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Interview with Scott Heim
on the launch of his new novel In Awe

by Jill Adams

Scott Heim Scott Heim is from Kansas and is presently living in New York. His extraordinary debut novel, Mysterious Skin, met with high praise from critics and readers alike. His second novel, In Awe, published by HarperCollins, is due out June 1, 1997.

[UPDATE May 2002:  In Awe went on to win the 1998 Firecracker Alternative Book Award. Scott Heim is currently finishing his third novel, We Disappear.]

Photo:© Arturo Patten

BR: With such a dazzling debut (Mysterious Skin, 1995) your second novel will inevitably be compared to the first. Are you prepared for the media blitz and your upcoming tour?
SH: Yes and no. I'm excited for the tour and the publicity, of course. But I'm nervous about the reviews that will be happening soon. Admittedly, I find myself very fragile when it comes to criticism-- it's so frustrating to devote two or more years of your life, your entire soul really, to slaving over a novel, only to have it dissected and nitpicked by critics. But at the same time, I'm a pretty tireless self-promoter, and I believe in what I've done, I'm proud of what I've done. So if I can keep that first and foremost in my head, I know that any sort of criticism shouldn't matter.

BR: The three outcasts in In Awe - Boris, Sarah, and Harriet - are portrayed as zombies in Boris's high school novel-in-progress. This works amazingly well as a structural and thematic set up. The inspiration behind it? Were you, are you, a horror film buff like Sarah?
SH: Horror films--really, any sort of horror-themed media in general--are an obsession, and have been since I was a kid. When I was three, I remember my mother forcing me to watch "The Spiral Staircase" on the late movie with her, and from then on I was hooked. Celluloid horror is used as a fantastical parallel to the horrific realities in the novel--both in the sense of the horror novel-within-a-novel, and in Sarah's fascination with horror films--but it's also in IN AWE for atmospheric reasons, to heap on the dark atmosphere that pervades the book in general.

BR: The name Boris?
SH: Well, I suppose in some ways the name is used as homage to Boris Karloff. It's kind of ironic that the boy writing about zombies is named Boris. But also I wanted it to add to the character's "outcast" status-- an outsider boy, feared or ignored or hated by most people, with this named commonly associated with the "monster" movie star.

BR: Boris has been through a series of foster families and now resides in a youth home. I don't think I've ever read a novel about a foster teen and it immediately grabbed my attention because I used to work in a youth home and always thought I'd like to read something from a resident's point of view. Is your depiction based on a particular home and character? And is the setting primarily to reinforce the theme of outsider or were there other considerations?
SH: My sister worked for a few years in a youth home in central Kansas, very much like the Sunflower Youth Home in the novel. In many ways, I gleaned the details of life inside that place from her. I knew from the beginning of the writing of IN AWE that I wanted Boris to be a foster kid--someone completely alienated from both friends and family, someone searching for an idealized, fantasized love that we, as readers, know he will probably never have. It makes his struggle all the more pathetic, I think.

BR: In both of your novels there is a female character who acts as 'soul mate' to a teenage homosexual - Wendy in MS and to a much stronger degree Sarah in In Awe.
SH: All through my whacked-out, troubled, disenfranchised youth, the only friends I had--by this I mean, my only true, 'soul mate' type of friends--were females. I think the majority of gay male teenagers really want to have more male friends, but they just aren't there--especially in a backwards, small town area such as the Kansas settings of both my novels. Obviously, girls understand gay boys better than straight boys do; or maybe what I mean by that is, at that age, girls aren't afraid to show emotion or empathize with gay boys. I think in MYSTERIOUS SKIN, young Neil pretends to be mean, unruly, independent, but he really wants a friend; when Wendy appears and shows interest in his life, he's so flattered and excited he can't help but love her. It's pretty much the same story with Marshall and Sarah, and later Boris and Sarah, in IN AWE.

BR: Mention is made of 'crossing limits' in the novel and as novelist you certainly push limits, especially in the final scenes. Without giving everything away to readers who haven't yet had a chance to read the novel, could you comment on the meaning behind the three scenes involving the mint, the pear, the tongue? One can't help think of a religious ritual, the serving of the host specifically, though certainly we're far from any obvious religious symbolism.
SH: This is a difficult question. You're referring to different climactic scenes that involve attempts to "save" characters in separate dire circumstances. That's certainly a recurring motif in the book--from the initial moment (as seen in the book excerpt) where Sarah and Boris want to "save" what they think is the possible murder victim, on through to the other, later moments you mentioned--the onslaught of the scenes in the bus at the finale, where everyone makes an "offering" and wants to be some sort of "savior." But honestly, I hadn't exactly consciously thought of these scenes as religious rituals. But if this book were ever made into a film, I can visualize these scenes--these moments you mentioned, really--as the spots where the camera would zoom in for the close-up and the music would swell dramatically.

