Talking With ... Andrew Vachss
Originally posted at Pamela's Film and Entertainment Site
His prose is lean and stinging but full-bodied and often bloodied. The name of the (anti)hero who propels his novels is Burke—a man who's just about seen it all and maybe done a couple of things that make you think twice about him. But he's a good guy, Burke—flawed and complicated yet simple with his heart in the right place. . .if he'd admit to having a heart. Burke is the creation of Andrew Vachss.
Andrew Vachss. Sodomizers, child molesters, runaways turned streetwalkers, children who grow up real fast, murderers. He writes what he knows. You meet people like this when you've been a federal investigator in sexually transmitted diseases, a social caseworker, a labor organizer and a director of a maximum-security prison for youthful offenders. Critics have wondered if Burke is Vachss' alter-ego. Maybe. Maybe not.
His latest novel, Choice of Evil, finds Burke investigating a serial killer who targets gay bashers. In Burke's world, there's no line between black and white—it's all gray but it's crystal clear.
ANDREW VACHSS (AV): Andrew Vachss.
PAMELA'S FILM AND ENTERTAINMENT SITE (PV): Are you ready for our interview?
AV: Yes. I'm sorry that they had to change it. They've changed everything about 15 times.
PV: That's no problem. Quite frankly—and I hope you don't take this the wrong way—I probably would have been intimidated sitting with you face to face.
AV: I hope not but it's something other people have told me so I guess I have to accept it.
PV: I didn't mean it to be offensive.
AV: No, I wasn't offended. I don't want to go around intimidating non-enemies. (a small laugh)
PV: Just the enemies?
AV: Yeah, absolutely, sure.
PV: So I hear that Choice of Evil is being picked up—a film version is going to be made. How do you feel about that?
AV: I'm happy to have the money. More than that, I can't tell you because I can't speak for the plans of others.
PV: Have they approached you to adapt your own book?
PV: Would you prefer that?
AV: (pause) I would only prefer it if, in fact, they were to make the movie from it but I would not prefer to engage in an exercise of futility simply for the money.
PV: I've read reports where studios have been interested in optioning your books as films. . .
AV: Those reports are all false. I don't know how these rumors get started, but. . .I've never not had a book under option or purchased serially for, oh my goodness, over a decade.
PV: I just find it a little strange. I've read how you tend to tone down your work so that it's shocking but still not as shocking as the real life incidents or people that they're based upon.
AV: That's right.
PV: I'm just wondering how in movies, where everything tends to be diluted and toned down, that could pass.
AV: I don't have any insight at all into how they make movies and if it weren't for airplanes, I'd probably never watch one. (laughs) So I don't know how they would approach it. They paid a lot of money and they gave themselves very little time—it's a very short option.
PV: I wanted to know your opinion on what's been happening lately with the rash of teen killings in high schools.
AV: I don't know the sound bite answer for you. It's a complicated situation.
PV: I'm not expecting a sound bite answer.
AV: No, but what I'm saying is I've spent my entire life studying such things. By a sound bite answer, I probably mean anything less than a three-hour harangue. It's a complicated situation and not enough facts have come in yet for me to feel comfortable with saying anything except that it's clear to me that there's some element of one person's pathology metastasizing the other's. So that, independently, it's unlikely the same acts would have taken place.
PV: Speaking of pathology, when you're writing your books, how do you get yourself into the pathologies of the killers and the sodomizers and. . .
AV: Oh, that's simple. These are people I've met so it's not complicated.
PV: I'm trying to figure out how you come about to writing. . . I know you're motivated by the actual cases you come across but what is it about a particular case that makes you say, "OK, I want to write about this."
AV: I don't write about cases, I write about issues so those are quite different. What is it about incest that motivates me to try and make people angry enough to try and change the way we deal with it? Because, as far as I'm concerned, it's as great an abomination or an evil as has ever been created. I don't really much care what laws you follow—the laws of God, if you believe in God, the laws that people make for themselves or even the laws of nature—to violate your child violates those laws. And to treat such a violation as a lesser crime than shoplifting seems to me a form of societal insanity.
PV: You don't believe in rehabilitation at all?
AV: Sure I do. I broke my hand a bunch of times, it works fine now. It's been rehabilitated.
PV: A hand is different from a pedophile.
