TSF: Let's start with the genesis of Burke. How did you create the character and start to write the novels?
Vachss: I wrote these novels essentially out of a failure of my previous published work, which was non-fiction. By failure, I mean simply in terms of small jury pull. I worked a long time in my particular trade. I fancied that I knew some information that was valuable, that should be shared, and I wrote nonfiction. I wrote articles, and then I wrote what I hoped would be a real definitive text about juvenile violence. What I got was wonderful reviews and virtually no circulation. So the idea was to rephrase it in almost a Trojan horse fashion: wrap it in sufficient narrative force so that people would be motivated to read to the end, and call it a novel. That was the genesis.
TSF: Considering that the primary motivation for your writing is to educate people about juvenile violence, aren't you afraid of some people reading you for the sizzle and not the steak, so to speak?
Vachss: Of course, but I'm not afraid of it. I take it as a fact. The books are in seventeen languages; they have lots and lots of readers. Some percentage of people are gonna read them for entertainment, some for enlightenment, some for titillation—who knows? I'm not the thought police. I don't believe anyone should determine how other people access material, whether it's art or science. So I have no fear about it. I accept it. That's what's gonna happen.
TSF: Before Burke, you wrote a novel called A Bomb Built in Hell with a different protagonist—a protagonist who I think was killed off by Burke in Hard Candy—named Wesley.
Vachss: Well, he was ostensibly killed off, although there's no evidence he's actually dead, and he certainly wasn't killed by Burke.
TSF: Why did you abandon Wesley in favor of Burke?
Vachss: It wasn't so much that it didn't work out in my mind; it's that virtually an entire decade worth of publishers said it didn't work out. Wesley is a dangerous sociopath. Telling it from his point of view, in the third person, simply didn't give me enough access to the interior monologues that were necessary, 'cause he's not an introspective person, and the original book was perceived as just being too horrible and violent. I was also running across a cultural time phenomena. When I originally began to write about this stuff, I would get these sort of schizophrenic letters from publishers saying, 'Yeah, it's brilliant work, bopbopbop, but the material's impossible. There isn't—how can you talk about child abuse this way, or incest?' Well, obviously, no one takes that view any longer. So there's an increasing climate of acceptance to that sort of material. So it's really a combination of those things. Wesley's an utterly humorless creature, almost a robot killing machine. Burke is a much more complex creature, and he just proved to be a more valuable sort of messenger. But there's a joke within (his name)—the very term, 'burke' comes from the infamous British grave snatchers and murderers Burke and Hare, and one of the archaic meanings of the word burke is to strangle without leaving marks. It was malice aforethought; I didn't have some sort of artistic epiphany.
TSF: Perhaps the most intriguing quote I ever heard from you is, 'to have the thoughts is sick; to act on them is evil.' Where is the point of no return for a man, when he becomes a freak in your eyes?
Vachss: The activity, to me, is the point of no return. I don't believe that it's possible to police people's fantasies and their internal productions. I believe that if we could, most of us would be doing time. Who hasn't had a homicidal thought just riding the subway, for God's sake. Right? So I distinguish between pedophile, which is a state of mind, and predatory pedophile, which is a state of activity. Since I believe that there is a distinction, you cross that line by choice, by volition. I don't think there can be unconscious evil.
TSF: Yet you've written a story called "Cripple," where it appears that a pederast is killed for designing a computer game to act out his fantasies on.
Vachss: Well, he's actually killed by a mercenary for reasons that are not known. But you're right—I deliberately intended to create debate and dialogue around the First Amendment absolutist issue. It is my position that kiddie pornography is a photograph of a crime. Unlike any other so-called pornography, it's over the line simply because there is no possibility that the victims—not participants, victims—consented. People don't understand kiddie pornography. They simply don't understand its sort of retro-utility to freaks. It's not designed to stimulate them. They don't need any stimulation. A freak can look at a catalog of kid's athletic equipment and get excited. What it's designed to do is two things. The first thing it does is validates them. It tells them that others are similarly engaged. It's also designed to desensitize victims. Standard pedophile operation mode is to have kids over to the house, show them such photographs and video tapes, because kids are among the most peer pressure-driven of all humans. The message is that other people do this, it's okay. So it's got a particular pernicious use. When you add all that to the fact that it requires victims for its creation, I think it's outside the First Amendment.
TSF: It's more a tool than a statement.
Vachss: Absolutely. But it's also a crime scene photo. There's a lot of the justification crap in the arts. Somebody writes a book about torturing women and how much fun it is, and he says, 'Well, I'm really trying to make a point about yuppism.' Well, fine. I remember years ago, Eldridge Cleaver wrote some book and he said he raped a white woman to make a statement about racism. He raped a white woman because he was a racist? He raped a white woman because he was a rapist. The Devil can quote the scriptures, so anybody can turn around and say, 'I'm making a statement.' There's a big- time evil freak who actually published a magazine containing photographs of children that were—
TSF: Pure, I think.
