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Scott Heim, 1995

A Talk With Scott Heim

By Owen Keehnen

In November 1994 Scott Heim was named by the New York Times Magazine as one of the thirty artists under thirty likely "to change the culture in the next thirty years." The prestigious honor was given him to a large extent on the explosive strength of his debut novel Mysterious Skin, published in 1995.

Vividly set in Kansas, this is the story of the long-term effects of molestation on two different boys by their little league coach. Neil recalls the experience as a model for idyllic love he can never recapture. He eventually becomes the town hustler and hood before moving to New York City. Brian represses the memory so thoroughly that when it does emerge it is interpreted as a clouded dream of alien abduction. The coming together of these two young men and their shared past drives the novel to its satisfying conclusion.

Mysterious Skin is populated with a pantheon of stunning characters, surreal and haunting scenes, and a depth and clarity of style, giving the novel the power to simultaneously repel and entice. It is an incredible novel and hopefully only the beginning of what will be a long and exciting career. [Since this interview was conducted, Heim has published another novel, In Awe (1997), and several short stories and memoirs. He is completing a third novel. Gregg Araki's film of Mysterious Skin, on which Araki and Heim shared writing credit, opened in 2004.]

Recently I had the pleasure to talk a bit with Scott Heim about the exciting course his life is taking. We discussed the novel, writing, UFOs, music, Kansas, and Dario Argento among other things. Heim was very charming and down to earth and every bit as articulate as his work.

Keehnen: A novel is such a huge undertaking, how did it begin?

Heim: Mysterious Skin started out as a story about Brian, then I essentially took the Neil story and sewed them together. Then I realized I had something much bigger than a short story.

Keehnen: Are you challenging the recovery and survivors psychology that surrounds the molestation in the book?

Heim: Yes and no. More in the forefront was people's simplification and underestimation of children; that's mostly in the first third. The rest of the book is concerned with memory. The whole aspect of blocked memories is a really exciting topic and also scary. Sometimes it is completely legitimate, and sometimes you can have a dream or memory that may or may not be real; you can exaggerate it or make it into something it's not. That's what I tried to do with Brian's story in the book.

Keehnen: Whose story was the more difficult for you to write?

Heim: Probably Brian's because his story is so internalized. When I was working on the book I was more excited about writing Neil's sections. Whenever I sat down at the computer I would want to write about him. The hardest chapters were those showing Brian coming to terms with his memories. It's funny, but now that I'm touring and doing readings, the parts I tend to like to read are the Brian sections.

Keehnen: The UFO theme you include in the book is thoroughly researched. Is it a personal fascination of yours? Have you ever seen one?

Heim: I'm not embarrassed to say that the part of the novel where the mother and daughter and son see the UFO is almost exactly how it happened when I was a kid. I remember having really vivid dreams as a child. I can remember one experience with my sister--of waking up in the middle of the night feeling something bad had just happened to us. We would have dreams after that with the theme of aliens touching us. My sister also was once driving in the country and saw a UFO; and when she arrived where she was going, there were two hours missing in her time. It's something I've always been fascinated by and something I do believe in, but I am also hesitant to talk about it because people are so skeptical. UFOs, Big Foot, the Loch Ness Monster, ghosts, ESP; I'm into all that stuff.

Keehnen: Brian and Neil also both come from single-mother homes. Is that just a character coincidence?

Heim: In a way. It's also just the idea of being a kid from a problem home and an outsider type. It makes them more accessible to the predator in the book.

Keehnen: I'm also curious about your penchant for strange sex scenes like the syrup scene in "Imagining Linc" from the Waves anthology, or in this novel the cereal molestation or the weird playground exhibitionist séance, or the ballpark stuff. Why do your sex scenes continually have a surreal feel?

Heim: Anyone who's read any adult fiction has read enough sex scenes to get the same thing over and over. There are only so many terms you can use for penis and vagina. It gets really boring after a while. I like to get into the head of my characters during sex and also insert a setting or emotion or image that isn't usually associated with the average sex scene to make it more powerful, believable, and memorable. The ultimate compliment is when someone who would normally be repulsed by the situation gets turned on by it. That's my goal when I write a sex scene. To me a vanilla or white bread sex scene is completely boring in real life and ten times more boring in fiction.

Keehnen: It was also great to see Dario Argento's Suspiria, one of my all-time favorite movies, captured between the pages of serious fiction.

Heim: It's my favorite movie. I love horror films and I think I've seen about everything ever put on film or video. Dario Argento is my absolute favorite, and I felt somehow I needed to pay him homage, but I wasn't the first. Kathy Acker did it in My Mother Demonology. In some ways what I'm trying to do with my fiction is similar to what he does with his films, the juxtaposition of extremes. In his films he does a lot with music and cinematography, surrounding his utmost violence with beauty.

Keehnen: He's such a sensory explosion. Do you want someone to feel the same thing when closing Mysterious Skin?

Heim: I want someone to have a really visceral experience. I want someone to feel the way I do when I see a great horror movie, some sort of slap-in-the-face emotion, whether it's sadness or shock or horror or disgust--at least I've moved them beyond the usual page turning fluff.

