On a warm spring day a decade ago
Scott Heim waltzed in to my Market Street apartment eager to talk about his
novel Mysterious Skin, with its lyrical descriptions of savage love on
the edge of Kansas wheat fields -- a Little League coach luring his eight year
old charges into a suburban ranch house, chock full of video games, sugary
breakfast food and tawdry snapshots.
Twenty-nine at the time of our
first chat, Heim radiated an outer beauty that almost put the senses into a
kind of sugar shock -- there's nothing quite so startling as standing in front
of a creamy complexioned youth, seemingly too young to read his own first book,
who one has imagined, like the Kansas scenes in Oz, in black and white, and who
now explodes into the room as a strawberry blond.
Coming on the heels of the McMartin
pre-school case, with its lurid charges of unspeakable crimes against children
supported by the witchcraft psychology of "repressed memory" and in
the shadow of tabloid rumors about Michael Jackson, Mysterious Skin
reveals its secrets slowly beginning and ending with two of the most
heartbreakingly poignant paragraphs in queer fiction.
"The Summer I was eight years
old, five hours disappeared from my life... I can't explain. I remember this:
first, sitting on the bench during my Little League's team's 7 p.m. game, and second, waking in the crawl space of my house near midnight. Whatever happened during that empty expanse of time remains a blur."
The book concludes with two shaken
nineteen year-olds cowering on a strange family's couch, suddenly caught in a
beam of light as miraculous and disturbing as if it had come from an alien
ship. "It was a light that shone over our faces, our wounds and scars. It
was a light so brilliant and white it could have been beamed from heaven, and
Brian and I could have been angels, basking in it. But it wasn't, and we
In two conversations (April 4, 1995
and May, 1997), Scott Heim held forth on a view of life that has cast him as
the bard of a fast living group of boys whose knowledge that they're still in
Kansas doesn't prevent them from pursuing the kind of mad obsessions that are
the fodder of TV tabloid headlines, but in a deeper way. Heim's Kansas boys are
just as lost and they're just as jungle-like in this rural place with its
deceptively safe and serene landscape. The interview casts light on why it took
ten years for Mysterious Skin to make it sensation transition to the big
screen, in a tautly economical but splendidly faithful adaptation by Gregg
When did the idea for Mysterious Skin come to you?
How long did it take to develop this book?
I guess the book sort of began as a short story about a boy
who was molested as a child and comes to believe he was abducted by a UFO, and
that just kept on growing, and sort of gaining characters, and sooner or later
1 was adding another character to it and the book became more about two
protagonists. I think it took about a year and a half to write. Once it got
going it went faster and faster and then the last couple of months I really
churned it out at sort of breakneck speed.
You use the parallel narrative technique where there are
I found that when writing about sort of the progression of
memory, and writing from the point of view' of teenagers, it worked well to
sort of bring in the other characters and have their points of view also to
give a more well-rounded view of the characters involved.
Also you write in an informed way about sports, particularly
Right. [laughs] I guess people tend to ask, like, is this
book autobiographical, and that's one thing that I'm not really ashamed to say.
That's kind of the one sport as a child that I was really good at. And I guess
not only playing baseball, but also for a long time I worked as a scorekeeper
and announcer at the softball complex, which one of the characters in book
(Neil McCormick) does also.
Several of the characters talk knowledgeably or obscenely
knowledgeably about how the field looks, the whole feel of the thing seems
Thanks, yeah. I wanted to play on that too, because the book
does start with a sexual molestation from the Little League coach.....Then, in
the progression of the book when they're older and they make these baseball
references, and talk about details of the baseball field, and aspects of the
game, I think it kind of, in a way, makes the reader keep thinking back to that
initial scene in the book. You're actually the first person in all the
interviews I've done that has talked about the baseball aspect of it
Now the subject of molestation is very hot right now politically.
When you thought about dealing with it in a fictional term, did you think about
any of the political ramifications?
