Andrew Vachss Interview: Andrew Vachss is probably best known for his dark, gritty, best-selling crime-fiction series that centered around an underground icon, his career criminal, anti-hero Burke. This series includes extremely compelling, albeit extremely violent classics such as Blue Belle, Blossom, Flood, Strega, Hard Candy, Safe House and others. The Burke Series culminated in 2008 with the fittingly titled Another Life. This series, along with most of Mr. Vachss’ gripping, exquisitely descriptive work, offers rather disturbing doses of reality from people who claim the streets and gutters as their home.
The main character, Burke, and his offbeat, self-chosen family of shadow dwellers fight the criminals that most need to be fought, child molesters, perverts, pimps and flesh peddlers, human monsters that are all too prevalent in the real world. Vachss’ “heroes”, however, utilize tactics that anyone would describe as criminal themselves. In an interview with Bryant Gumble on The Early Show on CBS, Mr. Vachss described his main character and why he made Burke the criminal that he is:
“I wanted to show people what hell looked like, and I didn’t think an angel would be the right guide. You know, the standard protagonist in detective fiction is sort of better than everything — kind of looks at it, comments on it, but is detached from it. I wanted no membrane between the reader and the material.”
The main characters in the Burke Series feast on sick, depraved criminals. They are characters who use the power of evil to do some good in an otherwise hellish existence. Robin Hood and his not-so-merry-band, but with Uzi’s and attack Dobermans, and a propensity to exterminate their foes with extreme vengeance. This series has brought Mr. Vachss great acclaim for his skill. Publisher’s Weekly described the Burke books as a series of “urban nightmares”, an apt description, but they are a compelling, entertaining series of nightmares. They are also nightmares that serve to do the world some good, enlightening those who are thankfully unaware that these types of people do exist, and purging some of the pain from those of us who have been on the receiving end of torments such as predatory child abuse and sexual abuse.
Even though The Burke Series, part of over 2 dozen novels that Mr. Vachss has had published, has brought the man fame and the ability and means to take the time to simply enjoy life, he has accomplished and still strives to accomplish much more than being one of the greatest crime/thriller novelists of all time.
Mr. Vachss (pronounced Vax) is an extremely driven man. When I mangled the pronunciation of his name, though I’ve read him for over 20 years, he informed me that it was neither Vachez or Vachess or anything else. It was Vax like tax, but he told me it wasn’t that important in the grand scheme of things. It was made up anyway, because his people in generations past had been forced to sneak in this country. They had to do what they had to do to make a better life. I told him I’d leave that out and he asked me why? Did I have a problem with it. Anything he said, he meant for anybody to hear. I told him I though immigration laws were silly at this point in our history, a farce, and that we were supposed to be the melting pot anyway. He asked me if I’d heard of the favelas in Brazil. I hadn’t. He had me look it up. It’s a massive junk pile wall, look for yourself, and he informed me that kids live there. They climb four and five stories of this dangerous man-made mountain, living with no heat or electricity atop it, just to carry water to their tin shack, a garbage can really. He asked me what I’d do if I lived there and I told him point blank I’d leave. Fuck the borders and fuck the laws, no kid should ever have to endure that, to start a life that way. How do you think a life that begins in a garbage can is likely to end? It made me sick, and I haven’t stopped thinking about it since. In the interview, which was supposed to be 15 minutes, as he is quite a busy man, he spent an extra 45 minutes explaining things like this to me. It told me that this was a genuine man, not a writer who escapes through his work or hides in it, but a man who really gives a damn and wants to make a difference. He has his priorities straight and sharp, like a silent dagger one of his characters might use to snuff out a predatory child abuser. I hope this interview and his work affects you the way that it has affected me.
Mr. Vachss is one of the World’s leading children’s rights activists and child protection consultants. He’s an acclaimed, successful attorney who only represents children in the fight against predatory abuse of all types. He was a founder and is a board member of PROTECT, The National Association To Protect Children. He has a unique website, The Zero, one of the best child protection and children’s rights resources to be found on the Internet. Oh, and as if that weren’t enough, he’s still writing, releasing That’s How I Roll and Blackjack: A Cross Novel, as well as collaborating on a number of graphic novels over the past decade. Now let’s meet the man who never stops fighting for the rights of children.
Litmock: I’d like to start at the beginning, touching on The Burke Series. I found Hard Candy in a book store and it sucked me in from page 1. I couldn’t put it down, then I read everything I could find, Strega, Flood, Blue Belle, you name it. You have a unique ability to make inherently rough, bad characters people that you root for.
Andrew Vachss: Not everybody roots for him.
