By Jon F. Merz
Andrew Vachss doesn't pull punches—thankfully. Despite having to suffer through some of my initially badly–worded questions,Vachss dealt out an enormous amount of wisdom and knowledge about his writing career and the business as a whole. If you've never saved an interview from Planet Pulp before, you ought to damn well print this one out and tack it to the board in your office. Vachss is the author of the best–selling Burke novels. His latest (not a Burke book) THE GETAWAY MAN, is now in stores everywhere.
PPM: How long did it take for you to develop a large audience for your Burke novels?
AV: I don't really like adjectival questions, because they don't communicate well ... 'large' means something different to different people. I'm not trying to be hostile, but you might ask me that question, and I might say, "oh two weeks" because I think a pretty large audience is 50,000 people. You may think a large audience is a million people, so in effect, I've lied to you. So if you rephrase the question ...
PPM: Okay, did your publisher consider your first book a success in terms of sell–through?
AV: It's very simple for me to answer that. I don't have access to the publisher's data, but when they offer you many times the amount they offered you for the prior book, that's a good sign.
PPM: Did your publisher do much promotion or publicity for the series at the start? Beyond review copies, etc.?
AV: Well, the first book was published by one publisher. I left that publisher and I've been with my second publisher for every book consecutively since.
PPM: I've heard that publishers don't like to pick up a series once it's established with another house. Have you found that to be true?
AV: Well, I didn't start out to write a series. Maybe that's the problem. I know it's real common today—it's astounding to me how people send their manuscripts and they say, "book 1" as if there's a certain length. I never thought that there was going to be a book 2. I thought this was a one–round fight. I don't even possess the kind of narcissism where I'd say, "okay I'm going to write a 15–book series." So, I wrote the book and it was a book. It was like a movie where public demand produced a sequel. It was never my intent to write a series. Because it took me plenty long enough to get one book published.
PPM: Did your publisher keep you in the loop—with regards to public demand—did they send you updates saying "we've heard from a lot of people who love your book?"
AV: Well they would send me the mail. They'd send me boxes and boxes of mail. But they didn't read it to me.
PPM: So, when did the boxes of mail start coming?
AV: Oh, in a couple of weeks, really. I didn't expect the first book to do what it did. Nobody did. They told me the publisher didn't. It sort of went BOOM.
PPM: And do you think this was due to the subject matter?
AV: Yeah, I do. Because I'd been turned down on that basis for the previous ... a dozen years. I mean, I got all these wonderful letters from publishers saying "you're a brilliant writer" and "I've never seen such force and such compelling narrative and blah blah blah" you know. But this subject material is impossible.
PPM: Impossible in terms for them to market? Did they just think people wouldn't respond to it?
AV: Actually worse. Their attitude was "these things don't happen." And therefore this kind of sick fevered imagination that I had would have no market.
PPM: That's amazing.
AV: Well, look at it this way: you're a much younger person than I am. Ratchet your memory back in time. So I tell you I wrote a book about predatory pedophile modem trafficking in kiddie porn and you say, "so what?" There's been a thousand books about that. Right? And then I say I wrote it 17 years ago and now what? And you say, "before there was an Internet?" And I go, "Yep." So, what happened was as I wrote these things—because they're not based on imagination. Obviously they're based on the work that I do. If anything, those books to me are toned down. But publishers—and certainly not just publishers—but also book reviewers, look upon the material that I wrote as the product of a crazed mind. And then as each book would sort of prove itself, then they go, "oh my goodness—is life imitating art?" So, it was that entire syndrome. I'll give you the quintessential example: the first crime novel I wrote never was published and my agent that I have now, a wonderful man named Victor Chapin, stayed with me for years and years and years through all these rejection letters, all saying the same thing—"It's an amazing book, but the plot is so insane—so beyond science fiction—there's no market for that kind of stuff." How did this book end? This book ended with a deeply disturbed completely alienated young man walking into a high school with a duffel bag full of weapons and making a serious attempt to kill everyone in the place, before he kills himself. I wrote that book 25 years ago—so did I foresee Columbine? No, I ran a maximum–security prison for violent youth. So that's been the issue all along. It's "how could there be a market for stuff that doesn't exist?" Now, that issue's been settled.