Vachss: You got it, you got it. Now what do you say, was that art? That was a deliberate attempt to celebrate the torture of infants. Now does this guy have the guts to say, 'Okay, I'm a freak and this gets me off'? No. He runs and hides and says it's an artistic statement. The bottom line is this: I don't care what adults do to each other, for each other, with each other, I don't feel it's any of my business. Kids are supposed to be protected. People who deliberately violate them—I don't care whether they do it in the name of art or science or fun—are my enemy and they should be yours.
TSF: Do you think your status as a well-known author has helped or hindered your advocacy?
Vachss: Neither. I think it's a sword that really cuts two ways. I was a much more effective investigator years ago. I just don't have the ability to go places that I did.
TSF: Because you now have a notable face.
Vachss: Exactly. On the other hand, it's given me opportunities that I never would have had. I got to debate the attorney general in Milan, Italy about child abuse because of the books. I got to speak to large audiences in Australia because of the books. I got to address the media in Holland because of the books. So it's done for me far more than it's cost me.
TSF: All the Burke novels have ultra-tight continuity. There's a reference to Shella in Hard Candy, and she's the focus of the next novel. Virgil is mentioned in passing in Flood, and we see his family show up in Blossom. How much of Burke's life do you have mapped out?
Vachss: The truth is it (the Burke novels) is all one book. These are chapters. Because they're so damn long, they're called books. It's one book, so in terms of continuity, it better be there. It's not a typical genre series in which the character never ages, never changes, and simply gets confronted with a variety of set pieces to which he or she reacts. Of course, you take risks. The Burke in Sacrifice is not the Burke of Flood.
TSF: Sacrifice is a much more episodic novel.
Vachss: Well, you have a person who's just about lost control of himself. Too many tragedies, too little ability to absorb them. Sure.
TSF: Sacrifice seems to be addressing the problem of the transgenerational nature of juvenile violence, i.e. if a father abuses his son, that son will grow up to abuse his sons.
Vachss: I am talking about the transgenerational nature of trauma, but I reject your end statement. I do believe implicitly, due to my experience, that evil is choice. Prior child abuse may impel in that direction, but it doesn't compel. I personally know of people who have suffered as you cannot imagine a P.O.W. suffering who, rather than abuse children, have refused to imitate their oppressors and gone on to protect them. People talk about generational stuff, but the truth is that it always comes down to choice. It always does and it always will. If we reject choice, we might as well write a 'Get Out of Jail Free' card to every child molester in the country, 'cause I've not met one yet that didn't have that sort of activity in his or her background. Explanation is not justification. What Sacrifice is about is the idea that, if you attempt to revenge yourself secondarily, you force sacrifices upon people who have not volunteered to make them. Burke's an abused child, a badly abused child who's just simmering with rage. If you'd listen to his heart, you'd hear 'tick ... tick ... tick.' But he can do nothing about those who abused him, and eventually this boils over, so in an attempt to fight child abuse in this sort of broad rubric, he ends up taking out somebody who's completely innocent, and will suffer for that for the rest of his life—however short that may be. It's a double-edged sword, as always. People sacrifice for their children in the same society where people sacrifice their children.
TSF: There's a sub-plot in this book about Wolfe, where she has some problems with inter-office politics.
Vachss: (Laughing) Yeah.
TSF: Was that a reaction to what was going on with your wife at the time?
Vachss: My friend, I wrote that book before my wife got fired.1 Think about it—you're reading a paperback. The book came out in hardcover a year before that, and was obviously written a year before that. If you read the books thoroughly, you'll see that numerous things that are said in the books as, quote, sort of predictions (unquote), have happened. Strega smoked crack in 1985. In fact, one of the reasons my first novel was rejected ... one publisher said, 'Look, I can put up with a certain amount of fantasy, but the idea of Chinese youth gangs is absurd.' Of course, that was in 1973. There's stuff you can see on the street that won't filter through to literature for ten or fifteen years, so if you attempt to act journalistically about it, you're always gonna take that risk. But yeah, my wife did finally get fired in a political jihad. We're not done with that particular series of incidents yet.
TSF: In the last few years, your work has begun to be discovered by horror fans. How do you feel about this new audience?
Vachss: It probably came out of a quote that I gave years ago, when I said—and I meant it complimentarily, although it was taken wrong—that Stephen King doesn't know crap about horror. I didn't mean he wasn't a great horror writer, [or that] he wasn't successful. What I meant was there's a hell of a lot of difference between monsters in the basement and shapechanging and stuff, and the horror of incest, or the horror of child abuse. The amount of horror that such a child suffers goes way beyond any ghosts and goblins. I think that what I am writing about is horror, but it's not fantasy horror. I know that there are people in the horror field who think I should stay out of it, but since that's not unique—there's also people in the crime field that think I should stay out of it—I just have to live with it. I think that horror is a fact of life for far too many children and a memory for far too many adults, so there's no way to—I'm glad if people discover something, even if they dislike it, as long as they deal with it in some way and continue to debate, I'm happy.
TSF: You've also been tagged with the 'dark suspense' label. How do you feel about that?
