A Conversation With Andrew Vachss
Conducted by Gary Lovisi
Originally published in Mean Streets, February 1991
Andrew Vachss is an acknowledged expert on juvenile delinquency and child abuse in the United States, where he works as an attorney specializing in the problems of abused children. Previously he worked as a probation officer, fruit picker, cab driver, gambler and photographer before creating Burke, antihero of his four published books. A fifth, Blossom, will be published in Australia in April.
The following conversation with Andrew Vachss was conducted on Saturday morning, December 1, 1990 at his downtown Manhattan office. Unlike the uptown office that houses his law firm it's small and personal. It's his private place. It was a thrill for me to visit him there and talk for a couple of hours in that warm and friendly atmosphere with him, and a friend of ours—the actor, David Joe Wirth.
The walls of the office showcase artwork from the American covers of Hard Candy and Blue Belle, along with the British cover of Flood. On the shelves behind his desk are all manner of publications of his work, from all over the world and in almost every language. It's an impressive collection. The icepick stabbed into the window sill (Vachss says it's a letter opener) is a reminder to me of his writing, lean and to the point. Pictures of his beloved dogs surround the room. One is a great frontal shot of a charging Neapolitan Mastiff in all her savage fury, Pansy personified in real life. Also on the walls are a photo of his racehorse, Gypsy Flame, and personally-inscribed pictures from legendary songwriter Doc Pomus and famous torch singer Judy Henske (who appears in every Vachss book). A hand-carved, wood falcon (symbolic of the Maltese Falcon Award Vachss received for the Japanese version of Strega) watches the proceedings from high atop a filing cabinet. The rest of the room is all machinery—a large computer dominates.
Andrew Vachss is a serious man, and that will come through in the interview you are about to read. He is a champion of children and children's rights, a warrior in the most holy war there is. At the same time he's blunt, down to earth and possessed of a damn good sense of humour. I only hope this interview can give you some measure of this fascinating individual. I began with some background questions:
GARY LOVISI: You are known to most people as the best-selling author of hardboiled crime fiction, with five novels published in the Burke series, Flood, Strega, Blue Belle, Hard Candy and the latest, Blossom. In 'real life' you're an attorney specializing in child abuse cases and child protection. How did you get involved in this facet of the law? Was there one specific situation or moment that made you decide to devote yourself to child safety?
ANDREW VACHSS: I was an investigator for the U.S. Public Health Service, a detached investigative job tracking sexually transmitted diseases. What that means is you interview somebody with syphilis, or gonorrhea. With any luck, that person reveals his or her contacts. You go find every one of those people, wherever they are, and you do the same thing with them, and you just keep doing it. That was when I was just a kid, 22 years old. The chains kept ending with kids. I saw incest cases, I saw baby-rape cases, I saw paedophile cases, when I myself was just a kid. So the illusions that most people have about sexual abuse of children—that it doesn't really happen, that it's 'fantasy'—I didn't have those illusions. When you see a baby whose rectum is dripping gonorrhea you have no more illusions about what people do to other people. That's probably where the drive started with me, but I didn't become a lawyer for many years. Everything I did after that in some way came back to kids.
I went to Biafra during the (1969) war where they killed a generation of babies, then I was a labour organizer, a probation officer, director of social services for a centre, and then I ran a maximum security prison for youthful offenders. Every one of those brought me to the same conclusion—that we make our own monsters. So if I was going to impact on that when I went to law school—I was already grown and had plenty of experience—it was with the idea of representing kids. That's what I've done ever since.
GL: What is going on with the explosion of child abuse cases in this country? I hear of two or three cases a day now.
AV: I don't believe there is an explosion of child abuse in this country.
GL: Is it media hype then? What is it?
AV: Well, let me explain that. It's not a question of hype. You hear about so many more cases because the standards for reporting journalism have changed. When I say there isn't an explosion I don't mean there aren't a ton of cases. I mean there have always been a ton of cases. We have always had an enormous amount of child abuse. We're just paying attention now, so it appears to a person who has simply been reading the newspapers that it's new stuff, like there's an explosion. So there's nothing behind it, other than the things that have always been behind it—there are people who are inadequate, there are people who are crazy and there are people who are evil. We've always had people like that and each of them contribute in their own way to the abuse of children.