AV: Well, okay, but you're using terms very broadly. Rehabilitation—I believe for some people who commit some kinds of acts, rehabilitation is not only possible but probably pretty likely. I don't believe in rehabilitating pedophiles because pedophilia is just a state of mind. The acts themselves are not pedophilia—they're child molestation or they're rape or they're sodomy or they're assault and the people who do such crimes are not sick. That's the point of the book—it's a choice, a choice of evil. So I don't know how you rehabilitate people who feel just fine about what they do and regret only that they've been caught.
PV: When you read about a pedophile that's been released on parole and he says, 'OK, I'm in this town. There's Megan's Law so the townspeople are notified that I'm living in this town so what about my rights to privacy?'
AV: Does he have a right to camouflage?
PV: It's a right not to be verbally or emotionally abused by townspeople.
AV: I have no idea what that means. I'll tell you this—anybody who's arrested, it's a public record. Anybody who's convicted, it's a public record. Anybody who's paroled, it's a public record. I don't know what privacy you're talking about. This whole issue has been obfuscated by people who think they're civil libertarians but there is no, in fact, right to privacy concerning criminal convictions. You have to disclose them in all kinds of applications for all kinds of things—from buying a firearm to voting. I don't understand what right to privacy you're talking about.
PV: Maybe I'm just lacking in information myself but I've read that if a pedophile moves into your neighborhood you have to be apprised of that whereas for murderers, you're not being called up.
AV: There's no telephone provision to Megan's Law whatsoever. Essentially what it means is there's a certain level offense before there's what's known as community notification. The community notification essentially consists of if you want the information you can get it.
PV: So it's not a case of people being told so and so is moving into your neighborhood?
AV: It would depend if a predatory pedophile was released and it was a certain offense level and was moving next door to you, you would be notified, yeah.
PV: I would think that—and this is such an obvious thought—but wouldn't pedophiles just not be allowed to go back on the streets? Are they subjected to life incarceration?
AV: Nothing remotely similar to that.
PV: Nothing at all?
AV: There's a reason you have Megan's Law—a person who committed numerous atrocities against children was released and killed another. Had he not been released, there would be no such discussion. The correlation between the sentencing of people who commit crimes against children, short of homicide—because in homicide they don't have to worry about testimony—are actually quite light, especially because of nonsensical beliefs that "pedophilia" is a sickness and therefore we cure sicknesses.
PV: So they're just put into rehabilitation programs and undergo psychiatric treatments?
AV: Or supervised probations, sure.
PV: Just the fact that there isn't a maximum penalty for something like that is a little. . .
AV: There's a big difference between law and law enforcement. Penalties that exist are not necessarily the penalties you get for any crime, which is essentially what the whole criminal justice bargaining system is about.
PV: You've come across people that not most of us would normally not come across. Has there ever been anyone you've been intimidated by?
PV: Anybody who ever unsettled you? Nobody's surprised you?
AV: People surprise me constantly. People have, by their conduct, by their presence or by their language, revolted me, disgusted me, frightened me. . .
PV: Who's the most frightening person you've met?
AV: The name wouldn't mean anything to you.
PV: But the nature?
AV: A person who described, with obvious sexual excitement, the torture of other human beings.
PV: Do you think the anger is ever going to go away?
AV: Of course not. The day they go away, the anger will go away. Since I don't anticipate the former, I don't ever expect to see the latter.
PV: Has it lightened over the years?
AV: Oh, no, it's much worse.
PV: It's much worse?
AV: Sure, because when I first started, I thought that this was a very rare phenomenon. The first one I ever met, I said, "Oh my goodness, I've met Satan. There's nobody worse than this on the whole planet."
PV: So there was a naivete there, a sense that "I can't believe people like this exist"?
PV: And over the years, you've found worse and worse.
AV: That's correct.
PV: I'm trying to figure out how. . . Personally, I'm not going to kid you, if I ever came across something like that. . .I read it in your books and I've read it in reports, but to come face to face with it like you have, I don't think I could spend 20 years of my life being subjected to that.
AV: I don't know what to say to that. There are things that people find distasteful or disgusting or disturbing but the price of turning away from them means all this continues. So it's a choice.
PV: Is it ever turned off for you? You go into your office and you fight for your clients and write your books. Do you ever just go home and turn it off? Is it ever just turned off?
AV: I don't believe so.
PV: So it's with you practically every minute?
AV: I think so. I never. . . These are questions that concern other people, they don't concern me so I've never actually thought about them. But I don't recall a time when I'm not in some way focused on it.
PV: Do you ever look at your writing as art rather than as a means of communicating an issue or a cause?
AV: I look at it as a craft, not an art, which means I want to do it as well as I can to the highest possible standards. But art is a nonsensical term to me. It just means what you like as opposed to what somebody else likes.
