An Interview with Scott Heim
It’s been 11 years since Scott Heim’s previous novel, In Awe. Thirteen since Mysterious Skin, his debut. After these astonishing early achievements, Scott Heim dropped off the literary radar.
In his new novel, We Disappear, Heim documents the how and whys of his absence -- there was drug abuse, writer’s block, estrangement from family and friends. But We Disappear is nobody’s addiction and recovery paint-by-numbers. An uncanny blend of fiction and memoir, the novel’s plot is set in motion when the narrator’s dying mother declares that when she was a child, she was kidnapped and held captive by an elderly couple for several days. The mother’s obsession with other kidnap victims, her wildly diverging account of her own experience, a series of clues and deceptions and a new and shocking kidnapping, in which the narrator himself may be complicit, all drive a mystery in which the object of inquiry is memory itself, and everyone is at once fleeing from the past and trying to unlock its secrets.
Between We Disappear and the truly excellent 2005 adaptation of Mysterious Skin, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, things are looking very good for Heim. I sat down with him in Boston, where he’s been living since 2002. We spoke for a couple hours at a JP Licks ice cream parlor on Newbury Street, and there was no question but that he’s happy to be back in the game.
In We Disappear, the main character is named "Scott" and worked for a textbook company -- much like yourself. For the "Scott" character, the textbook job looms pretty large. And he's frustrated by the restrictions placed on what he can write there. Is there anyway to be subversive as a textbook writer composing 500-word stories?
Not really. There's so many taboos you can't write about -- if you turn in anything with references to drugs, to crime in general. I remember once I wrote a piece about Siamese twins who were separated. And the story was about their life after that. But because there was this stuff about birth defects they said no to it. Sometimes I think to myself, I'm going to change the name of this character to a John Waters character from Female Trouble. I've done stuff like that. And I guess that's sort of subversive.
Probably flies pretty low under the radar.
Yeah, I doubt some kid in Texas is going to say, like, "Dawn Davenport!"
So the main character in We Disappear is named after you. And I think the mother, "Donna," and sister, "Alice" -- these characters also share names with your actual mother and sister...
My mother does. I changed my sister's name.
Can you talk about your decision-making process there?
The book was at one point 100% fiction. Every time I put it away and came back to it, there were things that would resemble my experience more. Then when my mom died, and I was writing heavy duty again, and was back to the actual creation of the book full time, I started taking the two lead characters and making them into us -- myself and my mother. There was something about it -- it was so fresh in my mind -- that I was working harder when I was doing that. When I started with that, I thought that I might change them back eventually to their fictional personas. But I didn't. At some point I realized I really liked merging memoir and fiction.
When I went back to Kansas I expected my mother to still have a few months left. And there was a lot of mystery about her past, her childhood that I wanted to find out. Then she died unexpectedly sooner, and in her last week she couldn't really speak or communicate. So I think in a way creating this whole past story for the mother in the book was a replacement for stuff I wanted to find out about her real childhood. In a way I suppose -- while I hate it when people say "my writing was healing" or "therapy" -- I was so overwhelmed and confused and a thousand other adjectives about her death that writing We Disappear became a way to channel that.
Is there an ethical issue here, after your mother's death? Some responsibility to the truth? As a reader, it's clear that the mystery story is probably fictional...
...though some readers will think it's true.
Right, and do these questions affect any ethical calculation?
In a way, there was something masochistically fun about doing the book. I think there's a really large percentage of readers who, even though they know they're reading a novel and fiction, they want there to be some kind of truth to it. I found with Mysterious Skin, over the years, that people want me to say that that character was based on my life. And there are so many narrators in Mysterious Skin, and I fractured my experience through different characters, but there are other things in the book that come completely out of your imagination. With this book it was kind of like doing that, but there was this discernable half and half, or discernable stop, where I was writing complete fiction and then started writing material that was happening to me or that I'd gone through with my mom or with drugs. At some point I started using these characters that were close to memoir. The question you started with, the ethics of doing that -- that's touchy, because, say, the character of Dolores. She didn't really exist, but she's kind of based on two people, one of whom was totally great, and helped me with my mother's death, and the other of whom was a person in my mom's life that I didn't like at all -- one of those people who turns into a total beast when someone dies and expects to be handed all of her belongings. It's weird -- I wonder now if those two people were to read the book, if the person I like will think that character is her and be offended, because there are bad qualities to the character. Whereas, the person I don't like might read the character and think it's her, and find herself painted better than in real life. That’s the good thing about the two characters based on myself and my mom -- my mom is dead, so neither of us are going to complain.
Do you think these people from Kansas will read it? Have people that you used as models for Mysterious Skin read that book?
I don't know. It's funny -- even though I came from Kansas and still write about it, a lot of the people I grew up with, well… it's not like small-town Kansas takes note, starts buzzing when I write a book.
