The Pulp Pusher Interview
Originally posted at PulpPusher.com, September/October, 2007
Also available in Russian (http://bit.ly/2jqJFFE)
THE following dialogue started out as a simple Q&A, negotiated by Pulp Pusher over a course of months with Andrew Vachss. The 'piece', originally examining Mr Vachss' latest novel in the Burke series, Terminal, grew into something a bit more than a simple interview however. Eventually running to a little over 7,000 words, with at times, the interviewee turning the tables on the interviewer. At the request of Mr Vachss those questions, and answers, have remained in the final edit, which will be presented here, in full, over the next four weeks.
PART ONE: PULP PUSHER TALKS TO ANDREW VACHSS
TONY BLACK: Burke really is dealing with some 'human puke' this time, it's a particularly unpalatable side of society he explores, isn't it?
ANDREW VACHSS: Unpalatable? Sure. But, when it comes to that "side of society," Burke's not a tourist, he lives there. He doesn't "walk the mean streets" when he goes out on some White Knight mission; his whole world is mean. Too many people confuse "vigilante" with "mercenary." True, Burke harbors a deep, pathological hatred of all those who prey on children, and his religion is revenge. But he doesn't go out looking for child abusers as a hobby. Burke is a career criminal, and he expects to be paid for his work.
TONY BLACK: Yet, his 'family' remains as important as ever—to both Burke and the novel—what's your take on Burke's family? Is it a clan? A pack? A 'real' family?
ANDREW VACHSS: My take? I would never put "family" in quotes. My family is the one I chose … and the one that chose me. The only DNA Burke cares about is what might be left at a crime scene. Me, too. In my world, you are what you do. If you ever run across one of my brothers or sisters, you'll understand that. Quickly.
TONY BLACK: Terminal features a white supremacist [Claw], what prompted you to feature a character of this type? Have you encountered anyone with such extreme views?
ANDREW VACHSS: Given the life I've led, it would be impossible not to encounter people with "extreme views" on a regular basis. But I don't live in a debating society, and "views" don't impact my life. I've done a lot more than "encounter" those who hold "extreme views," on a wide variety of subjects, from eliminating "age of consent" laws to eliminating entire tribes. I don't like generic labels. I thought some people might be interested to learn that not all "white supremacists" are alike … and don't all join up for the same reasons. A recurring character in the series is a man named Silver … it is only on his reference that Burke even agrees to meet with Claw. On the prison books, Silver's a "white supremacist." He had his reasons, and they need to be told. In Safe House, Burke's brother Hercules has the "credentials" to penetrate a white supremacist terrorist cell … and is the reason the shadowmen in our government were able to take it down. Bottom line: there are reasons for things, and if we don't learn them, we can't do anything but report the body counts. When the media morons blather about a "senseless crime," it just shows they don't get it: a "senseless crime" makes sense to the person who committed it.
TONY BLACK: Did you have any aim you particularly wanted to achieve with Terminal beyond writing a great novel?
ANDREW VACHSS: If I didn't have another agenda—one I've never made a secret of—I wouldn't write novels at all. I learned, a long time ago, that people can read a book for entertainment and come away with enlightenment, so long as the vein of truth runs throughout and doesn't detract from the narrative force. I understand there are those who believe "noir"—or "hardboiled," or whatever term they prefer to lavish upon themselves—writing shouldn't be cluttered up with "that other stuff." As if littérature engageé is only acceptable in "magical realism" novels translated from original Incan scrolls. All these "outlaws" who want me to live by their rigid little rules … good luck to them. To me, there's only one "holy war" worthy of the name, and the books are merely one of the weapons I use. Had they not so demonstrably worked, had I had not seen repeated hard evidence of their value, I would have stopped long ago.
TONY BLACK: The title of the novel, Terminal, relates to the book's terminal cancer patient, who is seeking a miracle stem-cell cure abroad … this is a controversial area of medicine, what attracted you to it?