Litmock: True I suppose, but many of your characters possess realistic, tragic qualities and flaws, flaws they often use as strengths, such as Burke’s ability to understand the mind of pedophiles and pimps. How did you devise that world?
Andrew Vachss: I didn’t devise that world. It exists. It’s real. It’s out there, but most of the planet ignores it because it’s convenient. News stories come on every day about kids meeting horrible fates in Africa, in Somalia, in inner cities here, and people just turn the channel. I guess they think that’s what God made remotes for. That’s a large part of the problem. Like it or not, that world exists and has for centuries. Burke doesn’t seek out pedophiles, he seeks out predatory pedophiles and child abusers. There’s a big difference. Predatory pedophiles, by definition, have sexual urges they act upon towards children, emotional urges some [argue], but ones they act upon in a physical way. By force. By trickery. By any and all kinds of means. Burke found them and he killed them. I wanted to expose readers to a dark part of the world that exists, and I didn’t want them to be introduced to it by an angelic figure.
Litmock: What inspired Burke and his crew in your books, and how did you go about constructing those stories?
Andrew Vachss: Burke is really a play on words. Burke was one of the original serial killers, back in the 1800’s. [EDITORS NOTE: He and his partner Hare suffocated or strangled people and sold their corpses for medical research, back when that was allowed.] But as you can imagine, you couldn’t sell a cadaver with bruises and marks all over the body. So they came up with a way to kill people without leaving marks. [EDITORS NOTE:The definition of ‘burke’ actually means to suffocate or smother.] No refrigeration existed back then, and medical schools were desperate for cadavers. Burke and Hare were grave robbers who emptied the cemetery *before* they turned to running their ‘hotel.’.
Litmock: But what about the humanity of Burke and his crew.
Andrew Vachss: Well, part of it is that Burke has developed or collected a family of his own choosing. There’s something important about that, choosing people you would give your life for.
Andrew Vachss: Yes, but there’s more to it. Loyalty to the chosen family first, not duty or any other prescribed notion.
Litmock: What about the story of the men who died protecting their girlfriends in that horrible shooting in Aurora last week, do you mean loyalty along those lines?
Andrew Vachss: That’s instinct. It’s human nature. The nature to preserve. I’ve seen it myself in Africa, in a nation that used to be known as Biafra [EDITOR’S NOTE: Located in Nigeria today]. A woman running away under heavy gunfire, stopping to grab an infant on the ground while bullets splatter around them in the dirt. That’s the maternal or paternal instinct. The desire to protect and preserve humankind. It’s really in your own self interest as well as in the interest of others. If more people realized protecting children everywhere under any circumstance was in their own self interest and did more to protect them, there wouldn’t be so much of a problem.
Litmock: So Burke chose people he could relate to as family?
Andrew Vachss: No, not as simple as that. He chose a real family, a family that wasn’t forced on him. One that would take a bullet for you, or that you might take for them. That’s real love. Sacrifice. The ability, desire, or choice to sacrifice yourself for your family or someone you love because you choose to. What most people call love is a joke. You go out and buy a Hallmark card and write I love you or whatever. What is that? It’s convenience maybe, it’s not true love of another or even the self. True love means you’d give your life to protect another. We’re all in a losing cause, we’re all going to die some day, so all we can do is fight on. We’re never going to win this thing. All I can do, all anyone can do, is swim further, fight the waters and the overwhelming tide, maybe crest a wave and hand the fight off to other people who can swim further. Fighting [predatory child abuse and sexual predators] is an endless fight.
Litmock: A war of attrition?
Andrew Vachss: Yes, exactly, but one we must always continue.
Litmock: Let’s backtrack just a second, as we are speaking to many writers in this interview. How did you get your start as a writer? Unlike many authors, you seem to have had a purpose from the outset, to expose predatory child abuse and sexual abuse for what it is, an abomination, but an abomination that is perpetuated by sick, yet obviously clever demons. Otherwise they wouldn’t get away with what they do. Your whole life is a determined effort to expose and fight predatory child abuse, and your writing appears to be an extension of that.
Andrew Vachss: I’ve tried to disseminate information the best way I can. The crime fiction audience is huge. By writing in that genre I can inform people and educate people about important things in a medium that is large and more accessible. I wrote a textbook once on juvenile criminology. It was a good textbook too, conveying this same, important message, but only a few thousand people read it. Writing crime fiction gives me a large enough forum to reach people.
Litmock: To hide an important message about this dark, sick world that exists?
