Andrew Vachss Interview with Dan Webster
Originally posted at SpokesmanReview.com, June 19, 2005
If you know the name Andrew Vachss, then you likely know the name Burke.
Burke is the name of the character that Vachss (pronounced as in fax) has used in 18 novels, each of which revolves around one of Vachss' career-long obsessions: crimes against children.
Vachss, who has lived in Portland for the past couple of years, makes his first trip to Spokane on Wednesday to do a 7:30 p.m. reading of his latest book Two Trains Running (Pantheon, 464 pages, $25).
A native New Yorker, Vachss boasts a resume that reads like something out of a Workaholic's Anonymous pamphlet.
He's done relief work during the Biafran War, held several jobs including in prisons and in various government programs, working as a lawyer specializing in child abuse cases, writing novels, numerous essays, legal articles, op–ed pieces, a couple of textbooks and even a children's book ("Another Chance to Get It Right") that he describes as "for adults."
He travels so much, he says, that his wife, attorney-author Alice Vachss, "and I spend more time on damn airplanes than we do holding hands."
The Vachsses went to Portland a couple of years ago when Alice took a job there. The couple dad been living in Queens in a house noted for its security because, as Vachss has said, "We have many enemies."
Instead of being another Burke novel, Two Trains Running is a variation of Dashiell Hammett's 1928 novel "Red Harvest." Hammet's character, known only as the Continental OP, comes to a corrupt town named Personville—Poisonville to its residents—and instigates the various sides to war against each other. The result is massive bloodshedding, which weakens the criminals' hold on power, allowing the possibility of a crime-free future.
"In "Two Trains Running," the town of Locke City has various factions vying for power. Characters include the entrenched gang, the Mafia and other mob groups that want to take over, white-power advocates and black revolutionaries, a hired killer and a reporter willing to take short cuts to get to the truth.
"Vachss plows a field famously sowed by Dashiell Hammett and reaps his own kind of red harvest . . . dark, violent, blood-drenched, page-turning," wrote a reviewer for Kirkus Reviews.
In the course of a recent half-hour interview, Vachss talked about his new novel as well as such wide-ranging tops as his writing about the Michael Jackson case, the 1955 lynching of Emmett Till in Mississippi, the murder trial of Edgar Ray Killen for his part in the murder of three Civil Rights workers in 1963, journalists with shaky ethics — Jayson Blair, Stephen Glass and Janet Cooke — and the legal troubles of former Oregon Governor Neil Goldschmidt.
Dan Webster: Thanks for calling.
Andrew Vachss: I'm grateful for the opportunity.
DW: Where are you calling from?
AV: Right at this exact moment?
AV: Down on the Oregon Coast.
DW: Oh, man, I'm gonna be there in the middle of July. I went to the University of Oregon and got my graduate degree in journalism, and I've always loved Oregon.
AV: (Pause) Hmmmmmm, I've got mixed feelings about it.
DW: Yeah, well you're an East Coast guy. What brought you out to Portland?
AV: I was born and raised in Lower Manhattan. I spent my whole life there. What brought me out here, uh, how long a story do you want? My wife was chief of the Special Victims Bureau in New York. She got into a major front-page dispute because she wouldn't go along to get along on a certain case. Wrote a whole book about it, called "Sex Crimes" (Random House, 1993).
DW: Right. I was just reading the autobiography that you have on your Web site.
AV: So what happened was I promised her, right after she got fired, if she ever got a chance to get back in the ring, we'd go wherever that ring was. She got an offer to do some real heavy-duty work here with stalking victims. So we moved out here. We knew it was a temporary gig, two-three years. And the gig is over, and we're getting ready to go home.
DW: So you're going back to Manhattan?
AV: Oh, yeah.
DW: To the same house you had in Queens?
AV: (laughs) No, I only wish. I'm really not one of these people who wants to rent a house from other people.
DW: Oh, I see. So you sold it.
AV: We had to. It was a hard sell because with all the special features that we had added, for security, people looked at it and went, "Oh, God." But it finally sold."
DW: So do you have a job waiting? Does she have a job?
AV: OK, Alice doesn't have a job waiting because she isn't looking for one. She is on the peer review committee for the Violence Against Women Act in Washington, D.C., and she does an enormous amount of consulting. In fact, she was in Spokane a couple of years ago because you apparently have a very, very active anti-sexual-assault community out there. So, no, she and I spend more time on damn airplanes than we do holding hands.