ANDREW VACHSS: It's not controversial to me. But, then again, neither is evolution. As it is undisputed that stem cell research offers the single best opportunity for actual progress against our deadly enemies—cancer, MS, lupus, you name it—failure to utilize it is equivalent to throwing rocks at snipers because you have some religious objection to gunpowder. America's "health-care" system is a pathetic joke, and only the wealthy are laughing. Millions suffer, needlessly. So many have to chose between eating and filling their prescriptions that it's become a national disgrace. Apparently, there is quite a "controversy" as to how this country should meet its obligations to its own citizens. Truth is, all these so-called "controversies" are nothing more than obsessives attempting to impose their personal religion on the rest of us. When the Taliban stone a woman to death for some "crime" against their religion, we're all quick to condemn them as foul fascists. I hate hypocrisy. If a "state religion" is wrong in other countries, what makes it right in this one? You don't "believe in" stem cell research, then don't utilize it … and I'd stand with you against anyone who tried to make you "take" anything against your will. That should be an individual's decision, not the government's. But when you claim the right to make such decisions for others, what does that make you? Years ago, the American right wing adored the concept of "states rights" when some states were trying to continue their system of racial segregation. But, today, when some states approve the use of medical marijuana for those in constant, intractable pain, that same right wing demands the Federal Government step in and send the "offenders" to prison.The most unAmerican activity I can imagine is imposing a National Religion. Yet that is the very clear agenda of those who claim there is any "controversy" over this so-called "issue."
TONY BLACK: Many in the US, and beyond, feel there is a moral obligation not to explore such research—what do you say to them?
ANDREW VACHSS: I would ask them if by a "moral obligation" they mean obedience to some religion? Truth is, I don't have anything to say to them. I don't owe them any response at all. I consider it our moral obligation to do everything we can to protect innocent people from pain and death. And I consider anyone who blocks such research to be in the same class of human who want to bar a child incest victim from getting an abortion. Amazing how people who claim to be so vitally committed to protecting the "unborn" have no interest in protecting those already alive, isn't it? And quite stunning how all their "concern" seems to come down to controlling women. Remind you of anything? What's next … "honor rape?"
TONY BLACK: "Consumerism always trumps Christianity" is one of the lines I jotted down from Terminal … to whom/what are you directing this quote?
ANDREW VACHSS: I am not directing it at anyone; merely stating the obvious: Bush's sub-moronic "decisions" were tolerated until people started to realize what they cost. Nobody asked Bush about the credentials of the human he appointed as head of FEMA … until Katrina revealed the truth. So when he tried to appoint a Harriet Meirs (!) to the Supreme Court, people did ask the questions—you know, stupid questions, like about her qualifications—and her nomination was withdrawn. Hard to throw money in the collection plate on Sunday when your Social Security "medical benefits" make you chose between pain management and food. Ask young Americans how much "faith" they have that there will even be Social Security for them when they're done working.How come the same people who demand the government stay out of their personal business when it comes to gun ownership are so silent about the government telling people what they can do with their own bodies? But here's the indisputable proof: Bush wants to prosecute folks who buy their live-sustaining prescription medications in Canada or Mexico … where the exact same stuff sells for a fraction of the cost here in the U.S. You think any of those folks think his "personal relationship" with God makes him one?Let me clear about this part—I know it won't stop the hate mail I get on the subject, but the truth is there if you want it. I have not been talking about Christianity as a religion, only the form of "Christianity," practiced by a certain kind of individual. I believe a true Christian would not disagree with anything I say about our moral obligations as human beings. If you want to see what I think a true Christian would look like—and live as—just pick up a copy of The Getaway Man. I think a true follower of Allah would be no different than a true follower of Jesus Christ, or Buddha, or any other prophet. Jesus would never approve of stoning a woman to death for (alleged) adultery. And neither would Allah.
TONY BLACK: Your view of the current US administration, Bush especially, can be inferred from some of the characters' comments—for example "that asshole we got running the country"—I presume?
ANDREW VACHSS: Dialogue is dialogue. Let me ask you a question, Tony: If a character in one of my books says "nigger," does that make me a racist?
TONY BLACK: No, dialogue is dialogue—like you say. But no writing's done in a vacuum, if the same point is made 10, 15, 20 times over, rightly or wrongly, I smell an agenda. So, what do you feel are Bush/Cheney's most heinous offences thusfar?
ANDREW VACHSS: What difference does that make? Neither of them are going to run for office again. If stupidity was an impeachable offense, most politicians would be at risk. And if greed was, who would be left to run the country? The analysis is simple enough. Everyone knows that Bush and Cheney share a religion; the problem is that people don't understand what that religion is. It's not "Christianity," it's BUSINESS. But, then, again, some idiots voted for Bush because his "military experience" made him much more fit to be Commander-in-Chief in the War on Terrorism than John Kerry. I guess that's what "faith-based" really means.
TONY BLACK: Iraq. Halliburton. New Orleans. 911 Truth Movement. Much of this must have been playing out when you were writing this book … did it just filter its way in or did you feel compelled to comment?