GL: You were the court-appointed attorney for an unborn fetus. Can you talk about that case and your part in it?
AV: What happened was this mother had serially abused seven or eight previous children. She had each child, she abused each child.
GL: She kept having more?
AV: Of course, she kept having more. Each child had been taken away from her and eventually freed for adoption which, as you know, is a very difficult thing to do. She got pregnant again. It was my belief that this child she was about to give birth to was going to be an abused child—every other child had been. I wasn't representing the foetus. What I sought was a court order, that upon the baby's birth the newborn would go into state custody as opposed to letting her have one more bite at yet another kid.
GL: In other words take it away from the mother before she had an opportunity to hurt it.
GL: How did that work out?
AV: I won the case, despite the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) conclusion that I was interfering with 'fetal rights' and 'reproductive rights'.
GL: I can imagine there could be a lot of political repercussions from a case like that.
AV: There was a lot of political whining. I didn't see any repercussions because I won the case, won the appeal. The kid came out of the womb, was taken into state custody, and now that child is about to be adopted. The mother has never spent a day with the kid. That, now, is the only child she's ever given birth to that's never been abused or neglected. Of course, ironically enough, she still found a way to beat me. The kid was born with a positive toxology for cocaine.
GL: Why is it so hard for people to see the relationship between an abused child and tomorrow's violent criminal?
AV: I don't know. To me it's obvious. You only have two choices about monsters—they're born or they're made. You can believe in some bizarre biogenetic theory that says there is a coding within the chromosomes that produces serial killers or pattern rapists or whatever—of course there is no evidence for that 'born bad' kind of crap. Or you can take the obvious idea—that if you beat someone, torture someone, sexually abuse someone, that someone doesn't grow up to be a happy, friendly citizen.
GL: He's going to want payback.
AV: Sure, they're going to want payback, and they usually pay it back sideways. Very few abused kids grow up and attack the one who abused them—that person usually isn't available. The whole thing that makes monsters is a lack of empathy, a lack of the ability to feel what other people feel. None of us is born with empathy. A baby is a savage. A baby wants something, he snatches it, right? But the baby learns through socialization to, be a person. These kids never got that opportunity at all. All they learned was that people can terrorize them, people have complete power over them, people can hurt them for their own fun. What do you think you're going to get from that?
When it comes to crime, there's nothing to genetics, genetics is bullshit. If you took Ted Bundy and Myra Hindley and bred the two of them together, and the baby was raised by good human beings, you'd have a great kid. You see the environment is everything. All you get out of genetics are things like size, colour of eyes or hair and maybe, to some degree, intelligence—you don't get a personality or a way of looking at the world from genes.
GL: Is the writing in any way a catharsis for all you've seen?
AV: No. The writing is work. Hard work. I'm a preacher. I got one piece of gospel that I want to preach. I turned to fiction because it's a much bigger audience than non-fiction, which I quickly found out. I only write about one thing and it takes a lot out of me. Where's the catharsis?
GL: When did you begin to write?
AV: I guess I didn't write anything until I was in college.
GL: You once said that the fourth Burke novel, Hard Candy, though published in 1988 was actually written in 1973. That's 15 years! The writing career must have been a long road.
AV: That original novel wasn't Burke's story, it was Wesley's. It was told from Wesley's point of view and it was rejected by every publisher in the English-speaking world. Have you ever seen letters of rejection for it? Let me show you a couple, they're pretty funny.
(Reading aloud) "Thank you for letting me read A Bomb Built In Hell by Andrew Vachss. I must say I read every word with some fascination. The very graphic detail of the head chopping, in fact, recurs in nightmares of mine,. It's very well done, but impossible for us to publish. It is a political horror story which is precisely why it's not going to find a ready market. While I admire the author's construction and style I don't like this book."
Next one: "There's no doubt Vachss knows what he's doing. His prose is lean and strong, his characters vivid and dangerous, his story compulsively readable. As far as I can tell he has the makings of a first rate crime fiction writer—but not this book. There are a number of reasons why. The most serious problem is that Vachss has tried to write two books at once and it seems to divide the book in half. The first is a tough, convincing story of a man without a conscience, a product of our time and perhaps the most implacable killer I've run across. A merciless and elaborate revenge that works just fine, the social themes understated to just the right degree—but then things get out of hand. Vachss turns the story into allegory—fractured politics, violence escalates geometrically to an ending that is at least incredible. I liked it, but I don't believe it.' Here's the child abuse thing again, this is many years ago.
