Blood, Kin and Structure: A Conversation between Andrew Vachss and Joe R. Landale, Part II

NsameMissed Part I? Read it here.

Joe Lansdale: It changed my life. Reading books and going to libraries. I mean we have so much that’s online now, but when I was growing up and you were growing up, libraries were very import, especially if you couldn’t afford books. And a lot of times I couldn’t. So I would spend a tremendous amount of time in libraries and books like Huckleberry Finn and To Kill A Mockingbird all changed my life, and not just in the way of teaching you certain things and reinforcing things you were being taught.

But there was a kind of magic and beauty and almost mythological element to those books, and I know that what I was striving for to some extent was to give this sort of excitement and suspense and to talk about the things that you and I have been talking about, but also bring this sort of beauty and magic to things that were sort of dark and enchanting at the same time.

Andrew Vachss: How big was the library that you had access to as a child?

JL: The original was a book mobile, and you know how big a book mobile is. It was essentially a little bus or van that came around that had books and you’d let kids come in one or two at a time and walk down the aisles and check them out, and then it came back a week or two later, whatever the time was, and then you returned that book and got another one.

And so that was my first one, and the second one was a library that at the time I thought was big. I mean I look at it now and I know it wasn’t. But I read every book in there that I possibly had an interest in, and then I went to the Gladewater Lot Library, which was a little bigger. But to me, I read anything that I could get my hands on. I mean if I found books in the garbage or if I found magazines . . . you know my mom picked up things for me when she could. But the original thing was the size of a small van.

AV: OK, now we’re where I want to be. Who decided what books went in that book mobile?

JL: Well, the librarian.

AV: Right. Now, it’s called the public library, is that right?

JL: Right.

AV: OK, so people don’t seem to understand that they can walk up to the librarian and say I want you to get this book.

JL: I did that too. If I read some books that I liked, and saw that there were other books by this person, and they didn’t have them, I asked for them. But the librarian was the one that was responsible. In fact, the librarian I had in Gladewater said, you know what, don’t tell anybody, ‘cause you’re not supposed to be reading these adult books. But I think this other stuff is just beneath you, you read all those—and so she introduced me to different writers. I was reading writers that I probably wouldn’t encounter until I was in college. But that was due to my librarian, and she changed my life.

AV: Well that’s it, you see. A librarian has a vast kind of power, so when it’s used as it was in your case, it’s empowering. If it’s used in effect ban books, that’s a tragedy. And I guarantee you maybe one percent of everyone who is listening to this understands that they get to pick what goes in their library. They’ve just given up their responsibility and said to this person, you pick every book.

JL: You’re right. I said it was the librarian, but it’s the public’s responsibility.

AV: It is the public’s responsibility, because the public that supports that library, the public funds that library, but what they do is sit my passively and let someone else pick out what they read.

JL: The bottom line here is people need to understand the power of the book and the power of reading and their own power of having those books supplied, and I don’t want to veer too much here, but I was just saying that you and I are obviously passionate about books and literature and things, and I hate to see those things are being pushed to the side for purely technological things. But even if you’re reading it on a Kindle or whatever: read, read, enjoy, read, and choose what you want to read, find out what other people are reading. And I hope that our two books are on the list. I’m proud of the one I did and I’m damn sure proud of the one you did, man.

AV: See, it’s really not about lists and it’s not about numbers. It’s about influence. If people read something that influences them, they have the power to influence others. Now, I just don’t mean influence others to read the book. I mean take the contents and be influential. Now, truth is, there’s bad things in this country—and forget child abuse for a minute—there are things which have divided this country. Racism is a perfect example. The bigotry that’s unleashed against anybody in any way homosexual is a divisive kind of tragedy. We’ve got people running for president right that have been quoted saying the idea of separation of church and state makes me want to throw up.

JL: Or they also say don’t get a college education because that learning’s got to be bad for you. Learning things is one of the things we all want to have, and books provide that. It’s the opportunity to be knowledgeable, to have power. No wonder people don’t want you to have that opportunity, because they want to be in control and don’t want you to know that there is something to question, which is what books often do.

AV: There’s only one fair way to do this because since the climate has changed radically–and writing never was a meritocracy. I don’t know why people thought that people who were published writers were better than writers who hadn’t gotten published. It’s not like a fight where two people step in a ring and at the end of it one person gets his hand raised, one way or the other. Writing isn’t like that. It’s not Book A vs. Book B, and there’s a winner. In order for people to be able to make informed decisions, they have to know what exists. The electronic age that we’re in now, every book gets “promoted” online. Now if you’re some poor bastard who’s trying to find a book that you would really care about, online, I wish you a lot of luck. You’ll be dead before you get through the As in the alphabet, never mind make the Bs.

My idea of a fair fight would be this: no more libraries at all, just a bunch of screens, and on those screens there would be, say genre divisions, because you may want to read crime or mystery or romance or whatever. Break them up and then take every damn book and give every writer his or her choice of, oh, 1,500 words out of that book. So if I walk into this place, I can scan through books so fast—‘cause I can tell you in a second if I want to read any more, and so can you, and so can most people.