PPM: I recently read something about Ridley Pearson shelving an idea about a serial sniper because of what happened down in Baltimore.
AV: Well, that's different. That's them saying it wouldn't be in good taste now. They're not saying it couldn't happen. That's more the opposite of my situation. I don't do ripped-from-today's-headlines. The fact was that there were no headlines and that's what upset them.
PPM: So there was no precedent for them to market?AV: Right. Look, child abuse was the plot device of the 90's. In crime fiction. But, when I was writing about it—when I first wrote about it—name me somebody else who was doing it.
AV: See? And so that was the problem. The ripped from today's headlines issue is the opposite of me. I don't know what problems Ridley Pearson is having but I suspect they're the same problems about not wanting to make a movie about the World Trade Center. But that's not the issue for me. No one's saying I'm revisiting anything. They're saying how can you make this stuff up? And each and every time, a year later—two years later, they say, "Oh my God, this was happening." If you look at the ... I don't know if you saw the last Burke book, ONLY CHILD?
PPM: No, I just finished SACRIFICE a few weeks ago.
AV: Okay, well ONLY CHILD talks about a new genre of movie. And people are reacting like, "oh my God, there's this sick insane mind again." I promise you within a year there'll be criminal cases in the headlines about exactly this kind of movie and no, I'm not talking about snuff films. This is a whole new ... thing. This has happened throughout my career so, by now everybody's used to it. And I'm a sufficiently reliable commodity so it doesn't concern the publisher one way or another.
PPM: You obviously use the publicist. I've got the card right here that came with the ARC for THE GETAWAY MAN.
AV: Whoa, hold up bro. I use a publicist? (laughs)
PPM: Maybe not. I was going to ask you about your promotion techniques.
AV: How about if I've never met Sloane [publicist]? How about if Sloane works for the publisher. And the publisher allocates for each and every book—personnel, and money, and the amount of that or the extent of that depends on the publisher's whim. These people don't work for me. I'm like a lot of writers I could name—I don't have a publicist. There's nobody I pay and by the same token, there's nobody I control as a result. So if you mean the publishing house itself, uses personnel, sure.
PPM: So you've never met Sloane.
AV: I've never met Sloane. This is a brand new venture for me a paperback original. So, it's brand new from the top. But it would be not unusual for me not to meet a publicist. They're not publicizing me. You're a product. They're doing whatever it is that they do. A publicist would be running around trying to get my name in the papers or something.
PPM: Have you done any promotional efforts over the years?
AV: You mean book tours?
PPM: Book tours—
AV: Yeah, I've toured. From New York to Sydney to Berlin to London to—
PPM: How have you found them?
AV: Well, that's like saying how do you find women? Some are great—some are not so great.
PPM: Were there any promotional ventures you went on whether it was a book tour or a talk or a convention that you prefer over others?
AV: Well I definitely prefer not to do convention appearances. In fact, I don't. Book tours, for me—you've never been to one of my events—but they're really valuable because I don't use them as opportunities to read from my collected works. I use them as an opportunity to dialog with the audience. And some of the sessions have been pretty raucous but they've always been not just enjoyable but valuable. I've learned a lot. And that to me is a great benefit.
PPM: You learn as much from the audience as they do from you.
AV: Oh I think so. I mean it's the only way I can keep my finger on the pulse. I get an enormous amount of mail. I'm sure way disproportionate to others. Because every time I speak to another writer and they listen to the volume, their jaw just drops. And that's some feedback, but it's non-interactive. When you're actually sitting there, facing the person that you want to have a dialog with, it's a lot more productive.
PPM: Immediate feedback.
AV: Sure. Because—look at this—this is a conversation that we're having. If you emailed me a bunch of questions, this stuff wouldn't be coming up.
PPM: I know that a lot of published authors have said it's possible to get rich on option deals with Hollywood, but I was wondering what your experience has been with Hollywood. Have any of your projects progressed all the way to screen? Or are you trapped in option hell?
