Blood, Kin and Structure: A Conversation between Andrew Vachss and Joe R. Lansdale

mJoe Lansdale: First of all, I love this new book, That’s How I Roll, by Andrew. And I was telling him this, in an earlier conversation, that I never read any of his books so terrifically well constructed. They all are, but man, this was is like a bomb builder putting something together very, very carefully, because if you go just a little to the left or right or cross the wrong wire, the whole thing blows.

And the way that this is put together also makes it difficult to talk too directly about it because if you pull one wire here you blow the whole thing, so I got to be very, very careful about that. But I think that everything you do well is in this book, Andrew. I believe that, not only the writing—Andrew always says the writing is all right—but that’s bull, he’s a terrific stylist, he’s a beautiful stylist. And if you doubt that, you should also read his poetry; he also writes Haikus that are just beautiful, and this, everything that he writes to me is like an extended Haiku.

This is an example of that—where it’s just beautifully constructed. And I think a lot of people will say it’s grim, and it is grim. But it’s also beautiful.  I would say—not to give anything away—I would say when you get to the end you have it come to—this grim story—you actually have it come to be an uplifting story. And I think that’s important, because that’s a part of Andrew’s life, because here’s a guy who has actually changed the laws to protect children. Not just one or two, he’s changed the very view of how people look at child abuse. You see it everywhere in the air now. But I’ve now Andrew for many, many years, and I know that when he first started trying to make people aware that this was going on, and the struggle about it, it wasn’t received that way. Am I right, Andrew?

Andrew Vachss: You could not be more right.

JL: I know you don’t want to brag about yourself, I’ll do the bragging for you.

AV:  I’m not bragging.

JL: But them is the facts Jack, right?

AV: Oh, yes.

JL: I remember when Andrew started doing that, making people aware, people we actually belligerent as if they did not want to protect children. It was partly due to a certain innocence we have that we don’t like to think that people could do those things. I don’t want to paint this as an entirely grim book; it is a revealing book, but it is also a beautiful book. And the kind of connection that I think Andrew and I have for one another is, you know, that Esau has for his brother, Tory—a special connection. And I can say this much—it won’t hurt the book—is that Esau is the brave one but he has medical problems, he has—how do you say it?

AV: Spina Bifida.

JL: Yeah, Spina Bifida. He has the brain. He has this genius IQ, but he has this twisted body and he has a brother who is beautiful and very, very well constructed. But he’s slow. So it seems that the person who is least likely becomes the protector, and that’s Esau. And the way that he protects his brother because of their circumstances, because of their home circumstances, their family circumstances if you want to call it a family—I don’t—but he makes a family, because when his brother is born, he becomes the protector and he also has a purpose in life, for everything he does. Some it’s pretty dark and some of it’s pretty grim. But everything he does is to do one thing, and that’s to protect his little brother. He starts where he’s incarcerated, or where he’s picked up and about to be, and I think that I can say that he is scheduled to be in prison and scheduled for a possible death row situation. I don’t want to give too much away. I’m trying to be careful here. But he has carefully constructed a situation that even when he is gone that his brother is protected, and he does this by playing certain bad ends to the middle, I guess you would say.

But I just want to say that it’s an absolutely brilliant novel. It reads like a bullet. I have certain prejudices in here because some characters that happen to have a wonderful name like Lansdale, and there are some strong connections to my family and people I know, and like I said, I don’t want to give too much away, but I think it’s an amazing book, Andrew, and the more I think about it, the more I think that it may be your best one. First I thought—man, this is great. And it would not go away from me, and I think the main reason it didn’t because of this beautiful construction, because of these short—well they’re not even chapters because they’re not numbered—but the short sections that essentially serve as chapters, but one rolled into the other, and once you start reading, you can’t quit reading. How I Roll is the perfect title for this novel because it rolls beautifully and the character Esau is complex and interesting and amazing. So I feel like I’m gushing, and I am. But I enjoyed it that much.

AV: OK, do I get to talk?

