Reading: Dead and Gone
By Judith Moore
Originally published in the San Diego Reader, September 28, 2000.
Andrew Vachss has been a federal investigator in sexually transmitted diseases, a social case-worker, a labor organizer, and has directed a maximum-security prison for youthful offenders. Now a lawyer in private practice, he represents children and youths exclusively. He is the author of numerous novels, two collections of short stories, three graphic novels, and Another Chance to Get It Right: A Children's Book for Adults. (Further information about Andrew Vachss and his work is available on his website, "The Zero," at www.vachss.com.)
If I'm counting correctly, Dead and Gone is Vachss' 13th novel narrated by Burke. I not infrequently have wondered what it's like for the authors of series novels. On the morning we talked, I asked Mr. Vachss if, after almost two decades of writing Burke novels, he felt as if he were living with Burke.
"No," Vachss said. "I don't live with him. I'm not one of these writers who goes around talking about how the characters are so real to them that they have conversations with them and that crap. But the reality is that since everything I do is based on my actual life, this [the character of Burke] isn't a big jump for me."
I said that were I to create a series character, I was afraid that after a few books I'd begin to forget the details of his life. Was Vachss able to keep track of Burke's history?
"Oh, sure. But I could see where you would [forget] if you're kind of making it up as you go along. But I'm not doing that. Also, I don't want to stigmatize anybody else who's doing anything like this, but my characters age. So it's a lot easier to keep track of them. And my characters' back-story emerges in each book.
"I didn't start the first book with, 'Now you're 18,' and the next book, 'Now you're 20,' and the next book, 'You're 25.' I started [the first Burke] book with a man in his 40s or maybe late 30s. Hard to tell, because I was never all that specific. But since each book goes forward and backward, I don't have any risk, I don't think, of losing my place."
I said that I'd think a significant number of readers assume that Vachss is Burke, and Burke, Vachss.
"That's a constant thing that I get. Including morons speculating in newsgroups. Something recently that a fan sent to me, this thread, absolutely cracked me up. Somebody wrote, 'Well, the reason Vachss writes these books is to experience a catharsis from his actual work.' And somebody else wrote, 'No, here are some snips from half a dozen interviews where he said that's not it.' The response from the original poster was, 'He doesn't know what he's talking about.' So, obviously I'm much less an authority on my own motivation than this twit. So, yeah, they do think they know a lot, but it isn't always accurate."
"When you start a new book," I asked, "do you know how it's going to end?"
"Yeah, because I'm not really so much interested in plot as I am in theme. I have a reason for writing each book, and the plot evolves from that reason. The purpose of the book is to make a point. So do I know how it's going to resolve before I start typing? Yeah."
I said that when I started something new, I never knew quite how it would end.
"Right. Most people who are genuinely creative allow the characters and the plot to take them where they go. I don't consider myself a particularly creative person. I'm much more an analytic one. I have it laid out in my head, really quite clearly, before I sit down and touch the typewriter."
When Vachss was driving around town or doing mechanical tasks, did he sometimes "write" as he drove or did these tasks?
"No. I'm always in full-observation mode. I harvest experiences all the time, sort them into categories, and then pluck them as I need them for each book's theme."
I said that my fantasy of how Vachss "wrote" Burke was that as Vachss went about his life, certain things happened that he, Vachss, "saved" to use in his fiction. Perhaps, I said, he did this unconsciously.
"It would have to be unconscious. Because certainly the problem with that analysis is that I was really a federal investigator in sexually transmitted diseases. I was a caseworker in the New York City Department of Welfare. I was in Biafra during that genocidal war. I ran a maximum-security prison for violent youth, blah, blah. I mean, long, long list before I wrote any books, so I obviously couldn't be in that writing mode; I couldn't possibly be thinking as I was doing these things, 'Well, I can use this in a book.'
"Also, I didn't have the ego to believe that I would have ever been where I am with this stuff. I mean, let's face it, the first book that I wrote didn't exactly inspire adoration from publishers. So the observations were always to be used in my work, and since the books are an organic extension of that work, there's certainly a lot of overlap, but I was looking and observing and participating, and then analyzing all of that, for a very, very long time, before a book was even a gleam in my eye."
