Writers on Music: An Interview with Mysterious Skin Author Scott Heim

Scott HeimScott Heim has produced a heartbreaking body of work. His first novel, Mysterious Skin, was adapted into a feature film by Greg Araki and also for the stage, followed by In Awe a few years later. His most recent novel, 2008’s We Disappear: A Novel (P.S.), tackles the dark subjects of illness, drug addiction, and missing children. Heim has also released a book of poetry, and has maintained a music blog where he examines albums, promotes new artists, and shares his best-of lists.

As a musician, writing a novel seems so much harder than making an album. Having to make one huge thing that is completely coherent (usually) and somewhat linear and have a consistent voice… The novel, to me, is the ultimate achievement. I wonder if you feel the same way…

I’m really flattered that you said that. At the risk of sounding self-important, I guess I do feel that writing a novel is sort of the ultimate achievement; then again, it’s also the most painful and lonely and potentially soul-destroying. The fact that fewer and fewer people read nowadays makes the task of writing a novel even more difficult–there’s always this feeling of, "What if I spend years writing this book, only to experience the pain of no publisher wanting to publish it or no audience wanting to read it?" But, after all this, I will also say that writing a novel is the ultimate in artistic power and control, in a way, because for the most part, the outcome relies solely on the novelist. There’s no producer or other band members giving their input, like in music; there are no actors or cinematographer adding to the product, like in film. Until the moment you finish the book and show it to your editor, it’s only you, the novelist, creating and shaping this little world you’ve created. I like that a lot. It really appeals to the control freak inside me. I can’t change the horrible world I’m living in, but I can create a world inside the novel.

A lot of the bands you’re into (some examples: The Smiths, Bark Psychosis, The Cure) make some really dark music. And your novels are pretty upsetting. Just on the borderline sometimes of being unbearably painful, but somehow still really entertaining. Do you ever need an escape from the gravity of your work, and how do you achieve that? Does listening to beautiful, moody music make it better or worse?

I wish I could say that taking breaks from writing pulls me away from some of the pain or difficulty of the material. But usually when a writer is immersed in finishing a novel–sometimes even in finishing a story or a piece of journalism–the gravity intrudes on his or her regular day-to-day life as well. But music, at least for me, can only make that difficulty more endurable. I think music is the greatest thing in the world. I admire and envy musicians like the ones you just mentioned who can have such power over a listener’s emotions. That influence and force is often instantaneous, whereas with writing fiction, it’s usually necessary to have a certain mysterious craft and skill to affect people in such ways. That’s the sort of thing I’m constantly searching for–that ability to affect the reader in the ways that my favorite musicians affect me as the listener.

Yeah, in music there are certain elements in the production that are sort of like short-cuts to triggering an emotional response. Like bringing in a string section on the last chorus. Or stepping up to a higher key all of a sudden. Can you think of anything comparable to that in the craft of writing?

It’s difficult to bring in those kinds of things in writing without cheapening the overall effect. Rather than trying to twist a reader’s emotions with something gimmicky in the plot, I try to manipulate–in a subtle way, hopefully–through things like pacing or deliberately poetic language or rhythm or repetition. There’s a crucial scene at the very end of my book We Disappear where the narrator is reflecting on his mother’s life. Before revising the book, before its final draft, I had used these long descriptions that were a little manipulative and potentially mawkish. I wound up cutting a lot of those passages, then rewriting the section as one long paragraph, a long list of images of this woman’s life, fragmented descriptions without verbs that will hopefully affect the reader’s emotion in a less obvious way.

Is music directly involved with your writing process? Do you listen to it before you write to get in the mood, while you write, etc? Have certain musical moments given you ideas for your novels?

Yes, I’m usually listening to something, if not during work, then at least beforehand. I have about 16,000 songs on my iPod now, constantly set to "shuffle," and I’m never really knowing where some song is going to lead me. I was just out driving in my car, and five totally different things came on–an old New Order song… a track from the new Portishead record… a Brian Eno Music for Films song… "Touch and Go" by the Cars… and then this campy ’70s disco song called "Let’s All Chant." I love how this weird mix put me in five different moods within twenty minutes or so.

When I write, though, I tend to get in the mood by listening to low-key instrumental stuff, or sometimes film soundtracks. I remember when I wrote my first book, Mysterious Skin, I was listening solely to My Bloody Valentine, Slowdive, Ride, Lush, Chapterhouse–interesting because that’s exactly the music that Gregg Araki later used when he made the film version of the book.

How do you feel about really narrative storytelling in music, like folk songs that tell the whole story of a fictional character? Do you feel that the 3-minute song format works for that kind of content?

I have mixed feelings. Some of those AOR rock songs that tell the story of some young loser’s rise to rock stardom are pretty silly–things like "Shooting Star" by Bad Company or "Juke Box Hero" by Foreigner. But other "story songs" I really love. You’re right that most of these are folk or folk-rock. As a kid, tons of those made me bawl: Henry Gross’ "Shannon," Don McLean’s "Vincent," The Poppy Family’s "Which Way You Goin’ Billy?" (And also that cannibalism song "Timothy" by The Buoys–I could always freak my sister out at the dinner table just by humming the chorus.)

scott heim

"Sometimes creating something isn’t so much what you put in to the finished product, but what you remove from it."

