Very few writers have as intimate a relationship with their subject matter as crime-novelist Andrew Vachss. A crime-fiction novelist, Vachss’s career spans four decades, pulling in his true-to-life experiences as an attorney, child-protection consultant and animal advocate. Perhaps best known for authoring The Burke Series, Vachss has written 25 books and has also penned songs, poetry, screenplays, stage plays and graphic novels. Vachss has two books coming out this summer, Mortal Lock and Aftershock, and was kind enough to chat with the Pulse about these two latest titles.
Murfreesboro Pulse: First question: You’ve worked in various capacities in the field of child protection, ranging from social and legal services to working in the penal system for New York. As a writer, do you find it hard to turn your mind off from “writing mode”? Are you always thinking as a writer?
Andrew Vachss: I don’t “think” about writing at all. I originally wrote a textbook on dealing with the serious, violent, and habitual juvenile offender. But that book had no chance to reach the much larger audience I wanted, so I turned to “fiction” as a means to an end.
MP: Interesting. So writing is really a means to an end. We were actually looking at your Wikipedia page.
Vachss: I don’t own a Wikipedia page…
MP: Well, we know you don’t own the page per se, but the one about you…
Vachss: (Laughs) There’s a lot of stuff out there that’s either made-up, misquoted, or just some kind of word salad. Quotes have been attributed to me that I never said. There are various Facebook pages, sure. And The Zero, the website of our collective. Those pages were created, and are now maintained, by others, the volunteer collective who are far less devoted to my writing than the reason for that writing. If they see something I might want to respond to personally, they’ll get hold of me. Otherwise, their own judgment controls the produce, and I trust them completely.
MP: Fair enough. On the subject of your bibliography, you’re credited for Batman: The Ultimate Evil, a two-volume series about child sex tourism in Gotham. Though it deviated from traditional Batman stories, I liked your take on Batman. People have said for years that superheroes should be darker, with Batman being one of them. I liked the fact that someone addressed the uglier side of Gotham City. You didn’t just have people out in colorful capes. You had someone out to stop “monsters” in a philosophical sense.
Vachss: I’ve got as much interest in Batman as I do in diamond mining. But with the Batman character, I had the opportunity to reach people who might otherwise never come in contact with the realities I write about. This was a chance to expose to the kiddie sex trade going on in Thailand (among other places). Some fans of the comic saw the changes I made to the origins of the character and became outraged. Others saw what I was doing . . . and why. I wanted to bring proper attention to what was going on. As it worked out, the Thai Parliament first filed protests (and even contacted me directly), but, eventually, some actual change occurred. Now, when people go to Thailand as “child sex tourists,” the Thai government is returning some of them, sometimes in handcuffs. I never thought that any book could stop those practices . . . just focus attention on them. Americans can still go to other foreign countries for the sole purpose of sexually abusing a child, but now they have to reconsider their activities, especially in light of extra-territorial laws whereby an individual can be prosecuted in this country for crimes committed against children overseas.
MP: That’s interesting that you didn’t think your story would have that magnitude. Look at Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and what it did for the Civil War for instance.
Vachss: I’m not at all certain that our Civil War was all about abolition of slavery . . . other interests played a role as well. Look at what was called the “Nigerian Civil War.” It utterly wiped out a country once calling itself “Biafra” . . . although none called it “genocide.” And it was not about “rebellion,” it was about tribalism. And, of course, oil.
MP: I think many people would agree with that. People often pitch an idea to the masses that “we’re fighting this war for this cause”, but a lot of wars seem to be fought for power and political control. But, going back, wouldn’t you say that your story served as something of a catalyst in exposing child sex tourism in the public perception?
Vachss: I’m not trying to say that my actions stopped or prevented child sex abuse from happening. All I’m saying is that I wrote the damned book, and subsequently certain things happened.
MP: That’s a great quote btw. “Certain things happened after I wrote the damned book”. Talking of the subject, let’s talk about your philosophy on monsters.
Vachss: I don’t have a philosophy on monsters.
MP: One might argue you write a lot about them. How would you define a monster?
Vachss: My definition of a monster . . . a predator who preys for profit or pleasure as opposed to survival. A cheetah isn’t a monster; it only has the one option. But humans have many options. If the way you gratify yourself is to prey on others, then you’re a monster in my book.
MP: Interesting. Moving on, you have quite a body of work, having written almost 30 books in a period spanning 40 years. With popular authors such as yourself, it’s become “par-for-the-course” for authors to be approached to have their works optioned for film and television. What are you thoughts on your work being adapted for motion pictures?
