Andrew Vachss: An Interview
Originally published in A Matter of Crime, Vol. 4
Also available in Russian (http://bit.ly/2jGp0uX)
Before Andrew Vachss published his first novel about the survival-driven, inner-city subculture that has been the subject of all his fiction, he served, among other positions, as a field investigator for the US Public Health Service; a caseworker for the New York City Department of Social Services; special investigator in Biafra for the Save the Children Federation and the Community Development Foundation; deputy director of the Medfield-Norfolk Prison Project; director of the Intensive Treatment Unit—a maximum-security prison for juveniles and youth—under the auspices of the Massachusetts Department of Youth Services; planner and analyst in the Yonkers, New York, Crime Control Coordinator's Office; and as an attorney limiting himself to matters concerning children, a practice that is now twelve years old. Mr. Vachss knows what he is writing about. His three published novels—Flood (1985), Strega (1987), and Blue Belle (1988)—all feature Burke, a man-for-hire who, in coming to terms with the conditions of his life, has developed a personal code that contrasts sharply, often violently, with accepted standards of behavior. Vachss describes Burke's world with defiant clarity, unassailable authority, and a truly distinctive narrative voice.
AMOC: How long have you been writing fiction?
Vachss: I don't know how to give an honest answer to that. I really don't.
AMOC: Maybe I should rephrase the question. How long have you been writing fiction with a view toward publication?
Vachss: I had stuff published in so-called literary magazines back in the early 1960s—like Polemic, a university-supported magazine at Western Reserve, now Case Western Reserve. The only persons I am sure would have that stuff are my mother and one of my ex-wives. Your chance of getting a copy is limited to my mother.
AMOC: Was it fiction similar to what you're writing now?
Vachss: Certainly you would think so. I mean it was violent, bloody, horrible, disgusting stuff.
AMOC: Related to your interest in crime? Child abuse?
Vachss: I don't think anything I've ever written has been unrelated to crime. And since this is America, I think that makes me a mainstream writer.
AMOC: How is it related? Is it propaganda, in your view? Is it to make people aware of what's going on?
Vachss: I like to think of it as demystification. I don't think it is propaganda because, like any person that believes he's found the truth, I believe that if I reveal it to you, you will feel as I do.
AMOC: Do you consider your novels to be realistic?
Vachss: What does realistic mean? Like an imitation of reality?
AMOC: What are they then?
Vachss: I think they're a way of depicting reality within a context that's more accessible to—for want of a better term—a nonprofessional audience. Though there are things that I could say to a group of people engaged in the same work as I am, things they would take for granted and accept as fact, when I am writing "fiction" I have to marble this in, you know, like fat on a good piece of meat, to make it digestible. If it really works, I suspect that people will assimilate it as a whole, and then the hard stuff will work its way out, like buckshot works its way out of skin after a while.
AMOC: A lady responding to an interview with you on National Public Radio about Strega called the novel propaganda for fascism. And a reporter in New York magazine called you "the Rambo of child abuse." Do you describe a kind of justice in your fiction that doesn't exist in real life, as these charges imply?
Vachss: First of all, Rambo solves global problems with explosives and is capable of changing entire international situations with a couple of hours of his time. I don't think that's anything resembling a fit depiction of what I write. The second thing is that I don't even understand people talking about a kind of justice that doesn't exist in the world. That's like saying that people never settle their disputes with handguns. That sort of reasoning doesn't make any sense to me. I don't see what's fascistic about believing that people who prey upon children are a greater threat to our country than nuclear weapons or communists. I don't think that attitude, that perception, makes me a fascist.
AMOC: There seems to be a kind of irony in an attorney, somebody who's working within the rigid structure of law every day, writing books about a character like Burke, who would think the law to be foolish and irrelevant.
