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The Official Website of Andrew Vachss

Andrew Vachss

By Robert Birnbaum
Originally published in Stuff magazine, July 1993

Andrew Vachss has been a federal investigator in cases involving sexually transmitted diseases, a social worker, a labor organizer, and the director of a maximum-security prison for youthful offenders. Now, as a lawyer in private practice, he represents children and youths exclusively, and is an acknowledged expert on juvenile justice, child abuse, and the psychopathology of criminals. He is also a much sought-after case specialist with law-enforcement agencies around the country. Since 1985, Vachss has published six "Burke" novels: Flood, Strega, Blue Belle, Hard Candy, Blossom, and Sacrifice. Commonly categorized as a mystery or crime-story writer, Vachss takes exception to this label: "The only mystery I'm concerned with is the mystery of human behavior. Readers looking to solve crimes clue by clue ought to turn elsewhere." Knopf editor-in-chief Sonny Mehta refers to Vachss as a "literary deconstructionist," a writer who "defies genre. Andrew may, in fact, be our first investigative novelist." Shella (Knopf), his latest novel, looks at the life of a contract killer who has just been released from prison. "This book is intended as an antidote to 'serial killer chic,'" Vachss says. "It's the story of a sociopath in metastasis, a refutation of the 'born bad' theory of criminality." Vachss' non-fiction has appeared in Parade, Antaeus, and the New York Times, among other forums. He lives in New York City.

S: Why did you dedicate Shella to Doc Pomus and Iceberg Slim?

AV: Doc Pomus was a great and good friend of mine. We were very close, and I feel that in some ways these guys are similar. Doc's known as a songwriter, but nobody knows him as a singer. He was a wonderful singer. He had a song called "Heartlessly," a magnificent song that actually started out to be a hit. According to Doc, he was screwed by the record company and walked away and said "I'll never sing again," and he devoted the rest of his life to writing songs. So his actual and special talent never really got him known. If you say, "Are you familiar with the song 'Save the Last Dance for Me'?", the average person would say yes, but Doc Pomus, no. And Iceberg Slim, of course, was, to anybody who's been near a jail, a bestselling author. Slim was actually a friend of mine, and he recently passed away too. He did make a real ground-zero, almost journalistic contribution to American literature, which, again, is unrecognized. I wanted to simply recognize two sort-of outlaws who no one pays a whole lot of attention to. Doc's music is still alive. And Slim's writing is still alive.

S: You said in an interview with one of the lifestyle magazines that are starting to pay attention to you that a lot of your story lines come out of your files, and that some of the stuff is so unbelievable that you couldn't include it in your stories.

AV: It's certainly toned down. Certainly some of the stuff I write that people think is so horrible is in fact muted. Each of the books has been ahead of what journalism is reporting, and I'm always roundly criticized. Then as the pendulum swings back, everyone says, "Oh, we should have known." Whether it was computer-generated kiddie pom, or trafficking in children's body parts, or pedophiles in day care centers, or a 6-year-old committing a homicide. All those events that were reported, if you will, in my work later get validated by the media. But prior to that validation, everybody's very upset with what I write.

S: Why do you think that is?

AV: Well, nobody wants to believe there are sharks in the swimming pool. And maybe it's my style. Instead of gently introducing people to horror, I tend to grab people by the back of the neck and shove their face in it. Also it's the connection with my actual work. You can't dismiss me as somebody having dark fantasies 'cause of what I do for a living and have done for so long.

S: A friend of mine recently discovered that he was a victim of child abuse, and the thing that's really got him wound up, that he's really, really angry about, as if he needed a reason, is the attention being paid to recantations. What's your feeling about this attention being paid to people who are now saying, "Well, I thought I was, but I wasn't?"

AV: The false-allegations movement is really well financed, for one thing. Secondly, there's a growth industry in this area, so if you're accused of this thing, you will find many, many experts prepared to testify as to all kinds of phenomena, whether it's the parental-alienation syndrome or it's the false-memory syndrome. None of these syndromes has any sort of scientific basis, and none has been accorded scientific weight. But it's a very comforting thing to Americans to be told that this is a witch hunt. Because what nobody's focusing on is that in Salem there were no witches. There are witches today, and there always have been witches—now we're beginning to identify them—and we'd like to be told that it's all nonsense, it's all in kids' minds. Unfortunately, the evidence, be it sexually transmitted disease, confessions, or snuff films, is so overwhelming, nobody can now say it's simply a psychiatric phenomenon. So the second level of comfort is that this is the nuclear weapon in child-custody cases, or therapists are brainwashing people, or there's a child-abuse industry. I'm not saying that it's not possible to have false allegations, although I genuinely question this idea of false memory. It sounds... not sensible to me. But there've been false allegations all along the line. I've heard false allegations of bank embezzlement.

