Scott Hess loves to tantalize a reader. His gorgeous prose soars off the page like the symbolic building in his latest novel, Skyscraper—a story of art, lust, and unexpected transformation. His previous novel, The Butcher’s Sons, was named a Kirkus Reviews Best Book of 2015, and in all of his books, Hess pushes boundaries while also pushing readers to the edge of their wildest fantasies. I caught up with Hess to learn more about Skyscraper and his unrelenting passion.
Amy Dupcak: Another new novel, congrats! Your last book, The Butcher’s Sons, was historical fiction set in 1930s Hell’s Kitchen, but Skyscraper takes place in present-day New York. How do you choose the time period and setting for your novels? And how else does Skyscraper differ from The Butcher’s Sons?
Scott Alexander Hess: The dynamics of the story guide me to the time period. With The Butcher’s Sons, I wanted to tell a tale of three brothers in a butcher shop in Hell’s Kitchen, and the grit and intensity of that neighborhood circa 1930 made sense to me. Also, the brothers’ conflicts, which include an interracial relationship and a gay affair, were really amped up due to the danger surrounding these types of relationships in the 1930s. Skyscraper is a sharp, modern book of obsession and boundary pushing sex. As I began writing that novel, it demanded a bristling modern city scene.
Dupcak: In many of your novels, sex is a driving force in the narrative, causing characters to face their darkest demons and desires. In Skyscraper, art and sex intersect when Atticus experiences an artistic reawakening after letting a new lover dominate him. At one point, Tad even keeps Atticus in a cage! What do you hope readers will learn or discover about sex, and particularly S&M relationships, after following Atticus on his transformative journey?
Hess: I like exploring the edges of life in all of my novels. Extreme choices and experiences. Skyscraper began as the story of a washed up New York creative type on the brink of giving up all his dreams. I wanted something to electrify his life and what emerged for me was a muse in the form of a mysterious dominating stranger. Placing Atticus in an unexpected and intense S&M relationship forced a reckoning for the character that became at once intense and cathartic. Also, the more I researched the S&M world the more fascinated I became with the emotional elements and the intersections of pain and pleasure.
In terms of the reader learning something from Atticus’ S&M journey, I do think it may offer an inside view into that type of sensual relationship, and shed light on the emotional and potentially cathartic aspects of it. There is the potentiality in S&M sex for a heightened sense of self-awareness and pleasure.
Dupcak: Architecture also plays a vital role in Skyscraper, as Atticus seeks to create the winning design for a new building. Why did you choose architecture as his primary art form? And what does the soaring skyscraper itself—the central image in the novel—symbolize to you?
Hess: Before I began Skyscraper, I had started working on my historical novel The River Runs Red, set in St. Louis circa 1891 during the construction of the world’s first skyscraper, the Wainwright Building. I took a break from that narrative, and began Skyscraper. I was already knee deep into architectural research, so making Atticus an architect was a natural crossover. Also, the soaring magnificence of a skyscraper perfectly reflects the soaring curves and angles of Atticus’ sexual muse, the young man Tad.
Dupcak: Some critics might label Skyscraper erotica, but your prose is so poetic and literary. Do you intend to blur the boundaries of genre or is this a natural consequence of your writing influences and passions?
Hess: I do blur the boundaries of genre. My novels all are driven by sexual relationships and passion. It’s a part of life, or at least the lives of my characters. I like to mix poetic language with intensely sexual or violent character actions. I think life can be at once beautiful and chaotic and I aim to reflect that in my work. For the record, I don’t consider my work traditional erotica. My sex scenes do not intend to titillate, rather to challenge a reader’s notion of sensuality and depict an emotional connection to sex.
Dupcak: Did anything in particular inspire this book? Another book, a film, an image, an observation, or a personal experience?
Hess: I am always reading and feeding myself with wonderful writing. Early on, I was greatly inspired by the work of Jean Genet, writing that is highly sexual and soars poetically. Recently, I read Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs To You, which is also beautifully written and sexually explicit. With Skyscraper I wanted to push the boundaries of intense sexual scenes within a literary context, something I think the writer Mary Gaitskill does so well.
Dupcak: In a previous English Kills Reviews interview, you said you were a “method writer.” How did you get into Atticus’ mindset when writing Skyscraper, especially his strong sense of lust and fear? Do you feel similar to him in any way?
Hess: I am fairly neurotic, so tapping into fear and anxiety are part of my DNA. With Skyscraper, as I researched different types of sex play (like the scene with the cage), I allowed the scene itself and the state of mind of the character to lead the narrative. In my research, I discovered that a lot of submissives find being caged for a dominant master a very Zen-like experience so I used that.
Dupcak: You’ve also just finished your sixth novel, The River Runs Red, and now you’re working on your seventh! What’s the secret to staying so motivated and inspired? Do you stick to a strict schedule of daily writing and editing? And if so, do you ever stray from this routine?
Hess: I rely very much on the structure, support and thoughtful criticism of my weekly writing group, The Ponies, which began in 2009 and is still going strong. Writing is my life passion, my soul work as I tell my students, so I feel most alive when I am immersed in writing a book and creating a world. This keeps me writing. Without a novel in progress, I feel something key is missing in my life.
I do not have a writing schedule. But when I am in the world of writing a book, that world never quite goes quiet. The ideas, the characters, the images constantly roam through my mind and I continually jot down ideas, scene drafts, and potential imagery. My general rule is that if I can’t recall the last time I sat down to write, it’s been too long.
Dupcak: Care to tell us more about your current novel-in-progress?
Hess: Sure! My newest novel is an intergenerational story, focusing on a grandfather, father and son of German descent, based in Missouri and New York City. I am deeply in the “at sea” stage of rampant ideas, wild scenarios and open-ended concepts. I am discovering as I go, but have in mind the sins of a father being passed and reshaped in the son. I am also interested in the lumber industry as a backdrop, and a gay man living in New York City who is filthy rich.
Dupcak: As a writing teacher at Gotham Writers Workshop, you’ve provided your students with helpful feedback and advice. But what I’d like to know is, what’s the most important thing you’ve learned from working with these emerging writers?
Hess: You need to believe in yourself, in your work, in your voice as a writer. There is always a point in writing a novel where I lag and think, ‘Does anyone really want to read this?’ At these points, I recall the advice and encouragement I give my students. We must always be reading or writing and commit to the writer’s life. The book The War of Art is a great look at the many forms of resistance artists face, and the insidious ways that we try to undermine our own work, or tell ourselves it isn’t worth it. When in our souls, we know it absolutely is.