ANDREW VACHSS: Unlike a series where the "star" never ages, Burke and his people do. As does his city, and the whole world around him. Since the books happen in real-time, any "commentary" would be have to be contemporary to make sense.
PART TWO: PULP PUSHER TALKS TO ANDREW VACHSS
TONY BLACK: Given that 'fact' today is often scarier than fiction, why do we need fiction at all? Has it always been thus?
ANDREW VACHSS: Fiction often has a greater power to expose truth than non-fiction, especially given the extent to which journalism has degenerated in this country. Fewer and fewer people trust the "news" every day. Considering the amazing number of people who get their "information" from movies, never mind those who think "the Internet" is the sacred source of all-knowing truth, fiction is a very viable form of reaching out. As you know, I have written, and continue to write, non-fiction. One drives the other. The important thing to remember is agenda. It's so cool and hip to say "There's never been proof of a snuff film; the whole idea is an urban legend." But, when pressed, those same people will admit they (conveniently) define a snuff film as "one made for commercial purposes." So the tapes Brady and Hinley made of the children they tortured wouldn't qualify, because they weren't going to sell them, huh? Let's look at this: "Images, yeah. Samuel Doe was tortured to death on orders of one of Taylor's freakish followers, with every shriek of agony carefully captured on videotape by a Palestinian 'journalist' they invited to watch the fun. Running a dictatorship and reinforcing it with the occasional pogrom is one thing, but Doe's regime had recognized Israel, and supporting the Zionist Oppressor is a crime against all humanity. That tape is 'still commercially available,' in the words of The Economist." That's from Terminal. Just another rant from Burke, right? Try this on for size:"He [Charles Taylor] started a civil war [in Liberia] in 1989, with the stated aim of overthrowing the dictator Samuel Doe. Doe was overthrown the next year, and tortured to death on the orders of Prince Johnson, a former ally of Mr. Taylor's. (The death was captured on viodeotape by a Palestinian journalist, who had been filming a hostile documentary about Doe, whose regime recognized Israel. The tape is still commercially available.)" The Economist, August 16th-22nd 2003, p. 39, columns 1-2 Now what?
TONY BLACK: There's an almost frightening ring of truth to the rape scene recounted in Terminal, I put that down to your skill as a writer, but—given most readers haven't witnessed a rape—is it also an indictment on a society that's inured to such acts?
ANDREW VACHSS: I don't understand how any one rape is an indictment on any society. But you're right: the threshold keeps dropping, and "cruel" and "cool" are getting way too close to having the same meaning to some humans. When I wrote this: "I didn't react. Why would I want to see? This was coming too quick, secrets piled on secrets. When that happens, there's always a trade lurking close. She got to her feet, walked out of the room. She was back in a minute, holding a slick paper magazine with a black and white photo of a woman bending over on the cover—there was another person in the photo, but all you could see was the paddle in their hand. I stood up, joined her under the light. She thumbed through rapidly, looking for the ad. It was marked with a red ink star, hand-drawn. I held it close to read the small type:Proverbs 13:24(!)Next time your kid has a good one coming, makea full-size cassette of the chastisement and send it to me. I pay $50 for fifteen minutes, more for longer. Good sound quality a must. I travel frequently, with my own equipment. Write to make arrangements. Only a P.O. box was listed, no name. A new kind of kiddie porn, legal too—I'd never heard of it before. Freaks carefully recording their own children getting whipped. To entertain other maggots. For money. I felt ice-picks of fire in my chest. 'Why did you show me this?' I asked her, my voice flat and level. 'Cherry told me. A long time ago. She said that's what you do.' That ? 'No. She said you — hunt people like that." Down in the Zero (1994), pp. 135-136 … people just plain freaked out, (again!) attributing the passage to my horrid imagination. Years later, when an entire international ring selling exactly that particular "product" was busted, it sent shock-waves around the world … as if some new perversion had just been "invented." Sure. Look, you spend as much time as I have "interacting" with predators—using them as informants, prosecuting them, investigating their back-trail, etc.—your writing should have the "ring of truth." Violence of any type is typically portrayed ridiculously by the "hardboiled" crew. I especially love those "PIs" who get shot, stabbed, and stomped in every single book, but are always ready to go by the next chapter. I acknowledge that fiction-writing need not conform to reality, but when a virgin writes a sex scene, the reader can sense it. That's fine for some writers. For me, it would be tragic, because I need people to understand the truth inside the fiction if I want my books to do their work.
