Interview: Andrew Vachss, Author
Thomas Scott McKenzie's article about meeting Andrew Vachss, as posted at SlushPile.net on September 2, 2005
It's 93 degrees, with high humidity that chokes like a punch in the throat. I sit in the car, sweating, unable to turn on the ignition, just needing to digest. Part of me wants to call every friend I know and another part of me wants to go mute, to withhold speech for days, just to keep this experience to myself. Part of me just does not want to write this article. Part of me wonders if I can do it justice.
Andrew Vachss worked with the US Public Health Service and the Department of Social Services. He supervised prisoners in state mental hospitals and had day-to-day management responsibilities for special a maximum security institution. He researched and served as a national consultant on the connections between child abuse and juvenile delinquency. And those are just some of his many experiences because the full resume, impressive as it is, can't be presented in its entirety. Beginning in 1976, he launched a private legal practice concerning children and youth.
He's also written a truckload of amazing books. Author of two graphic novels, a collection of essays, two legal texts, two short story collections, and twenty novels, he's a driven individual and quite possibly the most intense human being you will ever meet.
As will become obvious, I am a fan of Andrew Vachss' work and have been for years. I admit that upfront because it will soon be apparent that my admiration for his work had a great deal of influence on how I approached this conversation and the subsequent article. Idol worship usually doesn't make for the best interviews. But in this case, we'll just have to go with it because this is a piece not just about some author out on tour supporting a book. The local newspapers are full enough of articles by disinterested entertainment reporters asking "do you write on a computer or typewriter" if that's the kind of rote, mundane thing you'd like to read. Instead, this piece is about a fan meeting an idolized author, and then struggling to sum up the experience.
If you're going to be turned off by my admiration of the man's literary and life's work, then feel free to leave now and find some crap where the interviewer's key question is "so who do you think would be the hero in a movie version?"
You don't so much interview Andrew Vachss as you start the tape and hold on. It's like stepping between the ropes with a skilled prizefighter and when they ring the bell, he just starts whipping your ass and it seems like he has four arms and all you can do is cover up and try to protect yourself. None of which is to say that Vachss is unpleasant or rude. Quite the contrary in fact. But he doesn't pull any punches. He puts you on the spot and lets you squirm.
The reality is that he's interviewing you as much as you interview him. He's sizing you up, asking you questions, putting you on the spot. And as a fan and admirer, of course, you desperately want to earn his respect.
Pre-planned questions and interview scripts are abandoned the way an over-matched boxer drops his guard and forgets the fight strategy. All you do is go along for the ride, struggle to draw out the match as possible, and try to score some points when you can.
This is a website about writing, where we talk about the craft. We discuss writing strategies, techniques, and tips for publication. But somehow, sitting across the table from Vachss, I feel like I'd be an idiot to talk about comma placement and dangling participles. "I don't study the craft of writing and I won't pretend that I have," he says. "However, I study effectiveness in every aspect of my life. I don't care if it's a jury argument, an appellate brief, a short story, a nonfiction article, full length novel. I am bound to get it as good as I can get it." And if he has to pore over the novel "with a scalpel fifty times so I can take out a comma that shouldn't be there, I'm up for that job."
The image I have of Vachss as a writer is not some artistic type sitting at a cafe in Paris and not some tweedy professor in an ivy-covered college building. Instead, I picture him as a master craftsman, working on a custom built car engine, obsessing and sweating over a measurement that is less than a thousandth of an inch. Such a huge amount of work, focused on such small items, that makes a huge impact on the performance. "I'm in pursuit of what cannot be achieved: perfection," he says.
Here's an example of how he cuts off the angle in the ring, pins you against the ropes, and ends up interviewing you. I mention some experiences I had and some places I frequented. We discuss those experiences. Later in the conversation, I mention another writer's work. Vachss makes it a point to not comment on other writer's books. Then he asks if I think this writer gets the truth in his books. He's not passing judgment or offering any opinion, he is simply asking me a question. "If you've been to these places you say you have, then you tell me if he shows the truth," he says. What Vachss doesn't know is that this writer is an acquaintance of mine. A friend even.