S: The interesting feature about these kinds of allegations is that it's so poisonous that people no longer can be rational. If in fact you believe someone is a child abuser, you don't look at him with the same emotional apparatus as you do with an armed robber. People understand something about ordinary crimes.

AV: You know, my friend, I profoundly disagree with you. I see exactly the opposite. In truth, nobody wants to understand armed robbers, and everybody wants to understand the incest offender. Everybody wants to understand the serial killer. Everybody wants to understand a child molester. We lavish money on them, we buy their damn paintings. We make them a subject of books. Look, a man molests a five-year-old girl down the street—you say he's a pervert and he goes to prison. Unless it's his own five-year old daughter—then you say he's a victim of family dysfunction, he should see a therapist. I think we don't spend 30 seconds trying to understand why a man steals. And we spend a ton of time trying to understand why a man tortures or rapes. I think we lavish more care, attention, and understanding on predatory pedophiles than is warranted.

S: There's a whole range of behavior I cannot even empathize with, identify with, or understand So I have to start out with, can I, am I, do I think I'm capable of doing it? Can I imagine doing it?

AV: You actually have the key right there in your hand. If you can't imagine doing it, you're at no risk for doing it. Let me explain it to you. Do you know what the DSM is? The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association. It's like the Rosetta Stone to psychiatric disorders. This is essentially a political document. It comes from varying traditions. Now, the DSM years ago listed homosexuality as a disorder. They no longer do, but they still have the concept of dystonic homosexuality, which is a person who's gay who doesn't want to be. Okay? No one's ever found a dystonic pedophile. They're completely in tune with what they do. You cannot show me a single one who's ever walked in requesting treatment. I've interviewed, I can't tell you how many dozens, and their feeling is if you only understood them you would admire them, you would appreciate them. Not that you would hold them in contempt or want to injure them. They're not bound by our proletarian rules. In fact, what's wrong is the law, not their conduct. It's almost Nietzschean in the way they present it. They don't seek our understanding so they can be cured—they laugh behind their sociopathic masks at our pitiful attempts to understand them. They understand themselves very well. It's really like a bunch of sheep getting together in a group and saying, "What do you think is wrong with wolves? What kind of mind makes them do this? Maybe if we could just talk to them."

S: Is the sexual abuse of children prevalent throughout industrial societies? Or peculiar to any one culture?

AV: My books are in 17 languages. I have letters from every country you could think of, and when they're translated, they could have come from Topeka, Kansas. It's a human condition. I don't think it's a cultural condition at all. It's a human condition. The Bible talked about incest.

S: Why didn't you write another Burke book?

AV: I wanted to explore different territory. I really wanted to write a love story about a sociopath who actually understands in some dim way that he is sociopathic, that a card is missing from his deck, and about his urge to shove it back inside. I couldn't do that with the Burke books, which are in a totally different voice and have a cast of characters from whom people have some sort of expectations. The Burke books, which are considered by some people very dark, are Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm compared to this one. I wanted to go way out on the edge.

S: I think this character is stunning and compelling.

AV: He's not at all an actual person, he's a created monster, and what happened to him in the juvenile institution was only the icing on his crazy cake. He spent his whole young life preparing exactly for that moment, when they put the batteries back in his radio. This is a profoundly dangerous person, and yet there's no trace of sadism. There's no joy in injuring anybody. He's not sexually disturbed. He's virtually nonjudgmental. All he wants is to find his talisman, and he's prepared to do anything whatsoever on this planet to find it. He realizes he can't be a person or even have a chance to be a person without Shella [the character the novel is named for]. And he's going to do anything it takes to find her.

S: I mean, you've got to admire his lack of exploitation, his decency.

