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An Attorney Turns to Fiction

By Helen Dudar
Originally published in The Wall Street Journal, September 16, 1985

Andrew H. Vachss, a New York lawyer awesomely knowledgeable about the seamier sides of city life, wrote his first novel some years ago with the hope of showing the world "how you produce a genuine card–carrying sociopath." The manuscript is yellowing in his files, in a bedding of rejection notes he recites with deadpan relish: "'This book made me throw up.' And 'I think it should be suppressed,' and 'If he ever writes a book human beings can read, send it to me.'"

The second time Mr. Vachss set his hand to fiction, he was in search of a general audience for the subject that is his life's work and his obsession: helpless child victims of sexual abuse. In short order, his agent died; an editor to whom Mr. Vachss was sent wanted the proletarian detective–hero transformed into a Yuppie, and a new agent who lasted about five minutes thought the book could use a CIA plot. Through friends, the novel finally found its way to a publisher who said all it needed was little restructuring, a chore Vachss accomplished in one day's work at the word processor.

So here's Flood (Donald Fine Inc., 341 pages, $17.95), a nifty suspense thriller about survival and revenge in the maggoty underside of city life.

Nobody of any importance in this book has more than one name. Flood is a small, fierce woman with a killer karate chop who hires a detective to hunt down the rapist–killer of her best friend's child. Burke, self–described "great scam artist," is the unlicensed private eye who conducts the search. A living lesson in justifiable paranoia; he assumes most coin phones are tapped, never travels to any point in a straight line and maintains an office elaborately wired against intruders and guarded by a giant Neapolitan mastiff named Pansy. The cast of wonderfully bizarre characters enlisted to help Burke and Flood includes Michelle, a transvestite prostitute; the Mole, an electronics genius who lives under a junkyard and is available for complex illicit jobs, and Max the Silent, a deaf–mute Tibetan powerhouse who can bend brass knuckles.

It is fitting that the book wound up in the expert hands of Donald Fine, a blunt, voluble man who is himself a notable survivor. Mr. Fine founded and ran Arbor House for years, flourishing with such authors as Irwin Shaw, Ken Follett, Cynthia Freeman, Elmore Leonard and Hortense Calisher. In 1979, in quest of a paperback connection that would give him means to make heavy–money hard–soft deals, he sold the house to Hearst Corp., which owns Avon Books. Mr. Fine, reportedly collecting 1.5 million, stayed on as publisher.

Having discovered after a few years that he was temperamentally unsuited to corporate life, Mr. Fine set out to buy his company back. In the fall of 1983, he went to what he thought was a settlement meeting and was told the deal was off. He was fired.

Although he tries not to brood about it, Mr. Fine, remembering Arbor House, will sometimes say with a wounded look that "they made me hate my baby."

But before the week was out he had a new baby, birthed with the help of a bank he had loyally insisted on patronizing after the Hearst merger; eventually, he was joined by some of his old writers, among them Herbert Gold and Laura Z. Hobson.

The offices of Donald Fine Inc. occupy the street floor of his Murray Hill townhouse, a space crowded with five full–time employees and innumerable cartons. The setup is all right with Mr. Fine, who doesn't believe in "publishing by meetings" anyway and who finds it perfectly congenial to call out decisions across partitions.

After three seasons, he's breaking even, and expects to end his second fiscal year with $2 million in net sales as well as some kind of profit. The other day, the fabled agent Irving "Swifty" Lazar called to announce he was representing a new prospective author, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, and wanted to arrange a meeting. "If Swifty calls," Mr. Fine said, "I know we're certified as liquid."

The Vachss book reached Mr. Fine after innumerable detours; a friend of the author's finally brought it to Oscar Dystel, the publishing consultant and former head of Bantam, who liked it and passed it on to Mr. Fine. Having launched the novel with big promotion and a confident 50,000 first printing, he recently sold reprint rights to Pocket Books for a comforting $165,000.

Mr. Vachss, who is wiry, intense and chronically wry, not unlike a character out of a Vachss novel, views the possibilities with restrained enthusiasm. "A lot of things," he says "have already exceeded my wildest fantasies. It's sold at least 500 copies to my certain knowledge."

A native New Yorker, Mr. Vachss grew up on the edge of the West Village at a time when "street life was safer than daycare centers are today." He is 42 and came to the law less than a dozen years ago following a kaleidoscope career that included tracking chains of venereal infections as a public health investigator; running a maximum–security institution for juvenile offenders; trying to save the children of war–stricken Biafra, and studying with the social activist Saul Alinsky.

In his legal practice, Mr. Vachss represents, on behalf of the state, the interests of the victims in child–abuse cases. He also defends juvenile offenders, many of whom he says have been sexually battered children. Ask him if the courts are a better vehicle for salvaging damaged lives than the assorted agencies he has known and he says, "Absolutely. I save kids' lives everyday. It's direct combat where you can actually see your opponent fall."

Mr. Vachss also writes for and lectures to professional audiences on the issues of juvenile justice and treatment. A man this busy doesn't have a lot of time to brood about a secondary career as a novelist. Flood was composed over a period of several years in jottings on 3–by–5–inch index cards. When he had a lot of cards, Mr. Vachss sat down to the computer and in six weeks punched out a book. And now that it's in print, he is insistently cool about it, reflecting that the worst thing that can happen to the book "doesn't come anywhere near to approximating the worst things that can happen to me on any other day."


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