Burke, the main character in 15 of Vachss' novels, is known for his ability to just sit, emotionless for hours. Burke is well aware the power of patience and silence. He will not break. But most people, even the cops interrogating him, will eventually give in to the pressure of silence. Vachss knows this as well. He stares at me and waits for my answer.
The fact of the matter is that I can't defend my friend's depiction. My friend isn't portraying the truth. But do I have the guts to turn on a friend and admit that to Vachss? Or do I stick up for my buddy, when both of us know it's a lie?
He doesn't make it easy on me.
Vachss' work brings him into contact with many aspects of mankind that we would rather not address. So he learns of things before we do. And he reports them to an audience that often is not ready to listen. In 1973, Vachss wrote a novel called A Bomb Built in Hell about a disturbed young man who enters a suburban high school with a duffle bag full of weapons and tries to pile up a body count before taking his own life. Critics said that could never happen. In 1987, Vachss wrote about pedophiles using modems to traffick in child pornography. Reviewers scoffed at the book and called it a "perverted fantasy."
Now, he goes it alone. But he had an agent once, years ago, before he ever published a novel. The John Schaffner Agency spent years encouraging Vachss in spite of the rejections that piled up. Never making a dime, their support was undying. Often, publishers, editors, agents, and writers lament the pressures of the contemporary industry and how certain things are no longer possible. I ask if the industry today allows an agent to show this same kind of unflappable, unflinching support of an author through years of rejections. An intense look takes over Vachss' face. "Does the industry allow ethics? Does the industry allow people to have commitment? Yeah, I think so," he says. "It was Victor Chapin who was my particular personal agent who just threw himself at the barbed wire just time after time because he believed in me. Is that not allowed all of a sudden?" He pauses. "Why can't somebody believe in what they do?"
That patience shows up again. He waits for me to respond. And I realize that although we are talking about the publishing industry, with his comment about believing in a life's work, Vachss means much more than just books.
Many times, we as writers struggle in balancing the need to do the laundry, take the kids to soccer practice and still work on our short story. Vachss is a man unconcerned with children's games because he is focused on saving their lives. "The writing is an organic extension of my work. And so there's no balance. It's a spinning wheel and it just depends on what numbers are coming up on a particular day," he says. "My life is triage."
Vachss doesn't approach the publishing business like most authors. "I don't take advances for my books. I don't sign contracts for my books. I write a book. I turn it in. The publisher says yes or the publisher says no," he says. The hectic, triage nature of his life and his imposing commitment to integrity makes contracts and publishing deals impossible. "A contract is your word and a contract is a deadline. I never missed a deadline in my life. Period."
So no deals. Instead, taking nothing for granted, he writes the book and submits it. "You gotta prove yourself with every fight," he says. "You can't bring your record into the ring with you."
Vachss is obsessed with the truth. It drives his writing, his love of blues music, his legal work, and it seems his entire life. Two Trains Running is described as an ode to journalism. But unfortunately, much of today's journalism industry seems to have lost sight of what's important. "Journalism isn't supposed to be about writing, it's supposed to be about reporting. It's not supposed to be about who can turn the cleverest phrase or who can make the cutest puns. Who can do the most obscure allusions to literary figures or Japanese movies," he says. "Truth is the only thing that counts."
Which brings me to this moment of self-examination. What would Andrew Vachss think of the way I'm presenting this piece? Wouldn't the truth just be to transcribe the tape? Just show the words on the page, uncut and unedited and unfiltered, and delete these other musings? Is this just me, amping up this article, trying to do justice to the experience of meeting a hero? Would he feel I am focusing on the "art" of this piece and potentially sacrificing the truth?
Yes, he probably would.
But I also think there is another important aspect to coming into contact with Andrew Vachss. It seems to me that he exposes you to the truth, that he puts you on the spot, that he interviews you, all of these things, so that he can affect some change in you. It is the reason he writes, after all. Although I may be adding some unnecessary commentary to this article, I feel like Vachss would consider it a waste of time if I just regurgitated his words. I don't believe he's arrogant enough to walk away from our interview, chuckling to himself "I affected that young man." He wouldn't think that. But I do believe that's his goal in life. To change as many people as he can.