"When you were a young man, did you ever imagine yourself as becoming a writer?"
"What's a young man to you?"
"Like, in your early 20s, after you got out of college."
"People imagine me writing a lot more than I imagine me writing. People were always telling me that I would be this great writer, way, way before I had any real ambition to be that."
I asked Vachss if he had a good teacher in grade school or high school.
He laughed. "I had warm, caring, deeply involved teachers. Yeah."
"No," I said, "Seriously. Did you? Some people really did have teachers who got them interested, for instance, in reading."
"I was in the slow classes in school," Vachss said. "In high school, I was a miserable student and either ignored or disliked by any teachers that I can remember, of which I have really a vague memory. To me, high school was like moving through a gray-toned Jell-O. I didn't spend any time there at all. I didn't participate in the life of it. I had a different life that I cared about and not that one. So no, it was no teacher. I did have, in college, teachers who were wonderfully encouraging, but I never took them up on it."
Vachss said that when he was a youngster, there were always books in the house. His parents went to used bookstores, and for the children's birthday gifts, bought them books. "My reading taste," he said, "wasn't theirs. But remember, I had the New York City Public Library. I ran amok there and read mostly nonfiction when I was very small. I never dreamed of actually writing anything. But the books themselves were mind-boggling. I remember reading Scottsboro Boy when I was a child. That book just fried my brain cells."
Vachss' parents, he said, "were cheated out of their education, thanks to the war. My dad was not just going to college; my dad was a star football player for a major college at that time. NYU was a real football power in the 1930s. He played against Vince Lombardi. And used to pick up—this was a lot of money then—50 bucks a weekend playing for teams like the City Island Skippers or the Paterson Panthers. He was a great athlete. I believe that would have been his profession, had the war not intervened. My mother was a brilliant student in high school, but, of course, she had me when she was 17, and that was the end of that. My mother is a heroic person."
Did Vachss, as he was writing, read his work aloud to himself?
I said that I was surprised that he didn't read his work aloud.
"I read one of the short stories aloud for a radio program. And the engineer came by later and said, 'God, it's scary listening to you. Scary.' I have no idea what that meant, and I wasn't interested enough in the person to pursue it. No, I've never read anything aloud to myself in my life."
"Listen to this," I said, "how great it sounds," and read Dead and Gone's first paragraph:
You know what it takes to sit across the table from a man, listen to him talk, look into his eyes . . . and then blow his brains all over the wallpaper?
And the more of that you have, the easier it is.
Vachss responded, saying, "I'm disenfranchised from commenting on my own work. I try and get things across in a kind of a pure, clear way. It is difficult in a genre that's so dominated by cliches that books are interchangeable. The more freedom I've had to write—and that freedom came from success, which is the only thing that gives you freedom—the less you'll see anybody else's fingerprints on what I do."
I asked Vachss if he did much rewriting.
"No. I'll tell you exactly what the technique is. I just sit down and I write the entire book from beginning to end. And then I go back and do what I call 'texturizing.' So I'll just say, 'The girl got in the car.' And move along. I'll not tell you what the girl looked like, or what the car looked like. And what anything smelled like, or tasted like, or sounded like. And then when I'm done, I go back and I say, 'Okay, you spit it out fast.' I treat it like a field narrative. Someone says, 'What happened?' And I tell them. And then later, when you've been thoroughly debriefed, you give them all the information. And that's the way I do it."
"In a way," I said, "it's almost like preparing a report."
"It is. That's exactly the way I look at it. I have lots of experience doing that because my first training, I would have to go out, and literally spend a day and a night, sometimes days and nights straight, in juke joints, or whore houses or nightclubs or bars or migrant labor camps, or jailhouses. Wherever I had to go. Without ever taking a note. Of course when I got back, I spit it out. I got it on paper. And then later, once it was all written down, I could go back and add whatever details. But if I tried to describe each thing, as I was writing it, the half page would be twelve pages. And it would take me so long I would lose some of the rhythm of getting to the end."
We talked, a bit, about writing programs. Vachss said that he'd been asked to give lectures to writers, but he always refused. "I've been at them [classes for writers], as a guest, and if you actually gave the overall majority of people in the audience a choice between two questions that they could have answered—'How could I be a better writer?' and 'How can I get published?' it wouldn't be much of a contest."