GL: A Bomb Built In Hell... that's not a re-titling of Hard Candy?
AV: What happened was this; the first book, A Bomb Built in Hell, was Wesley's story. Everybody rejected it. After Flood came out, and had all that bloody success, everybody who rejected it said they wanted to publish it. So I went to my editor, Bob Gottlieb (then chief of Knopf, now of The New Yorker), who's a genius, the best editor in the world. He said, 'Why do you want to publish this now? You've already got a character in a series that's working. Why don't you take that character, cannibalize the old book, and make Wesley do all the things he did in a new book." So that's how Hard Candy came about.
GL: Who is Burke? To what degree is he Andrew Vachss?
AV: Burke is, like all of my books and the stuff I write, multi-level, a play on words. You know what the word 'Burke' means? Do you remember a famous British murderer named Burke whose specialty was body snatching? He began as a grave robber, and he was turning these corpses over to medical students. Finally he ran out of corpses, and they said, "Look, we're paying good money, we want more corpses". He said, "Right on!" (laughter). His specialty was strangling to death without leaving marks, and if you pick up a dictionary. (Reading) "Burke: to murder, as by suffocation so as to leave no marks of violence. To suppress or get rid of by some indirect manner, after William Burke, hanged in 1829 in Edinburgh for murders of this kind."
You see? So I was sending a message, but I knew some people would take this as straightforward hardboiled fiction even though that's just part of it. I do that all the time, that's where the name came from. See, the book's a Trojan horse. I'm trying to educate about child abuse and to change people's minds, but it's wrapped around crime fiction in the hope that the narrative force compels people to read.
GL: You've got to write stuff that they'll read.
AV: To the end, or they won't get the message. And to what extent is Burke me? This guy's a practicing criminal, I'm a lawyer. How could you possibly connect these two things? (laughter).
GL: In the latest book, Blossom, you took Burke out of New York City. Why did you do that?
AV: First of all because I spent a lot of time working in exactly that part of Indiana and know it real well. I wouldn't write about something I didn't know about—I think too many sex novels are written by virgins, and it's obvious. You read it and it rings like tin in your ear—it's discordant. I also thought I wanted to explore a couple of new issues. One was a biological family that worked because I'd been talking about 'families of choice'—like Burke's own family.
The second thing was that I wanted to show the genesis of a monster. I wanted to show a horrible monster, like a lover's lane sniper, and take him apart from the beginning. Since these are first person novels I couldn't say what someone else was thinking, it has to be in real-time action. By going out to a place where it could happen and working backwards as I was able to do there—you couldn't do it here, in the city—it worked for me. I also wanted to tie up various things I'd mentioned in the past. I set up stories three to four books in advance. So Virgil, the character in Blossom, was introduced in the very first book.
GL: And you mention him in other books.
AV: Sure, I keep him alive. Strega reappears in Hard Candy ... it's a continuing cast, like life.
GL: In a chilling case of life imitating art the novel Blossom dealt with a piquerist, a sexual sniper. We had that very same type of criminal terrorizing the streets of New York last summer. He was dubbed 'Dartman' by the media but it was no joke and he began his terror tactics against women only weeks after Blossom was released. How does it feel to be so accurate in your fiction? Any comments on the Dartman case?
AV: First of all, if it was creating 'fiction' from whole cloth I'd take credit for it being accurate—but that's not the case. It's never the case. I remember when Strega came out. It later turned out that a few blocks away from that fictional address there was a guy who was running a kiddie porn ring using kids that he got from a day care center and a computer school, dressed as a clown. So the cops called me up and said if I knew about this why didn't I tell them. I didn't know about it. But I know what they do and I know how they do it. So it's absolutely inevitable that my 'plots' have occurred and will continue to occur in 'real life'.