Vachss: Well, not irrelevant, but certainly an impediment to Burke's life, the way he has decided to live it. Burke is a survivor. That's the hallmark of his character. Burke's not like, I don't want to use the word conventional, but like other sort of protagonists in that you don't hear long, philosophical diatribes about the environment or legislation that he'd like to see changed. If Burke lived in Russia he'd be a black marketeer. He's not a person who tries to change the system but a person who believes the system is an adversary. He doesn't have the power to overthrow it, so he uses kind of a psychiatric jujitsu: the system has more strength, so he tries to use its weight and mass against itself. But he's not about changing the system, much less overthrowing it.
AMOC: But he does try to bring a certain kind of justice to bear on the system.
Vachss: I don't think so. I think that's a popular perception, but I don't think it's accurate. I think it says more about Burke than he deserves. Burke's a religious person. His particular god is named Revenge instead of Jesus Christ or Buddha. But I don't see where in anything that I've written there's any concept of justice for the sake of justice. Where do you see that?
AMOC: The term "revenge" implies justice.
Vachss: Personal, though. Not global. I don't want to get into other people's way of writing, but without calling specific names, most contemporary crime-fiction protagonists are people who do things for their own sake, for the sake of doing them. And thereby comes the pursuit of justice. People turn down a client who's unethical, or they undertake a cause without getting paid, that kind of thing. Where does Burke do that?
AMOC: What does cause him to get involved then?
Vachss: A threat to his own. The country that Burke will fight for, his patriotism, is limited to the fifteen square feet around him. And inside that fifteen square feet, or whatever, there are human beings that he identifies as his loved ones because of a pattern of behavior, not because of genetics. And he understands. Because he evolves, again unlike other protagonists, he's not exactly the same in every book. He understands that a threat to one is a threat to others. So it's never really clear who Burke's defending—whether it's part of himself or just other people that he knows. But this is not some crusading missionary who hears about bad situations and says, "Well, sign me up."
AMOC: In A Bomb Built in Hell, your unpublished first novel, an excerpt of which will follow this interview, there is a character named Wesley who's very much like Burke.
Vachss: I would dispute that Wesley and Burke are alike.
AMOC: They are both shaped by self-discipline.
Vachss: And events.
AMOC: And events. But their self-discipline is the quality that makes them effective.
Vachss: Right, but you see, Wesley is what Burke wanted to be, he thought. And what he never achieved. That's exactly the point. In Blue Belle Burke talks about worshipping that ice god, that perfect sociopath. He tries like hell, but it doesn't work. Can you see Wesley giving a damn about anything being hurt other than himself? I mean, if you give Wesley enough money, he'll just do what he agrees to do out of a sense of bizarre professionalism but not because of any honor or ethics. He doesn't care what he gets paid to do, right?
AMOC: So, what you're saying is that Burke fails to realize his ideal.
Vachss: The god that he once worshipped never comes into his soul. He thought if he could be like Wesley he'd be safe, because that's the one thing that Burke thinks about all the time. To be safe. You see, there are two things that people think about in life: one is to be free, and one is to be safe. If you decide that you'll never be free, then you think about being safe within wherever you're trapped. Burke never perceives himself as being free.
AMOC: Would you talk a little bit about the circumstances of writing A Bomb Built in Hell?
Vachss: It was really a criminology thesis disguised as a novel. I think you'll agree that it predicts things that were going to happen in the world of crime. I wanted to present that, be it the fall of the government in Haiti or the evolution of Chinese youth gangs into the organized criminal enterprise they are today. But I also wanted to show that the monsters we're all afraid of are not biogenetic mutations but something that we ourselves create. And I wanted to show, admittedly with very, very short brush strokes, without a whole lot of adjectives, the creation of just such a monster. If I had succeeded perfectly I would have created a monster that people still felt something for.
AMOC: When was the novel written?
Vachss: Nineteen seventy-three.
AMOC: When you reread the novel does it still please you?
Vachss: Well, it pleases me that I was correct in some of the perceptions that I had. But writing is really two things, at least to a simplistic person like me: it is art and it is skill. The art you have or you don't. But skill is an evolving process. If I were to be forced to publish that novel today, I would rewrite it. I don't mean that I'd change it, but I'd rewrite it so that I did a better job of expressing what was in my mind and in my heart at the time. I would make it shorter and sharper. I had specific writing goals. At the time I met them to the extent that the skill that I had allowed. I guess I'm egotistical enough to believe that I've learned something over the years. In 1973, when I was doing eight hundred things at once, I didn't have the benefit of any critical feedback, editorial comment, support, anything like that.