Writing classes, I suggested, have become one way for writers to make a living.
Vachss did not disagree. "More people want to be writers than anything else. The interesting thing about writing, unlike any other art—unlike music, unlike dance, unlike painting—is that the average person you stumble over in the street believes that they could do it, and the only thing that's preventing them is they don't have the time, it's a hassle, blah, blah. But no question about their ability."
People who don't write for a living, I said, tend to think of writing as a charming hobby one takes up in one's spare time.
"They have this view of the writer," said Vachss, "that you have a beach house, and sort of a very modern looking notebook computer . . ."
"And if you're a woman," I said, "you're wearing a filmy dress, and a romantic rose in your hair while you write."
"Sure. Or you're wearing a fedora and smoking a cigarette, bottle of rye at your elbow. Right. Nobody sees it as work. That's absolutely true. Nobody sees it as work."
I asked what this newest book's theme was, and then confessed that when I read Vachss' books I never asked myself, "So, what's the theme?"
"If I did it right, you're not supposed to. People say they don't like to eat fat, right? If you offer someone a diet of fat, they wouldn't want it. But a fat free steak would be almost inedible. It has to be marbled in. When you're done, you don't say, 'That was great fat!‚' you say, 'That was great steak.' So it's the same thing with themes. I was trying to make it clear to everybody that there is a Mobius strip, not a long continuous line, in political thought, and that if you look at the extreme right and the extreme left, and you want to see a point of intersection, you'll see child abuse. And that the defenders of various forms or ways to exploit or abuse children don't have politics.
"So the whole idea was that it is a so-called 'third position' that people had better be aware of. In other words, there are places where there are intersections. Take a Klansman, right, and take the followers of Elijah Muhammad, right? Ask them both what they think about Jews. You think they disagree?"
No, I didn't.
"Okay. You see? The whole point was that you can't place people on a left/right political continuum and think you know them. When you look at the extreme right, one of the things you'll see is that they hate gay people, right? But they seem quite tolerant of people who have sex with girl children.
"People form alliances around their perception of self-interest, not around ideology. That's, to me, the point of the book. People think ideology drives folks. It doesn't. Although there are people who are ideologically driven, without question, their ideology is still subservient to their personal fetishes. You have homosexuals who are in Nazi organizations, but they certainly don't acknowledge their homosexuality."
Vachss noted that, ironically, he isn't much of a fan of series. Why he isn't, he said, is that "What I see, over and over again, are these sort of cast-in-concrete, preserved-in-plastic creatures, who never seem to change and they just have new adventures. Now, with Sherlock Holmes I could live with that. It kind of makes sense to me."
Did Vachss feel trapped by the series?
"No, because that's like bitching about a car that's taking you to a place you want to go. I don't. I want to do exactly what I'm doing, which is have the opportunity to write about the things that are important to me. Why would I give a rat's ass what the method is? It would be easier to write a book that wasn't in the series. Of course it would be easier, because you don't have to do that balance between fans who have been with you for 15 years and brand new readers. You wouldn't have the requirements of being consistent to the history, and all that. But there are plenty of writers who write series and they're just not called series. They write six different books, all about six different people. But if you look, even a little bit, you see that they're the same people."
We talked about reviews. Vachss said, "I disregard all opinion. I have been called, for the same book, in two different newspapers, the 'American Camus,' and 'a writer of vigilante pornography.' So I don't pay any attention. I can't. If you're going to take it seriously when someone says, 'You're the greatest thing since Hemingway,' you have to take it seriously when someone says, 'You don't have enough literary ability to write a comic book.' So I don't pay any attention."
Vachss did not always respond to reviews in this way. "I was interested, originally. When I first had a book published, I thought, 'Oh, man, these reviews are going to be a way to sort of get free criticism.' I thought I wouldn't have to pay for it, but I'd get all these lessons writing. I would learn how to be better."
Vachss' books tend, he has said, "to get reviewed as this 'hypermacho, vigilante, blah de blah de blah,' without regard to the content." I said that I thought it interesting, given this perception—which is a misperception—of the Burke series, that Burke, in Dead and Gone, finds himself sexually impotent. I said that it seemed to me that impotency was an unlikely circumstance for heroes in series thought of as "hard-boiled."