When I was first writing it for a long time it was just a
book for myself and things I was interested in, and the aspects of, sort of,
human psychology that fascinated me. So it wasn't until I was close to being
finished with the book that I started thinking if this book is published, is it
going to anger people?.... In a more human light, with the child molestation
theme in the book I'm really interested in showing how the people involved are
more than just stock characters, because I think when people tend to think of
things like child abuse and child molestation they tend to see the people
involved in terms of stock characters ...like the villain or the demon...the
prey or the victim, and I wanted to show the predator as more human and I
wanted to show the prey as feeling more than just victimized also.
The metaphor of The Exorcist comes to mind, a movie
that you reference later in the book.
I had originally had a lot of things with media working in
there, and that's something that just played....later in the book, that I guess
I played that up with the scene where they go into a room and in the movie and
the words "Help me" appear on her skin.
Brian Lackey, the young man who ultimately turns out to have
been molested, who originally thinks he may have been abducted by UFOs, comes
to have a conversation with an older woman (Avalyn) who feels also that she has
been abducted. .
Yeah, I'm glad you talked about her, too. I like her
character a lot because I'm interested - I'm very interested in UFOs and UFO
abductions, and, you know, I kind of a firm believer in a lot of those things
that people are skeptical about.
And she actually does help Brian quite a bit..
She's kind of the character that was most - one of the most
visual in my mind when 1 was writing the book. And I always kind of saw her as
Kathy Bates when I was writing the book for some reason.
Brian is not really a sexual being. And when Avalyn tries to
induct him into sex, it is a kind of a frightening experience to him because it
brings back those memories of the earlier bad time. .And of all the male
characters, he's the only one who clearly isn't gay, though we're not sure by
the end of the book what he will become.
I very much wanted to play down his sexuality in the book as
much as possible, since he's kind of counteracted with Neil who's, like, the
most explosive sexual being you can imagine, for his age really. And that scene
- I wanted to include that scene to sort of show him being aroused by this
woman who's coming on to him, but he's so fearful of it, and frightened by it
that he plays - he just sort of tries to erase it from his mind, you know, just
tries to escape from that moment as much as he can. I wanted to use, kind of,
(Brian's) asexuality, or his fear of sex and juxtapose it with Neil who, in
almost every scene is having some sort of sexual encounter.
The effect of the coach on Neil and also on Brian is
different Brian might be in some way had his life spoiled by the encounter with
coach.....Neil clearly has been stimulated by it, becoming a hustler, some
people might say his life was ruined, but in many ways he was projected on
faster path to something he might already have been headed to. And he claims
quite frankly to have loved the coach at one point
I think Neil, just as much as the reader, sort of sees the
seduction coming a mile away, when the coach is gradually seducing Neil, and he
kind of runs with that. And it's almost the first time in his life where
someone has shown him love. And although it eventually is very sexual love, he
sees this as sort of a sublime experience....and then throughout his life he's
always kind of comparing every one of his relationships with this relationship
he had with his Little League coach when he was eight.
Many of us think that we were always gay, but there's always
got to be a first time. And Neil in some ways is fortunate that he gets
Right You know, a lot of people have asked me things like,
"Are you trying to make the notion that because a boy is molested he will
I think society tends to squash any kind of homosexual
feelings that a boy would ever have....It was interesting writing about Neil
because his mother...she certainly doesn't squash his feelings, and you know,
since she's treating him almost as an equal in some scenes, he's really able to
run with his sexual feelings, and, you know, she's not teaching him any
different She's parading around the house naked and everything....And I think
it's fascinating to sort of portray a child as very sexually aware. It's hard
for people to imaging an eight-year-old being that sexually aware. And I think
people tend to underestimate childhood sexuality.
At the same time you contrast Brian's character as somebody
who's traumatized and totally dumbfounded by what's happened to him, and can't
- and has to block it out of his consciousness for a long time, and takes
ten years to fully rediscover the memories, the repressed memories. So you show
how different two boys can be after having essentially the same experience.
