A Conversation with Andrew Vachss

On the occasion of the publication of Andrew Vachss’s new novel The Weight, Ken Bruen and Andrew Vachss talk about the blues, justifiable rage and writing for the streets not the critics.

Ken: Would you consider Two Trains Running your seminal work?

Andrew: Retro-seminal, in that it dissects events which have already occurred. Seminal was probably A Bomb Built in Hell…after all, who was even thinking about the possibility of a disaffected, marginalized young man walking into a high school with a knapsack full of weaponry, and killing a whole lot of random targets before taking his own life in 1973? Or Chinese youth gangs taking over from the traditional tongs in Chinatown industries such as gambling, drugs, and prostitution? Or what would happen in Haiti were someone to put a round in Baby Doc’s head before he fled to that bastion of art, France? You know, the same country that is now harboring Roman Polanski?

Ken: I know I miss Burke; do you?

Andrew: I don’t. Burke—who, by the way, suffered the same fate as Bomb when it (finally) did get published—got the job done. I needed a guide to Hell, and an angel wouldn’t do. So when Burke had a conversation with a predatory pedophile who was modem-trafficking in kiddie porn, the (cloistered) reviewers fell all over themselves dismissing the book (this was the second volume, Strega) as the work of a “sick imagination.” That was 1986. Now it’s a fairly standard plot device for the “noir” crowd. Of course, that crowd doesn’t like the word “seminal,” as only the very best Jim Thompson imitators qualify as “real.”

Damn, this is a long answer. But I don’t miss Burke in the “literary” sense. For many years, his only reason to live was hate, and his only religion was revenge. He was not a “vigilante,” as some twits have decided; he was a mercenary. But hiring him for some jobs would have been a suicidal act. Then he found his “family of choice.” They chose him; he chose them. And he became blood-bonded to this true family to the point of psychosis: endanger any of them, either you die, or Burke dies trying. The goal of a true family is not that their children follow in their footsteps, but that their children surpass them in all ways. For Burke’s family, the arc was complete when their children—raised by career criminals—left the underworld and stepped out into the light.

Look, who but a terminal narcissist would set out to write an 18-book series? I expected Flood to be my one chance in the ring, which is why it is so long: I threw every punch I could in the first round. But one of the significant ways Burke differed from “private eye” crap is that he aged. As did the world around him. I love those boys who “keep it real” via a protagonist who is the same in 2010 as he was in 1950. Oh, the surroundings change, but the narrator is still the strong, handsome, White Knight of the Chandler clones. It was time for Burke to go, and I was not going to keep him on life support. That wouldn’t have been his choice, and I had to respect that.

I know—not because I’m prescient; because I can read the letters that keep coming in—that ending the series was not a popular move. But I didn’t—such accusations to the contrary—“kill off” Burke. He’s gone, not dead. For those who felt they were losing part of their own family, I apologize. But I also want you to ask yourselves: is Wesley dead?

Ken: The music in Hard Candy: how important is this to you?

Andrew: Because I see myself as the “investigative novelist” Sonny Mehta dubbed me so many years ago, and because anyone who pays attention has heard “the blues are the truth,” the music is very important to me, for many reasons. I was taught the basics by the immortal Doc Pomus himself, for whom I wrote “Doc’s Blues,” which first appeared in Blossom. Once musicians figured out that the lyrics that often appear in the Burke series—such as “Bad Blood,” which first surfaced in Flood—were written by me, the door was open. So, for example, “Ghost” is direct from Shella…which was dedicated to Doc. I keep stockpiles of songs around, waiting for the right artist. I really want to hear my “Zombie Swamp Blues” done by Slim Harpo. That’s not possible, but Tab Benoit or Charlie Musselwhite would be perfect candidates.

I also wanted to introduce the blues to an audience which, for the most part, hadn’t heard of the form. Remember, New York isn’t a blues town; it’s a jazz town. But from the first time I set foot in Chicago, I knew that would always be my second home. Back then, I could hear stronger, more insistent, more demanding-of-attention music in some Chicago bars than I ever could in a concert arena.

Ken: If The Weight were to be filmed, who would you see in the role of Caine and what director?