His secret ambition, Vachss said, "is to be the anti-Chandler, right? Burke is not handsome, people are not always commenting about his biceps. Marlow was always, 'You're such a big handsome guy.' I'm not doing that."
Unlike some writers of fiction that fits the "hard-boiled" genre, Vachss does not portray Burke as engaged in what I think of as "dirty" sex. When I mentioned this, Vachss said, "I've read clearly gratuitously inserted sex scenes in books that made the back of my neck a little crawly. But I don't know what the word 'dirty' means. I do know that it's not even gratuitous so much as it's object sex. To me, the people who write these scenes haven't had sex. And it kind of shows.
"It does show, when someone writes about clicking the safety off on their revolver, that they've never shot a revolver. It does show when people talk about writing—and I don't want to mention this guy's name, because I don't want to see it in print—but there's a guy who I'm compared to a lot, who also drives a Plymouth, a quote 'muscle car.' But it's a 318-cubic-inch engine, which any gearhead would sneer at. He's a hundred cubes short of a real car. So you know that person doesn't know anything about cars. People who write about fights that take 15 minutes, it's obvious they've never been in a fight. You can't. Fights, real fights—not boxing matches—30 seconds is a long fight. The amount of pain inflicted and the intent of the participants, it can't last very long. People who write about getting hit in the head with a tire iron, shaking it off five minutes later, and getting up and looking for clues, never got hit in the head with a tire iron. So why should it be any different with sex? You see?"
Burke's sexual encounters, I said, always seem quite believable.
"If he's not believable, who would care? Everybody loves the phrase 'willing suspension of disbelief.' Who would care? Here's the reason I care. Since the underlying theme, the foundation stone to all of these, is that people do things to children that have consequences for everybody. If you're going to write stuff that's not believable, then that becomes not believable. So that's the only thing I really bristle at. I read a review that said, 'The worst thing about the Vachss books is they're completely unrealistic, they're way over the top, and I know because I've been reading crime fiction for all these years.' The point of reference isn't reality but fiction. And that's what distresses me.
"I wrote one book, Down in the Zero, which was absolutely loaded with sex, because sex was the language of the participants. I wrote another book, Sacrifice, in which there was no sex, because it didn't occur. I try to have it be plot-driven and have it come up organically, but if it doesn't work there, I don't see what the point of it is. Readers of detective fiction, crime fiction, PI fiction, whatever, there's required to be at least a shooting, a stomping, a stabbing, and sex. Well, maybe a car chase. In every book."
I blurted out that I'd never thought of the Burke books as "crime fiction."
"Thank god the libraries don't. The libraries don't rack it there."
"They put them in fiction?"
"Yeah. Which is really interesting. And the foreign publishers vary in their characterization of it."
The Burke books, I said, also certainly aren't what I think of as "mysteries."
"Of course, they're not mysteries, unless life is a mystery."
We talked about some of the mail that Vachss receives. "I've gotten letters from people that said, 'Don't you dare kill Pansy! Never let Pansy die.' [Pansy is Burke's dog.] I've gotten letters asking, 'Why can't Flood come back? Why can't Burke have happiness?'"
I asked, "Why can't Belle [Burke's lady love in Blue Belle] come back?"
"It's very interesting," Vachss said, "women who have a whole dose of estrogen in their system really love her, and the ones who are sort of estrogen anorexic, hated her. Just hated the whole idea of her. My old friend Doc Pomus, years and years ago, I was telling him about a letter I got. It was really a diatribe from a fan saying, 'I used to love your books, but now you've created this impossible, ridiculous character, Belle. There's no such woman like that. I never heard of such a woman.' I said, 'What do you think, Doc?' And he said, 'I feel sorry for the motherfucker. What are you getting mad about? I feel sorry for him. He's never known a real woman, and you're going to get mad at him?'"
As to what Vachss is working on now, he said, "I have no business plotting future books because my situation, I assume like most writers, is that if this book doesn't sell well, there won't be another book."
© 2000 Judith Moore. All rights reserved.
Judith Moore is the author of Never Eat Your Heart Out
(Farrar Straus & Giroux).