He wants educated, thoughtful, active people. People who look beneath the obvious and who wrestle with experience. And so, in that way, I think I'm going about this in the right way. I could just transcribe the tape, do the standard "he started writing when..." and "he gets his ideas from..." and "is there a film deal?..." method of interview here. But it just doesn't seem right.
"I think people should be consumers of journalism. They fuss endlessly about the damn wristwatch they're going to buy," he says. "You know, who's got the best wristwatch, what's the most value for the money, what keeps the best time, what impresses the ladies the most. All this effort into a wristwatch or a car or a suit. But when it comes to truth, the effort is not made. It's too much trouble."
So I do think, hope, my examination of this experience is better than just going through the motions with half-hearted interest.
In a conversation with friend and fellow author Joe R. Lansdale, Vachss said his goal with Two Trains Running was to get people to quit being "so damned passive." Once again, he was talking about a book, but I think he meant much more than that.
Vachss is a utilitarian man, more interested in performance, efficiency, and effectiveness than being pretty.. He won't deny any one else their pleasure at 22 inch rims or neon undercarriages on their car. If they like MTV's Pimp My Ride then so be it. But it's not for him. "Building a mechanical device for its appearance is like putting lace on a bowling ball," he says.
Determined to remove point of view, opinion, and bias from Two Trains Running, Vachss presents a novel with no exposition and no introspection. And uses 500 pages to exhaustively detail a period of two weeks in 1959. "This book is a series of surveillance opportunities for the reader," he says. Critics say that experiencing this novel is like "reading a movie" and getting that structure right tormented Vachss. Working on this book harder than any other novel, "I went the whole ten rounds with the structure," he says.
And that scalpel for comma image comes to my mind again as he points out that he honed and slaved over "every word in this book. Nothing came by divine inspiration and nothing was an accident," he says. As an example, the names in the novel are all meaningful. The novel's setting is Locke City and "gamblers will tell you when something is a sure thing, it's a mortal lock. So when they say something is lock city, they mean it's in the bag." Walker Dett is a hired killer, a master technician, and he literally is a walking debt. Cyn, Beau, Proctor, Whisper, and other names are meaningful of their character's role in the book. Characters that do not feature obviously symbolic names usually carry multiple names depending on the environment in which they find themselves.
The name Locke City is also appropriate for reasons that harkens back to Vachss' entire body of work. At first glance, Two Trains Running seems so expansive in scope as opposed to some of his earlier work. The town is controlled by a dominate gang of mountain-men but they're being pressured by an invading crime syndicate. The Emmett Till lynching adds fuel to a nascent black revolutionary movement while a neo-Nazi organization prepares for what later supremacy movements while call RAHOWA. Juvenile gangs fight to the death over worthless pieces of turf while a sinister and shadowy group provides both sides with weapons. Rounding out the mix is an IRA unit and a Mafia family fighting for their share. With so much action in Locke City, obviously the FBI has their eye on everything. It is 1959 after all. And even the G-Men aren't immune from predators.
While this cast of characters seems to be of epic proportions when compared to Vachss' other work, it is just an extension of the prison culture he has always documented. For years, he has shown how all the various groups in prison fight when they have to, do business together when they have to, band together when they have to, and no alliance can every be fully trusted. This novel takes those same circumstances and just expands the scale while the name, Locke City provides a reminder to the prison depictions of past books.
In prison, as in Locke City, somebody is always watching and they have their own agendas. "And sometimes their agenda is that the gangs fight," Vachss says. "Because on a logical basis, you'd say 'well, if all of us fought together, we have a common enemy, we would act collectively.' However, if you are the common enemy, the last thing you want is them acting collectively. That's the paradigm without question."
And it is that paradigm that Vachss wants you to question, investigate, and learn about after reading this novel. Woven into the fictional plot are little-known historical facts about Emmett Till, Al Capone, the 1960 Presidential Election, and other seminal events that still affect our lives today. Vachss wants you to look beyond the headline, to peer under the party-line, to examine the full story. And, as said earlier, to "stop being so damned passive."