AV: (laughs) First of all, I'm not part of that parade of professional whiners about Hollywood. Hollywood's paid me a literal fortune over the years without ever making a movie.
PPM: Very nice.
AV: And I somehow don't feel myself to be some stepchild as a result.
PPM: You take the money—
AV: Well, it's not that. They put up the money in the hopes they can make a movie. That they can bring a movie together. So, I respect gamblers. And, you know, they're gambling with their own money—I'm a person that they pay money so they can have that opportunity. Those opportunities have not worked out. I've never had anything NOT optioned.
PPM: And that started right away with the first book even?
AV: Oh absolutely. In fact that first book's been optioned twice. And I'm not talking about Joe Blow with a cellphone and a rented Mercedes either. I mean studio options.
PPM: That brings up an interesting point. I'm going to bounce my own situation off you if you don't mind. I've got a producer who is looking to go out on his own and wants to option the first book in my series. The money isn't going to be good, so my question is—would you advise an author or myself in this matter to hold out for a better monetary option or does the passion and good experience tend to outweigh that? I mean I know it's based on what's more important to me, but I'd be interested to hear your view.
AV: I wouldn't give you a dollar for passion and good experience. However, it would depend on how the contract's configured. If this guy's dumb enough to be optioning a book without controlling the series, and without having character rights, and is offering very little money? Then I'd absolutely let him go play as long as it was a short option. Because if he succeeds in making a movie, he's now created a market for the rest of your material. But if your contract includes them having so-called character rights, you've signed a bargain with the Devil. And there's a lot of these guys who will call you up and say I want to option your stuff for something crappy like $10,000? What they'll do is they'll take the period within which the option runs, and then try and re-broker it. So I own the rights to Jon Merz's series, you see, and I'll sell 'em to you for $50,000. There's a lot of that. So, even though I've optioned books out of the series, over and over again, these options have never included character rights.
PPM: You always maintain control.
AV: Absolutely. Not control. I own them. I'm not going to give anybody—because some of them haven't been optioned—some studios have just outright purchased the book. But they didn't purchase the characters. So it's a question of who's holding the whip hand? They can say well we can go ahead and make this movie now—and I'm sure you can. But what will you have done? If they make a crappy movie it doesn't help you. If you make a good movie, I'm the one who owns the rest of the characters. So people who write series have to be very careful. Because I've know a lot of people who have written series who've signed those kind of option deals for character rights and some twitterpated little writer/director then decides, "let me take the first seven books and make them into one movie."
PPM: Totally lose the flavor of everything.
AV: I don't care about the flavor. I don't have literary pretensions. What you lose is the value of your merchandise. It's gone. Now I'm not saying you shouldn't care. But when people say to me—especially when I'm on the coast now—"oh my God, you know Hollywood's going to ruin your books." Hollywood can't ruin my books. What are they going to do—break into the libraries and rewrite 'em? They could ruin a movie and that would hardly be a first. But I'm responsible for what I write. They're responsible for what they put on the screen. So I'll continue to try and pick a winner—by a winner I don't mean financially, because I've done that—I mean pick a winner who's actually going to—I mean they've hired directors and they've commissioned screenplays, and they've formed production companies, and they've spent fortunes. But they've yet to actually get one to the screen. I don't consider this to be development hell or anything else. I consider it they had X period of time to get a movie out—they didn't—I get the rights back. And I'll get another shot and another shot and another shot.
PPM: In terms of the material that has been optioned, or purchased outright, have they come to you and asked for input into the screenplays?
AV: Yeah they have. Sure, and I've always said no.
PPM: You prefer to let a screenwriter—
AV: No I prefer to—let me do it, if that's what you want, but why should I for the thrill of you know having lunch at the Polo Lounge give you my services for nothing? What you're calling input.
PPM: What about hiring you on as a technical consultant?
AV: Sure they've offered but none of these things mean anything to me without the promise of actual physical events. So I don't care to be the technical advisor to a movie that isn't actually in production. And if they're going to use that term to mean I'm going to be the ghost screenwriter, who won't get credited, not this year. And I've even written screenplays that have been purchased. Of my own books. But they said, you know we can't make this movie. We love the screenplay but we can't make this into a movie.