Andrew: You’re asking the wrong man, here. Don’t you remember walking into a bookstore before you were published, Ken? How you’d pore through the “crime fiction” and know you could write better in your sleep? Writing is not a meritocracy. Nor is it a fair fight. By what criteria is writing measured? That’s right: by the personal tastes of the reader. And most readers are sheep who prefer to be guided by “reviewers” or bestseller lists. So just as I know there are better writers out there who will never get published, I believe there are better actors out there who will never get their chance before the cameras, better directors who will never get the financing, better singers than will ever get recorded…so, if it were truly up to me, I’d have an “open call” and let the best man (for that role) win.

Now here’s a question for you, Ken: Does the justifiable rage of not being recognized as a writer until you were published carry through in your work?

Ken: Always. Just yesterday, the Irish Crime Awards nominations were announced and of the 20 writers on it, nope, not a mention. The Irish Times phoned, asked if I felt bitter about the continuous blanking of me, I said ’tis a compliment that they have to go to such lengths to ignore me, fookem, so yes, the rage builds in fact.

Your wicked deadpan humor is seriously overlooked, do you care?

Andrew: I used to. But I’ve since learned that my reviews are in the street, not in the newspapers. Convicts seem to get it quite easily. As do folks who had to scratch for a living. Do I care if someone whose idea of “noir” is a pneumatic blonde walking into the decrepit office of an ex-cop fired for alcoholism who takes on whatever task is asked of him because his “honor” demands it? [Insert profanity of your choice], no! All the books are multi-layered, and deliberately so. Some will get one piece, some a few, others all. If I were to write for the common denominator reader, the joke would be on me.

Ken: Down in the Zero remains my all-time favorite. What do you think gave this novel such incredible muscle?

Andrew: Taking Burke way out of his element was certainly a factor. As was the insight into teen suicide, and how drug companies find ways to experiment on humans. But what seemed to hit people the hardest was me daring to say that there are humans who record beating their own children, and sell that product…because there is a real market for it. And that there were actual How to Discipline Your Child manuals sold, together with an “implements” order blank. That was considered so beyond outrageous that the reviewers almost choked on the bile they were desperate to spew. It was only when an entire international ring trafficking in this “product” was caught and convicted that they realized what they had dismissed as “fantasy” was all-too-real.1 That’s when they started with the life-imitating-art garbage. And my ability to “predict” certain horrors. It has yet to occur to this collection of maladroits that I was sending dispatches from the front lines. As I’ve said, many times: if I had but one wish, it would be that the foundational basis of my “fiction” was fictional.

Ken: Heart Transplant is a stunning piece of work. What was the genesis?

Andrew: What’s stunning is the artwork of Frank Caruso. He and I have worked together for eons. Our “triptych haiku” format was first developed as a piece of art to be auctioned off to benefit a child protective group in Sweden. Frank’s beyond-incredible ability to express words with art is stunning. Here’s the first example: http://www.vachss.com/mission/behavior.html. Many years later, we again partnered on a piece suggested to me when Honey, my beloved pit bull, had to leave us. The haiku had been written many years before, but my niece showed me that it would work for anyone who has lost a loved one. That one has been downloaded too many times to count, and endless numbers of folks who were close to someone who had suffered such a loss have written to say that triptych haiku said it all. Judge for yourself: http://www.vachss.com/10/caruso.html.

Pretty long-winded preamble, huh? Okay. It’s no secret that I hate bullies. Or that I consider bullying to be the root of all evil.2 When I was coming up, a guy who stood up was described as a guy who “had heart.”All too often, this was the only eulogy at a funeral nobody attended. So I wanted to take a shot at actually recoding our cultural software. The “solution” to bullying (in any form) isn’t always a punch in the mouth (or a nuclear strike). In fact, those aren’t solutions at all. Our culture has to change, and that change is long overdue. So I approached Frank with the insane idea that, once more, he and I would work together, on a much bigger stage. This is not some “illustrated book” or “graphic novel.” I don’t know what “medium” it fits in. I want it in school libraries and I want parents to read it. For me and Frank, it words-and-music. I suggested changes to his art (albeit minor ones) and he to my words (largely, “Can you say anything without profanity? We want this in the young adult section of the libraries, don’t we?”). Then we added the coup de grâce: an essay by Zak Mucha, a clinical social worker whose clients are truly the wretched of the earth.