TONY BLACK: A lot of your previous fictional, and non-fictional, writing has proven prophetic—I'm thinking of 1973's A BOMB BUILT IN HELL about a high school massacre especially—what do you see in the crystal ball now?
ANDREW VACHSS: I don't have a crystal ball. When I write about something the public is not aware of, the fact that it later comes to life is not my "prediction" coming true, nor is it "life imitating art." I wrote about predatory pedophiles modem-trafficking in kiddie porn 20 years ago … you know, way before "the Internet" was being touted as the "cause" of the child porn industry(!) … and the book was routinely dismissed by "reviewers" as "sick fantasy." Today, it's a plot device. There are so many examples of this that it would take more space than you have to list them (see last question, e.g.). Look at the passages in Terminal on urban dog-fighting "tournaments," or a convicted child rapist who happened to be a professional boxer returning to the ring after he was released (from a pathetically short prison sentence). The truth of both of those things is just being revealed. Obviously, any writer knows how long it takes a book to go from manuscript to publication, so I must have written such things way before they "happened." There's no "prediction" involved; just ground-zero observation. I'm not a "futurist." If I know something you don't, and you later find out about it, does that mean I predicted it?
TONY BLACK: What writers do you feel are getting it right today? Who do you read at present?
ANDREW VACHSS: I don't think there is any "right" to get. Each and every writer has his/her own goals; only they would know if they hit their target. What's "getting it right" for you, Tony?
TONY BLACK: Something that sends me to look for more of an author's work. It's taste at the end of the day—what does Andrew Vachss read is where I'm going with the question.
ANDREW VACHSS: Actually, I mostly read material related to my profession. When I read for enjoyment, I go where I know I'll find whatever I'm looking for at the time. If I want Old School PI, I want Wayne Dundee, Mike Black, Harold Adams, Robert Campbell … different venues, same ethos. If I want hardcore serious/crime/horror/laugh-out-loud all in the same book, there's nothing but Joe Lansdale's "Hap and Leonard" series. If I want the finest fabulist writing today, it's Charles de Lint. Jonathan Kellerman never disappoints me, nor does Robert Ferrigno. I would never miss a "Jury" novel by Martha Grimes, but her other work is really incredible, albeit outside the "genre." If I want hilariously-barbed political commentary, it has to be Carl Hiassen. George Pelecanos has it down were it belongs, and keeps it there. For poetry, Keith Gilyard is destined for immortality, and Ian McBryde is closing the gap. Ken Bruen is street-level Chandler. And I'm not even mentioning the ones that aren't around to give us more. I miss my pal Eddie Little, and I mourn the loss of Judith Moore. I wish that old rogue Jack Olsen could have gone another few rounds, and that David Hechler would step back into the ring. Ah, I could talk for hours about writers I admire. What I won't do is talk about those I don't. I have often refused to review a book after I read it, because I could not honestly write a favorable review. Why people think it's cute and clever to pick at another's work is beyond me.
TONY BLACK: Do crime writers constantly have to push the boundaries now? Many have been criticised for doing so, is there a danger of some crime writers blurring into horror?
ANDREW VACHSS: I don't see much boundary-pushing, Tony. Do you?
TONY BLACK: Not enough, anyway. Experimentation is vital and any writer that goes to the edge gets my respect. That a writer gets an edgy piece of work past an agent, an editor and into print gets my applause.
ANDREW VACHSS: I do see a lot of pastiche, and way too much foolishness that apparently believes "Law and Order" is a reality series. I don't see any "danger" in crime writers blurring into horror … what I write about is more horrible than anything Stephen King ever found in a basement. Who's doing all this "criticism?" Who are they "criticising?" And who cares? I understand I am too "pulp" for the literati, and too "literate" for the pulpsters. Big deal. I'd rather burn a bridge than crawl over it. Finally, genre-worship isn't one of my disabilities. Apparently, as with all religions, some people believe they can dictate definitions. I don't recall asking for the "Noir Seal of Approval" sticker on my books. I deeply appreciate actual criticism—that is, advice on how to make my work more effective. But I don't consider some cloistered narcissist a "critic" just because he or she writes down their reaction to a book. I once thought I could learn something from book reviews. I got over that a long time ago.
PART THREE: PULP PUSHER TALKS TO ANDREW VACHSS
TONY BLACK: Terminal is Burke number 17—is there a limit to how many installments a series can hold?
