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Home> David Lamble's Reviews and Interviews> Reviews and Features> Mysterious Skin (Novel) - Scott Heim Interviews (1995 & 1997)    [ Edit profile Register]


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David Lamble



Post date:
05/22/05- 00:00:00 AM
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Scott Heim's Official Site

Mysterious Skin (Novel) - Scott Heim Interviews (1995 & 1997)

 

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 weren't."

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 Araki

   .

Lamble

When did the idea for Mysterious Skin come to you? How long did it take to develop this book?

 

Heim

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.

 

Lamble

You use the parallel narrative technique where there are several narrators.

 

Heim

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.

 

 

Lamble

Also you write in an informed way about sports, particularly baseball.

 

Heim

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.

 

Lamble

Several of the characters talk knowledgeably or obscenely knowledgeably about how the field looks, the whole feel of the thing seems right

 

Heim

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

 

Lamble

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?

 

Heim

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.

 

Lamble

The metaphor of The Exorcist comes to mind, a movie that you reference later in the book.

 

Heim

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.

 

 

Lamble

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. .

 

Heim

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.

 

 

Lamble

And she actually does help Brian quite a bit..

 

Heim

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.

 

Lamble

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.

 

Heim

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.

 

 

Lamble

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

 

Heim

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.

 

Lamble

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 started.

 

Heim

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 turn gay?" 

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.

 

Lamble

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.

 

Heim

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 remembering things.

 

                     

Lamble

.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 their ship.

 

Heim

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.

 

Lamble

Did you as a child have any special memories around Halloween, because you've rendered that very vividly?

 

Heim

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.

 

 

Lamble

What makes kids that age so bloody-minded? They seem to fetishize the violence associated with Halloween so much.

 

Heim

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.

 

Lamble

.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.

 

Heim

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 book.

 

 

Lamble

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 which.

 

Heim

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.

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Novel by Scott Heim


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Novel by Scott Heim


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