In fact just yesterday a guy called me from a Washington newspaper. A woman had gone through an incest trial, suing her father. She lost—the jury decided there wasn't enough evidence. The reporter asked me what I thought the girl was thinking. I told him that she was thinking that when that guy had her in his power and said, "I can do anything I want to you and nobody will ever touch me,' he was right. And the reporter said, 'My God. How did you know what the father said to her?" (Apparently, he had made very similar statements that came out in Grand Jury testimony). My answer was: Because they all say that, or some version of it.
This is stylized behavior. So I don't deserve any credit for predicting anything. I see it happening every day and it falls into a pattern. When I write about it in my 'fiction,' it's not the first time it's happened, nor the tenth time. The piquerist thing was based on a real case. If you remember reading the book there's an actual case cited with legal references. If you look it up you'll see that case.
GL: How would you compare Burke to the more traditional PI like Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe? He seems a modern version of these heroes, but also a whole lot more. Comments?
AV: I don't think Burke's a more modern version of traditional PI heroes. I don't think he resembles them any more than I resemble a male model (laughter). We're both males, that's it. Marlowe was an educated, intelligent, honest, honorable, sincere, handsome person'. What's Burke? He's a practicing criminal. The generic blonde walks in his office and says she doesn't have any money, but it's an important case—guess what happens? With Marlowe, there's lots of intense conversation and off he goes to slay dragons for the maiden. With Burke she's out the door, alone. Burke's a mercenary, not a hero. I wanted to show people what hell looks like and I didn't want an angel for a guide.
GL: Burke has his own code of honor.
AV: The old-style criminals, the guys I grew up with, they would no more inform than die—that was the image you sought, that was the role model. They had a code of honor too. I'm not saying Burke's not an honorable person. What I'm saying is he's not this mythological chump who runs around doing fine things just to be doing them. Nor is he a vigilante. He feels things very personally. Burke is a patriot, but his country is like about ten square feet around him. He's a survivor, and he's willing to do whatever he has to do to survive. I don't see how he resembles these people at all—you never hear about his taste in classical music, or literary references, or what kind of food he eats, or what kind of running shoes he has... you know?
GL: The idea for the Ghost Van in Blue Belle was chilling and fascinating. Where did that come from?
AV: It came from a number of van rapes that have gone on here and in other cities... and from some insight into the mentality involved.
GL: There was something like that going on in Flatbush years ago.
AV: There always is. Any working whore knows better than to get into a van.
GL: Why does Burke hunt freaks and what is in his background that makes him understand them so well?
AV: Burke is a prototypical abused child. He's meant to symbolize abused children. You know how they say, all things come to those who wait? Burke is the guy that waits in ambush. He's full of rage and fear about what happened to him as a child. It's unfair to say he hunts freaks, because he only hunts individual freaks, he's not out to rid the world of all freaks, For example, in Strega, he was introduced to a horrible freak, that paedophile in the townhouse. That guy's still alive. Why, if Burke hunts freaks? Because part of the deal was that he not hurt that person.
GL: That person wasn't involved with what Burke was doing at the time.
AV: Not directly, that's right. The reason Burke understands them so well is because there's no training in the world like being a victim.
GL: You never mention outright in the books that Burke was an abused child.
AV: Read the next book. That's when it finally comes out. That's why I changed the title of the book, instead of it being named after a woman it's called Sacrifice.
GL: I've heard it said that the characters in the Burke novels are based on actual people. Mama, Max, Mole, Michelle, Pansy. Is this true, and to what extent?
AV: Yes, some. Well, Pansy is right on the wall (pointing to a photo of one of his own dogs). I've known a lot of people, I've been a lot of places, I've done a lot of things. I have a good eye and good ear. These all represent characteristics I've personally observed or been affected by. I co-mingle them to some extent.
GL: The same thing with the freaks?
AV: Those there's no co-mingling—no need for it. That conversation with the paedophile in Strega, for example, is a conversation I had. It was more a transcription than a literary creation.
GL: Do you ever hear from any of these people? Especially the bad ones.
AV: First of all, I don't identify anybody by name. I get threats all the time. I get pictures of myself with telescope crosshairs drawn across the face, freaks call me on the phone with their little whispered filth, NAMBLA (North American Man-Boy Love Association), an organization designed to promote the political interests of paedophiles) reviews my books... The threats I get and the difficulty I have with people come more out of my legal and investigative work than they do out of the books.
