSS: Don't need to do any "research," no.
Mr. GUMBEL: Why did you decide to address the problem as a novelist?
Mr. VACHSS: Because I don't have a TV show, because I don't have a radio program. I'm a working-class guy in America. A book would get the much bigger jury than you'd ever get in a courthouse.
Mr. GUMBEL: Do you ever try to—to curtail—to—to curb yourself as you're writing because you think maybe that people can't handle it?
Mr. VACHSS: In fact, that...that's real appreciated because, in fact, I've done that throughout. And the first book I had published, which everybody just went 'Oh!' about, was, in fact, euphemized from the reality.
Mr. GUMBEL: Burke, I all—I alluded to briefly. He is—he is definitely not your typical literary hero.
Mr. VACHSS: No.
Mr. GUMBEL: He's an ex-convict...
Mr. VACHSS: Yeah.
Mr. GUMBEL: ...who was abused as a child...
Mr. VACHSS: Mm-hmm.
Mr. GUMBEL: ...who still lives on the edges of society.
Mr. VACHSS: He's a career criminal. There's no point in making him anything else.
Mr. GUMBEL: Why—why'd you make him so shady?
Mr. VACHSS: I wanted to show people what hell looked like, and I didn't think an angel would be the right guide. You know, the standard protagonist in detective fiction is sort of better than everything, kind of looks at it, comments on it, but is detached from it. I wanted no membrane between the reader and the material. I wanted to make him as transparent as possible, so I had to make him part of it, instead of somebody simply investigating it.
Mr. GUMBEL: Is—is—is he your avenging angel?
Mr. VACHSS: I...
Mr. GUMBEL: Is—is he what you would like to do? I mean...
Mr. VACHSS: Well...
Mr. GUMBEL: ...he—he get out and he—he shoots guys who are engaging in this. He chases down guys who are engaged in this...
Mr. VACHSS: And what does he change?
Mr. GUMBEL: ...gives them what they deserve?
Mr. VACHSS: He changes nothing. I'm trying to change things. I don't at all admire somebody in his situation. I feel bad for him. But his methods of expression are—are much more limited than mine are.
Mr. GUMBEL: You are—Burke has always been a—a New York City guy.
Mr. VACHSS: Sure.
Mr. GUMBEL: You moved him West.
Mr. VACHSS: For a book.
Mr. GUMBEL: Yeah, for a book.
Mr. VACHSS: Right.
Mr. GUMBEL: Is he going to stay West?
Mr. VACHSS: Very temporarily. Because in this plot, of course, he's presumed to be dead, and it's to his tactical advantage to be off these streets, but he'll be back.
Mr. GUMBEL: Yeah. What about you? What—what is it you want people to come away with after they've—they've read your book? I mean, do you want them...
Mr. VACHSS: I want them to be angry. Bryant, I want them to be angry. If they're not angry...you know, we've done the consciousness-raising thing, OK? Journalism, which is the only force for social change in this country, has caught people up to speed on child abuse. But you've got two human beings running for president of the United States of America, not one of them's even mentioned child protection.
Mr. GUMBEL: You get a lot of feedback from your readers. Do you—do you—do you—have you heard from many who have been moved to action?
Mr. VACHSS: Yeah, in all kinds of different ways. I get just really a ton of mail, especially at the Web site. People say they've done things, and some of those things we've been able to verify. So I'm quite gratified at the results.
Mr. GUMBEL: Yeah.
Mr. VACHSS: It's far bigger than I expected.
Mr. GUMBEL: Is it true that you still don't think of yourself as a writer?
Mr. VACHSS: I certainly don't think of myself as a writer. A writer would be somebody you could give an assignment to and would produce the material. I've got this one song to play. I—I'm trying to play it perfect, you know, until I get it right. But I don't have that kind of range.
Mr. GUMBEL: It's amazing. A great voice for abused children. "Dead and Gone," by Andrew Vachss. Andrew, it's good seeing you.
Mr. VACHSS: Thank you very much.
Mr. GUMBEL: Take care of yourself, all right? We're going to come on back in just a little bit. We've got an Oktoberfest outside. Stay with us. We're back after this.
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