Keehnen: Kansas almost seems a character in your book as well, like a neo-Willa Cather. Even though you now live in New York City, do you think Kansas will maintain a prominent place in your writing?

Heim: Yeah. I'm interested in not only the geography, but also the atmosphere. You're right--it almost is a character. A lot of people have never been there, and they have a lot of preconceptions and misconceptions about it. There are a lot of things I don't like about Kansas, but in general I love it. There is really nothing like the feeling of being in Kansas when a storm is brewing. There is something so mysterious and legendary about it. Also, going back to the juxtaposition thing, it's interesting to take the plots and topics I want to write about and set them in an area people usually associate with being calm and serene.

Keehnen: Speaking of Kansas, have you made a pilgrimage to see Burroughs?

Heim: Yeah. I had dinner with him basically through an agent's connections. William read the book and really liked it, especially the UFO parts. He's really into all of that too, and government cover-ups and stuff. Last time I went home to Lawrence, they called and invited me so I went and had dinner with him. To me it was like having dinner with Christ.

Keehnen: What writers have influenced you?

Heim: When I started, Genet and the surrealists. Dennis Cooper--who is my favorite in terms of language and style--also influenced me. Kathy Acker, the poet Anne Sexton. I also love Flannery O'Connor and the southern Gothic writers. Cormac McCarthy. I also love Joy Williams.

Keehnen: You're also author of the poetry collection Saved from Drowning. What's the difference for you between writing poetry and prose?

Heim: I'm writing almost completely prose now. At one time my poems were lyrical and focused on meter and line breaks and things like that, but at some point my poems became more and more narrative. At that stage the only difference between them and my fiction was that the poems were more economical and didn't have to explain things like character and plot.

Keehnen: Do you have any writing idiosyncrasies?

Heim: It depends on what you consider an idiosyncrasy. I do my best writing at night with music blaring. I like to listen to fuzzy, druggy, fucked-up British guitar band music.

Keehnen: What bands?

Heim: My Bloody Valentine, Seefeel, Cocteau Twins . . . . I like things that are very moody and sort of swirl around the room and make me feel certain ways. With a lot of them, you can't understand the lyrics of their songs so writing for me while listening is like providing words to a soundtrack.

Keehnen: I know My Bloody Valentine fairly well, and it seems like it would be impossible to fall into cliched mind patterns listening to them.

Heim: Right. I love hallucinogenic drugs, but it's not something I can do a lot, so many of the movies and much of the music I enjoy kind of make me feel like I'm on mushrooms or something without actually having the two-day hangover afterwards.

Keehnen: Recently you were named by the New York Times Magazine as one of the thirty artists under thirty most likely to change the culture in the next thirty years. What did it feel like to be named to a list like that?

Heim: It's very encouraging, but I also feel I have something to live up to now that they've put this title on me. It all happened so fast. It was really fun going to the photo session because I didn't know who else would be involved, and there were people I'd seen on MTV and movies or whatever. It was the first time I realized Mysterious Skin was going to be something big in the sense that people across the country would be able to go into a store and buy it. When the magazine came out and there was my picture with these other people, I realized that if I hadn't been included in this and I were under thirty, I'd be very jealous.

Keehnen: Scott, it's when you move into the over-thirty crowd that you find the real jealousy. Just kidding. Tell me a little something about the novel you are working on now.

Heim: I don't have a title. Once again it's set in Kansas and focuses on a trio of outcasts, a teenage boy, a woman in her thirties, and a woman in her sixties whose son has just died. They are the pariahs of this town, and it's about their desires and how they are sure they will never be fulfilled. Then a sort of dastardly character comes in and tries to fulfill their desires for them. It's also about the past and how the memory of it affects the way we live, which I guess is the major theme I am working on now.

Keehnen: What attracts you to having outcasts as your protagonists?

Heim: I think outcasts are almost always more interesting than the most popular people in class. They have stories to tell because they usually have secrets. It's always the more popular or important people that voice their stories. The outcast is usually silent, so I like giving a voice to them. A big part of it, too, was that when I was growing up, I was always an outcast in one way or another, and the people that were my friends were outcasts. I was overweight, and my friends and I were the punk rockers in high school. People always looked at us like we were freaks; part of me didn't like that, but most of me did. It's interesting to me that most outcasts are content with being outcasts.

Keehnen: Did you always want to be a writer?

Heim: I always wanted to be recognized. The two things I knew I did best were writing and playing drums. I was a drummer in a couple of bands in college. I was good at it, but there came a time when I realized that to make it in a band is too far-fetched, that I should pursue English literature and writing. Eventually, it paid off.

Keehnen: It paid off big time, Scott. Thanks for taking some time to talk.

Heim: Thanks, Owen.

About Owen Keehnen
Owen Keehnen has worked as a journalist, book reviewer, and interviewer for a number of years. Currently, the Chicago based author is completing a trilogy of interview books on gay XXX stars, finishing a horror novel, and supporting himself as a massage therapist. He is also launching a website which celebrates independent horror films,
Related Pages

Araki, Gregg

Burroughs, William S.

Cather, Willa

Genet, Jean

Mordden, Ethan




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