Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Scott Heim reappears


Scott Heim is relieved.
It has taken the Roslindale writer almost 10 years to produce his third novel, "We Disappear,'' after the success of his break-out novel, "Mysterious Skin'' which was adapted into a film in 2005.
"Mysterious Skin" follows the story of two teens who played in the same little league in their tiny Kansas town. Neil is an openly gay hustler who yearns for life in the big city while Brian is an introvert who believes he was abducted by a UFO as a child because he can't account for five hours one afternoon.
Heim's new novel is also set in Kansas but follows a gay New York City writer named Scott whose monotonous life of drugs and freelance writing is interrupted when his mother calls him for help in solving the disappearances of local people. Scott returns to Kansas to help his mom, who is also battling cancer. As their investigation begins, he helps her come to terms with memories of her own mysterious childhood abduction.
For Heim, the film adaptation of "Mysterious Skin" and a reissued paperback edition helped unlock a serious case of writer's block that began when he first started writing "We Disappear,'' in 1999 and when his mother, Donna, fell ill.
Sitting at a coffee shop in Roslindale Square, Heim seems at ease and relieved as he talks about the March release of his latest novel and the literary journey he ventured to get there.
"It's been forever,'' says Heim, a youthful-looking 41-year-old who bears a resemblance to actor Neil Patrick Harris. "It's been a decade since I've done any sort of book tour or anything. It feels like being 25 all over again."
Heim was about that age when he began writing "Mysterious Skin," as a master's thesis while at Columbia University. When it was bought and then published in 1995, Heim immediately became a literary wonder boy. Interview magazine profiled him. A New York Times magazine article named him as one of the top 30 writers under 30. At the time, he met fellow writer Michael Lowenthal at a gay writers' conference and the men began to date.
In 1998, Heim's second book, "In Awe,'' was published. When it didn't receive the same critical praise and success as his first novel, Heim began to experience the ups and downs of the publishing world.
For one, his long-time book editor died. Heim's mother's health began to decline. "Mysterious Skin" was optioned for a movie early on but to no avail.
When Heim submitted portions of his third novel to his publisher, HarperCollins, they passed on it.
"It was a kiss of death,'' Heim says.
In 1998, Heim headed to London for an International Writer in Residence Fellowship and taught two classes there. When he returned to New York City, he was deflated. He found himself freelancing by writing text for academic books. Writer's block enveloped him.
"There was this period of three to four years when I didn't write at all,'' Heim recalls of his starts and stops with his third book. In 2002, he split his time between Boston, where he was living with Lowenthal, and Kansas, to care for his mother who was fighting cancer.
Spending time with his mom in his hometown gave him new direction with his third book. Heim remembers scribbling notes at his mother's bedside to help him cope with her illness.
"Then I started again and the book changed,'' he says. "It was an easy way to take that pain or that difficulty I was going through and sort of deal with it easier by fictionalizing it."
His new book introduces a fictional Scott, a copy writer for an academic textbook publisher, who is addicted to crystal meth and sleeping pills. When he gets a call from his mother, Donna, about a recent murder of a boy in her town, she asks Scott to return home to help her solve the case and that of other missing people.
Much of the book examines the mother and son relationship and reads like a son's poetic love letter to his dying mother. But the story also holds a mystery that pulls the reader along. Donna claims to have been abducted as a child and she desperately searches for the boy she was kidnapped with. She wants to unlock some of her suppressed memories of her abduction. Scott decides to indulge his mother on the search because it lifts her spirits yet he too wants to investigate what really happened to her as a young girl.
"I guess I have always been obsessed with unsolved mysteries and investigative reports and I kind of wanted there to be elements of a mystery novel in it with the character,'' says Heim.
Some of the experiences in the book are partly shaped by his own last days with his mother, who died Halloween night 2002.
"The things I was going through with my mom made me sort of think about what if this happened and I started taking things from reality and placing them in fiction that I had already written in the book,'' says Heim who uses his first-name and his mother's in the book.
"It’s obviously so close to me. This time, first person, one character, same age, same age. So I’m sure there are things in the book that didn’t happen that I’m sure readers of the book will wonder if they did. But I’m fine with that."
In 2005, the movie version of "Mysterious Skin'' arrived in theaters. Positive reactions to the film and a reissued novel as a tie-in with the movie stoked Heim's confidence to keep writing.
"This all inspired me to return to 'We Disappear' and explore ways to rejuvenate the story. It did put me in the frame of mind of writing not only to please myself but to please my audience and I kind of forgot what that was like,'' says Heim, who used winter stays on Cape Cod with Lowenthal and an office in their Roslindale house to write and revise his novel. (Lowenthal has his own office for his fiction writing.)
With a book tour being planned, Heim has slowly begun working on his fourth novel. He says he'll mine familiar themes from his other books: being an outcast, rural Kansas, the power of memory and family relationships.
For now, he's just happy to see that "We Disappear'' appear in book stores.
Says Heim, "Writing 'We Disappear' was a bit like therapy: both a purging of demons and a creative reconstruction of the past. My only regret is that I took so long to complete the novel. It's an ode to my mother, ultimately, and I wish she could see the finished project.''

The above article is from a profile I wrote on Scott for the March/April issue of Boston Spirit magazine, a local gay publication. The link isn't available online but you can pick up a copy of the magazine at most gay-friendly businesses in Boston. Or get a free subscription by going here.
(above photo of Scott is from The Boston Globe)