Vachss: I don't know what that means. If you're talking about Joe Lansdale, I know what it means. That's clear. There are people who have almost defined that genre. I don't know what it means, but I know that people are horribly uncomfortable without labels. If you go to the public library to find my books, you'll see they don't have the skull and crossbones2 on them. They're books. I think that if you read—and I am not in any way comparing myself to such people—Dickens today, you'd say he was writing crime or he was writing horror. I don't think that loading a book up with a whole lot of illusions to Greek mythology makes it great literature, nor do I think that if you write in a gutbucket style which is reflective of the way your people actually speak, that it's not.
TSF: I think that some of the works of Jim Thompson or James Cain are as valid, if not more so, than material considered literature in their time.
Vachss: I agree, I agree, and I think they withstood the test of time—and that's the real test. Fifty years from now, if the books are still extant, and people are still discussing and reading them, it survived for some reason. Right now, who knows? I feel that my job is to do the best that I can, take the best shot I can, and the reviewers can do whatever reviewers do.
TSF: You're also involved in a project with Dark Horse comics called Hard Looks. How did this project gestate?
Vachss: They approached me outta the blue and said, 'Would you like to do comics?,' and I said no. I don't—Spiderman? Superhero stuff? I don't wanna do that. They said, 'No, how about if we got some really fine writers and some great artists and we adapt your short material, which has, by its nature, limited circulation, into the new format.' I said, 'What's in it for me and what do I have to do?' They gave me two things. One, they gave me a new audience to hit that I haven't hit. Two, they donate a percentage to child protective agencies of my choice. So I said let's try it, and we tried an experimental story that was published in one of their anthologies.
TSF: "Placebo," in Dark Horse Presents.
Vachss: Right. The reaction to that was kind of overwhelming. I didn't really expect that response. So we went ahead, and we've been doing this series. They've given me such superb writers—Charles de Lint, Joe Lansdale, Neal Barrett, Jim Colbert, Chet Williamson—these guys are really superior.
TSF: And some great artists as well; David Lloyd is one of my favorite artists.
Vachss: I love his stuff, too. Harry Morris, Geoff Darrow ... we've got such a long list of people. I'm sort of shocked they were willing to do this, 'cause it's hard work and it doesn't pay very well. They're only doing three, four, five, six pages. Right now I'm more than satisfied because I've gotten letters from people who say, 'I've never read your books, never heard of you, but I read comics. Now I'm gonna read your books.'
TSF: I understand you've run into some distribution problems with the earlier books.
Vachss: Well, what happened was this. I'll try to make this brief, 'cause it's so disgusting. I had a publisher for all my paperbacks. All my books went into paperback, and all of them got published. One of my paperbacks, Strega, was used by the publisher to promote an entirely different author. They took Strega, removed the bar code, took off the price, put 'Free Gift Edition' on it, shrunk- wrapped it to the other book and, when you looked at the other book it said, 'Buy this book and get Strega by Andrew Vachss for free.' I was not happy. Everybody called in their lawyers, and the rights reverted. So now that former publisher doesn't have the rights to Strega, Blue Belle, or Hard Candy. Well, until I make a new deal these books have gone dead zone. They're legally out of print; there's no way to get them (unless) people are bootlegging the stupid things. So I'm in a position of having a greater potential audience than I've ever had and not being able to satisfy them. I hope to remedy that [very soon]. Make a final deal and be done with it. It was screwed up by the movie thing with Paramount. Once they bought the rights to Blue Belle, the first publisher said I was trying to get (the rights) away from them because, when the movie came out, there'd be so many books sold. It's all been a lot of nonsense.
TSF: What can you tell about your forthcoming novel, Shella?
Vachss: Shella is not in the Burke series.
TSF: But it is within the same universe, judging from the allusion you made to her in Hard Candy.
Vachss: It's deeper. The underground of that universe. It's the most hard-core, difficult book I've ever written. It was a very hard book to write, and a very nasty book, although, I hope, the best I've done. I took a lot of risks with it. When my publisher first looked at it, called me up and said, 'You're either going win the Pulitzer Prize or you're gonna get banned.' So it's one or the other here. I haven't made a decision about when to release it yet, so I've just sort of been waiting on it, trying to sort through all the other stuff.
TSF: How much groundwork do you do before you start a new novel?
Vachss: I don't have to do any groundwork. Yeah. I mean, if I just go to my files and put covers on them and call them books, they would make the books that actually emerge seem like Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. There's no shortage of ugliness. I will never, ever, have to search for a plot device.
TSF: Will there ever be a time when Burke will feel safe?
Vachss: There may not be another Burke novel, so I don't know how to answer that. I left him in the last book literally contemplating suicide. I haven't decided how to resolve that. My guess is no. Burke is not going to go to a twelve step program and forgive his abusers and buy a house and get married. It's not in the cards for him. No.
TSF: Are there any other last words you wish to leave us with?
Vachss: No. It's very simple for me. I may not write good books; that's up to you. I write them for a good reason, and that's up to me.