GL: You write the most realistic crime novels published today. Some people may get the impression that, like some other writers, you merely exaggerate the things you've seen in real life for your books. I'd guess the opposite is true. Comments?
AV: What I say to anybody who says that is real simple—name one.
GL: Do you personally hold back some things to not make the books as extreme as they could be?
AV: The first time I went to England I was talking to some reporters. They were holding up Flood, saying, "How can you make this stuff up? What kind of sick, tortured imagination would you have to make this stuff up?' I responded appropriately. A few years went by, by which time I'm at least enough of a success in England for the publisher to invite me over again. The day I get off the plane on the front page of the tabloids there's a story about a group of paedophiles convicted of video-sodomising a boy to death. I showed the headlines to some reporters. Asked them, 'How can you guys make this stuff up?" You understand what I'm saying? Make up what? You think I 'made up' the torture of children? That I 'made up' kiddie prostitution, incest, baby-selling?
GL: I think a lot of people wish it was all made up.
AV: That's my most fervent wish of all. If I was writing 'fiction' I'd be the happiest man on the planet. Make it up? The writers who make stuff up are the ones whose protagonists get up in the morning, put on their aftershave and blow away four or five guys on the way to the office. Please. I get letters from Iowa and they say, "I don't think New York City is like that, I was there on a bus trip once". It makes me tired.
GL: What is your favourite Burke novel or short story? Why?
AV: Which one of your kids do you like the best? I can tell you about short stories. I can't tell you about novels because each novel is written for a different purpose and to illustrate a different thing. My favorite short story is Placebo, without question. There are a lot of reasons. First of all it was rejected, so right away I like it better. It was rejected because it wasn't a genuine 'PI' story, whatever the hell that means. Then it was actually published in Ellery Queen. To get my stuff in there was a milestone. Then, David Joe Wirth (who I didn't know at the time) got the idea of turning it into a play and it's had more effect and impact as a play than it ever could have had as a story. It communicates in many ways. David had the experience of putting on the play for people and they got disturbed about it and wanted to dialogue about it. When you see a play there's somebody to talk with, you can't have that with a story. Since David turned it into a play it's being re-published in that format, it's been reprinted in anthologies and foreign languages, and now the next thing is it's going to be a graphic novel (by Dark Horse Comics). All on one story. So it's clearly my favorite. It has a life of its own, and just keeps going and going. I love the story because it's the only story I ever wrote that contains no overt violence, no profanity, no sex. In fact, it's the only one my mother ever read.
GL: How do you write? Outline? Research? Notes? White heat?
AV: My life is research. I make notes all the time, a leftover from my training as an investigator. I'm trained to record entire conversations without tape recordings and without writing anything down. That's the essence of being a good investigator. When I started doing this I worked every gin mill, whorehouse, gambling den—places where you have to listen and look, but not overtly record. As far as writing goes, I write the entire book in my head first. When it's done, I sit down at the typewriter and then it's as fast as I can go. And I can go very fast.
GL: One of your most notable features is the eye patch. Can I ask you about that?
AV: Sure, why not. Everyone's entitled to one stupid question. It's a fashion accessory. I looked like a wimp and I felt the only way to toughen my appearance was to wear this patch (laughter).
GL: Okay. Now really?
AV: I got hit in the face when I was a kid. The muscles that loop around the eye like a domino mask got torn. They sewed them together with the technology they had in the '50s, which consisted of tying a square knot in the damn thing. This eye's not binocular with the other eye, they work separately. I've had surgery to try and get it to work but surgery has never completely worked. Mostly it moves the eye to a dead zone so it doesn't see anything.
GL: So you're blind in one eye?
AV: No. Unfortunately, when the surgical sutures loosen it drifts so that it picks up light. So if I don't wear the eye patch it's as though a strobe light is going off in my face.
GL: So you don't see images, just brightness?
AV: Off and on. By wearing the patch I completely avoid the vertigo, that's the reason I wear it. In between surgeries I don't have to wear it because for a period of months or years, depending on the surgery, it's completely dead and I don't see anything. Then I don't need the patch.
GL: What message do you want to get across to the readers of your fiction?