JL: Well, I don’t know if I’m going to let you talk just yet. I just want to tell you I love the book. I want to go back again, it is like building a bomb, and after it’s built, there will be an explosion. So now you get to talk, brother.

AV: All right, well, certainly your analogy to building a bomb is, shall we say, double-edged. And people will get that when they see the book. See, I came prepared for something else actually. I thought someone was going to ask me questions, but that’s OK, because if you recall the last time someone tried to do that, we were going to have this on-stage interview, and ended up destroying a hotel room in Seattle. Then they moved us to a bigger room and you managed to destroy that.

JL: We were rowdy.

AV: To demonstrate to this police officer that you knew certain techniques, the police officer stuff wouldn’t work. I don’t know who paid for the holes in the walls or broken chairs, and of course they can’t page you over the loud speakers, you know, you guys are supposed to be out here doing something. They found us, but nobody wanted to come into the room until it got quiet.

JL: That was an interesting day.

AV: It was an interesting day. Let me tell you what I think about Edge of Dark Water, because it’s not going to be at all what people expect, and that’s because you have had the misfortune of kind of coming up in the horror genre, and then the crime genre, and then anyone who is really looked any of your later books and not laughed out loud is brain dead. All of it is around suspense, and yet for every book that you’ve wrote in your life that I know of is the quote young adult book. And I don’t know how Edge of Dark Water is going to be marketed. But it could be marketed as all of the above and it would be completely legitimate. You could do one thing that I wouldn’t even try, and that is use a voice that is no way connected to you except spiritually. The book’s narrated by a young girl during a time of a depression that was terrifying, literally a question of this country’s survival, and this child lives in a situation that is in itself a horror, and her best friend, who is black and mouthy and tough, doesn’t fit anyplace. There is literally no place she fits.

MI don’t give away stuff either, but I will say this. This character in this book named Skunk and the very thought of him sends chills through me. The first thing that people will tell you about a Louisiana swamp, if you’ve ever been there, is they’ll look you right in the eye and say there’s worse things than gators out there, son. And they’re not joking. Noises made at night, they don’t care to investigate those noises.

JL: Yeah, I heard those noises.

AV: You have personified those noises, literally.

JL: Texas is like Louisiana, like those swamps.

AV: Indeed, that’s what I saw, and that’s what I felt. Although it appears that this incredible coalition of a young girl, her best friend who’s black, and the young girl’s mother who in effect has been deliberately drugged by her boyfriend for virtually her whole life, they all manage to find a kind of redemption together and are all in a way circling around a very handsome, very intelligent man who is gay. And something has to be done to save his life that, if you read it properly, there’s fifty layers to it. If you read it wrong, you just say I can’t read this. It’s that scary. But this book hasn’t got a happy ending. What it’s got is an ending where there’s hope, and hope is something that didn’t exist before. Hope was, you know, you’d wake up the next morning, ‘cause not everybody did. Yet the frightening beast that I’m going to call Skunk for the purpose of this conversation, I’m in no way having read this book several times, and indeed gotten feedback from a bunch of people that read it— because the Advanced Reading Copy that was produced by Mulholland, it’s just, there’s books that don’t look this good, you can pass it around, unlike most galleys—most people is real sure this guy’s dead, because I can’t really put it in a way that doesn’t give away much out of the book, but he’s like a force as opposed to a person. Almost a personification of evil, and yet doesn’t operate on his own. He has to be evoked.

JL: Like an elemental.

AV: He is elemental. Yet if certain things had not been done to him, if he had not been born to the parents he was born to, what would he be?

JL: You notice there’s a connection in themes in our novels. Even though they’re very different novels, they’re very much dealing with the same subject matter, which is why I think that’s why we’ve always had a connection, and I think that’s why both of us this thing about family, and I think we both believe that’s it’s great if your blood family is wonderful, but we don’t necessarily believe that because if someone has the same blood that you have makes them family because they’re kin to you. We don’t think that that’s it, because it’s how you treat people, what you say about what you do rather than what you say, and I think in both of our books we are dealing with people who have come from damaged backgrounds and are trying to put some structure together, which I guess you could call family.