To go back to what you said about 'crossing limits': that's actually, I suppose, one of the primary goals I've set for myself as a writer. It's not so much a "shock the audience" goal for me, but rather a personal one: I'm constantly questioning the things that intrigue, horrify, or disturb me. Things that make me flinch. I apologize if that sounds silly. Writing about these things, whether it's something like the erotics of death or childhood sexual desire, is like catharsis--something I might have learned, in some weird way, from my favorite poet Anne Sexton--taking my desires or my fears and spilling them out, reworking them, and polishing them, on the computer screen. I find a peculiar sublimeness, a beauty even, in horror and violence; while that might be construed as a hang-up, it's what sets me apart from other writers, and therefore it's what I want to put into my writing.

BR: Speaking of limits, what constitutes a writer's going too far? How does one know where to draw the line? You take the reader beyond all expectation or as Sarah says "one step from what I thought was the barrier." I'm truly in awe of how you miraculously manage to pull it off.
SH: Well, first off, thank you for believing that I pulled it off. I'm still not certain I did, to tell the truth. When I was first working on MYSTERIOUS SKIN, for instance, I thought the material with the detailed sexual scene with the man and the boy was going too far. Then a mentor read it; her first comment was, "This is what will piss people off. Now go even further with it." So I did. With IN AWE, I didn't really have anyone reading it as I went along (as I did with the first book). When I came to the ending--which for me is the most difficult, barrier-nearing section--I just wrote what seemed natural. What I wrote felt, to me anyway, exactly what those characters, driven to that point and with those flurried and muddled minds, would have done, in that abandoned school bus, on that night.

BR: Setting forms an integral part of your work and is often a disturbing element. Is this reflective mainly of the troubled protagonists or are you making a statement about the American Midwest as well in that it serves to form the characters?
SH: Setting and atmosphere for me are second only to character development in a novel's importance. When I start a novel, I want to establish the mood immediately, and I never want its power and momentum to diminish. I've always been infuriated by how the majority of people see the Midwest--as a pristine, colorless, safe place--and I consistently want to pair that impression with the darker human impulses, the terror, the violence, as an exercise in extremes. One extreme makes the other more powerful, I think.

BR: On a personal note: the pros and cons of growing up in Kansas?

SH: Well, for a teenage new-wave freak like me, it was pretty backwards. It has its solitude, and it's beautiful at times, and there's nothing I love more than a good Kansas thunderstorm. But growing up there, especially in such a small town, was very, very tough at times.

BR: Personal note 2: You capture teen-love obsession brilliantly, especially from the point of view of the outsider who 'doesn't have a chance,' a feeling most teens can relate to at some point. Would you care to share your big teen obsession?
SH: I constantly fell in love with tall, quiet, brooding boys with big noses and thick eyebrows. None of those ever worked out, so I became more obsessed with British new wave bands. They saved my life.

I don't recall that you use the word 'gay' in your fiction. What's the reason for that?
SH: I'm not sure, really. I think it's because that term is often so limiting. I feel that my writing is more about universal problems or issues, and I write as much about non-gay characters as gay characters. It's great to have a large gay reading audience, but I want to cross over more and more and more. Who wouldn't? I'm obsessed with so many other things that have nothing whatsoever to do with my sexuality. It seems to me that the new "generation" of writers who happen to be gay or lesbian, for the most part, are ceasing to spend so much time in their works discussing the ins and outs and reasons for a character's sexuality.

BR: Your gay characters all have in common some traumatic past experience that presumably forms their characters, specifically their homosexuality. Have you taken any flak from the gay community over this?
SH: A little, but not as much (so far) as one might expect. I think with someone like Dennis Cooper around, he tends to get all the flak! Besides, I always write about what affects me, or what interests me; that's what's there first. I don't care one fig about whether or not it upsets a specific "group" or interferes with someone's "politics."