PV: What is the standard for you in terms of your craft?
AV: Clarity, I suppose, more than anything else.
PV: Clarity in what?
AV: Clarity in communication.
PV: In communicating the issue at hand?
AV: In communicating the feelings and the text simultaneously.
PV: And does it come easily to you?
PV: When you say yes, define that yes, define how easily it comes to you.
AV: It's fairly seamless. I don't even know what something like writer's block is and that's because I'm overdosed with material. I have more material than I could ever write about.
PV: Have you ever felt that there was an issue that you wanted to tackle and that you have tackled, but you didn't quite tackle it to your standards?
AV: I've never tackled anything to my standards. If I tackled anything to my standards, I'd knock it out.
PV: Do you ever fool yourself into thinking you've not reached this standard yet so you can keep trying and trying and trying?
AV: I don't know how anybody can manage to measure something so ephemeral other than with silly adjectives, like how people say, "This one's a better painter" or "This one's a better musician" or "This one's a better actor." All they really say is "I like this one better." So they're reciting their personal taste. It's not a weightlifting contest where 100 pounds is more than 50 pounds. It is a world where Vanilla Ice sold more records than Muddy Waters. Certainly you're not going to tell me that Danielle Steel is a more important literary voice than Charles Dickens. But [she] outsells him so I don't know how to measure such things.
PV: Who are the literary voices that you like or gravitate to?
AV: Oh, it'd take weeks to give you a list like that. There's so much that I like and admire in contemporary writing. In fact, it distresses me that writers that I really like like Joe Lansdale or James Colbert or Chet Williamson, just to name off the top of my head a few, don't enjoy anywhere the recognition that their talent should bring. Which is why I can't talk in terms of being good at something.
PV: Would these be writers who are similar in tone to yours?
AV: No, no, no. Martha Grimes, who I admire tremendously, writes nothing at all like what I write about. Joe Lansdale's got an enormous narrative voice but has nothing to do with mine. No, no, no, it's not. I don't know people who write about what I do. I don't mean that child abuse hasn't all of a sudden become the plot device of the Nineties because it certainly has, but there's no standard I'm measuring myself against.
PV: You've been compared to Dashiell Hammett. . .
AV: Yeah, yeah.
PV: Do you enjoy his work?
AV: Sure, sure, I enjoy his work. He was a fine writer but I can't imagine what I'd have in common with him.
PV: I guess they're talking about the hardboiled style.
AV: You know, these people that talk about it wouldn't know it if it shot them. They write hardboiled books about revolvers with safeties on or people getting hit with tire irons and getting up five minutes later or the (practically sneers) perfect people who are handsome and smart and courteous and good-natured and always doing the right thing for the right reason—yeah, that's a lot of reality to that, sure. (laughs) Basically, pardon my language, people write silly nonsense and say "fuck" a lot of times and they say, "Wow, it's tough." Okay.
PV: But they don't know what they're talking about?
AV: I think not. I don't know what their life experience is, I know what mine is. I know what I've done and I try to write about what I know. I basically don't think virgins should be writing about sex scenes.
PV: Just to go back to your craft, do you find you're the kind of writer who can sit down at any moment and write out a page or two or ten?
AV: I actually don't have any choice since I have no schedule to write. I do the writing in my head and when I get the time, it's more typing than it is writing.
PV: Is there a lot of editing done on your books?
AV: No, there isn't.
PV: Not at all?
AV: I didn't say not at all because that would be an exaggeration. Editors will catch things. Hell, I didn't even know that there was a difference between toward and towards until I had an editor. (laughs) So to say there's no editing is unfair but if you mean somebody making plot suggestions, no.
PV: When you're writing and rereading what you've written, do you ever think, "That line. That's a good line. That's a well-written line." Do you look at it more objectively than subjectively?
AV: I say, "Boy, that line is a clunker." And I toss it. I try and be skeletal about my writing. I try and prune it so that it's clean. I'm much more likely to look it over with an eye towards what I can throw out over what I can pat myself on the back over.
PV: What's the biggest misconception you think there is about you?
AV: There are so many. (laughs) I don't know what would be in first place.
PV: What's your favorite misconception about you?
AV: That I'm either an ex-convict or writing these novels from prison. I guess that's wild. (laughs)
PV: Do you find that flattering though?