AV: He would have killed anybody who was between him and Shella. He's capable, he knows that he's capable, of being a human being. He has enough behavior to know that he's capable, but he doesn't feel like that can happen to him unless that link is made. There is a decency about him, not Little House on the Prairie decency, but there is a decency. The thing is, it's an amoral decency. That is, without justification he would do no harm, but given his sort of justification he would do any harm.

S: Without regard even to his own survival.

AV: Oh, yes. He realizes he's not going to survive without Shella anyway. He's no survival expert, this guy. No martial-arts expert either. He's dissociative, he goes completely out of his body. All the trauma, all the pain, all the fear from the past accesses his adrenaline and increases his power geometrically. Which, of course, any of us who've worked with violent people see.

S: Was he [the main character] Ghost when he was in the youth hall?

AV: No, he was nobody. Even John Smith [the name he was called], was, of course, a play on words.

S: Is that sort of a clever way of killing someone by taking batteries and putting them in the socks?

AV: I don't know about clever, but it works. And it's an institutional standard. It's called 'battery-packing'. Oh yeah, "Battery-pack the motherfucker." That's what it is. Oh, sure.

S: I don't want to sound like Barbara Walters. But are you able to maintain an upbeat, positive attitude about the world?

AV: No. I'm able to maintain a combative attitude about the world. I'm able to maintain an attitude that this is a war that I enlisted in for the duration, that I won't be around when it's won, but I will have done my piece. But upbeat, no. Depressed, no. Cynical, no. I'm just trying to be a hardcore combat-ready realist about it. I can save more kids' lives in a year than an emergency room surgeon, but I can't solve child abuse, that's too grandiose. The books are my way of accessing that huge jury pod that I'll never see in a courtroom.

S: You were once quoted as talking about anger as the catalyst to getting things done—otherwise people just switch the channel. I wonder if even anger is sufficient to move people these days.

AV: I don't know about people generally. For me it's been sufficient, but I think the key is to link anger with self-interest, and I think liberals fail that way. They absolutely fail. If you want to say it's bad to hurt children, you get X number of people. If you say today's victim is tomorrow's predator, you'll get x to the third power, and that's my game. I believe that I can prove we construct our own monsters, make our own beasts. They're not biogenetic mutations, they're not the culture, they're not the break-down of the family unit, they're not the economy. One of the points of the book is that Murray [one of the characters], who's gay, wants to be in the Brotherhood [a skinhead racist paramilitary organization] so badly that he'll go into the belly of the beast to find it. That's a human need that we ignore. We just ignore it, and as a result we get these armies of brain-dead robots walking around with baseball bats talking about smashing Vietnamese. It doesn't have to be. And we don't have to study cult and gang members like insects on a spreading board. Legitimately, they could be struggling for something else. There's nothing genetic about them that turns them into racists.

S: You've toured for your books before?

Never. This is the first time I've ever done this. I have toured many, many times as a speaker and advocate, and have had my publisher just abuse me by saying, "How could you blow opportunity after opportunity? You're on Oprah and you don't mention you wrote a book, you're on Larry King, you're on Good Morning, America. You get so hopped up talking about the stuff you want to talk about." So this time I have to read from the bloody book. I've already done it once so far. They're determined that, you know, almost under pain of death, "you will talk about books, you will talk about literature. You're a writer, you can't keep using us." And I can understand that.

S: You've known Sonny for a long time?

AV: Sonny Mehta? Absolutely. We go back. He was my very first foreign publisher.

S: Did you see the article on him in Esquire?

AV: Yeah, I saw it. I know a different Sonny Mehta than the one they reported on. I know a Sonny Mehta who stuck by me. Let me tell you something: my books are not uncontroversial. And I've got significant enemies in the business. My books aren't allowed to be reviewed by certain newspapers. And they're open and up front about it. There's been a lot of nonsense. Sonny has stuck by me throughout. Believes in what I'm doing and he's willing to support it. I don't recognize the guy they're talking about.

AV: Do you have an agent?

AV: I have an agent now because I've got to deal with movies, I've got to deal with short-story collections, I've got to deal with my children's book for adults. And my wife has a book that's coming out in June, a non-fiction book about sex-crimes prosecution. With all of that, it just became impossible. But I have no agent who makes a sale for me, and nobody solicits my manuscripts. It's understood that Sonny is my publisher.

S: Do you have a plan for the next year, next five years?