JL: Advertising at its best.

AV: And we don’t have that, we don’t have that. See the truth about this business is a lie. If you spend enough money you could take absolute garbage and make it an absolute bestseller. So what happens is a guy has a bestseller and he’s not offered more money like he thinks he deserves, and so he goes to house that will pay him more money, because after all he’s a bestseller. OK. So they spend a couple of million dollars and sure enough it’s a bestseller. The only problem is it costs them more at the bottom than they made on it. They lost money on the book.

So they tell the writer they lost money on the book. He’s says that’s OK, I’ll just go to some other house because you’re not going to open your books to the public, and all the other houses know I’m a bestseller, and they’ll pay me more money. And once they pay the money, then they panic because they paid all this money and the book is not this bestseller they thought they bought, and the editor who acquired it is in trouble. The editor just gets involved in guerrilla warfare to get as much money behind the book as he or she can. The truth is it’s not spread equally.

AV: Are we scaring you, Miriam?

Miriam Parker (Marketing Director): I have no comment on that.

AV: I didn’t think you would. That’s all right. And remember, don’t attribute any of this to Joe, it’s me saying it.

I think that it’s not a fair fight. I think it’s a fixed fight. I’m certainly not complaining. I reached my goals for writing, oh hell, more years ago than I care to remember. This is not a complaint. I’m just telling you how it is. People think that writing is something anybody can do.

JL: They know they alphabet, they think they can write.

AV: Let me tell you, I’ve never heard of anybody saying, damn, if I had some more spare time I could be a concert violinist. Or I could be a sculptor. You see.

JL: But if I know the alphabet, I can write.

AV: Haven’t you ever heard that from people when you’re signing books? They go down the line and say if I didn’t have a full-time job, I’d like to write too, you know.

JL: Yeah, I’d like to be a brain surgeon. I think I’ll do that next week.

AV: And what I tell people is I got a goddamn full-time job. You know, I mean, do you think this what I do? The reality is this is business and writing as an art just doesn’t exist.

JL: Except with the individual writer.

wayneAV: I’m not saying there aren’t writers who aren’t true artists. I’m saying that people who have never been to a museum know the name Rembrandt, right? And people who have never been to a library or bookstore, there are certain authors’ names they don’t know. But the truth is the only validation is in this climate, today, is that it has to be made into a movie. That’s the ultimate validation. If something you’ve made hasn’t been made into a movie, how could it be? Because they can certainly make comic books into movies.

JL: And some of them are very good.

AV: Yes. But see, the goal is honest. The goal there is to entertain. That’s perfectly honest. But the truth is most people watching the news depresses them so they change the channel. It’s not as if there’s a great demand for writing that challenges you. Not challenges you to understand it—because have to ever tried to read War and Peace?

JL: Yeah.

AV: Well I did, too. I don’t know if you managed to lift that weight, but I couldn’t.

JL: I did. But it took me awhile.

AV: And I mean, just, what the hell, you know, get on with it. So, the point is the best work is never going to be something that simply makes you laugh or something that had cool scenes in it. The best work is the work that survives.

JL: It endures, yeah.

AV: You can still talk about Huckleberry Finn, right?

JL: Oh, absolutely, wonderful book.

AV: Well, I don’t know if that book is being promoted by anybody.

JL: It needs to be.

AV: Well, see, that’s exactly what I’m telling you. The way you’re going to find out which books were the most influential is your grandchildren’s kids may know how good your books were, you see.

JL: I hope that you’re reading them. And Miriam, we really hope that they’re reading these too, now. I know you’re out there, dear.

MP: We’re doing our best.

JL: I know you are. I’m so happy with my publisher. I’ve got to tell you. I’m very content.

AV: Yeah, he told me that.

JL: Now, I may have a different opinion, but I don’t think so. I’ve never had someone who’s cared so much and tried as hard, and whether we’re doing the right things, I don’t think nobody knows until you do it. But I have written which may be the best book of my life, which I think it may be, it’s certainly one of the best. And Andrew’s is absolutely wonderful.

AV: It’s a tie. Edge of Dark Water and a book called The Boar—those two books are the best books I know. They are the best. Edge of Dark Water does not really hit the heights since the book’s already written, there’s not more that Joe can do. It always comes down to this, once the publisher says yes, once the publisher agrees, once the publisher publishes the book, you really think the writer going around signing a whole bunch of books is really going to sell books? There’s book stores where I have had people come up—and you had too, Joe—damn books are on hand trucks. They’ve got seven hundred damn books. You mind signing these? See, I do–I don’t see the point.

JL: I sign them all. Every single one of them.

AV: I know you do. Only your superiority in martial arts has prepared you for that kind of test. Plus you have a different temperament than me. Well, we were raised different. You knew your neighbors, right?

JL: Yeah.

AV: You knew people in your community, right?

JL: Yeah.