AV: You could, because there’s nothing else to call it. It’s just that it’s a family of choice. Not genetic, that’s all.

JL: We have different backgrounds, but we have similar backgrounds in some ways. Neither one of us were in the chips, sort to speak, financially. Right?

AV: Yeah, somewhere below middle-class.

JL: I think well below, although I remember people poorer than I was.

AV: Me too.

JL: So I always thought gee, we’re doing good, we’re just broke. My family just had the greatest mother and father. But I am just really surprised to see sometimes to see how far I have come by design or accident or whatever, and I think it’s because I was given so much strength and hope by my parents. Nonetheless, I remember people repossessing stuff. I remember buying things on layaway that we had to let go, and all of these things were in the fifties for me, not in the ‘30s in The Great Depression. But I was experiencing some of that, nowhere near as bad, by the way. But my connection to The Great Depression was through my parents. I know that you and I have some connection there in growing up.

AV: There’s no question. It is a perfect example. Could your father read and write?

JL: No.

AV: No. And who was the one who encouraged you to read all the time?

JL: Both my father and my mother. My father wanted me to be able to read because he knew how hard it had been for him.

AV: And, on top of that, he was a real man. See, a real man wants his son to walk further down the road than he himself did.

JL: Absolutely. Well, you know, his father had been very abusive, but he did not pass it on, something you and I have discussed before. It’s a matter of choice.

AV: It is choice. Your father, I know for a fact, was raised by a person I, well, it wouldn’t bother me to shoot him in the head. And yet your dad took a vow to himself: I will not do this.

JL: And he did not.

AV: And he did not. And we’re not talking about milquetoast here, because your dad was a carnival fighter.

JL: Yeah, he went around training and rode to different towns and boxed and wrestled. He taught me the real meaning of family. My mother did too. I don’t want to drop her out of this because she was wonderful. She had the equivalent of a high school education in east Texas that time, which was 11th grade, and she was a big reader and she always encouraged me but my father did too because he knew how hard it had been.

AV: But see, that’s the point. A lot of fathers in that exact situation who would resent you reading, who would resent you growing and developing because he’d be able to see down the road that you’d be past him.

JL: Yeah, and I unfortunately knew people like that. The kinds of people I write about are not just made up in my head. Maybe the stories are, but the types of people and the types of experience that they have are related to things that either I experienced or the people I know experienced or that my family experienced. And I have always felt that that’s the key, I know that it works for you too. I take flights of fantasy in some of the things that I’ve written, but we both have a strong connection to our past, and from experience, and I think we’re both—probably nobody hates bullies more than we do and we vote for the underdog because we’ve been the underdog.

AV: Yeah. I don’t think it’s literally possible to hate bullies more than you and I do, and the difference really between what we write—I can’t speak for anyone else—I can say this. We both share the wish that what we write was in fact imagination, was based on imagination, was fictitious at its root. But sadly, that isn’t even close to true.

JL: No, no it isn’t. One of the things in your book, kind of a minor question, I think I know the answers to the things I’m asking. But I think it’s one of the things that people ask me about you is that, the way your books are constructed—again, I kind of know the answer—do you construct these over a period of time or do you do them as you go or do you finally say I’m ready now? How do you come about writing your book?

AV: In my head, when I’m ready, I sit down. If you saw me writing, you’d say damn that guy’s a fast typist. And that’s it.

JL: I know that once you’re ready to do them they come out quickly.

AV: Well, that’s the fundamental difference between us. For me, writing is a weapon. For you, writing is what you are. You’ve wanted to write since you grasped the concept that somebody wrote the books that you were reading. There are few people on the planet who could actually say they raised their family, they raised their children, they met all their objectives, doing what they love. And you can say that. And you pay the price for it.

JL: Well, we all do. The other thing too is when I’m reading this book I’m saying well I may not take this particular character absolutely literal, but I know that in your job as a lawyer who protects children that you meet these kind of situations all of the time.