ANDREW VACHSS: Sure. The minute they stop selling. Or when the story's over. The Burke series is, in reality, chapters in a single book, which is why the reader gets a little more of Burke's past in each one. When that story comes to an organic end, the series will stop.
TONY BLACK: You're quoted as saying writing is not your main work, how much of your time does it occupy at present?
ANDREW VACHSS: Impossible to answer. My life is triage, and writing is the guy with the leg wound: he's not the first one you evac, but never the one you abandon.
TONY BLACK: What's your writing routine? How do you approach a new work, do you plan meticulously?
ANDREW VACHSS: I have no routine. I plan everything I do meticulously. (At least I do now—in my younger days, I did just the opposite.) All my books are written in my head, first. If you saw me "writing," you would think you were watching a typist.
TONY BLACK: The trademark Vachss dialogue and style is as razor sharp as ever in Terminal, it has the feel of a natural talent at work, but is this something you have carefully crafted?
ANDREW VACHSS: Everything in life is about focus (or lack of it). Stabbing a man with a baseball won't work quite as well as using an icepick. I want to be effective in all that I do, so I strip everything down as tight as possible. That includes writing, be it a novel, an editorial, or an appellate brief. I've done all kinds of things in my life—from tracking "unknowns" named as contacts by those with syphilis, and, when I found them, persuading them to stand still for the needle, to being a field caseworker for New York's infamous "Welfare Department," to that horror in Biafra to directing a center for displaced Appalachian migrants in Chicago and a re-entry house for ex-cons to running a maximum-security prison for violent youth … and that doesn't include driving a laundry truck, being a New York cab driver, a juvenile probation officer (lasted 3 weeks), fruit-picker, labor organizer …. What all this has in common are three things that spill over into everything I write: (1) I am the best listener you could ever imagine. I know how to actually conduct an interrogation, even to the point where it doesn't feel like one to the target. More than one cop has called me a "human polygraph." (2) I have a memory that always shocks people with its accuracy … until they learn to expect it. (3) I always kept a journal. Not my thoughts and feelings, my investigative experiences. And I have been meticulous about it from the beginning. My son is keeping one himself, now. And he'll get mine when I go. I did all this and more before I went near a law school, after which I did criminal defense work—no sex cases—to support my representation of children. The former paid very well; the latter kept my accountant in a constant state of cardiac arrest. The (utterly unexpected) success of the books is what enabled me to represent children exclusively, which I have done for many, many years now. Remember, I was trained in report-wrtiting by the government. That is, I learned the best way to make things happen with my field reports was to use grab-lock-hold techniques. I work hard at flab-removal in everything I write. I understand that some self-proclaimed Keepers of the Flame wish I would remove the "other" stuff, but I have my own reasons for writing, and, without that "other" stuff, I would have stayed with non-fiction. The dialogue sounds totally real to anyone who's been … around. And totally ridiculous to anyone who thinks pro shooters actually hold semi-autos turned sideways, or thumb safeties off revolvers, or jack a round into the chamber after they're inside a house they just invaded, or think exchanging quips is "investigating."
TONY BLACK: You've said you are in pursuit of what can't be achieved, ''perfection'' … and yet, also, you say you are not a student of the 'craft' of writing, is it luck then, that the books come out the way they do and are so well received?
ANDREW VACHSS: The books come out the way they do because that's the way I communicate. Check the non-fiction pieces; see if you can detect any difference. I respect the craft, and I believe working hard at it shows that respect. It's not just writing. Anyone who thinks they can't get any better at what they do is always right … they won't. As for "well-received," that depends on who you ask. Finding a book reviewer without an agenda might be too much for Sherlock himself. I don't mean that they take bribes, or trade favors, or have an undisclosed relationship with the writer they "review"—may Jim Thompson forgive!—I just mean that book reviewers have no STATED criteria as to what's good or bad; they just tell you what they "like." If they don't "like" the idea of a "crime writer" using novels to promote social change, they won't say that—they'll just say the book sucks. Not exactly Consumer Reports, is it? The only "reception" that counts is the public's. That's why they have libraries. But it's much easier to say, "Oh, it got a great review in the Times," than to make a decision for yourself … which is the only reason there's such a thing as "reviews" at all. I'm been called everything from "a modern-day Dickens" to "the king of vigilante-slasher porn." Neither seemed to effect sales.How about if I ask you a question now, Tony? Here's the opening to the Kirkus Review of Terminal:
KIRKUS REVIEWS, 8/15Vachss, AndrewTerminal: Making his 17th appearance, Burke—hardened ex-con, unabashed vigilante, stone killer and yes, famous children's advocate—stalks the child abusers in a 30-year-old crime. When Burke isn't advocating for children, his favorite things include money, since cash flow is a problem endemic to his lifestyle, and revenge, the thirst for which seems to be rooted in his DNA.