AV: Well, I’ll tell you, I’ve traveled a lot of places, even where people were dropping bombs or shooting at me. And I’m more shocked when people come up to you and say, hey, how are you doing? Do I know you? Why are you talking to me?

JL: I had some visitors come in and say those people are sure nice. I say, yeah, they really are nice. They say hi, they say bye, they invite you to lunch. That’s the thing, too. When you write about crime fiction or suspense fiction, you are often dealing with that side of people. People say that’s the only side. Well, that’s the side you’re writing about. There is a good side and flip side to everything. But if you’re writing crime stories or mystery stories they’re not to be representative of all things, they’re meant to represent certain things in some period time.

sWhen I wrote Edge of Dark Water, my parents, all the stories they told about The Great Depression and how they had to survive and everything, just stuck with me to this day. Research is very minimal. You know, I want to make sure I have the dates right or certain things occasionally I miss. But they told me those stories so often and the time meant so much to them that it really, really had an impact on me. And to me it had an impact on that kindness angle because I think that one way so many people survived was kindness. There certainly were people who were hard and who were tough. To me, it always tends to come out in some of my novels, that feeling of hope and change to move on.

AV: Yeah, but see you’re qualified. If there’s one area that people should leave alone, unless they actually know what they’re writing about, is violence. The Blonde Nightingale, and for people who don’t know who that is, that’s Kasey Lansdale­and you know, I’m prejudice, I admit—but when people listen to Kasey, they hear something that’s not going to come along for a long time. Kasey can sing, other people can sing too. And it’s not that one’s better than the other. One’s going to touch you and one’s not. When I read about a private eye who, you know, the pneumatic blonde walks into his office and he puts away a bottle of whiskey and takes the case for no money, and within four or five pages, he gets hit in the head with a tire iron, shot a half dozen times, run over by a truck. But, you know, he gets up, keeps coming, you know. To me, it would be like listening to a singer hit such a sour note that I wouldn’t want to hear the rest of it. It would be like a virgin writing a sex scene.

JL: Are you talking about writing from experience or at least writing from the awareness of experience of others?

AV: Well, yeah. I don’t want to put anyone else’s name in here. But there was a time when you and I went to dinner with a whole bunch of other people in a city you don’t live in and a city I don’t live in, and after the dinner was over, you and I are walking down the street, talking together, and there’s other people coming. And then we saw something, we knew what was going on, and we knew what to do. And the people behind us were walking straight ahead like sheep in a chute. Well, I’ll tell you what, if we had not acted as we did, if we had not been there.

JL: They would have been in a ditch somewhere.

AV: Oh, you better believe it. They would of, at a minimum, been hurt. And that’s what I mean about violence. I read these books and it’s almost like this is the person the writer wants to be but has no actual experience of it. That bothers me.

JL: That’s why I think your book has so much power for me because I know that it comes from knowing the sort of people and writing about them. I think that does matter tremendously.

AV: Well, we know the same kind of people. They may talk with an accent, but they’re the same kind of people who enjoy hurting other human beings that exist everywhere.

JL: That’s why you’ve got to have the good people, thank goodness. You just want to breed more of ‘em, you know. You just want to see more of ‘em.

AV: Not just good. They have to be hard and good, because the meek are not going to inherit the earth. Absolutely not. And you’re not going to get pie in the sky when you die.

JL: That’s right, man.

AV: It’s just not good enough to be good. It’s just not. I don’t care how many Nobel Prizes you win for being a nice guy, but what’s changed? What’s changed? So unless people push that limit with everything they’ve got, the same way that you do, because there’s no difference in the way you write than the way you teach martial arts. You have exactly the same goals. You’re not training people to become competent bullies.

JL: No.

AV: See, but you can’t train them to protect themselves without them getting hurt at some point along the way.

JL: Well, there’s a difference between pain and injury, too.

AV: Absolutely. The first . . . the guy was about three hundred years old and he’s supposed to teach us boxing. First thing he said was look, I think some of you may be confused, if you do this you are going to get hit.

JL: That’s like writing. You’re going to get hit in a different way.

AV: There you go. Anyone who doesn’t want to get hit should leave now, because no matter how good you are, stronger or better, you are going to get hit. So they use the expression that we’re looking for somebody who’s willing, right?

JL: Willing. Right. Exactly.

AV: Willing. And that will comes across in a million different ways, but unless it’s there, unless it’s nurtured, we’re not going to get change. So writing is communication, right?

JL: Right.

AV: So, I want to see how many people get the communication available to them from Edge of Dark Water. I want to see that. You know, I’m looking at this very coldly because I admit I’m prejudiced. If you read my book, you’d have to be an idiot to not know the connection between us. But I swear I wouldn’t do this.  In other words, a book I couldn’t say these things about, we wouldn’t be doing this. We wouldn’t be doing it publically. Of course I might have a heart attack if you wrote a bad book, ‘cause I think, OK, now everything’s flipped on its side. I don’t know where the work is anymore. But this book has got to reach as many people as possible. If it does not, it can’t be your fault.

JL: Well, that takes me off the hook.

AV: You are off the hook. You wrote the damn book.