AMOC: You said once that you don't consider yourself to be a writer because writers are people who make things up.
Vachss: That's only part of it. Look, take a writer. Rod Thorp. He can write a historical novel, a mystery, a western. If you called up Rod and said, "Listen, I want you to write a book about interstellar space travel, and I want it to work," he could write the book, and he could make it work. I think David Morrell can do that too. These are people who can teach writing. Martha Grimes is another example. I couldn't teach anybody how to do it. I think that the one tune I know how to play, I can play pretty damn well. But I think a writer has a much bigger repertoire.
AMOC: Did someone teach you to write?
Vachss: I think from reading my earlier stuff the only answer is obviously not.
AMOC: I'd say obviously so. You learned it somehow. Where was it?
Vachss: I learned it the same way that I've learned everything else—by just hitting the wall until it falls. Or I do.
AMOC: No creative writing courses?
Vachss: I took a creative writing course, in, oh, God, I don't know, nineteen sixty-one.
AMOC: At Western Reserve?
Vachss: Yep. I remember my teacher too. Mack Sawyer Hammond. I'm a person who took shop classes. When I discussed my future with my guidance counselor, the question was which branch of the military service would provide me the greatest career opportunity. But the one thing I always was encouraged about for a long, long time was writing. So I can't say people shut me off, or that I didn't get the opportunity, but I wasn't the kind of person who would use it.
AMOC: Since you have become a professional writer, have you felt any encouragement or useful assistance at all from various publishers you've worked with?
Vachss: Hell, what publishers?
AMOC: Editors? The publishing structure?
Vachss: Well, I don't know. Bob Gottlieb has been a wonderful editor. Three of the people I mentioned, David Morrell, Rod Thorp, and Martha Grimes have all read stuff of mine and made suggestions and reacted to it. I don't know how fair it is, though, to say they helped me because I've become a writer. I tend to think that all the people I've mentioned would have been just as willing to respond in some way whether I'd had a book published or not.
AMOC: What's the state of crime fiction and nonfiction today?
Vachss: Nonfiction crime writing has some really fine stuff, like Nick Pileggi's Wiseguy and something called Blood Justice by Howard Smead, which you've probably never read. Oxford University Press. It was about the lynching of Mack Charles Parker, which is something that I still think about. But while crime nonfiction is reaching heights of sorts, it has also gone to hell with the recapitulation of past crimes in sensationalized fashion. For example, Charles Manson has prompted more books than John Lennon. The only book about him that I really thought was well done, admittedly with a particular perspective but really well done, was The Family by Ed Sanders. That was a good book. I didn't think Helter Skelter was much of anything by way of insight into the crimes. It was sort of how one guy beat Charles Manson all by himself. I think that the best nonfiction crime writing is in short pieces where the reporter gets out there. Investigative reporters I think are the ones doing the best nonfiction crime writing.
AMOC: Appearing where? Newspapers?
Vachss: Mostly newspapers. I don't want to beat Pileggi to death, but his work in New York magazine is just at a different level from most of the stuff that I've read. But mostly it's newspaper reporters. There are guys covering beats in Gary, Indiana, or Chicago, or Iowa, or New Hampshire who break through and find a particular piece that really matters to them and really work it over the way only a reporter can until you end up with three or four part series about pedophile priests, like one I just read that was quite well done. Or the baby-selling market, or that kind of thing. I also think there's a tremendous amount of junk published as nonfiction crime writing. I was on the Edgar committee in 1986 for nonfiction crime writing. A lot of the books submitted were what we call clip jobs. They just took a whole lot of newspaper stuff and cobbled it up. I don't really consider that painting a quality picture—the kind that shows you the skull beneath the skin. And with the Son-of-Sam law now becoming pretty much universal, I think we're going to see fewer people telling their own story. I could do without Jack Henry Abbott's life story as he told it. But Caryl Chessman's own story had a profound effect on me when I was a kid. So did Haywood Patterson's, although he was a convict, not a criminal. Ditto for Carl Panzram, who was the extreme of both.