Andrew Vachss: To convey it. People reading my books might not even know that they’re getting the message. They might walk through life and then one day maybe they’ll catch a news story they might otherwise ignore, but because they recognize it they pay attention. That’s a start. I’ve worked my whole life here, in Africa, you name it, dealing with that world. Representing criminals. Fighting them. I’ve never represented anyone charged with sex crimes or pedophilia or narcotics but I’ve seen and been involved in most everything else in one way or another. I’ve been a director of youth services, worked as a case worker in social services, I was sent on special assignment to a war zone in Biafra, I was warden of a maximum security prison for juvenile offenders…
Litmock: So you’ve worked both sides of the fence?
Andrew Vachss: What fence? It’s all one big, dark polluted system. I think anyone in the system would say I’m on the opposite side of the fence of them at any given time. It’s all a matter of perspective. There’s no oversight. Some child gets beat and people in Social Services say that’s just family discipline and they move on. Who helps or hears the child? Who stops the next beating?
Litmock: But drawing from your experience, you utilized schemes that real pedophiles and monsters use in real life. How do you have such insight into the criminal mind, yet maintain your perspective AND your sanity?
Andrew Vachss: Oh no, you’re not giving me the Nietzsche ‘stare into the abyss’ garbage are you?
Litmock: No, I’m asking how you develop that insight. You accurately describe their behavior, and how they go about fooling and luring their victims, even how they fool society. Take Hard Candy for example, pedophiles taking testosterone to suppress their sick urges so they can go back about their business when the heat’s off of them.You’ve even predicted criminal behavior, a lot of it, over the years. You predicted Columbine a decade or so before it happened.
Andrew Vachss: A decade??? I saw that coming and wrote something like it over 30 years ago. I wrote A Bomb Built In Hell in the early 70’s in fact. It wasn’t published then but it will be available this Fall.
Litmock: That was the first novel you wrote?
Andrew Vachss: Yes. It wasn’t my first published.
Litmock: You mentioned that the system is polluted. Has there been any change in your view of authority and its role in the prevalence of abuse? Burke, for example, preyed on criminals and sought justice where the system fails abysmally.
Andrew Vachss: What system? There is no system really because there’s no oversight.
Litmock: Well, what about when judges hear these cases and listen to psychiatrists explain why this nightmarish stuff happens? They just seem to want to assign blame and wipe it under the rug.
Andrew Vachss: What judges? Most of these cases are never even heard, they’re ignored. The “system”, for lack of a better word, simply ignores the whole problem. They don’t assign blame, they don’t care, or they don’t do ANYTHING about it. There’s no money for it, there’s no oversight for it, there’s no department or part of the government that effectively pursues it. Some case worker hears 30 or 40 cases and they all sound the same and that’s as far as it goes. All people care about is the lazy, easy road. Turn the channel, pretend it doesn’t exist. Nobody invests in pursuing these problems. They invest in paying a CEO $75 million dollars to steer a bank of of a cliff.
Litmock: …And we all pay for that.
Andrew Vachss: No, we all don’t. The CEO doesn’t nor do the bankers who took all of the bonuses. Ignored and abandoned victims do. The government is worried about the economy and other things that will get them elected, but not the real problem. Look, we’re in an election year, right? We narrow down the 2 candidates and all of the things that go with it, but when the time comes, no one will ask the question, not the important question. Not ‘what are you going to do about child predators, child abuse and the horrible plight of too many children that live here and around this planet?’ If they did, you’d get a blurb or a soundbite or some spun answer. “We’ll do our best to assist child services and let the legal system do its job, so that every American, especially the children, get a fair chance.’
Litmock: Garbage, but typical politico-speak.
Andrew Vachss: Of course. They don’t care. They haven’t dug into it, they certainly won’t invest time, money or effort in it, and Congress only moves when it has to. It’s much easier to pretend that the problem doesn’t exist.
Litmock: So do you think that the legal system or political system or the authorities are partly to blame in the prevalence of abuse?
Andrew Vachss: Absolutely. I’ve never heard of a predatory pedophile seeking counseling or help until after they’re caught. The system is screwed up from the start. It doesn’t seek to fix the problem, just to avoid it and perhaps punish it if forced to.
Litmock: You believe this to be a sociological problem then?
Andrew Vachss: I’ve never heard of or I’ve never seen any evidence that pedophilia is genetic in any way, shape or form. These are sick urges. This is a dark world that exists within society. Abuse is ignored, the cause is ignored, and the problem is ignored due to lack of oversight and a lack of [immediacy].
Litmock: But you’ve dedicated your life as an attorney to fight sex abuse and child abuse as well, and to protect youth wherever and whenever possible. A prime example is your foundation, PROTECT (The National Association To Protect Children). Can you explain a bit about that organization?
