Memories Are Never Really the Whole Story: An Interview with Scott Heim

by Andrew Leask

Scott Heim is the author of three novels, Mysterious Skin (1996), In Awe (1997), and We Disappear (2008), all published by Harper Collins. Mysterious Skin was adapted for film in 2004. In October 2011, Heim gave a reading at the 34th Annual Old Dominion University Literary Festival.

AL: The theme of this year’s literary festival was “The Lie That Tells the Truth.” How do you feel your work speaks to that theme?

SH: The theme was pretty much what cemented my decision to attend the festival. Most of my favorite fiction writers have a central theme that they obsessively return to again and again in their work, and if I had to choose a connecting theme in my own books, it would probably concern lies and truths—or, specifically for me, the ways that people shape and reshape their own memories and experiences throughout their lives, and how the often unreliable nature of memory winds up affecting our future. I’m really fascinated by how our memories are never really the whole story, how they are never completely “true.” Over time, they get reshaped and exaggerated until they often don’t resemble the real experience at all.

Publishers and readers have grown increasingly interested in the memoir in recent years, but I’m always wondering just how honest a memory can truly be. I think my characters reflect that. A lot of them live their lives through painful past memories, and wind up reshaping their memories to make the present more bearable or secure.

AL: You’ve referred to We Disappear as the most autobiographical of your novels. How do you decide which elements of your life to work into a novel, and which ones to leave out? And then, how do you decide what to invent?

SH: At one point, We Disappear didn’t concern my own experience all that much; it was about the members of an odd family who were obsessed with unsolved cases of people who had disappeared across their home state of Kansas. But the story arc just wasn’t working for me. I had no idea how to end it, how to make an “idea” into a “novel.” I kept setting aside the book, frustrated, then returning to it after months of inactivity.

In 2003, my mother’s health, which had been awful for many years, took a turn for the worse, and I went back to Kansas to be her main caregiver. In trying to make the most out of our time together, I began talking really intimately to her about her childhood memories. Many of these conversations led me to start reshaping the character of the mother in my novel so that she would mirror my own real-life mother. Similarly, I started re-writing another character to resemble me; he suddenly had my own name, was battling a past addiction, and had moved home from living in New York. Like all the vanished people in the book, my mother and I “disappeared,” too—our real selves disappeared into these characters. I wanted to blur the lines between what was real and what I’d invented. When I read the book now, I’m not even sure sometimes what really happened and what I made up.

People often assume that a young writer’s first novel is completely autobiographical, and certainly some elements of Mysterious Skinwere for me. But being with my mother as she was actively dying, being so intimate in her life during every moment of her last days, was far more profound than anything from my childhood. That experience saturated everything I did for years after, and I guess I couldn’t help but infuse everything I wrote with what I’d seen and felt. I guess the hard part was then forming the “truth” of our experience into a plot and theme that would resonate with a reader, too.

AL: In Mysterious Skin, your character Brian Lackey is obsessed with aliens and UFOs. In We Disappear, Donna is preoccupied with missing children. For both of these characters, their obsession is the means through which they try to make sense of certain events in their lives. Do you think this is a common experience? And do you have any “obsessions” of your own?

SH: For both characters, their invented “memories” act as a balm to soothe a particular trauma or harsh reality—for Brian, it is substituting the real memory of sexual abuse with the belief that he was actually abducted by aliens; for Donna, it is focusing less on the reality of her impending death by collecting details about the disappearances or possible deaths of others. I think lots of people do things like this. I certainly do.

As for the question about obsessions, yes, I think I’m probably a lot more “obsessive” about things than a lot of people are. As a kid, I was always the one who became obsessed with a book and read it over and over and over; I did the same with listening to favorite albums, eating specific foods, and so on. A lot of my big fascinations were with ghosts, Bigfoot, UFOs, and then later unsolved murders, disappearances, weird coincidences, that type of thing. So naturally some of these things became the background subject matter for the novels I later wrote.

AL: What is your writing process like?

SH: I’m not a very diligent or consistent writer. My process is nothing I’d recommend to anyone wanting to pursue a career or hobby in writing. I go for months without writing a word, often just thinking self-deprecating, soul-destroying thoughts, telling myself that my ideas aren’t important. I watch too much TV and stay up until 3:30 or 4 a.m. And then one day I might start working a little bit on something, getting a little serious. And that goes on for a long time. And then at some point, maybe when I’m halfway through a first draft, I go absolutely nuts, and I’m working long, long hours, focusing on nothing else, missing meals, ruining my eyesight on the computer, furious. But I don’t know—maybe this isn’t all that different from other writers. Honestly, I don’t talk much about writing process with other writers; most of the time, I find it to be a really boring topic.

I try to remember something that Alice Munro said about her process—that most of her work is done just sitting alone, staring out, thinking. That’s the real work, not the actual, physical typing and revising.

AL: In addition to your novels, you have written screenplays, and you even published a book of poetry. Besides fiction, do you find yourself attracted to any other form in particular? Why or why not?

SH: I’m only really attracted to writing fiction now. My early poetry and work with other genres seems amateurish in retrospect, and I can’t read it now.

AL: Mysterious Skin was made into a film in 2004, directed by Gregg Araki. How does it feel to see your work adapted for the screen? What was your involvement with the film?

SH: My experience was rare, not only because I was lucky enough to have my novel made into a film, but also because the whole process was wonderful for me, from beginning to end. Most other writers I know who have had the book-to-film experience are filled with bad stories about the producers or screenwriters or actors; I even know a few writers who won’t even watch the film adaptations of their books. For me, everything was positive. Gregg and I became friends before the film was made. We always had an easygoing understanding and mutual respect, and he was eager to ask me questions and keep me in the loop about everything as the process happened. I became close with Mary Jane (Skalski, the producer of the film) and the main cast members, too, so that was all very exciting for me. Mysterious Skinhad a small budget, and it’s certainly not a commercially viable project, so it was kind of a “labor of love” from the beginning; therefore, we all really wanted to work together to make the best possible film that could be made.

After the shooting ended, the film landed at several festivals, and I was lucky enough to go along with Gregg and the lead actors and hang out and watch audience reactions and do Q&A sessions, and those days will always be among my favorite memories—maybe the most special experiences I’ve had during my career. I can never thank Gregg enough for making the film that he did, mostly because he stayed so true and close to the story and characters I wrote. He made his movie, with his choices for actors, music, editing, and so on—but it was still a movie of my book, the core of the story that I created. That was the highest compliment a director can pay to an author.

AL: Do you ever expect to see We Disappear turned into a film? What do you think it would be like?

SH: Well, I certainly never thought that Mysterious Skin could be a “filmable” project, but that wound up happening. So who knows? At this point, it’s been about four years since We Disappear was published; the book has indeed been optioned, a really good screenwriter has written a script, and there’s a production company behind it. I have no idea if things will go any further than that. I’ve learned not to get my hopes too high. For now, I’m just working on my freelance work, writing nonfiction here and there, little odd jobs to make ends meet. I’m always thinking about another novel, but there’s a large part of me that isn’t so sure I want to start another book. It always seems like such an impossible task when I’m between novels. I tell myself that three is enough; I don’t want to put myself through the hell of writing another. Tomorrow, though, I could wake up and decide it’s time to begin.

Click here to go to Scott Heim’s official website.

Andrew Leask was born in San Juan, Puerto Rico. He received a B.A. in astronomy from the University of Virginia and is currently an MFA candidate at Old Dominion University. He serves as fiction editor forBarely South Review.