Can you explain to me how anyone could describe Burke as a "famous children's advocate" after reading this (or any other) book? Burke lives in the shadows. He works hard at staying below the radar; that's how he survives. Being "famous" for him would be a death sentence. So, tell me, do you believe this "reviewer" read the book? Or were they reviewing me, not what I wrote?
TONY BLACK: There's a ring of the re-hash; a quick turnaround is demanded of this kind of copy. I work in the media and I know reviews get written for books that haven't been read. It's life; I know hacks who write horoscopes who think Pluto's a Disney character, teetotal wine correspondents … letters pages and reader's panels … all done by staffers. I'd now like to ask if you are drawn to carefully crafted pieces of work or the more raw, natural talents? The George Bests of the writing world, as it were.
ANDREW VACHSS: You all love your football over there, don't you, pal? I don't think "carefully-crafted" and "raw talent" are antithetical. When you train a kid to fight, some come in with more raw talent than others, but they all can be taught skills. Why even try to get by on raw talent when you could be much better if you worked at it? Several of my family are very accomplished martial artists—one is a legitimate Grand Master, another has won so many gold medals at the International Police-Fire Games that we stopped counting. Another is a remarkably gifted natural athlete: he had the size to play defensive end at a high level, the speed to compete in the 440, the grace to high-jump … and he was a fine wrestler, too. But it took him years of hard and devoted work to achieve his black belt in Kung Fu. He could always fight. And he often did. But, now, he's a very different man. Much harder to get him into a fight. And much worse for you if you manage the feat.
TONY BLACK: You've described success in writing as a 'crap shoot', would you care to expand?
ANDREW VACHSS: Bottom line: this nonsense of "cream always rises to the top" is crap. Look anywhere you want: there are better musicians busking on the streets than you can find on major labels; actors who have ten times the talent as major stars, but you'll never see them in a movie. And unpublished writers who are better than plenty of those who are published. Everyone knows some boxers who could put the current "champion" to sleep will never get that chance—that "sport" is all about connections. When it comes to the arts, it's even worse … some of the most talented never even get to step into the ring. Of course "success" in writing is a crap shoot, because you can't succeed if you're not allowed to compete. Remember, just about everyone on earth believes they can write; and all they have to do is walk into any bookstore, nose around a bit, and they'll find absolute proof that they can write better than someone who actually has been published. How else to explain the self-publishing empires that have sprung up? If I hadn't caught lightning in a bottle, I never would have been published in the first place—equivalent to throwing the hard eight a dozen times in the same night, so what else would you call it?
PART FOUR: PULP PUSHER TALKS TO ANDREW VACHSS
TONY BLACK: Do you believe the chance of success for new writers in the current publishing world is diminishing?
ANDREW VACHSS: No, I don't. But I believe the path a lot of "crime writers" have chosen is going to take them right over the edge of the cliff … all the way down to oblivion. Ass-kissing, favor-trading, self-promoting, "networking" … Yeah, that might get you "published," (and certainly well-reviewed in certain quarters, if you follow the rules). After all, "blog-blog" is the new "blah-blah". But it will not sell the books. So if "success" is saying "I'm a published author," fine. But if you want to be respected—as opposed to "liked"—you have to handle your business. Link-exchanges aren't the way to do that. Neither are planted "reviews" on Amazon and the like. If every writer who asked me for a blurb because I am his "absolute favorite" actually bought my books, I could probably buy a very fine house with those royalties alone. Because those letters arrive with such frequency—and appear to have been written by following some "Networking for Dummies" manual—we actually have a form letter for responding. The worst part of this is that the price of admission to some of these clubs is you have to slam those not on the Approved List. Obedience is demanded, and deviation is punished. I've actually experienced a "writer" attacking one of my books in a "review" for a "noir" site—which, here's a shock, then started to give him some play—later apologize for that "review," admit it was motivated by something other than the contents of the book, and post a public apology on his blog. However, that blog links to those of others, who would not approve. Immediately, the apology was nuked, removed from his archives, never to appear again. How "hardboiled" of him. I want to support new writers. By the way, thanks for the term, Tony. I am way tired of hearing about "young" writers, as if they are a special breed, entitled to special privileges. But I don't consider a writer "new" unless he or she just began to write. "Unpublished" and "new" are not synonyms. Check The Zero … does that look like a writer's personal ego-site to you? But there must be some kind of how-to manual out there I don't know about; one