DW: Well, you know, I've gotta say, after reading your resume I was looking at my life and feel as if I haven't accomplished a damn thing. I look at your resume and I go, "Where the hell do you get all the time to do everything that you've done."
AV: Actually, it's really pretty simple. I wasn't a middle-class kid. I'm a working-class guy. And I was raised with the idea that if you want to make something of yourself you work overtime. So, I've had two jobs for probably longer than you've been alive.
DW: Well, I'm 57, so...
AV: Oh, I thought you were...
DW: No, no, no, I'm...
AV: You know what? I knew you had to be older because you're a J-school graduate, and there aren't many of those.
DW: Yeah, I'm a Vietnam veteran, too.
AV: Oh, are you?
DW: Yeah, so when I was reading your autobiography there was a lot of stuff that I could relate to. All the post-war stuff, the Klan stuff, you know, the Civil Rights stuff. I was a kid going through all that same stuff, but not the way you were. I mean, I was the son of a military officer, so I went into the army, got in there five minutes and went "What the hell am I doing here?" Went to Vietnam and said, "What am I doing here?"
AV: You were on the ground?
DW: I was attached to the military police, and we did harbor security. I drove river patrol boats up on the central coast. It wasn't like what the navy did, but it was more like big-city police work. You're checking boats, you're checking IDs...
AV: In harm's way.
DW: Yeah. Exactly. A lot of brutality, if not actual death, because you know how cops are.
AV: I know how cops are. In fact, a good pal of mine was an MP in Vietnam.
DW: You know the problem is, you get involved with those guys and you become part of what they are. And then if you have a conscience later on, you go, "What was I doing?" I still feel as if I have years of atonement to do.
AV: So then you get this book perfectly.
DW: Well, I'm only 117 pages into it...
AV: Oh, then you haven't gotten to that part yet.
DW: ...but I'm totally enthralled in this. When I was reading things about it, somebody had mentioned 'Red Harvest,' and went, 'Damn, that's exactly right' - except that it's an updated 'Red Harvest' with much more of a point than I think that Hammett had. I'm not sure what Hammett's point was...
AV: Me either.
DW: It was a good book, but yours obviously does have a point. And it does build upon the other things that you have written, although you are heading in a different direction.
AV: I am, and intentionally so.
DW: So, tell me about that. I did read the two-page statement that you wrote, but I'm more curious to hear in your own words where you see your career as a writer heading here.
AV: I don't know about my career as a writer, because I've never actually looked at myself that way. Look, anybody who has served in combat in any way understands that words are weapons. And I'm in a war. The war hasn't stopped. I've always used the books as a blunt instrument. For example, did you read the New York Times Op-Ed piece that I wrote a couple of days ago?
DW: No, I'm sorry. I didn't. I'll go back and find it.
AV: It was in Wednesday, the lead Op-Ed. They asked me to write about the Michael Jackson verdict, and I chose instead to use that as a Trojan Horse and write about celebrity obsession masquerading as concern for abused kids. That's essentially what I try to do with everything I write, which is get to the core. This book, if you look at 1959, and you go five years back and then five years forward, you've got America - you've got America as it is today. And people don't get that. People think that 1959 was "Happy Days." And it's all coming to the surface now. They just exhumed Emmett Till's body. They've got Killen on trial in Mississippi for killing Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman. All kinds of Civil Rights prosecutions are surfacing, and what they have in common is somebody opened FBI files.
DW: (pause) Through the FOI (Freedom of Information act).
AV: I don't think so. I think there's political will, for whatever purpose, that the FBI is opening its own files.
DW: Which is interesting. It just seems to play into the FBI being Deep Throat, also.
AV: Indeed. Exactly.
DW: You know, it is really interesting because even with this information coming out, attempts are being made by the Bush administration, among others, to close down the FOI to all sorts of information that we've had access to in the past few years. Or the policy is to throw a legal impediment at FOI requests every step of the way, so you have to give up sooner or later.
AV: That's the point of this book. This book is my ode to journalism. I consider journalism, investigative journalism, to be THE maintainer of democracy. If you take that out of the picture, then we have no chance. As a society, as a people, we have no chance whatsoever. And the hero, albeit flawed, in this book is the journalist.
DW: Yeah, I see that. And while I appreciate it, because ideally that's what I want it to be, I look around and I've discussed this with people at the New York Times, this is an era of shame for journalism.
