In 1973, well before the first novel in his acclaimed Burke series hit bookstore shelves, Andrew Vachss wrote A Bomb Built in Hell—the story of ice-cold assassin Wesley. Though Wesley would go on to haunt several of the Burke books, A Bomb Built in Hell was rejected by dozens of publishers as being “unrealistic” in its depiction of school shootings and Chinese youth gangs. Now, nearly 40 years later, the book has finally been released. Vachss—who before becoming a bestselling author worked as the director of a maximum-security prison for violent youth—tells Zola what took so long and what makes a killer.
Zola: Today, high school massacres are common. But that wasn’t the case 40 years ago. When you were writing the novel, did you think it might be too shocking for publishers?
Andrew Vachss: How would I know? I didn’t know anybody in publishing. I had an agent, who this book is dedicated to, who never lived to see anything of mine published. I kept pointing out over and over again that I wasn’t fantasizing, I was reporting, and he said, “Okay, go with it.” I had maybe 40 rejections, most of them saying what a great writer I would be and what power there was in the writing and all that—but that “the book is a political horror story,” or “so over the top,” or “the product of a sick imagination.” If I wrote anything else they said to be sure to send it to them… but not this.
Zola: After the 1985 success of Flood, the first Burke novel, publishers started making offers on A Bomb Built in Hell. You turned them down because you felt it would read like a period piece. Why are you finally releasing it now?
AV: It’s okay for it to be a period piece so many years later. It would not have been okay at the time because there hadn’t been enough time. I understand 12 years sounds like a lot, but it’s not 40 years. I just didn’t feel comfortable about letting it go. And also my editor, Sonny Mehta at Knopf, said, “Wesley is too good of a character to just go away.” So, at his suggestion, instead of publishing the entire book, I cannibalized parts of it and put it into the Burke series starting with Blue Belle and ending (maybe) in Hard Candy… but his [Wesley’s] presence remains throughout the series, protecting Burke right up until its end.
Zola: What creates a person like Wesley?
AV: I’ve always said that we build our own beasts, we make our own monsters. Wesley’s not any biogenetic misfire. The way you make a monster is that you make sure that not only is the child tormented, but that nobody intervenes, so that the child starts to believe that nobody cares about him in any way. Having received no empathy, he never forms any. Once that has fully calcified, it’s not a card you can shove back in the deck.
Wesley’s not a psychopath. He’s not interested in killing people just to be killing people. He responded to the very first person [a mafia boss whom Wesley meets in prison] who ever showed him—albeit in a very twisted and manipulative way—that he cared about him. In the course of doing everything he agreed to do, Wesley developed this attitude that it was the wealthy of the world who were manipulating, using, exploiting, and hurting the rest of the world. He saw himself as the embodiment of that “rest of that world.”
This article was updated on September 29, 2014
This article originally appeared on Zola Books.