I found that We Disappear moves between two poles. There's a narrative voice for most of the book that’s somewhat distanced, poetic, at times wistful. Then there are these scenes that move the book in a whole different direction. Interactions between characters that start out uncomfortable and awkward build to a point that they are almost unbearable to read -- they take on a sort of nightmare quality where the whole reality of the novel is jarred. For instance, the moment in the diner when the Donna is talking to a man who believes, probably without much reason, that his granddaughter has been kidnapped -- Donna’s annoyance with him builds to the point that by the end of the scene she is standing and screaming about horrible events from her past to everyone in the room.
That's always how I build a novel. I tend to think in terms of valleys and peaks -- not so much epiphanies, but character realizations, or reader realizations about the character. Then I think about how and where I want them, and build the scene around them. I'm not so sure I think of writing a book in linear terms so much. I think of what I want to do with the book, then certain scenes where characters will make realizations toward the whole. I think I've done that with all three books. I'll have a scene in my mind -- the end of a scene, the part where the character makes some realization. I do the hard stuff first, I think, and then do the easy stuff. I'm not sure if that's how everyone works.
What's the hard stuff?
The hard stuff is finding those moments of realization or epiphany, where the character is revealing something to the reader. And sometimes like you said, those are moments that step a little to the left of realistic fiction. I always tend to think that everything I've written presents a slightly skewed reality, anyway. When I'm in the world of a book, when I'm writing it, I tend to find it's almost this David Lynchian, slightly different world. I don't think I could ever write a naturalistic, super-realistic piece of fiction.
This book -- perhaps all of your books, but this one in particular -- is concerned with truth and fantasy, and how to get to the core of the quote-unquote truth. Which is, at least in this book, finally unknowable.
I like working with memory. Not the truth of memory, but how characters remember an event, either truthfully or not. Something happened to us in the past, and we think we know how it happened, but over twenty years it completely changed. In that respect, this book had much more to do with Mysterious Skin than In Awe. When Michael, my boyfriend, first read it, he thought that people might see it as something of a weird kind of sequel to Mysterious Skin. The characters here resemble the characters from that book, and again, it deals with how the secrets from characters’ pasts shape their present.
There's a possibility raised at the end of the book that one of the main characters may never have existed.
Writing the book, there was a time for me when that character was wholly literal. And when I realized that if I was going to use him as a literal kidnapped teenage boy, that was a place where the book would become closer to a Hollywoodized mystery novel, and also the place where the reader might see the characters in a completely different way. But I was doing this whole thing with the narrator longing for the past, thinking a lot about the days when he was a teenager, before his life went downhill and before he started to metaphorically disappear. And so I decided to make this character resemble the narrator more and more. I wanted there to be a point in the book where some readers would still take him literally, and others would think, the narrator's unreliable, on drugs, he might even be hallucinating -- and the boy represents some lost childhood. So there was something surreal, Lynchian, about that.
In that moment and lots of others, this book keeps throwing out possibilities in so many directions. The story of the mother's kidnapping gets told and retold in very different modes.
I think that that's another way that it resembles Mysterious Skin. People who didn't like that book were always saying to me, "Well, I knew right away what happened! I knew right away he was molested, not abducted by UFOs!" That's not the point. Yes, you do know that right away. For me, the mystery in the title is finding out how the characters will eventually get where they get, and learn what the truth was. That's one of the main themes here, too. You never know which if any of the stories she's telling are true. For me, the real epiphany of the book isn't any of that -- it's when the narrator realizes that she was telling these stories to keep him and her alive.
The narrator talks about how he and his mother would invent stories about kidnapping victims when he was young -- or come up with narratives about objects they find, like old cookbooks. Is that based on your real-life mother? Was she a storyteller?
My dad was a teacher, and he was the one that taught us math and science, how to read, he was always on our cases if we weren't getting As. My mother, though -- she had dropped out of high school, she wasn't hugely smart, but she was the one who was always bringing home crossword puzzles or playing weird games with us. And like the mother in the book, she worked at a prison and would bring home true crime books. And I think that even at an early age I started to get into that kind of thing. The genesis of the stories that the characters in the book tell about kidnapped kids -- that whole aspect of the book, I was most influenced by this story by Alice Munro, where...
Yeah, I was really influenced by that story, which is so rich, and so detailed, and you realize at the end that it's just this woman at the end, as writer, creating this story. And there should be something disappointing about that. But for me, it just makes you realize the power of the artist in creating something. Even with a memoir, you can say it's a memoir, but nothing's really a memoir. Every author takes liberties in terms of shaping it into a form, pacing. In real life pacing never happens.
You have a blog that you update pretty regularly, once or twice a week, sometimes more. Why do you do it?
That's a good question. I guess one reason that most people do it, is there's something so DIY about it. There's the instant gratification of seeing your work published the second you write it. And you have a huge audience right away. You write a novel and publish it and you might have 5,000 readers, if you're lucky. You can write a blog entry and thousands, even millions of people could see it if they wanted to. So there's that instant thrill. But also, just for me, there are so many things I'm interested in other than just writing books that I want to share with or express to people. The blog gives me an outlet to do that. Also, there are some people who have read my books that I've never met face to face. It's sort of easier to communicate through something like MySpace or the blog.