AV: Pay now or pay later. If we don't make a significant investment in child protective services today's victims are going to grow up and haunt us. The serial killers that so terrorize us—the multiple rapists, the mass murderers—these are not people who woke up one morning and decided to be monsters. I'm not excusing anything, I'm just saying we could have headed them off at the pass and it would be cost effective.
GL: So we're going to get a lot more of this in the future? Rather than being a freak occurrence it will become even more common.
AV: Absolutely. It's already more common. Look around you. When a child is tortured you have a 'freak occurrence' in the making, my friend.
GL: What do you see as the major problem with the criminal justice system and how do we stop creating monsters?
AV: The criminal justice system is a failure. It's a holding action and as soon as it gets overstressed it just gives up. It's not designed to interdict criminality, it's designed to respond to it.
GL: So it's going after the symptoms rather than the causes?
AV: And ineffectively so. The criminal justice system is biased in favor of the sex criminal. For example rapists are much less likely to go to prison, incest offenders almost never do. Paedophiles, people who prey on children—well, they're 'sick'. They're not sick! They are evil creatures who choose their behavior, but the criminal justice system sees them as sick. So you'll do more time in this country for sticking up a liquor store than for sodomizing a baby. That's a fundamentally immoral position ... and that's our criminal justice system.
GL: Why do they do that?
AV: Because some people are cowards, and some are ignorant. What they do is say, 'I wouldn't do that, so somebody else who does it must be sick". There's a hell of a line between 'sick' and 'sickening'. Also there's a residual sympathy for offenders. A rapist who gets a jury with someone who thinks all women are cunts is likely to get favorable treatment. But everybody loves property. There's a complete universal about that. Look, child victims don't vote. I don't care what "tribe" you belong to, you can put pressure on the political system. Kids can't do that. This is a country that's talking about putting people in jail for adultery but they still don't do it for incest. It's an irrational system, too little too late, and it's politically based. The way you get to be a judge or somebody important in this system is political as opposed to professional. But I'm not a man without hope—we've made incredible strides. Since I started in this business things have changed radically, it used to be you never heard of anyone tried for intrafamilial child abuse.
GL: You never even heard of it.
AV: Right, the papers never covered it. Nobody wrote about it. And now, child abuse is becoming the plot device of the '90s.
GL: What's your opinion of the mystery and crime writing field today? Which writers do you like and enjoy reading?
AV: My favourites from the past are Paul Cain—wonderful, such a spare style., Harry Whittington was a master of plot. David Goodis for his feeling of despair that nobody did better. Gerald Kersch's Night and the City was incredible. Floyd Salas' Tattoo The Wicked Cross was brilliant.
Contemporary writers? Eugene Izzi, my man. Without a doubt he's the coming thing. Whatever mantle Elmore Leonard is wearing today it's going to be lzzi's, you can take that to the bank. On the other side of that mirror, Martha Grimes is one of my favorites. I love the stuff she does. It's not only brilliantly written but it's social commentary disguised as mystery. And it's nasty stuff. Anyone who thinks she's writing 'cozies' is real ignorant. Walter Mosely is one of the new guys that I like a lot, Rod Thorp is an old favorite who never disappoints. So is David Morrell, Jim Colbert, Kinky Friedman... there are so many of them that I admire in some way and for some reason. There's a lot of stuff I really like.
GL: So you're up on what's coming out and have some time to read some of the new stuff?
AV: The brand new stuff, like these galleys here (indicating a pile on his desk), which I get every day, I make a try. I read a few pages and if it grabs me, fine. It's not that I'm trying to be dismissive of people's work, but you know how many books are published each year? Ten thousand. Fifty thousand. No human being could read every book that comes out. As far as the 'crime' field is concerned it's got way too many dishy-bitchy, mean-spirited networkers, asskissers, gameplayers. You see these tradeoffs—'You give me a blurb, I'll rave about your stuff in return.' That to me is dreck.
There are only two ways to climb in this world. Two ways. You can step on people so you're standing up higher, or you can help pull people up, the very act of which elevates you as a person. To me the only way to truly act like a man, or a woman, is to do the latter. Anyone who snipes from cover is a coward and a weasel. I've got no time for them.
GL: It can come back to haunt you if you step on people.
