By this point in the long game, I’ve interviewed a lot of crime writers. Elmore Leonard once read me the opening chapter of a novel—while he was in the middle of typing it up. I spoke with Walter Mosley and Donald E. Westlake within the same two-hour window one Christmas eve. Go toe-to-toe with Richard Price and you’ll come out of it feeling like the losing end of a prizefight.
But there is nothing in the world like a sit-down with Andrew Vachss.
I first interviewed Vachss a decade ago about his superb novella The Getaway Man. It was one of my first interviews, so I was ambitious, and nervous. I picked him up at a five-star hotel and then drove him to a smoky, busy greasy spoon, where we talked for four hours. We went into the ring again for Two Trains Running, and this week we talked about his latest, Aftershock.
Fair warning: The guy doesn’t have the slightest glimmer of the concept of self-promotion and he wouldn’t spoon-feed an interviewer to save his dog. And the man loves his dogs. So we talk about artist Geof Darrow and Goodfellas and Japan and blues musicians and Emmett Till and Joe Lansdale and pit bulls and Protect.org and Shaolin Cowboy. If you ever get the opportunity to speak with him, do your homework, stand your ground, and don’t ask stupid questions about his eye patch. He is smart, articulate and completely committed and he’s been doing this a lot longer than you have.
Just maybe, if you’re good and smart and lucky, he talks about his books, too.
Vachss is hitting shelves with a one-two punch, landing an opening salvo with his short story collection Mortal Lock and following with Aftershock, which is the first entry in a new series, albeit one with a shorter lifespan than Vachss’ long-lived Burke novels. The first entry introduces Dell, a former French Legionnaire and highly skilled mercenary, and Dolly, a former nurse from Doctors Without Borders. They’ve retreated to the Pacific Northwest, where Dolly gets involved in the community, while Dell watches over Dolly with a lethal protectiveness. While Vachss has always written about the idea of a “family of choice,” it’s unusual for him to focus specifically on a couple.
“Unlike other writers that I know, I’ve never been able to write in a woman’s voice,” Vachss admits. “Even though women were certainly represented in all kinds of ways in my work, they weren’t as significant as everything else that is going on. In this particular instance, you have this contrast between Dell, who only wants to be left alone and in peace, and Dolly, who just can’t leave things alone.”
Dell still has his own way of doing things—like executing hunters in the woods near his property just to keep stray bullets away from Dolly, or pre-emptively executing an adolescent Dell believes is about to graduate from torturing animals to killing humans.
“I want you to see right away that this is a stop-at-nothing professional who is micro-focused on just one thing,” Vachss says of Dell. “This wasn’t retirement. This is disengagement. Dell is still working but the only mission he has in life is to protect her. There is something between Dell and Dolly that is almost synergistic that allows Dell to stop what he does naturally and reactivate it when he needs to protect Dolly.”
Per his M.O., Vachss doesn’t do research to write. For those not in the know, Vachss has spent his entire life fighting to protect children. His early efforts ranged from working federal investigations of sexually-transmitted diseases to community organizing to plotting a land route to channel humanitarian aid into war-torn Biafra. An attorney since 1976, he exclusively represents young people and is one of the founders of The National Association to Protect Children, known as PROTECT.
With that base of knowledge, Vachss uses his novels to unleash ideas—he calls them “Trojan Horses”—to help educate readers and the public about the dire state of child protection. There is no whodunit to solve in a Vachss novel. There are the most horrible trespasses against children, all culled from the real world, and the chance to work out justice on the printed page.
The precipitating event in Aftershock is a school shooting. The local high school’s star softball player, MaryLou, strides calmly down a hallway and shoots one of the school’s most popular boys dead. Case closed? Not so fast.
“Everybody knows about PTSD, right?” Vachss asks. “No one knows about secondary PTSD. If you work with abused children long enough, you get overwhelmed. You know that river is never going to stop flowing. No matter how well you handle the next case or the next hundred, they will never stop coming. But some people can’t step aside, and the results are very real. That was the most important new information in the book.”
Another of Vachss’ hot buttons is the public lack of understanding that we live in a culture where the sexual abuse of children is often not just socially acceptable, but institutionalized.
“Look at some of the people who ran in the last election,” he explains. “What they said was ghastly but they would not have said those things if they didn’t think those statements would help them get elected. I want to make sure people really get it that this isn’t bullying we’re talking about. Look at what happened in Steubenville, Ohio. Do you doubt that gang rapes are committed by people in high school? Or that they put it on YouTube? Or that they threaten the victim?”
The seemingly cut-and-dried charges against MaryLou lead to something surprisingly rare from the long-time author-slash-attorney: Vachss gives us an honest-to-God courtroom drama.
“It had to be a court case,” he says. “How are you going to defend someone who says ‘I brought a gun to school and I shot him dead.’ There’s only one defense. During a trial, you can make it obvious that if her goal was simply to kill this boy, she could have done it in a way that allowed her to get away. This is about protection.”
For Andrew Vachss, all of his work and his investment in PROTECT are about five simple words, the legacy that will outlive him. “Child protection equals crime prevention,” he says. “We make our own monsters. We built our own beasts. This fight is about protecting all of us by protecting children. My mission is never going to be complete but trust me, I can still go a few more rounds.”
So that’s where we’ll stop. I could tell you about the author’s views on the nuts and bolts of mercenary life, gang rape in India and his anxieties about the death of journalism, but I won’t.
Because we’re done now.
Clayton Moore is a freelance writer, journalist, book critic, and prolific interviewer of other writers. His work appears in numerous newspapers, magazines, websites, and other media. He is based in Boulder, Colorado.