AV: That's the point. Exactly. This is my ode to journalism as it should be. For me, journalism is like a pilgrimage, and what's being sought is not enlightenment, not personal growth, but truth. And the purveyors of truth, beyond dispute, are the heroes of every single society. Look, you were over there: "Hearts and Minds," right? I was in Biafra, as you know. Control of the media was everything, and the truth-tellers vanished, not because they wanted to but because by the time I got on the ground there were no journalists in Biafra. Because the way they were reporting it was not acceptable. I think journalism is not just in decline, it's in danger. When you have a Jayson Blair becoming a celebrity, when you have a Stephen Glass becoming a celebrity, when you have journalist after journalist busted for making up stories and then sent to some rehabilitation camp and then reappearing at the same newspaper ... and did you read the piece that I wrote in Parade magazine a few weeks ago?
DW: No, sorry, I don't get Parade magazine.
AV: OK, well. What I do is I attack the whole way that journalism reports. For example, the phrase "child prostitution"?
AV: It's filth. What they need is "prostituted children." They call the sexual assault of a child "fondling." They call a teacher preying on a student "an affair." And all of this has eroded our perception, and it's journalism that's responsible.
DW: I agree. Take a look at another word that's being used: "insurgents." In Iraq. I don't know how it is that we fall so easily into these easily identifiable labels that don't say anything after a while.
AV: Well, because we're not willing to do the work, No. 1. Because movies are doing the work for people. Look, the habit of reading newspapers has dropped. And that's a sin. Remember, I was raised in a town where when I was a young man you could buy a dozen, no exaggeration, different news papers on the newsstand. We had tabloid wars that were unbelievable. If I'm a fan of anything, it's not baseball, it's journalism. And I really look at journalism, and I really feel bad. When I talk to young people who say, "What can I do? How could I get on the front lines?" And I say, "Journalism. Not social work, not law, journalism because it's journalism that finds the truth on which others act. This whole book is about that. Now, are reviewers going to get that? No. But, so what?
DW: Well, I look forward to picking up on that message, because, for many other reasons, but for the 25 years that I've been at this newspaper, I've watched the circulation steadily drop. When I was a kid growing up - my father was in the navy and we moved all over the United States - everywhere we went we had a morning and afternoon newspaper. Everywhere. My parents were literate people. And now, here in this town, we have one newspaper. Seattle struggles to have two newspapers. Portland has, basically, the Oregonian, which we used to call the "Boregonian."
AV: That's a pathetic newspaper. That's sad.
DW: They used to have some investigative journalism going on there.
AV: And today, when they have a major story, like the former governor of Oregon, sexually abusing a child for a number of years, they get scooped by the Willamette Week. And then they turn around and write a puff piece about the ex-governor in exchange for an exclusive.
DW: Who was that? [Neil] Goldschmidt?
DW: Oh, my god. He was also in Clinton's cabinet, wasn't he? (Note: Goldschmidt was Jimmy Carter's Secretary of Transportation)
AV: He was a big, big player. And what a story, but they just let it go. All they are is a shill for Powell's Bookstore. It's sad.
DW: You know, when you look at television and when the only real political commentary is being done by Jon Stewart on "The Daily Show," that's really pathetic. What does that say?
AV: Oh, please. This "fair and balanced" thing ... what can I say? The idea that people will tune in for liberal or conservative news as opposed to "news" and make up their own mind ... it's just stunning.
DW: The idea that we have to have more "faith-based" news. We have to go out and give the people what they want. Baloney. Television gives people what they want.
AV: Amen. Hell, we've got faith-based prisons. I hope you know that.
DW: No, actually I didn't.
AV: I do an enormous amount of business ... my books are like best-sellers in prisons.
DW: The Burke series?
AV: I get so much mail from inside you wouldn't believe it. I learned, because I got the letters - and at first I didn't believe it and then I checked it out - there are faith-based prisons in Florida. That's it. That's the requirement. And the ugly part is, they're not exactly equal prisons. So you can go from maximum-security regular prison to medium-security faith-based ... Is that a story that's being covered? No.
DW: So, in other words, if you say you're a Christian, you get better treatment.
AV: Not just better treatment, better opportunity, better parole shot. Come on.
DW: Well, some people would say that's exactly the way it should be.
AV: Really. That we should have a Christian country? That we should have a theocracy?
DW: People are saying that.
AV: Oh, I know they are. And they're saying it very bluntly with a lot of sense of security.
DW: That comes from the top on down.