You want “seminal”? That was my piece on emotional abuse, which ran as the cover story in America’s largest-circulation magazine. That one truly exploded the myth that there was some hierarchy of abuse—sexual abuse being the worst, of course, as it makes for better talk show fodder. In fact, emotional abuse is the one single factor I’ve found in all the true monsters I’ve met in my life. But it was being trivialized by everyone, including therapists. This quote—“When it comes to damage, there is no real difference between physical, sexual, and emotional abuse. All that distinguishes one from the other is the abuser’s choice of weapons”—has been used in everything from teaching curricula to group therapy. I wrote it over 16 years ago, and I still get letters every week about it (as it is now on our site). And they all say some version of this: “Thank you for validating my truth.” To our earlier point, although Down in the Zero had many targets, they were all founded on the same bedrock: emotional abuse.

Once we got it done—only took a little more than three years—we had to find a publisher. That turned out to be real easy. Frank could have the (insanely expensive) paper and boards and binding and reflective dust jacket—ah, he’s an artist, what else do I have to tell you?—that he wanted. The odd-sized (width exceeds height) book would sell for around $95…and it would sit on marble coffee tables in lovely houses, and never be read, much less used. So when Dark Horse agreed to sell the book for the same price as any contemporary novel—and give Frank all the elements he wanted—the hunt was over. Reaction has been better than any of us could have hoped for. Publishers Weekly routinely gives my books to a “reviewer” who does the usual bully dance: at your feet or at your throat.

But look at this: http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/book-news/comics/article/44877-andrew-vachss-fighting-bullies-one-book-at-a-time.html or this: http://www.usatoday.com/life/comics/2010-10-20-heart-bullying20-ST_N.htm—and you see how this book is going to be perceived differently from any other.

Ken: Will you ever come back to Ireland?

Andrew: Oh, hell, yes. Never have I been in a country where writers are regarded so highly (or treated better). I loved it there. I loved strangers walking up and buying me a pint because they recognized me from some chat show. I loved the pride and resiliency of the people. But I don’t take vacations—it’s the books that have taken me all around the world (with the exception of Biafra, and that’s a book yet to be written). So until I can find another UK publisher, no. I am off-limits to those who have determined that my insistence on things like cover approval make me too “difficult” to work with, and I’ve had enough run-ins with UK publishers in the past to not hold out high hopes. The one myth I wish I could erase is that I am not published anymore (in any particular country) because I want too much money. That’s just an outright lie: I believe a book should pay its own way. But when it comes to certain publishing considerations, I admit that I make a mule look compliant by comparison.

Ken: Any hope of a white boxer coming up the weights?

Andrew: I don’t see it. When you consider the Klitscho brothers hold all the crowns, despite one having the speed of a fire hydrant and the other a glass jaw, I don’t see any new blood rising. Too many are going into MMA—which I know is growing in the UK, as well. But the real problem is the transition from amateur to pro. I still remember those pillow gloves and that never-fits-right headgear. And the scoring, where a touch counts the same as a knockdown. Our amateur system is not like the minor leagues for baseball—it’s not designed to produce pros. I can’t even watch the Olympics. The prejudice against body punchers, the politics, and the emphasis on not being hit are all so sad. In Mexico, you can turn pro at 15. Brutal, for sure. But I’ve never seen a Mexican boxer phone it in.

Ken: The place you feel most at spiritually home?

Andrew: Born and raised in New York. Residents call it Manhattan—barring those suffering from the trendoid syndrome; you know, the ones who call Hell’s Kitchen “Clinton”—the outer boroughs call it “the City.” I’m a native son, and I’ll always be. But Chicago calls to me in some very profound ways. In New York, we take corrupt politicians for granted. In Chicago, they brag about having the most corrupt politicians in the world. How can you not love such a place? And I have (true) family there as well. And there’s that music…But here’s the truth: I have never felt spiritually at home anywhere. And I never will. Because I have yet to find a piece of ground where children are truly “our most precious natural resource” as the politicians always claim…and are treated as such.

Now…when are you and me going to do a book together?

Ken: January 2011. I already have a very Vachss/Bruen plot. Hint: a seriously wronged teacher arms up to deal with the bullies who not only ruined his career but destroyed his beloved daughter. Andrew, thank you so much for amazing insights and trust me, buddy, I’ll never quite see seminal the same way again.

