Edward Kastenmeier is Andrew Vachss’ editor at Pantheon Books and Vintage Crime/Black Lizard. He’s edited 21 Andrew Vachss books over nearly 20 years, one of the longest running editor-writer relationships in crime fiction.
Q: When did you first encounter Andrew Vachss’ crime writing? Were you reading professionally or for pleasure?
Edward Kastenmeier: It was in 1994 when I read DOWN IN THE ZERO. We’d been lucky enough to add Andrew to the growing Vintage Crime/Black Lizard list that year. So I guess you could say I started reading him professionally, but really after the first sentence it was for pleasure.
Q: When Vachss began publishing novels in the 80’s, his stories were unlike any other crime fiction. Yes, FLOOD owed a debt to Chandler and Hammett, but the subject and title character were utterly fresh. And readers responded.
EK: Actually, not only did readers respond and make that book a huge bestseller, society responded. Andrew Vachss is responsible for changing the way we as a society recognize and think about child sexual abuse in supposedly squeaky-clean communities. Before Vachss published FLOOD, nobody wanted to believe that was happening. These kids weren’t protected. Things aren’t perfect now by a long shot, but they are better. And Andrew Vachss deserves credit for that.
Q: People can read more about Andrew’s essential work on behalf of children on his website (insert). Another interesting thing about that first published novel, FLOOD, is the title character. Flood is a woman both vulnerable and extremely powerful. And she’s a force for good. Vachss started something there, too. Characters like Buffy Summers and Lisbeth Sander can be traced back to Flood.
EK: I think that’s right. Vachss excels at showing us the strength in people that society has until that moment on the page thought of as weak and powerless. Femme fatales in noir were powerful , but they were also negative. Especially for the men around them. Vachss’s women tend to be an intriguing mix of raw power, vulnerability, and righteousness. They are effective advocates (if in sometimes unconventional ways) for the powerless and disadvantaged.
Q: What’s it like editing Vachss? Do you have much back and forth on a manuscript?
EK: Andrew Vachss’ manuscripts are incredibly clean. He’s a very meticulous writer. Easy to edit. There are never any large structural questions, only tiny tweaks here and there to tighten a passage or ensure continuity. But even that is rare. The reality is that I get to read Andrew Vachss for pleasure, not excavating. Reading his manuscript is as enjoyable for me as it is for readers when it is available as a finished book in stores.
Q: So you must have been eager to receive the first manuscript when Vachss told you he had an idea for a new series. What do you love best about the new AFTERSHOCK series?
EK: The tension between his two main characters, Dell and Dolly. Dell’s a man who is incredibly concerned with security. He’d build a wall around himself and Dolly and never leave or let the world in if he could. Dolly is the opposite. That’s obviously not a stable situation and there are going to be problems. Dell is a soldier who requires absolutely nobody in this world except for Dolly. Dolly is an ex-Doctors Without Borders nurse who functions as a defacto social worker in her current community. She lets the world in. Dell is a character none of us have much experience with. And if you did meet someone like him, you’d never know it and/or get access to their inner thoughts. Vachss is opening a world that’s hidden to us. And he’s hitting a thread in our culture—vets coming home and needing to try to integrate into regular society. Also the rise of Neo-Nazism in the Pacific Northwest. I won’t be surprised to see a major news story in nine months that seems ripped from the pages of this book. That’s what working with Andrew is like. He’s not flipping through periodicals looking for ideas. He actually works every day with people like the ones he writes about.
Q: That leads me to my next question. Vachss always says he never, ever does research. And then comes this meticulously detailed, totally believable novel that is in part about life as a mercenary in remote and dangerous parts of the world. How does he do it?
EK: Well you have to remember that Vachss was an aid worker in the Biafran War (1967-70). He was on the same planes with mercenaries, in the same communities. Same for members of Doctors Without Borders. Those people were an integral part of his world. And he had to pay close attention to both camps if he wanted to make it out alive. And back then he had the same mission that he lives and breathes to this day: protecting the powerless. Dell and Dolly’s story is a natural extension of that experience and of his mission.
Q: Any words about Andrew Vachss and his novels you might want to leave with crime fiction readers who haven’t read him before?
EK: Nobody is better at what Andrew Vachss does. His ability to write a sentence that makes you want to read the one that follows is unparalleled.
SHOCKWAVE: An Aftershock Novel, is available in hardcover and eBook from Pantheon Books on June 8, 2014.