AV: I wish that was true.
GL: Or you step on the wrong person.
AV: Yes, if you mistake a wolf for a sheep then you get bit. The truth is that in this business I find there's more interpersonal nastiness, more pettiness and I'm not saying this about everybody because obviously there are people in the field I have the greatest respect for, and some I personally like—but all this sniping and whining ... It's weaselism. On top of that, there's the bullshit about 'genre'. Is this 'hardboiled'? Is this 'noir'? Is this 'PI'? Who cares? Books have a common base in that they all contain writing, and it's the writing that we're all supposed to look at.
What a critic does is instead of telling you what's good he tells you what he likes. And he's egotistical enough to assume that if you knew what he liked you'd be a happy person. Most of them couldn't tell John Lee Hooker from Barry Manilow, but they know which one they 'like.' They convert their personal taste to a kind of phony 'objectivity.' I just think trashing and trivializing is low class. Talking about things that appeal to you, that work for you, encouraging each other, being like a band of brothers and sisters is what writers should be doing. This looking down your nose stuff doesn't do it for me. And the weakest people I've run across in this field are the ones who spend all their time rooting around in the trash bin. It's so damn tiring listening to little Chandler clones sniffling about how I failed to worship their particular god. Sorry to burst their little fantasy bubble, but while pastiche may be an honored form of writing, it's hardly the only one.
GL: Can you talk about the new Burke film?
AV: It's a purchase not an option. It's in production now by Paramount. The producer is David Picker, the only guy I met in Hollywood who genuinely impressed me with his sincerity and class, so far—he's the primary reason I signed. They're doing Blue Belle first. As to who is going to play what I don't know yet. That's something we have to work out.
GL: You have some control over the film to see that it doesn't stray from the book?
AV: I have control over what the film will not be. I don't have control over what the film will be.
GL: Can you explain that?
AV: Sure. Burke can't be played by a guy with a German accent. Max can't be played by a Puerto Rican. Pansy must be played by a Neapolitan Mastiff.
GL: No Chihuahuas?
AV: No wimpy Dobermans either. A Neapolitan Mastiff. They're not allowed to 'exploit' child abuse. But that's just a word, an adjective. The interpretation is something that could end up in court but I have a good faith feeling about David Picker. I believe he's real serious, a very experienced and skillful guy. I'm not writing the script, although I could veto a scriptwriter they choose.
GL: Have they decided who's going to write the script yet?
AV: There are about a dozen candidates who all have to read the book and then come back and discuss their take on it.
GL: What's next for Burke? The sixth novel you've already mentioned will be called Sacrifice. Can you tell us anything about it?
AV: That book is about the scariest thing I could think to write about. A baby killer. Not a person who kills babies but a baby who kills.
GL: How old is the child?
AV: Eight. It's really about witchcraft, demonology and Satanism, but in an attempt to demystify. I'll give you an example. No one who has ever seen, actually seen, multiple personality disorder would doubt that there were werewolves. And you can imagine people seeing a multiple—which is not a new fad, it's a psychiatric phenomenon—they'd say, "My God, it obviously mutates. Transforms." Nobody would doubt that when a paedophile takes a tiny child, raises that child in perversion so that that child becomes perverted and preys on others, nobody would doubt the existence of vampires. Demonic possession—what I think is that earlier folks saw what we see and gave names to it. So this book is about voodoo, but in way that attempts to explain its rational roots. In some ways it's the ugliest book I've ever written.
GL: Is it finished now?
AV: Yes, it's all finished and being edited over at Knopf. It will appear in June 1991, at the same time the paperback of Blossom will come out.
GL: When it's all said and done, how would you like to be remembered? What would you have liked to accomplish?
AV: I want to have caused a material change to the ground I've walked on. I want things to be different for me having been there. I want to save some individual children and I want to inspire other people to enter this profession that I'm in. I want people to, at least to some extent, realize that their self-interest is inextricably intertwined with the protection of children. That's what I want. Whether I'll get it or not, I don't know. I've done far more than I'd ever hoped to do with the books, I don't have any more ambitions as far as they're concerned. I've already exceeded the ambitions I had for them. I can't say what will happen with my writing, but my work will go on as long as I do.