PPM: By virtue of—
AV: You know what? I stop listening at that point. Because I just consider it so much bladdy-blah-blah. The idea that it's too dark or whatever is just nonsense.
PPM: So they claim market conditions wouldn't tolerate a movie like that?
AV: Which seems silly to me given some of the absolute dreck that appears on the screen everyday. You know, I mean I guess you can be too dark, but you can't be too bad.
PPM: Almost like the publishers saying there was no precedent for your books.
AV: Indeed they were. But they were wrong. But at least the publishers who said that were just giving me their opinion. The movie guys are giving me their money and THEN saying it. So ...
PPM: As somebody who has been around for a while have you seen some mistakes that new authors typically make when it comes to promoting their own books?
AV: I think the biggest mistake is to get involved with this whole favor-trading, networking, ass-kissing, back-scratching routine that so many people fall into. I'll give you a blurb if you give me a blurb. I'll join your organization—or I'll form an organization so we can give each other awards. I'll post twelve good reviews of your book on Amazon.com if you post twelve good review of mine. It doesn't produce anything-long term. And I think that's a mistake. I mean the best promotion that anybody can do, depends on their own individual capability. I mean not many people have a lot of money to spend on their own promotion. But I know guys who just make a steady circuit of the libraries. The libraries don't pay you. But they're happy to have somebody come there and make an appearance and read. Now, are you going to sell any books? No. Are you maybe going to get a couple of patrons who are going to say that they want the library to order your next book? Sure. Do libraries have tiny restricted budgets? Absolutely. Does the squeaky hinge get the oil? Every time. So if you're past a certain level as a writer, you don't have to worry about the libraries ordering your books.
But if you're not, then the libraries are critical. Because THE thing that promotes a book, the one single thing without which in my opinion no writer can survive, unless he or she has you know a multi-million-dollar ad budgets and that kind of crap, is word of mouth.
PPM: By far the most powerful.
AV: Absolutely! Overwhelmingly. Crushingly number one. With a whole clip of bullets. I mean, that's it. Word-of-mouth. But you get word-of-mouth by earning it. You don't get word-of-mouth by creating it. You don't get word-of-mouth by posting 29 nice things about yourself in newsgroups. You know? Everyone can see these plants everybody can see these trolls. They're not convincing anyone by it. Word-of-mouth is the way that you can survive even when nothing else is working for you. If you have enough word-of-mouth, you're absolutely review-proof, for example.
PPM: And you're saying the library is one of the ways—
AV: The libraries are absolutely critical. Because not everybody can afford to go out and spend $25 bucks on a damned book. But lots of people read. And people like to talk about what they read. I mean, why do you do a book tour? People don't seem to understand that. What's the purpose of a book tour?
PPM: For me, it's to get out and just meet people. I'm not trying to sell all the books that are on the table. I'm trying to start dialogues.
AV: See? That's the benefit for the bookstore. But the benefit for you is this: when people say to me "how come you have an overwhelming preference for independent bookstores over chain bookstores?" I give them a straight answer which is: I can live or die in bookstores on whether my books are hand-sold. What's the point of going to a Barnes & Noble where all the personnel who are there on the night of my event, won't be there in six months? Who's going to hand-sell the books? You see? But if I go to some smaller independent bookstore where when I leave the proprietor—you know if you walk in the door is going to say, hey, you should look at this. That's gold. I don't think people work enough on that—instead they work on you know schmalzing each other. And you know when you go to a group of writers, I don't consider that helpful. In terms of promotion. Because I've never met—of all the professions I've been in and all the places I've been in my life—I've never met a group of more narcissistic, self-absorbed, dishy, bitchy people than writers. I mean there are very few writers that will go out of their way to promote anyone else but themselves. Unless there's something in it for them.
PPM: I've seen plenty of that.
AV: Have you looked at our website?
AV: Have you clicked on the section "Righteous Reading?"