AMOC: How about fiction?
Vachss: No comment. I don't even know what to say about crime fiction, today. If you asked me the crime fiction I most admired I wouldn't be talking about nineteen eighty-eight.
AMOC: What year?
Vachss: I'm not much of a historian, but Paul Cain.
AMOC: The thirties.
Vachss: Dashiell Hammett. I'm not the admirer of Chandler that everyone thinks I should be. But I do admire his work, especially the shorter pieces. I don't have anywhere near the admiration for Ross Macdonald that people seem to think that I should. Jim Thompson. Goodis. Alter. Willeford and Leonard, and John D. in earlier incarnations. I think those guys knew how to do it. But I think they were writing more like Balzac than they were like the kind of pretentious silliness that's out there today. I think they were more like social observers than they were writers. They were writing about what was out there that they saw. That's just more to my taste. It's the so-called realists that I would have the most argument with. I don't have any beef with the people who are writing stuff that clearly isn't meant to be true.
AMOC: So what concerns you is the people who are fostering misconceptions.
Vachss: That's why I'm not a writer. I think people who use child abuse as a plot device do a real disservice and in a way give aid and comfort to the enemy. I think the demon-child literature really gives aid and comfort to my enemies. Do you remember a book called The Bad Seed? Everybody is familiar with that, but nobody's familiar with books about Mary Bell, right? Mary Bell was a nine-year-old girl who killed a couple of people, apparently, for the fun of it. The books that are intended to unravel her and understand her don't get read, and that's the true-crime stuff. And still we get The Bad Seed, which, of course, is a brilliantly written book, but once you start accepting the theory of biogenetic mutation as causing crime, there's your propaganda for fascism.
I think the reason I react so strongly to that kind of statement about my work is that I consider my stuff to be just the opposite. My books say that the human condition is a created one, and fascists, of course, believe just the opposite. A fascist believes that if you're born black, or you're born Jewish, or you're born, I don't know, hell, retarded that you're predestined from that genetic accident to behave a certain way and deserve to be treated a certain way as well. My books stand for the proposition that the monsters who frighten us have a genesis, and the genesis is not genetic. I think the more environmentalist you are about the human condition, the less fascistic you are. I think people who say my stuff is propaganda for fascism are people who think that I don't have a sufficiently liberal view about pedophiles. I don't, frankly, see where predatory pedophiles are entitled to a liberal view. It just occurred to me that that is really the source of my anger. It's not that I'm just dismissing criticism by saying that I am not a fascist and that anybody who persists in that point of view should be shot. What I'm saying is that if you have even a grain of intellect you'll understand that my work is antithetical to fascism.
By the way, I don't see where the body counts in my books justify a comparison to Rambo. I don't see Burke as any kind of high-tech person. I don't see him as particularly skilled in physical combat. Burke is certainly the kind of person that would shoot somebody in the back and not think twice about it. He doesn't challenge people to duels.
AMOC: Mortay in Blue Belle?
Vachss: That wasn't much of a duel, was it? Burke intended to sneak up on him behind a shopping cart full of disposable bottles and blow him away. Is that your idea of challenging him to a duel?
AMOC: Obviously, you care pretty intensely about your characters and the integrity of your books. Have movie rights been sold?
Vachss: There have been numerous press statements that they've been sold, but they're not my statements.
AMOC: Would you consider selling movie rights to any of the Burke novels?
Vachss: I would consider it. I've had more offers than you've had birthdays. But I would consider it only under certain terms and conditions. And money's not the issue. Look at the problem I faced in Flood. I had to depict a snuff film—not refer to it, but actually show one—and I had to do that in a way that wasn't, in my mind, salacious or pornographic. That's a hell of a tightrope to walk. I describe filth in my books. And yet I've got to do that so that the reader comes away feeling like he wants to throw up instead of aroused. All right? I'm not one-hundred percent convinced, and please read that as heavy sarcasm, that Hollywood is capable of it or even would try to do it.