AV: We get a ton of mail on the Web site, young people writing these snotty little notes saying, "Well, I voted for Ralph Nader because I wanted an alternative, and there's no difference between Bush and Gore, anyway." Yeah? No difference between Bush and Kerry, huh? OK.
DW: My answer always is, "I know what you mean. I can look at it and see that. But there's a thing called the Supreme Court." It's already as conservative as it's been in my lifetime.
AV: If he gets even one more appointment...
DW: It's all over.
AV: ... I agree. Just one more, and then the balance shifts for the rest of our lives.
DW: And maybe for my daughter's. She's 26.
AV: Indeed, indeed. It's ugly, but it's journalism that stands against this.
DW: Journalism and people who write novels. One of the historical parts of literature has been putting messages behind fiction. Everybody's done it.
AV: Of course. To me, that is a form of journalism, you see? It's reporting because ... I don't know where page 157 is in the book? Have you gotten to my explanation as to how Capone actually got syphilis?
AV: I've already gotten all this reaction to it. "Well, how can you say such things?" And yet, you'll see, it's extremely well-defended. And what I want to do is create not people who think they have the answers but people who are motivated to ask questions. If you ask the questions, you'll see that my so-called speculative fiction might not be so speculative.
DW: Yeah, speculative with quotation marks around it.
AV: Well, I've got speculation that I can defend to a great extent. Was I listening in on conversations? No, of course not. But if you ask most Americans what's the Tuskegee Experiment, they just draw a blank.
AV: And that's the lead-in to that whole line of argument, you see?
DW: "Now With Bill Moyers" did a great show a couple of years ago on the Tuskegee Experiment. My daughter used to work for "Now," but she, her stepmother and I and about seven other people used to watch that program. Unfortunately.
AV: That's why I wanted to put it in a book, you see. Because I know that people really read these books, and every time I put something in a book, no matter what it is, there are people who write in and say, "What are you talking about?" And we just direct them to the source.
DW: Well, what have you got in the works? What are you working on next?
AV: The next book will be a Burke novel. And it'll be about trafficking. It's got a title and everything. It's in the pipeline. See, the difference is, unlike a Burke book, I've been working on Two Trains Running for many, many years.
DW: Well, according to your autobiography, your interest in being a writer goes way back. It predates your interest in the law.
AV: Oh, my interest in the law came extremely late. I became a lawyer because I was tired of getting fired. I mean, I did all these jobs that I thought were extremely important, but, you know, when I ran the maximum-security prison for violent youth, I was going to court all the time. And I couldn't believe what passed for representation. That was the final impetus that that sent me to be a lawyer. But if it hadn't been for the experiences that I'd had, I never would have become a lawyer. Writing to me was not a form of self-expression but a way of packaging truth in a form that people would digest. Because more people will read a novel than will read a newspaper story.
DW: That's absolutely the case. And to a certain extent, I'm glad that's so, even though that doesn't say very good things about journalism.
AV: Well, it doesn't say good things about the habits of Americans. But it also does speak negatively about journalism because it is in decline. I mean, Janet Cook wasn't an aberration. See, the thing in journalism that kills me is that writing is exalted over reporting.
DW: Well, yeah, Mitch Albom. Did you follow that thing? Mitch Albom is a sportswriter for the Detroit Free Press who was making things up.
AV: I understand. And that's heresy. I mean, you can't do that. And then, now, instead of journalism we have blogging, and that's supposed to be journalism. Please. I get interviewed a lot, and what I've noticed is that I never get a follow-up from a fact-checker.
AV: Meaning in the past - not for an interview like this, which is a straight newspaper story but in an interview for a magazine where they're doing a profile - I would get a follow-up from a fact-checker who would say, "The reporter says blah-blah-blah. Is that what you said?" It doesn't happen anymore.
DW: Well, of course. And why is that? That's because to maintain a 15- to 20-percent profit, you cut your staff to the bone. So you don't have fact-checkers. And it's even worse for magazines.
AV: Much worse for magazines.
DW: I mean, the New Yorker may still be the only one that does it. But I don't know if even they do it anymore.
AV: I think that fact-checking as a profession, which was an honorable profession, has just about vanished. I mean, it used to be the way that investigative reporters broke in. Because what better training?
DW: Yeah. Hey, Andrew, thanks for the opportunity to talk to you. I've known about you for years and very curious about you, so I jumped at the chance to talk to you.
AV: Well, I'm glad for the chance to, because Spokane is one of the few places that I haven't visited on a book tour. This is a first for me.
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