On your blog (Noise) you were recommending Talk Talk’s Spirit of Eden as an album that has greatly influenced a lot of important music and is just beautiful in its own right. I wanted to ask you how you feel about an artist like singer Mark Hollis ceasing to make music–he did one solo album after Talk Talk broke up in 1991, and since then has only made some brief appearances playing some piano on people’s records, etc. Can you imagine, as an artist, that you would ever stop writing? Do you feel there’s anything that could take the place of it in your life? Do you need certain inspirations in order to create or do you feel that you just have it in you and always will?

I suppose the pretentious answer is that writers always have the impulse inside them, in the same way that musicians or painters or photographers do with their respective arts. But as much as I wish the god-like Mark Hollis would make music again, I can also understand why he’d want to give it up entirely. He made a few recordings that people worship, that people view as standards on which to judge others. But his music exists in a world where terrible pop music reigns and the majority of the population couldn’t care less. I certainly feel the same about writing and publishing in general. There are so many people working their fingers off to produce important or beautiful books, but there are so, so, so few people actually reading… and when people are indeed reading, it’s usually mass-market genre fiction or Oprah’s Book Club things.

Oddly enough, I think that Mark Hollis and those last few Talk Talk records taught me a lot about writing. It’s so fascinating that much of the beauty of that music doesn’t exist in the actual notes and melodies, but rather the spaces between the notes and melodies, the silences. Sometimes creating something isn’t so much what you put in to the finished product, but what you remove from it. That’s so evident on Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock.

I saw on an old post that you were DJing an event a few years back. And with the lists and blogs you post on Noise, you seem to be the guy who turns people on to good music. Are there any bands that have emerged in the last few years that you would recommend?

Yes, tons. There are a few French bands I really love right now: Cyann and Ben, Bed, M83. I love both Band of Horses records. Yeasayer. Boy In Static. The Twilight Sad. Air Formation. Lights Out Asia. The Mary Onettes. The Daysleepers. The Besnard Lakes. Lots of little one-man electronic bands. One of my favorites of last year was the Burial record, although by now most people have surely caught on to its greatness.

One of your novels was dedicated to the members of Cocteau Twins… Can you talk about how they had such an impact on you that you would make that sort of gesture?

In In Awe I thanked them in the acknowledgments. I suppose it was an odd thing to do, but after years of being so inspired by all they’d created, I thought it was only fair.

And then Robin Guthrie (of Cocteau Twins) and Harold Budd did the music for the film version of Mysterious Skin… Was that your idea? What was that like for you to have music put to your story?

That was a total dream come true. Gregg Araki, the director of Mysterious Skin, has very similar taste in music as I do, and I know he wanted this gauzy, beautiful, sad atmosphere to the music for the film. In the year before he started filming, I remember talking with him about ideal musicians we’d love for the soundtrack; eventually, I knew he wanted to use that Slowdive song for the opening credits, and the Sigur Ros instrumental for the closing, but I really had no clue as to where he would go for the actual score. I vaguely recall that there was talk early on of perhaps trying for Mogwai, which would have been terrific, but quite possibly made for a very different film. And then one day the film’s producer called me and said, "We’ve gotten Robin Guthrie and Harold Budd." My heart practically stopped. I can’t even count the number of times in college that I went to sleep with my The Moon and the Melodies album softly playing on the turntable. The idea that these two heroes of mine would be scoring a film from a story I’d created was almost unreal.

Have you ever collaborated with a musician in another way, like write lyrics for someone to sing? Have you recorded any music yourself?

When I was in college, I was in three different bands. I played drums for years–I tried to emulate a lot of the drummers on Factory Records, heavy on the floor tom, that kind of thing. One of the bands I was in did some demo tape stuff. But that career never got off the ground, obviously. Now, though, one of the greatest things about publishing a few novels is it’s made me feel legit when approaching musicians I love–I can send a person something I’ve published, and say "Your music has inspired me, here’s my book." I’d be overjoyed if someone ever asked me to collaborate with them. I’ve become close friends with Gordon Sharp of Cindytalk and John Grant of The Czars, but I haven’t actually worked on music with them.

There’s a great guy out of Portland, ME who goes by the band name Cursillistas who recently titled his CD after a spliced line from my novel (In Awe): Wasp Stings the Last Bitter Flavor. When I found out about that, I was hugely excited.

I have to say "awesome" about the top 5 lists you’ve been making on your blog. Your Cocteau Twins list had 3 of my top 5 picks on it ("Cherry-Coloured Funk," "Carolyn’s Fingers," "Those Eyes, That Mouth"). I’d have to put "Know Who You Are at Every Age" and "Ivo" on there too…. In the spirit of list making, can you do these:

5 albums you thought you would never get tired of, but you did.

That’s a tough one. I don’t know if I ever wind up really disliking something I once liked. I still love a lot of the industrial and goth stuff I listened to in college, so I’d probably have to dig even further back, to things like Styx and Foreigner and Rush–even though I still have a soft spot for some of those albums, as well.

When I was really young, I used to listen to Queen’s A Night at the Opera and ABBA’s Greatest Hits every day. Those were the first albums I ever bought. I guess I eventually got a little tired of those.

5 favorite current Scandinavian bands.

Mew
The Knife
The Radio Dept.
Jeniferever
The Raveonettes

I also totally worship the album Long Gone Before Daylight by The Cardigans.

5 songs that always make you feel better.

Air, "Sexy Boy"
Sniff & the Tears, "Driver’s Seat"
Karen Finley, "Tales of Taboo"
Blondie, "Atomic"
Boston, "More Than a Feeling"

Images courtesy of John Gransky

Visit Scott Heim on MySpace: www.myspace.com/scottheim

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