that tells "new" writers to solicit established writers for blurbs, or ask them how to find an agent, or to read their manuscript, etc. That kind of time and energy needs to go into your work, not your image. Writing your own reviews may be satisfying, but only in the same way masturbation would be. The most powerful force that keeps any writer in business is word-of-mouth. That means delivering the goods, not exchanging self-congratulations with others and posting them for "all" to see. How would I like to see it done? How's this? Put up a giant website, containing NOTHING but samples. Any writer could submit, say, a 2,000-word excerpt from their work (published or not). The public could then look for free, and the results would be the fairest fight imaginable. The rules? No writer could be identified, no writer gets special placement, special fonts, colors … nothing! Just like the old days, when you went into a record store, took a few 45s into one of the booths, listened, picked the one (or more) you wanted, and BOUGHT it. I and not talking about "hits," or "comments" … we both know how some "writers" spend more time spamming Amazon than they do improving their craft … I am talking about levelling the field, see? Because, once word gets around, PUBLISHERS are going to be looking there, too! But the real question is: Why ask me? This isn't a question for Andrew Vachss, it's one for Tony Black. Aren't you a new writer? Didn't you just land a contract with a major house? So how did you do it? I promise you this: your answer is the one folks reading this interview are going to care about. So, how did you get there? What advice do you have for others who want to end up in the same place?
TONY BLACK: Truth told, when my agent called to say Random House wanted PAYING FOR IT I thought it was a wind up. Seriously. It was such a shock. How I got there is still something I haven't figured out. I'd been writing for about seven years, with five novels on the clock, agented in the UK and the USA, before I got a bite. So, I'm the wrong person to give advice. But, pressed, I'd say this: switch to acting … the odds on cracking Hollywood have got to be better! Can I ask when did you first realise you wanted to be a writer? Did anyone nurture your ambitions at a young age?
ANDREW VACHSS: I never wanted to become a writer. I had all sorts of ambitions at a young age, and added a bunch more the second puberty showed up. Some folks nurtured them, others tried to stomp them out. I knew I could write—because people I trusted told me so. But I never had the "call," the way true writers do. Joe Lansdale HAS to write; just as Geofrey Darrow HAS to draw, and Doc Pomus HAS to make music (actually, "had," I still miss my old pal). They all felt this, inside them, compelling them to their destiny. Not me. Writing is a tool, one that has proved itself worthy. But if I had a better one, I'd use that instead.
TONY BLACK: Your own attempts to get into print were fraught with difficulties, yet early on you had a supportive agent who believed in your ability, are there still people like that championing new writers?
ANDREW VACHSS: I don't think there will ever be another Victor Chapin. Not ever. He was almost mythological. He believed in me, and even fought with me when I wanted to pack it in. He died without ever seeing a book of mine published—that book was dedicated to him, and all my books have been dedicated to fallen comrades, since—and never made a dime out of all his efforts. It still saddens me that he never saw the fruits of what he nourished so faithfully. Today, I don't have an agent. This is not an accident. If I knew of agents such as those you asked about, I would at least be able to answer the constant stream of letters I get asking me the same question. Unfortunately, I don't. That doesn't mean they don't exist, only that I don't know any of them. I'd like to champion writers, but how do I distinguish the manipulators from the real thing? Usually, by the company they keep. Or the form letters they send.
TONY BLACK: If you had the chance to do it all again—knowing what you do about the industry—would you do it all again? Is there anything you wouldn't do? Or, would do differently?
ANDREW VACHSS: There are a million things in my life I can think of that I would do differently (or not at all) if I had the chance again. But the writing thing, no. It was only confluence-of-the-planets that I even got my chance, and I know it. But I also don't know of any way I could have made it happen, because there's things I won't do … then, or now. Actually, the timing worked out for me. Had I been published when Victor was still my agent, I never could have ended up with the opportunities that resulted. I got the chance to tell Oprah that her "forgiveness" twaddle was hurting all kinds of folks who believed they had to forgive if they wanted to "hea.l" Some of my favorite fan letters are from Children of the Secret who tell me how Burke validated their hate. I got to write cover stories for Parade—the largest circulation magazine in America—on the only topic I care about. I got to author legislation. Write op-eds in major newspapers. Speak to audiences all over the world, in person. And ended up a founding member of American's only children protection lobbying organization [www.protect.org]. The books opened all those doors. Would they have done so a decade earlier? Probably not, I'm thinking.