AV: Who else does that?
PPM: Uh ...
AV: I'm not talking about the writer who mentions his two closest friends. Who are also writers. Who says here's 75 good books that you probably haven't heard about that you might want to go check out for yourself?
PPM: I haven't found a single site.
AV: Okay. I'm hoping people do it, but I haven't seen it. I'm doing it because I thought, after all these years of waiting to be a published author that it was like this band of brothers and sisters? They'd all be looking out for each other? Yeahhhh right. I mean, who believes that who's actually in the game?
PPM: (laughing) I did at one point. It amazes me how many people turn their backs on the trenches so to speak as soon as they claw their way out of it.
AV: Absolutely. And there's people who will give you all the encouragement in the world until you start to be successful.
PPM: Right. "Oh it's so hard to be a writer. You shouldn't do it."
AV: Right. Right.
PPM: I've seen writers groups' message boards that just ring true with what you just said. That's all it is. It's like being back in high school all over again.
AV: Except it doesn't really get you anything. What I've said to people like that is, it's not just pathetic that you've become a professional ass-kisser, what's really sad about you is it hasn't gotten you anything. I mean, at least a whore gets paid. There's nothing happening here. You're trading your honor and integrity for a few ... newsgroup postings? Long term these people aren't buying your book anyway.
PPM: None of the people reading the postings are buying it.
AV: No. So then what are you getting? The Internet's an illusion. Someone says well if I have a website, there's 8 billion people that are on the Internet. So I'm going to reach 8 billion people. (laughs) But there are acts of such singular class and generosity within the writing community that set the standard. The first book signing I ever did was this horrible disaster. I'd been at it like three days and—you know "New York Is Book Country?"—
AV: Okay. So that's where they decided my first book signing would be. Outdoors. And who've they got next to me ... Martha Grimes.
PPM: Oh great.
AV: Yeah oh great. There's a line for Martha Grimes up 5th Avenue—there's like a hundred people there standing waiting and another hundred waiting to get on the back of that line. Naturally, there's nobody on my line. Martha Grimes sits down next to me, takes out a copy of my book—which at that time was the only book I had—said, "You know I really bloody loved this book. Would you sign it for me?" I was stunned.
Then as each person came up, and they would tell Martha how much they loved her books, she said, "have you read this man's book?" And they say "well no of course not." She said, "well you damned well should." It was such total generosity. Nothing in it for her. Nothing I could ever do for her.
PPM: She did it anyway.
AV: Oh yeah. That's the kind of person she is. See what I'm saying? And I've seen a number of people like that, but it's just a coincidence that they're writers. It's not because they're writers. I know people who are unpublished who have got their interview technique totally rehearsed. They've really got the lifestyle down perfect. They know how to answer all the questions that nobody's asking them.
PPM: I did a signing the other night with someone like that!
AV: Sure. And instead of saying, okay what I need is word-of-mouth, how do I get word-of-mouth? Which is a legitimate question. They think how can I network? And oh God if I can win this award, as if—I mean name the last three winners of the Edgar.
PPM: I can't.
AV: Of course you can't! And yet it's supposed to be such a prestigious award. I can name one because my brother Joe Lansdale was one of them. But that's how I remember it. Frankly.
PPM: So on the Internet thing, have you found it to be useful? In terms of—I know you've got people contacting you for cases, but have you found it to be useful in terms of reaching out to fans?