AV: I couldn’t just take my files and, you know, print them.

JL: You have never ever actually had literal child abuse in your books, but you show what it does to people.

AV: That’s more important.

JL: Absolutely it’s more important. The other thing is not right, but this is, and even once or twice I’ve seen people say I can’t read this because he’s writing graphically about children, and I say well you’ve never read one, all right. You’ve never read one. They say it’s so untrue, so far away from anything. But what it is that you write about what happens to people that have had not the best experiences in the world.

AV: Well, the thing is, it was considered heresy to bring child abuse into crime fiction because crime fiction was defined by a narrow group of people, naturally, very narrowly. And there was a lot of resentment about that which I have dealt with it in my way, and I know you have dealt with it in your way as well.

JL: In certain different things, yeah. And you even look now, that subjects like this weren’t even part of a movie or TV show or book—and I’m not saying all the examples have been good, but I don’t think they have been. But even the Special Victims Unit, which is on weekly, is about sex crimes, and many of them about what happens to children. Well that couldn’t have even been considered or talked about until you came along and wrote your books, and the laws—how many laws have you literally worked on and changed, Andrew? Do you know?

AV: You know, I don’t know.

JL: There was the Oprah thing, remember that, where she was touting this law that I know you had a lot to do with that.

AV: Are you talking about the incest loophole?

JL: Yeah.

AV: That’s a perfect example, if you told people in a book that there was a law that said if you raped a little girl next door you go to prison for twenty-five years. But if you raped your own daughter, exactly the same age and exactly the same way, well, you’re eligible for probation.

JL: Yeah, because it’s on your property.

AV: Exactly, you can burn down your own house. People when they read about that. How can you make this stuff up? When they found out it was in fact the law, everybody went nuts and that law has in fact been changed. And of course there’s an episode on Law & Order Special Victims that specifically mentions the law. Now, I don’t really care because I don’t actually believe anybody does anything off a TV show. My problem with it is that TV shows poison jury pools. If you can believe anybody, any human being, can be born bad, you shouldn’t be on a jury. The truth is if you show the construction of a beast, it’s a million times more valuable than to just show you the beast running amok. Because there never had to be a beast.

JL: That’s what makes That’s How I Roll so interesting because there is actually a character referred to as the beast. He saw himself, as looked at from a different perspective, a pretty dark guy himself. But it’s his motivation’s that we know, and yet still what was done do this beast, he is also the scarred victim.

AV: He is, and what some people will understand, is the book’s also a love story. See, that’s the problem across the board. You take away from a book what you bring to it. Every time you write a book—you Joe Lansdale I’m talking about, not you generically—your fans buy the book. Period. If you wrote a book about, I don’t know, bladder cancer, your fans would buy the damn book. And what happens is whoever is promoting the book at the time says, wow, look at all I did for your book.

Well, I’m going to be as blunt as I can, and that is this. I am reserving judgment. If Edge of Dark Water is not a monster hit of a book, it’ll be solely due to lack of promotion. I’ll put the book up against any book anyone’s got now or in the past—I don’t know how many years—there is no library, no library, that should be without this book. None. It’s got too much of value in there. It’s too powerful of series of messages about all different kind of things, including extracting good from bad, just as you would extract coal from the ground. You can’t just reach your shovel in there and get it. It’s hard, dangerous work. But if you’re successful you get something.

Your book, Edge of Dark Water, would encourage so many young people who have already decided that the best I can hope for in my life is go to prison (after being a successful drug dealer), or get on disability. The idea that they can be more than what they have been painted isn’t transmitted, and you can’t put that on teachers when—I mean, hell, we pay teachers less than what we pay people who pick up garbage. So you can’t put it on teachers. But what you can put it on, and here’s the challenge, I put it on librarians. Any librarian that doesn’t order Edge of Dark Water doesn’t give a damn about his or her constituency, because look at the power we place in a librarian’s hands. It’s pretty scary.

Check again tomorrow for the rest of Vachss’ and Lansdale’s conversation.