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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