AV: No. I find it flattering when somebody writes from prison and says, "You're speaking the truth. You're speaking with my voice." But I find it equally flattering when somebody who's been through a horrific experience says that I'm speaking for them. But any time anyone says. . .you know, it's like the blues: the highest praise you can shout from the audience is, "That's the truth." So that would be the highest compliment that I would receive, sure.
PV: But it's a truth that's not always well-received. I would think that. . .
AV: Well, what truth that you know is always well-received? (laughs)
PV: (laughs) Right, but in terms of how pedophiliacs would receive it. I would think that you would have gotten dissenting opinions or threats.
AV: I've never gotten a dissenting opinion from pedophiles. What I get is. . .I get hate mail, of course, and I get threats but even NAMBLA [North American Man-Boy Love Association] reviewed one of my books and said, "This guy's our enemy, hates us but he's certainly accurate in his portrayal of how we behave and the conversations that he's got have an absolute ring of authenticity." None of them have ever said that I've misrepresented them. Indeed, more extreme freaks understand my hatred but my position is very close to theirs. In other words, they, too, say they're not sick. They, too, say this is their own choice. They say, of course, it's society's ignorance that's keeping little children from having sex. But they don't deny for a second that that's their goal and that's their reason to exist.
PV: But I would think that because, if your purpose in writing the books is to help stop what you're writing about, that pedophiles, as much as they say you understand their psyche and their goal and their desire, that they would say you're trying to stop that.
AV: Yes, but you were talking about authenticity [before]. You weren't talking about. . . . I'm on the hate list of the International Pedophile Liberation Front. It's posted on their website.
PV: There is such a thing?
AV: Yes, ma'am. See that's the whole point—yes, there's such a thing. The International Pedophile Liberation Front and there's the North American Man-Boy Love Association and there's Uncommon Desires and there's the Pedophile International Exchange. I could go on for a long, long time. These are organized groups with fundraising for lobbying. Their issue is not authenticity. They understand that I'm their enemy. I understand they're mine. This is not news to either of us, but it's not a literary criticism.
PV: You've received death threats?
AV: Oh, sure. (laughs) But of course!
PV: Well, of course, yes, but you're also laughing about it.
AV: Of course, I'm laughing about it because what else can I do? It's not like anybody's signing their names. I get "You're a dead man" kind of phone calls, too. I take the threats very seriously. I try to protect myself and then other people try and protect me and obviously they've been very successful. But any little geek with access to email can send somebody a threat. If I was to have my heart stop every time I got one, then I'd just live in a cardiac ward.
PV: I suppose after a couple of decades you would be inured to that.
AV: I'm not inured to anything. What I know is this: the people who are really committed to hurting you don't send announcements. People who are intimidating you or attempting to do so are the ones sending the announcements.
PV: From when you started out to right now, do you think anything has changed?
AV: There's been more progress in the last 30 years than there's been in the previous 300. If you read newspapers cover to cover in the Fifties in any city, in any state for a whole year, you'd conclude that no child was ever abused. Journalism didn't talk about it, it didn't have any place in the budget, it didn't have any place in the crimefighting scheme. The progress has been enormous but there's a huge way to go, but I think substantial, significant change. . . My profession didn't even exist 30 years ago. If you said you were a lawyer who exclusively represented children, they'd look at you like you were a lunatic.
PV: Any vices?
AV: I'm not sure what you would call a vice.
PV: Smoking, drinking, gambling.
AV: Those are vices to you? (laughs)
PV: Well, in the conventional. . .
AV: Is this a Christian website or something?
AV: How about sex? Is that a vice?
PV: I guess it could be considered one, right?
AV: But not by me.
PV: Not by me either.
AV: So, I don't know what you'd call a vice.
PV: Things you shouldn't indulge in according to society.
AV: Society that manufactures cigarettes and sells liquor and advertises both?
PV: There you go.
AV: Now I'm really confused. Are you asking me if I'm a narcotics addict?
AV: (laughs) I'm saying I'm not sure.
PV: People would consider smoking an addiction. They call it an addiction and they try to give it up. OK, do you smoke?
PV: Do you drink?
PV: On what?
AV: The outcome of events. I wouldn't go to a casino or play a slot machine, but I certainly bet on horse races or boxing matches.
PV: Any hobbies? Besides gambling?
AV: Gambling's not even a hobby because I don't have the time. Probably if I had time, I would gamble more. When I was younger, I certainly did.
PV: Just to clear it up, how do you pronounce your last name?
AV: Like it rhymes with ax.
For more information on Choice of Evil and Vachss' book tour, please visit his official website The Zero.
To view the original article, click here.