AV: Hugely so. But I didn't anticipate that this site—which is an all-volunteer effort—would have a million and a half visitors a year. I mean it's just ludicrous. So, what it's done is it's produced an enormous amount of contact that I think still would have happened ... just quicker. Way before there was an Internet presence I really got a lot of fan mail and people who were in circumstances where they don't have access to the Internet—it wouldn't make any difference to them. But there are lots of people who I guess the ease of contact stimulates them to write fan letters and it isn't that that makes them fans, but it does give me information about where fans are and what it is that they want and what it is that they don't want. And what criticisms they have. Because I've always got people with those. You've run into the same thing I'm sure. There are people whose hobby it is to say, "You know I read on page twenty-seven of your book that there was a '57 Chevy there with a blue dashboard. Well you should know that according to the owner's manual, blue dashboards didn't come in until 1959." You know, that kind of stuff. There's people that's their hobby. But you know we have a whole category for them. I don't concern myself. I don't think the Internet is much of a ... marketing or word-of-mouth tool. I really don't. I think that one person who really passionately loves your work who has some other life is your best tool. So I've got bikers who are crazy about my work. So they tell other bikers. And I've got people who are interested in guns and people who are interested in animals. And certainly people who are interested in child protection. So because they have another life—it's the people who don't have another life that are useless for word-of-mouth. The people who live on the Internet—they really are useless. What are they going to do? They're gonna start a fansite for you? Whoopee.
PPM: Or do narcissistic postings on newsgroups.
AV: Sure. And the ones I like best are you know, they'll post, "I read Jon Merz's book and I really loved it. It reminds me of my book blah-blah-blah or my such-and-such series." Tiresome and transparent. The truth is one committed fan—one person who's really devoted—and who gets around is a treasure. It doesn't help you if you have a person who loves your stuff and never leaves the house. But if you have a person who's socially active who's professionally active books come up. Books are a topic.
PPM: Far better.
AV: Not better. Everybody who's in the promotional business says if they could buy word-of-mouth they would. It's the one thing they want—it's the buzz that they're always talking about. But their buzzes are blips and that's what they don't understand. They do an appearance on Oprah or the Today Show and it's a blip. Right? But that doesn't sustain itself.
PPM: Buzz is self-sustaining.
AV: That's correct. Look, what you want is not only people who care about your books, and believe in them, but people who share that with others and have the power to persuade them. We have a form that you fill out on The Zero which says "how did you find us?" The ones we like best are, "I really loved your books. A friend of mine who's a stripper or a friend of mine who's a surgeon recommended your books—said she loved your books. I read one now I'm a fan." I always go to the trouble of saying, "go find your friend and tell ‘em I said thanks." You see? You're not looking for obsessive groupies or crazed collectors or anything else. You're looking for people who actually believe in what you're doing. And what you're writing. And what you're writing about. And then understand that spreading the word is part of any mission.
PPM: Switching gears, your latest novel, THE GETAWAY MAN some would say it's a bit of a departure from your Burke novels, but it's certainly a throw-back to some really amazing pulp noir, the cover alone is just fantastic.
AV: The cover's my way of getting right in your face because this is two books really. It's a straight up 50s Gold Medal novel you know up-to-date. Retro noir. But it's also got a very powerful subtext. I'm right in your face on that cover because I accept the fact that numerous people are going to miss the subtext. And I'm also right in your face with the idea that people are going to say "oh this is pulp." As if they have somehow slandered it by calling it pulp. That's not my view and that's hence the cover you see? I mean, I could have done this as a literary novel. But not that cover. You know, all I had to do was look for some little sepia photograph of a backcountry road and it would have been the same thing. And some delicate effeminate type but we chose to go this way.
PPM: So they asked what you wanted for a cover?
AV: Yeah, they do. But that's the beauty of being with the same publisher for so long. I mean, these are collaborative efforts.
PPM: What did their sales department say about the cover?
AV: They actually loved it. Yeah, they said "Goddamn!" At first they were a little taken aback, especially since the cover's deliberately designed to look like a used paperback. But the cover actually reflects the interior. I mean when you read the book, the cover is correct. It's not the naked-babe-on-the-cover in order to sell product. That's the real thing. And if—what I told them was if I were living in the—well the dedication to Joe Lansdale says it all, because that's what he always told me: "Man, if we lived back then bro, we would've been kings. With our style ..." So I said okay let me try to do one of those.
PPM: Well, I've taken enough of your time. Thank you so much for answering these questions. Your responses were great.
AV: My pleasure.
Andrew Vachss' latest novel THE GETAWAY MAN is out everywhere now. It's a damned good read, and I'm not just saying that in an ass-kissing way.
© 2003 Planet Pulp Magazine. All rights reserved.
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