The chapters through Brian were actually in some ways the
hardest part of the book for me to write, because I think repressed memory is
in itself very fascinating...The whole idea of a memory being blurred or kind
of amorphous and then gradually taking on more and more details in the end, and
someone becoming more and more in touch with the memory I think is fascinating
but also very difficult So it was hard for me to kind of get down that pacing
of how quickly he's remembering what happened to him, and how definitively he's
.Also the coach isn't quote punished in the book. He isn't
brought to justice, in fact he sort of disappears. And that adds to the whole
alien concept of it that he seems to have vanished very much like the aliens in
Right. People have asked me why I didn't bring him in later,
and for me the book was very much about the consequences of memory and the
power of memory, and I think a lot times with - at least this book with memory it
worked better when, the coach just kind of did disappear from the scene. And I
think if I brought him in at some point, or at the end, it really would have
changed the whole idea or theme that I wanted for the book in the first place.
So for me it was good to have him exist there in the first two or three
chapters and then drop out completely and exist more as a memory.
Did you as a child have any special memories around
Halloween, because you've rendered that very vividly?
Halloween really is in some ways one of my favorite
holidays, if not my favorite holiday....Halloween comes toward the end of
autumn, and there's something really beautiful about that time in Kansas, with
the changing of the colors and tie whole atmosphere, and the temperature. I've
always loved just sort of the eerieness of Halloween... and I can remember my
church group doing this haunted house.....When I was in, like, seventh or
eighth grade the movie " Halloween" came out and I've always been a
big fan of horror films, and that movie was just my favorite because of the
atmosphere that it created.
What makes kids that age so bloody-minded? They seem to fetishize
the violence associated with Halloween so much.
I guess in a way it's kind of like a comment on what's
happened to them in the very beginning of the book. And then when it comes to
the Halloween scenes whether it's Brian and his friends creating this sort of
horrifying, gory haunted house that's sponsored by their church, or whether
it's (Neil) doing something like kidnapping this boy and setting off bottle
rockets in his mouth .....They're both kind of different characters, but I
think both of them kind of show the children being desensitized.
.Also, there's not all that much sex in your book, but what
there is has a violent tinge to it, or is very physical and very hands-on. The
coach really is not so much rough with Neil, but he really gets to the point.
And Neil develops a taste for rough sex with his Johns....And then of course later
his most traumatic experience with a violent John. But in each case when you
really depict sex, you depict it very physically and in a very full-bodied way,
and there's no doubt about what's happening.
Good. I'm very bored by reading kind of vanilla sex in
books, and so I guess that's kind of a reason, maybe the main reason why my
book is like that....I wanted to show that aspect of sex, of that kind of, the
more ferocious side of sex to maybe, I don't know, kind of mirror the
psychological ferocity of what happens to the children at the beginning of the
In the David Lynch film Blue Velvet there's that
powerful scene where the Frank character beats up the Jeffrey character. But
it's almost like making love to him at the same time. And in Mysterious Skin
you have scenes where violence and sex are so inexorably mixed up that people
could be disturbed by it as if you're equating the two, but showing that the
two overlap considerably, and that it's hard to sometimes sort out which one is
I just realized, it's very much like kind of the scene in The
Accused (where Jodie Foster's character is gang raped in a bar) where it's
these men sort of egging each other on, and there's this erotic charge between
the men, against this woman, and this horrifying, like, brutal scene of
violence against this woman. But I had someone say to me that they watched The
Accused and they realized they were getting turned on by the scene and they
turned off the movie because their own feelings were disgusting them so
much...... And initially they were really angry at the movie, and angry at the
filmmaker for causing them to feel these emotions.....I mean even going back to
the initial scene of the adult having sex with the child in Mysterious Skin
- I had a woman - a woman friend of mine read it and she said she was really
turned on by that scene, and it disturbed her, and for me that was like the
ultimate compliment because 1 want people to see that the things they sometimes
see as horrible or wrong aren't that black and white, and there's a lot of
other things playing into a situation like childhood sex.