Vachss: I don’t have any thoughts at all. A while back there was this piece in Variety that led people to believe the Burke series was “in development hell.” But that’s just movie-boy nonsense: the story was true when first printed, but it didn’t remain true. Virtually everything I’ve written has been optioned, but, at this time, all such rights have reverted to me.
MP: So Variety kind of perpetuated that? . . . And you would say it’s been in development Hell for a while?
Vachss: No, and no. Variety prints when deals are made, not when they go south. What’s the source of that “development hell” crap? Ah, yes, the sacred Internet. As I’ve said before, many times, the Internet is hardly some trustworthy source.
MP: Fair enough. You’ve got two books coming up. Discussing the first book, titled Aftershock, how would you describe the story?
Vachss: You’ve got the order reversed. Mortal Lock is just out now, while Aftershock—the start of a new series—releases next month. Its protagonist/narrator has no memory of his own childhood, having walked away from the “clinic” when he was being treated for retrograde amnesia when he was around 10 years old. He was rescued from the gutters of Paris by an old man who had once served in the French Resistance. He’s becomes a ex-legionnaire, and later, a mercenary. Wounded in combat, he wakes up a makeshift hospital run by Doctors Without Borders. Much of that is a blur, especially the nurse who cared for him, a young woman named Dolly. Dell is never really sure Dolly was anything but an apparition, until their paths cross again. From that point on, Dell has only one raison d’etre . . . to find Dolly her “dream,” some place where she can live in peace, away from the horrors she saw daily for too many years. They settle is a little cottage in a picturesque seaside village. But the idyllic facade soon crumbles, and things happen . . . things both Dell and Dolly are forced to deal with.
Without giving too much away, Aftershock is really about America’s “rape culture,” a culture so pervasive that there’s no place immune to it. There’s no safe place from it. If this sounds like an outrageous accusation to you, just check the recent events in Steubenville, Ohio. Young men commit atrocities, and get treated as juvenile offenders, while thevictimis the target of Internet threats traced to young girls in that same town. It’s hideous enough to be the victim of a sex crime, but a thousand times worse when the community appears to side with the perpetrators.
MP: In addition to Aftershock, you have another book coming out, titled Mortal Lock. As this is your third collection of short stories, do you find it easier to write a bunch of short stories as a collected narrative, or do you think it’s easier to write one-big story? What’s your process with that?
Vachss: I don’t have a “process.” If it takes a page to say something, it takes me a page to say it. Whenever or whatever I write, I ask “What do I want to achieve?” and “Is this going to do that job?” It’s always a question of audience. Some of the stories in Mortal Lock have already appeared elsewhere, but I seriously doubt most folks with subscriptions to Playboy also subscribe to Ellery Queen.
MP: We understand that one of the stories included is a screenplay. Was that a different experience for you, thinking in terms of motion pictures as opposed to novels?
Vachss: Just the same. “Writing” is not some spiritual thing for me. And I’m not having an orgasm while I write, either.
MP: That’s funny. Can I quote you on that?
Vachss: Anything I actually say, you can quote me.
MP: Fair enough. Going to your first story, “Ghost Writer”, to me that sounds like a critique of someone you might know. Were you channeling anyone when you wrote that? Did you have a particular person in mind?
Vachss: “Channeling”? How do you do that, with crystals, or chanting, or what? That story is intended to illustrate the workings of a sociopathic mind—in this case, someone who believes it is his destiny to be a “published author” and his right is to be lionized for his work. As one societal barrier after another is torn down, you see how such an individual achieves his goals, and who pays for that.
MP: Another story in “Mortal Lock”, titled “Bloodlines, caught my eye. It’s about a hit man stalking his target at a race track?
Vachss: I used to own a couple race horses. I still own one, but she’s not going to race . . . a real sweetheart if you want to ride her, but hook her up to the cart . . . she’s not having that. The story is a play on the concept that “racing improves the breed.” Harness racing evolved from a couple of guys driving produce wagons to market, and getting into it without a word being spoken, kind of like two guys pulling up to a stoplight at night and blipping the throttle. Some people believed you could breed certain characteristics in a person, like a horse. But those who most believed it also believed that “undesirables” should be culled. I don’t believe you can be born “bad.” Your behavior is your truth, not your speeches. As far as I know, we’re the only species that preys on each other. And that doesn’t strike me as an improvement.
To keep up with Andrew Vachss, visit vachss.com. There you can find his “Righteous Reading” collection of recommended stories. Look for Mortal Lock and Aftershock at your favorite bookstores.