AMOC: The fear would be that they would take your books and turn them into precisely the opposite of what they are.
Vachss: If you read David Morrell's book First Blood and then saw Rambo, you'd say what the hell's going on here; this isn't the same thing. Morrell's a good example. The guy's in his own way obsessed with child abuse. The army becomes Rambo's father, the father he didn't have. He has this kind of blind machinelike obedience to it. In Morrell's other books he is always talking about orphanages and foster homes and abandoned people. When they make a movie, especially when they have actors who are averse to dialogue, they're pretty much stuck with a different version. This isn't meant as criticism in any way. I at least hope that it's made David rich. I can't take that risk. If you wrote a book and Hollywood screwed it up and made it into something else, you'd write another book about different characters, right? You'd just abandon that and go on with something else to express yourself as a writer, wouldn't you? I don't have but one set of protagonists. If Hollywood gets the public, I don't have a chance. No matter how many books I ever sell, I'll never reach as many people as will go to a movie, even one that's a failure, right? I don't want to have to try to go back to that audience with my same people and explain. If I could be assured that the only people who would go to the movies would be people who can't read without moving their lips and just don't care about anything that is written, then I would be a lot less intense about it. But I don't have any such demographic information available to me. My lawyer swears to me that sooner or later somebody will come along who will make all the necessary concessions. Now people have made all these representations. People have said we'll do all these things. The problem is how to reduce it to language that's enforceable.
AMOC: How do you see your career developing from here? Are there more Burke novels?
Vachss: That depends on whether anybody buys the next one.
AMOC: Assuming that many people will buy the next one, is Burke really your only character? I don't believe it.
Vachss: Well, my only one of a bunch of interrelated characters.
AMOC: Is Burke really your only type of character? I don't believe that either.
Vachss: Some of the characters in the book are quite different from Burke, right? I couldn't write a novel about a Yuppie psychologist or a guy that was a farmer. I don't know how I would do it. I don't know how I'd put myself in them.
AMOC: Would you write another Burke novel if you knew, going in, that it were not going to be published?
Vachss: That it were not going to be published. Hell, I wrote the first Burke novel without a clue that it would be published. Besides I don't claim to be an expert in publishing, but I do know this: if the next book is a complete failure, total flop, somebody will buy one more book. Maybe not the same publisher and certainly not for the same price, but I think that I've got enough readers based on the sales and the prices publishers have paid me and the letters I get and all that crap that I'd get one more spin on the wheel no matter what. I, of course, think that Blue Belle is my best book. But if the public perception is that it's my worst book and nobody should read this trash, I still think that I'll get one more shot. I could be wrong.
AMOC: In fact, the history of publishing shows that you're probably entitled to twenty more shots after having failed.
Vachss: I am mystified by the continued publication of some writers. On the other hand there is no way to account for what the public does. I think it's a cumulative process. Martha Grimes has written, what, ten books, twelve books, whatever. The books were always, as far as I know, books that sold decently. What happened is that, apparently, she got 1,500 readers for book number one, and they told their friends. She got 4,000 readers for book number two, and so on. Without benefit of any ad campaign or hype or anything else, just by cumulation of totality, her latest book was a best-seller as soon as it hit the stands. I think that can't happen if you're not fair to people who read your books—people who are good enough to give you that shot. I think what does happen is that when people struggle for a long, hard time to write and be successful at it find themselves with a big winner on their hands, it could be a problem. The money comes; the recognition comes finally. And the tendency could be . . . once you're in the damn room, and you know you're not going to stay long, you rearrange the furniture. One of the things I'm trying to be hypersensitive to is writing better books each time. Not to start cheating.
AMOC: Do critical remarks about your books bother you?