AV: Yeah, because I have a profession which is not writing. I'll continue to try my cases, I'm going to need to do my investigations, I'll continue to do the lecturing and the training and the consulting. I'll try to continue to try and put together programs in law schools and medical schools combined to train advocates.

S: Is it hard to, like, sit down and tell these stories?

AV: No, no. I'm a very disciplined person. I can do that, but as I feel the feelings, those are hard for me. I'm not very distanced from the material.

S: In the Burke series you have some elements that mitigate the darkness. You created an alternative sense of a family.

AV: Exactly, exactly. A family of choice. I have such a family myself, I know those people myself; there is a sense of unity and purpose and sort of a safety-net group. Shella's different. Shella is a different book for me to write entirely, and I had to go out a lot further to do that. I didn't intend any mitigation in this book, and I don't think there is any. But you're right, the book series is quite different. That's the one there's a market for. That's the one we know we can sell. This is a different story.

S: Do you read other—what do we call them—crime-story writers, mystery writers?

AV: I don't call them mystery, because to me mystery is like Agatha Christie. Some of my favorites are Eugene Izzy, James Colbert, Joe Lansdale, Chet Williamson, Neal Barrett, Jr....

S: I don't know any of those writers.

AV: Of course not, and it's what makes me crazy, which is why I dedicated a book to Doc Pomus and Iceberg Slim, but they're all living writers. I like Robert Stone very much, I like Alice Hoffman, I'm crazy about Gerald Kersh. But I tend to like, you know, Paul Cain, people like that. In terms of the modern crime writers, all those guys I mentioned are enormously talented and gifted, and they don't get any play whatsoever, where lesser lights, in my view, do.

S: Has the quality of writing improved in the crime story genre?

AV: Well, that's the problem in the field, because there are so many Chandler clones out there. How many times can you write a book about "I was sitting in my office with my feet on the desk, wondering how I was going to pay the rent, but I was comforted by a bottle of Jim Beam in the drawer and the .38 on my hip, when in walks this blonde with hooters like you wouldn't believe... " Come on! Who needs that? That's the recycled stuff you see all the time. Another reason for Shella is that when I first began, with Flood, nobody was writing about child abuse as a concept. Now it's the plot device of the '90s. I mean, you can't pick up a crime book without seeing some reference to it, so I'm out further than when I started, intentionally so.

S: Do you think about your place in the book culture?

AV: Someone asked me once, 'cause I've won some literature prizes, "Well, how do you feel about Danielle Steel?" or something like that. I said, "Look, I'm not putting myself in any class of great writers, but I guess I feel pretty much the way John Lee Hooker would feel about Vanilla Ice." Because the test is going the distance, the test is 50 years from now: who's going to be reading it? Are they going to read flavor-of-the-month stuff or are they going to read actual literature? The wonderful thing about being with Knopf is that they really do have that sense.

S: Do you think Sonny really thinks Damage was a great piece of work?

AV: No comment. But I think Sonny is unfairly judged because people say he's entrepreneurial. Well, his entrepreneurialism has enabled the house to take chances. They don't give Sonny any credit for the guys that he publishes who nobody would touch. They don't give Sonny any credit for the risks he takes. They just say, "It's so tacky that he's interested in money." Well, kiss my ass. The fact is, the money that he makes for the house, makes a lot of those things possible. If he can sort of look sideways at a book and say, "All right, this isn't great American literature, but it has commercial value," why should he be excoriated for that? I prefer a free-fire zone. I prefer an open market. I would like everybody who thinks they're a writer to be published. I would like every single book that was published to be circulated. I would like to eliminate this nonsense about book reviews, and I would instead like book reviews to be honest, the way I am. I don't like certain kinds of stuff, so I don't review it. If I have a bias against Chandler-clone fiction, you won't catch me reviewing it.

S: Do you have the sense that you're going to create a body of work that will have a certain kind of completeness?

AV: I don't think so, because I'm really working all the time. I have lots of forums now, you know, whether it's the Journal of Psychohistory or Parade magazine. I'm trying to impact and get a result rather than simply memorialize some thing. If I had a wish, only one wish, it's that my books were finished. That would be it. That would be perfect. There are plenty of ways I would have a perfectly nice life chasing blondes, going to the race track, playing cards, shooting pool, but I picked work that can't be finished. And now it's the horse is riding me rather than the other way around.


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