Andrew Vachss: It’s not my organization. It is a lobbyist group organized to protect and fight for the rights of children.
Litmock: A lobbyist group. Excellent. Fighting this bureaucratic system with the only weapon that has any effect on it. It’s like climbing into the belly of the beast to kill it from the inside out.
Andrew Vachss: Yes. You’re familiar with the NRA. I’m jealous of the NRA. They’re a very large, powerful and effective lobby, and lobby groups are the only way to get anything done in this legal system, in this government. PROTECT is a lobbyist group that is growing and that uses its influence and its resources to fight the never ending fight against child abuse. It is NOT a Non-Profit or a charity. It’s an actual tool being utilized to make a difference.
Litmock: Ingenious. Has it been effective? Have you successfully lobbied any changes in the law or legislature?
Andrew Vachss: Oh yes. Too many to go into here, but I’ll give you an example. In New York (in 2006), we lobbied the Legislature to change the incest loophole to protect all children. The way the law was written, if a person had sex with a child it was considered Rape in the First Degree. A perpetrator could get 25 years in prison with mandatory incarceration. But, if that victim was a son or daughter or ward, the perpetrator could be charged with incest, no mandatory incarceration, they might hardly receive any penalty at all. Where is the justice for the child there? We successfully pressured the Legislature. Once we got it before them we knew they couldn’t boot it out. PROTECT got the law changed so that any child raped by anybody would be treated the same, and the abusers would be treated the same, governed by the same criminal guidelines and punishment. Read PROTECT‘s website for more cases and efforts, or if you just want to help.
Litmock: And how does your website, the Zero, fit into this endless fight?
Andrew Vachss: It’s an excellent resource for child protection rights. It’s not an author page, per se, and I think that’s why it’s been a success. It was actually started by a fan in Hawaii and the server overloaded because it had too much traffic. It’s a compilation of links, advice and other resources, and people who visit it tend to stay and explore it for a very long time. It gets tons of hits, but that’s not important. What’s important is that people READ what’s on there, they use these important resources. It’s not about me, it’s about the fight against child abuse, and [my work] is just a part of that fight.
Litmock: Okay, let’s discuss what you’re up to now in the writing world. In That’s How I Roll, you return to utilizing the anti-hero as your narrator and protagonist. Again you’re drawn to the dark side, only this time your main character is a death row prisoner, Esau Till. Tell us what inspired you to follow a new character, not through a need to redeem himself, so much as through a need to explain himself. He’s not a vigilante…
Andrew Vachss: No, be careful there. I want to make sure we understand these terms. It’s important to explain things properly so that people understand them. The media, too many people, toss out terms carelessly. Esau only wants to protect his brother. He kills, but not child molesters or for any other “noble” cause. He’s not a vigilante by any means and he’s not Burke.
Litmock: Right, but in Esau Till, you have another deformed, though inherently likeable character. He’s a genius trapped in a mangled body. Here’s another man who started off on the wrong foot and followed it straight down the wrong path, so to speak. Esau himself says, of his beginnings “…when your sister is your mother, too, you know you’re not going to come out right. Not you, not your life, not nothing.” Now that’s a tough hole to start a character off in. And you’re the master at this, stacking the odds against your protagonists, making them villainous but likable at the same time. Is this by design?
Andrew Vachss: I don’t know that he’s likeable. He’s a genius who is mangled by Spina Bifida. Again, though, he only wants to protect his brother, which you see in the story he tells. His sister being his mother, it’s impossible for him to have a normal life, and he follows a path that many people who’ve dealt with similar circumstances have followed, in his own way.
Litmock: In Blackjack: A Cross Novel, you begin a new series, this one about a mercenary, Cross, and HIS chosen renegade band of disenfranchised allies. This is the continuation of the characters you created with James Colbert, no?
Andrew Vachss: No. Cross started in a few short stories I wrote, then I did the graphic novels.
Litmock: What inspired these characters? What made you decide to want to do another series like this, after killing the Burke series off? Obviously they’re different, but there are some similarities. They’re a fringe band of society, they’re killers and they chose their allies, etc.?
Andrew Vachss: But Cross doesn’t kill for the same reason as Burke, and his associates come and go. There are only 2 characters that go back to the beginning. This band is drawn together for their own reasons, different reasons, which you can see for yourself at the end of Blackjack, where this is going. The second book is finished and will be out next year.
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For more information, please visit The Zero. It will do you and the world some good. Mr. Vachss continues the fight, and I intend to help. I hope you do too.