BR: You include an AIDS victim in In Awe, Marshall. He remains a secondary character, his death coming at the very beginning, but I admire the way you bring him to life with brief flashbacks and also the dignity you give him during his final stage of the illness.
SH: Funny, but I just read an early review of the novel that said "a refreshing take on AIDS fiction." And that was the first time I'd thought of it as an AIDS book. I fear that people in general are weary of AIDS writing; that's unfortunate, in many ways, but it seems people are so afraid, and so tired of losing friends and lovers, that they just don't want to read about it any more. Books for most people are escapes from, not reminders of, the lives they lead. Marshall for me was a wonderful character to create because I could write about AIDS in a new way, and I could also make a lead character out of someone that never really exists in the present action of the narrative as a living, breathing force. Yet he's always there.

BR: Returning to Boris: Interesting that a considerably older straight female such as myself can so strongly relate to a 17 year old gay foster boy. In fact, I feel an affinity with many of your characters. That's what I see as setting you apart from many of the transgressive writers, much as I admire a lot of them - you add this element of empathy that carries the reader through some unthinkable experiences.
SH: Wow, thank you so much. I've always wanted someone to say that!! That's honestly one of the nicest things anyone has said about my work because it's exactly what I strive to do. I mean, many of my favorite contemporary writers are those lumped into the 'transgressive' camp, but like you said, oftentimes their novels leave a reader chilly. I want to create characters that are so real you can hear them breathe and cry and giggle and scream--so then, when something 'transgressive' happens, it's perhaps made all the more effective because the reader relates so strongly.

BR: You recently returned from LA where you wrote the screenplay for MS. How was that experience and can we expect to see the film in the near future?
SH: I loved writing the script. I did it for the production company who optioned it, the Alfred Shay company, who produced a very successful American independent film last year called SWINGERS. They are wonderful people who believe very strongly in the future of MYSTERIOUS SKIN as a film. Right now, it's too early to tell what will happen, and I don't want to risk jinxing it by letting the details slip. But things are starting to come together nicely.

BR: Would you like to see a film of In Awe? Any casting suggestions?
SH: Of course I'd love to see it filmed! I visualized it as a film as I was writing it. I always have problems answering the "casting" question, though. When I write, instead of movie stars, I tend to see real people I've known during my life--friends, grandmothers, etc--in the roles I've created.

BR: You've mentioned Dennis Cooper as a writer you particularly admire. Who else on the contemporary scene do you appreciate and who do you credit as the major influences on your work?
SH: Many of the major influences are past writers: Flannery O'Connor, Truman Capote, D. H. Lawrence strangely enough. My favorite contemporary writers are a varied lot--Joy Williams, James Salter, Cormac McCarthy, Jayne Anne Phillips-- mostly, I suppose, many maximalist, evocative, often high-literary gothic writers.

BR: In In Awe Boris, Sarah, and Harriet all write down their one big wish. What would Scott Heim scribble on his bit of paper and send down the creek in a Mountain Dew bottle? A biodegradable bottle, we'll say, so you can't answer that you wouldn't litter.
SH: I think I would write something like, "Give me happiness, success, and health, not necessarily in that order."

BR: Off the top of your head, some brief comments on:

a) Kansas vs New York

SH: Kansans always wave at you and want to know your life story; New Yorkers don't even give you a glance

b) 80s vs 90s
SH: spiralling into chaos

c) Bill and Hillary
SH:..not as bad, especially Hillary, as most people think

d) Barcelona
SH: The only city my friend regrets not having seen on his trip to Europe.

e) summer reading list
SH: Bruno Schultz: THE STREET OF CROCODILES; Dennis Cooper: GUIDE; Amy Hempel: TUMBLE HOME; the new Denis Johnson when it appears; everything by Shirley Jackson; Ruth Rendell; more Faulkner; Jane Bowles; the Toni Morrison books I've yet to read; any trashy true crime books

f) all-time favorite bookcover
SH: I could list hundreds! the New Testament edition with the Andres Serrano photo; lots of things done by the design team at Knopf. I'm also admittedly partial to both covers to my American editions

g) favorite film of 96/97
SH: So far this year I haven't seen much that's blown me away. My favorite movies last year were FARGO, SECRETS AND LIES, MANNY & LO, and WELCOME TO THE DOLLHOUSE. The year before that, without a doubt, was Todd Haynes's SAFE.

i) favorite web sites
SH:I'm usually just on line checking my mail.

j) Spice Girls
SH: Their music is pretty awful, isn't it? Right now I'm listening to Flying Saucer Attack... I much prefer that sort

k) Fruit Loops
SH: sugar seizure

May 22 1997
©The Barcelona Review

Home | Archives |
Excerpt from the novel | Review of In Awe | Interview in Spanish