"I didn't write this book about conspiracies, this isn't the damn Da Vinci Code or anything like that. I wrote it about confluences and coalitions and how they ebb and flow depending on perceived need," Vachss says. "What you're seeing now in our society is the leaves. But I'm showing you the roots."
Although he realizes that it doesn't often happen, Vachss is very much aware of the power of coalitions and uniting against a common enemy. "I once represented the entire population of the New Jersey State prison system in an action against the parole board," he says. "And I had the Aryan Brotherhood sitting next to the Nation of Islam, not arguing. Because trust me, when it comes to the parole board, that transcended all their other stuff."
Unity, combined-focus, and single-minded determination is something Vachss seeks in his work protecting America's children. I don't know how Vachss feels about the goals of the NRA, but he has said repeatedly that he admires the effectiveness their focus brings. "They don't care if you're Beelzebub, they want to know how you stand on the one issue," he says. In a 2000 interview with Annia Ciezadlo for Shout magazine, Vachss said "The people who care about kids are not focused. They are not a single-issue constituency, and unlike the people who care about, say, guns. Or the people who care about, say, not allowing abortion. Those people are hyper-focused. Those people represent a deliverable bloc of votes with which any politician can be threatened. No politician is threatened by the child protective constituency, because it does not exist."
Vachss is realistic about the chances of success in publishing. "The lie is that writing is a meritocracy. The lie is that the cream rises to the top. The truth is that it's a crap shoot. It's a blind leech in a muddy swamp that swims along until it gets lucky and strikes a vein so it has some blood to suck on," he says. "It's not a fist-fight. It's not a weightlifting contest. It's not a sprint. It's not any 'may the best man win' because there is no objective standard for judging writing. At all."
He is even realistic about his own position and career. In spite of a string of successes, he's aware that if Two Trains Running "tanks, they may not want another book from me. I believe my publisher has shown a great deal of faith in me over a lot of years but I'm not prepared to be so arrogant to say that the long-term literary value of my work would compensate them for a financial failure," he says. "I take it that this is a business."
While many people, particularly aspiring authors, might lament and complain about the harsh, chaotic industry described in that statements, Vachss returns to his bedrock: work. It's the work, the fight, the struggle, the resilience, the effort, the vocation, the sparring, the bruises, the scars, and the wounds overcome. The other stuff doesn't matter so much. "The idea that you're not a writer until you're published is a lie," he says. "The idea that you are a writer because you're published is also a lie."
It's about the work and the effort, regardless of the response. He mentions his work protecting children, struggling to close idiotic legal loopholes, and galvanize public attention to the horrors our kids face every day. He acknowledges that he won't see the ultimate fruits of his labor. "I'm swimming upstream," he says. "I'm just trying to create a wake for others."
We laugh, joke, and as the interview comes to a close, I'm battered but I like to think I performed well in the ring. He pats me on the back and I like to think I earned a certain amount of respect.
After walking Vachss out, I go back to the table to pay the bill. Several pretty young waitresses come over to me and ask "who was that man?" During our conversation, they all passed by and depending on the moment, they caught bits of discussions of child abuse, writing, the publishing industry, blues music, genocide in Africa, prison culture, legislation, horse racing, the Edgar Ray Killen trial, syphilis, and God only knows what else. I try to answer their question, but realize it would take all day tell these girls who Andrew Vachss is.
The quote from the Shoutmagazine article was taken from The Zero — The Official Website of Andrew Vachss. Web page accessed on 1, September 2005.
The article was written by Annia Ciezadlo and originally published in Shout magazine, January, 2000
Some background information about Vachss was compiled from Andrew Vachss: Autobiographical Essay in Contemporary Authors, Volume 214, 2003. The essay is presented on The Zero — The Official Website of Andrew Vachss. Web page accessed on 1, September 2005.
The photo of Vachss is from the official Two Trains Running website
Please visit Vachss' official website, The Zero, for more information about his work.