TONY BLACK: It's said you don't sign contracts, or accept advances, is this true? If so, why?
ANDREW VACHSS: It's true to this extent: I don't sign contracts to WRITE a book, and I don't accept advances to WRITE a book. Here's how I do it: First, I write a book. Then I offer it to my publisher. If he says "yes," we have a deal. It's always the same deal—I've been with the house so long that I have my own contractual boilerplate—but neither of us feel the need to have a signed contract right away. They trust me; I trust them. Sooner or later—often when the book is already in galleys—a contract arrives. Unlike the movie contracts, I don't have to hyper-scan them to check for land mines. Hell, I wouldn't have to read them; I'm sure they don't. My publisher is my home. I've been with them since the second book, and never intend to leave. I love it there. I have a truly superb editor—not the kind of weakling who needs to leave his "tracks" on a manuscript, the kind of real editor who wants to make all his writers better. Classy covers—a big deal with me; I have terminated numerous foreign deals over their proposed covers for my books; I'm hardly anti-sex, but exploiting images of children on the cover of my books would make a mockery of their contents … and a hypocrite of me. Wonderful in-house support. A personal friendship with the publisher. Folks who go well out of their way to help, because they believe in what I'm doing. It's where I belong. But I would never sign a contract or take an advance, because that would mean I am promising to deliver a manuscript by a certain time, and my life doesn't permit that. So I just write it first, do my best to get it right, send it in, and wait for the answer. So far, it's always been "yes." As my editor is young enough to be my son, I suspect the only thing that will change my publishing arrangement is when I reach a place I can't send manuscripts from.
TONY BLACK: Outside the crime genre who are the writers you most admire?
ANDREW VACHSS: See above. I don't make those distinctions.
TONY BLACK: And, finally, I know you're a sports fan, can you predict how long it will take LA Galaxy to realise they've bought a pup?
ANDREW VACHSS: How did I get to be a sports fan all of a sudden? Betting on sports doesn't make you a fan. I'm a life-long gambler—restricted to harness racing and boxing when it comes to events in which I do not personally participate; including cards and pool when I do—but I couldn't tell you the name of most sports teams, much less the players … although, trust me, I know who Michael Vick is. So I assume you're referring to Beckham, right? If so, this has nothing to do with "sport." The people who paid all that money made an investment in a commodity. Beckham could stink out the joint, but if the joint was full, the money-men couldn't care less. I hate footnotes, but I also won't intentionally leave anyone the wrong impression. In my younger days, I boxed. I even played football (American football) in college as a freshman. Talked into it by the lunatics I hung out with at the time; the broken ribs eventually healed. The endless other injuries—nose, jaw, bones, etc. were all job-related (or personal), nothing to do with sports. I did manage to realize every working class boy's dream (next to buying my mother a house, of course) when I formed a syndicate to buy Gypsy Flame, a filly trotter who did us all proud. I still watch boxing, but I have been seriously disenchanted with it ever since Sonny Liston, and now see it as a ludicrous series of mismatches for meaningless "belts," hard to stay interested. My two biggest scores—not counting at the track—were Michael Watson to beat Nigel Benn, (the UK is just wonderful; I was there for the first time in my life, and asked the bellhop where I could find a bookie as I just got into town. He said, "Down the street, isn't it?" as if I'd asked him what day it was), and Hasim Rahman over Lennox Lewis (both at spectacular odds; the former for obvious reasons; the latter because people ignored Lewis not training at the altitude he had to fight at, as well as his habit of crossing his ankles as he stepped back after a left jab, which had made him easy for Oliver McCall). So I'm no sports fan. But I do wish for the Chicago Cubs to finally win the big one—Chicago is my second home, and I share the Northsiders pain. And I equally wish for the Indians, Braves, and any other team that uses similar names to never win another. One of my brothers is a Chickasaw; tell him Columbus discovered America at your own risk!
TONY BLACK'S first novel PAYING FOR IT is to be published by Random House in 2008. Ken Bruen kindly praised the book, saying it "blasts off the page like a triple malt … one adrenaline-pumped novel that is as moving and compassionate as it is so stylishly written". More of his writing can be found online at: Scotsman.com, Books from Scotland, Thug Lit, Shots, Demolition and is forthcoming in Out of the Gutter. Black lives and works in Edinburgh. Reach him at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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