Bhi Curamach, Ken


1 First major conviction was in 1993. People, Respondent v. John Morris Shipman, Appellant S044473, Supreme Court of California, 1995 Cal. LEXIS 1501, March 1, 1995, Decided

PRIOR HISTORY: [*1] Appeal from Second Appellate District, Division 6, No. B074745

OPINION: Appellant’s petition for review DENIED

Even the newspapers reported that one…but not a lot of book reviewers read. The KO punch came in 2002. What can any of the “reviewers” say to this:

“Child Pornography Case Highlights Use of Internet in Crime,” by Michelle Mittelstadt, originally published in the Dallas Morning News, March 11, 2002:

WASHINGTON—An underground ring of adults who created and trafficked in pornographic videos of naked children being beaten with paddles, hairbrushes, and canes illustrates how predators use the Internet to connect with people with similar fetishes, federal law enforcement authorities said Monday.

Eight men and one woman have pleaded guilty to federal charges in connection with the breakup of what FBI and U.S. Postal Inspection Service officials say was a loose-knit group that swapped videotapes of children as young as four years old being brutally beaten. The investigation continues and more arrests could result, said Michael Heimbach, head of the FBI’s Crimes Against Children Unit.

Investigators said the spanking club members met via Internet chat rooms that focus on the brutalization of children, exchanged e-mails about their fantasies and actual experiences, and visited pornographic websites.

“It wrenches your heart,” Heimbach said, calling the abuse “very, very disturbing to all of us in law enforcement.”

While authorities have come across individual cases of people brutalizing children for sexual gratification, Heimbach and Postal Inspector Raymond Smith said this marks one of the first times that law enforcement has uncovered a network.

The Internet “can fuel the fire” that causes people to move from fantasy to acting on their obsessions, said Smith, who heads the Postal Service’s child exploitation investigative unit. In pre-Internet days, adult bookstores offered the only outlet for pornography, he said. “They’d have to buy the magazine and stand there, where everybody could see them. That’s not the case today….Nobody is going to know what you are doing when you are out there surfing the Web.”

Sexual deviants “have a real innate need to communicate with others, because deep down inside they know what they are doing is wrong. But by communicating with each other and sharing experiences, it’s a psychological support base,” he said. “It makes them say, ‛I’m not so weird. There are a lot of other people out there that like the same thing I do.’”

The case began in December 1999 when Canadian police notified U.S. authorities that they believed a brutal child spanking video found in the home of a Montreal man, David Wadsworth, was produced in the United States. A phone bill linked Wadsworth to a Dalton, Georgia, computer programmer named David Patterson. Patterson, who has been sentenced to 10 years in prison in connection with charges linked to the brutalization and taping of his young children, cooperated with investigators, authorities said. Most of the children harmed on the tapes were the children of the defendants, Heimbach said. One suffered permanent injury from repeated beatings.

The FBI and Postal Inspection Service set up an undercover operation  that led to the arrests of Patterson’s ex-wife, Shirley Blaney, and others: Jim Nain of Wisconsin Rapids, Wisconsin; Brewton, Alabama, elementary school teacher Gordon Harrison Murray; retired chauffeur Donald Fletcher of Lehigh Acres, Florida; former Scoutmaster Richard Roll of Jamestown, New York; Sunday school teacher George Kelly of Lombard, Illinois;  bank security guard John Francis McDonnell of Mineola, New York; and David Bradner of Vanceburg, Kentucky.

All have pleaded guilty and most have been sentenced. Under his guilty plea, Bradner is expected to receive 20 years in prison at his March 22 sentencing.

2 From a 2002 interview of Andrew Vachss by Jake Adelstein, Correspondent, Yomiuri Tokyo Bureau (and reprinted by permission in the jacket copy of Heart Transplant)
“If you look at bullying logically, then you can see it’s the root of all evil. Not money, but bullying. That’s all it takes: the imposition of your will, your desires, your wishes, on another human being by force or intimidation. You can see it in Rwanda just as easily as you can see it in the schoolyard. Different canvas, different color paint, but it’s exactly the same thing: I can make you do what I want you to do, because I’m stronger than you. It’s not a questions that I’m smarter or I’m more ethical or I’m more entitled. I’m simply stronger.