Does the blog affect your writing?
I don't think it does. I think maybe that's one reason I like it. There were times in the past that I'd do freelance work for this textbook company. I'd work for weeks at a time, and it would seem like it was a different thing, but I'd realize it was taking up some of my energy for creative writing. I'd have to write a 500-word story for an eighth grade audience. When I would finish with that, the last thing I'd want to do is go back to my own work. But the blog is different -- just me being chatty. It doesn't change my writing or affect it in any positive way, but it certainly doesn't take away the energy I need to create.
What blogs do you follow?
I read some of my friends’ blogs. I watch much more TV, though.
Well, for this book I got a lot of influence from a certain type of Discovery Channel show -- cold case files, forensic files, investigative reports. Some of them are always so fascinating. There's some weird clue that leads to the conviction of the killer. And it's that strange police procedural reportage that I was influenced by in the sense that I wanted to give that kind of feel to the disappeared people portion of the book.
I know that you read Dennis Cooper's blog sometimes, because I've seen you comment there. I asked a few days ago if any of the commenters had any questions I should ask you for this interview, and Dennis himself came up with one that I would certainly never have thought to ask. I quote: "Did shoegaze music have any influence on your writing?"
Oh, yeah. I would say that music probably influences my writing more than anything. I'm really jealous of musicians, because I feel like it's really easy to manipulate a listener's emotions through music, and much harder through writing. I wish that I could include a soundtrack for books. I've always been a huge music geek, and grew up with my mom having this huge collection of 8-tracks, then in high school I was a huge new-waver. Then in high school I was completely blown away by those shoegaze bands -- Ride, My Bloody Valentine, Slowdive, all of those bands. There's something about it that influenced the way I work with texture and atmosphere -- that kind of music is atmosphere over, say, meaningful lyrics. I guess that's not a good parallel to make, almost like saying my work has more style over substance. But I'm very keen on getting the reader in a place where they can see and hear and smell and taste and everything else. I like that synesthetic experience in reading. Which is how I felt the first time I heard [My Blood Valentine's] Loveless album. It was almost like being on drugs.
How was it meeting Joseph Gordon-Levitt?
It was cool. Before they started filming, I spent two months in New York at the producer's apartment housesitting while she was off in California. Joseph was in New York at the time and met me at the apartment, and we hung out. He's kind of a method actor, so one thing he wanted to do was go back to the towns where the book is set and meet people from my life who some of the characters were loosely based on. So we did that -- we went back to Kansas and spent three days in a rental car driving around. It was really fun. He wanted to get an idea of what people are like in that area of the state, that area of America. He brought his video camera and taped the way people talked.
I understand that there's a video floating around on the Internet of you and your sister and Joseph Gordon-Levitt.
She owned this vintage clothing store and we decided we would make a movie with his video camera. We wrote this short film about cross-dressing and shoplifting and murder. Maybe it will be an extra on some DVD someday.
How did you react to Gregg Araki coming on board to direct Mysterious Skin?
Gregg until recently was so focused in his vision; he wrote his own films, edited them. It was hard for him at one time to accept an outside influence on his work. One reason that Mysterious Skin succeeded is that he was able to step outside that, and fit himself into my vision of the book. That's coming out wrong. What I should say is my vision of the book and his were very similar. When the first option for the book fell through and I heard it was going to be made by Gregg, I wasn't sure how to feel. I was really excited about the possibilities of visual creativity and music and all those aspects of the other Araki films. But I feared that he would make my characters in that kind of cardboard… well, like the kids in Doom Generation. But he was so appreciative of the book. By that time, he knew it better than I did. It had been ten years since it had been published, and it's not like I was still reading my dumb book. I was onto other things. So in retrospect I think he was the perfect person.
The visual surface of Mysterious Skin is so different from earlier Iraki films. It's just gorgeous.
He definitely knew what he wanted. When he found Steve Gainer, who's the cinematographer, that's what he told him. He said, "I want it to be a movie about a potentially ugly subject that just has these amazingly gorgeous -- gorgeously set and colored scenes." Gregg taught me a lot about what film making is like. He had the whole thing story boarded in an amazingly detailed way. He'd have a story board with a bedspread on it, and then the scene in the movie with Joseph getting blown by that guy -- the bedspread looked exactly the same.
The trailer for We Disappear is really cool – you directed that?
When my other books came out there wasn't an option for a trailer. I asked a friend of mine who makes films if he would do it for me, and it turned out he was doing other things. He said I should try to do it myself. Then Joseph told me that iMovie is very easy to learn, to just teach myself. So I did it. I had fun with it. It made me want to pursue film-making instead of writing. In a way they're very similar.
You have creative control over your narrative in a way that other art forms don't. The way you pace and edit scenes is weirdly similar.
Do you have any film ideas?
Oh yeah. I've wanted to make a horror film for years.
Do you have a specific idea? Is it something you can talk about?
I do have an idea, but I think I’d better keep it quiet for now.