Vachss: My response to most so-called criticism has always been who the fuck cares? Why should I care if one genius writes me a hostile letter and doesn't sign his name when I have literally a ratio of a hundred to one from folks who are saying my work was life-changing, or who tell me to keep on telling the truth because they know it's true and because they know people need to hear it? But the word "criticism" is a problem for me. Criticism is how we learn, and I not only am not opposed to it, I solicit it. I'm not sure that book reviews are "criticism" in the sense that I use it. Anyone who decides I'm a vigilante or a fascist is a critic too, right? It does seem some reviewers are disturbed more by what I write about than the writing itself. What kills me is that sometimes people get the point and in acknowledging that they got the point, they believe they're being critical of my writing. I remember one reviewer who wrote that he didn't understand how I could have screwed up after such a great book like Flood, because the sex scenes in Strega were so "icy." Well, that was the point. Sex doesn't always give off heat.
AMOC: Have any of your books been reviewed fairly or intelligently?
Vachss: I think that most of the reviews have not been fair.
AMOC: In what sense were they unfair?
Vachss: Because I'm not sure that they read what they were reviewing. Many reviewers, and I think this is really important, many reviewers are not qualified to be critics. I confronted the Edgar committee about this. Let's say that the only two books in the competition were something that I wrote and something by Agatha Christie. I don't know that most reviewers would say that Agatha Christie is a much better writer than Andrew Vachss. I'm not saying they wouldn't say that, but I don't think they'd necessarily say it for the right reason. I think that reviewers, being people, often respond to their personal tastes more than they do to a critical analysis of the work. If people say that I'm writing "vigilante-slasher porn," it's not just that they are flat-out wrong. It's also that they don't like books like mine. And that's not fair unless they disclose the bias up front. The fair critics are the ones who have at least attempted to see what I'm trying to do. Most people write "It's exciting"; "It's thrilling"; "It's got fast pace." That's the kind of crap you can store on a word processor.
It's axiomatic that critics can't all be right since they disagree among themselves. Without universality, without some objective criteria to judge what's good and what's bad, then how can you talk about a fair review? I get a fair review in court because I get a quantifiable result. If I'm dissatisfied with that result, that's why God made appellate courts. You can't appeal a review unless you want to get into all that silly personality nonsense. I see authors writing letters to reviewers complaining about nonfactual material, stuff that is really a matter of taste. That just depresses me. I can't see doing it. Some reviews have been all hyperbole. Just raves. I'm not prepared to say they've been any fairer than those who have dismissed my books out of hand. People who read the books and say, for example, that Michelle is a transvestite are people who haven't read the books. Or people who say that Max is a giant, when there's absolutely no indication that he's a giant, or people who think that Pansy is a German Shepherd are people that didn't read the damn books. And some of these reviews clearly were written before the reviewer read the book. Those, of course, are disgusting. The flip side of that is that criticism, true criticism, is the way we learn and the way we hone our skills and the way we develop.
AMOC: Despite the amount of power wielded by reviewers, there is no consistent set of qualifications for being a reviewer other than, in the best of publications at least, that he be able to string words together to make a coherent sentence. That's it.
Vachss: Sometimes not even that, right? To me a review is not a plot summary. And a review is not like a movie rating where you say this work contains hard-core sex or violence or whatever. To me, that's not a review, and yet that's what most reviews turn out to be. I think there's a place for reviews; the problem is being ethical about it. I was asked to be a book reviewer for a major newspaper, that is to review a single book, and I was very flattered. But I disclosed to the person who called me that I had read the book and that I didn't like it and that I was particularly biased against those kind of books. He thought I was the person to review it because it was alleged to be about my area of expertise. But I am prejudiced against those people who purport to write about child abuse when their knowledge is limited to news clippings, when they won't do the hard work. Child abuse as a plot device annoys me. I told him that. I said there's no point in me reviewing the book. He was sort of taken aback. After a while he said if that's the way you feel then we won't do it. The thing I feel bad about is that they've never called me since. Obviously, I'd like to take a shot at it, but I'd like to write a review that I could at least fancy was a critical analysis, and the person could look at it and say let me do something about this. I'm waiting for a reviewer to write something that will say that what Vachss really needs to get on top of this, to really be the best at what he's trying to do, is a little more of this, or a little less of this. But I don't think you get that from reviewers. You get that from editors, if you're lucky. I've been lucky.