"Sex and the single girl have seldom been absent from Susan Minot's fiction," James Marcus reminded readers of The Atlantic Monthly. "Still, Minot has raised the erotic ante with Rapture, structuring this short novel around a single act of fellatio."
She's certainly tightened her focus. Evening, Minot's previous novel, offered readers the vision of a dying woman's romantic life as reconstructed from a sickbed through her sprawling morphine dreams. The characters in Rapture also occupy a bed - but that's about where the likeness between stories ends. Minot introduces Benjamin and Kay amid circumstances that would seem to make for a pleasurable afternoon, yet neither lover is exactly grounded in the moment. The novella tracks two very different experiences of an unexpected intimacy.
In four novels, a collection of stories, a screenplay (written in collaboration with Bernardo Bertolucci), and a forthcoming collection of poetry, Minot has repeatedly found fresh, new ways to examine the emotional safeguards within family and romantic relations that hold people apart. It's a theme that arises repeatedly in the author's work, but perhaps nowhere so assertively as in Rapture.
Brad Hooper of Booklist noted, "In lush language correlative to the situation but in amazingly concise form, Minot explores the significance of sex, the value of longing, and the rewards and drawbacks of belonging."
Dave: Rapture is a strange novel to describe. People ask, "What's it about?" Well?
How close is this book to the one you originally sat down to write? Is this how you saw it from the start?
Susan Minot: I thought it would be a very, very short story. Four pages.
It was just going to be a story of two people having sex, having very different things going on in their head, a very different evaluation of the events. There's nothing revelatory about that, but I thought I could do it in a different way.
To write it as generic he/she kept it in the cliché, so I started making them characters. I gave them more of a story. The earliest draft was very much their scattered thoughts, but with a stream of consciousness, the more drifting it is, the harder it is to follow. I had to go back and be a little more omniscient, staying in their point of view. It kept getting longer.
I wrote the first draft in two or three months. I could write it quickly because I thought it was going to be so short. I started out trying to write four pages, and I think it was eighty was the first time around.
Minot: I say that this book could probably also be called Justification. Benjamin and Kay are trying to justify behavior they're not particularly proud of. In that way, there is analysis going on. I think one's mind goes into an analytical mode when it's distressed. How can I do this? Why did I do that? Whereas the woman in Evening, on her deathbed, was on morphine. She was checked out.
Dave: Rapture reminded me of "Lust" in terms of the reactions it's bound to generate. I read that story for a class, and I'm sure the professor chose it because she knew that it would generate some heated discussion.
Dave: Well, people are bound to argue about it. Some readers can't help internalizing the motivations and assumptions handed to them by characters, so when the narrator of "Lust" throws out a statement like, "It was different for girls," or, "You open your legs but can't, or don't dare anymore, to open your heart," those might be subjective, emotional statements expressed by a fictional character, but some readers are going to take issue with them.
Minot: A lot of readers want characters to behave in a responsible way or they want to understand the characters' dilemma and act, in a way, on their behalf. When someone says, "These people [in Rapture] are so lost! What does Kay see in him?" I'm like, "Yes! That's what the book's about: lost people."
Kay seems like she shouldn't see anything in Benjamin, and yet she truly does. This is the story of how. Books like that satisfy me.
Dave: I got into a debate with someone about Ann's feelings for Harris Arden in Evening. I was saying, "She never got over this guy? Give me a break! What's the matter with her?" It wasn't that I didn't believe she could feel that way. I just didn't want her to. Apparently, I'm not much of a romantic.
Kay is also looking for somebody, but not entirely letting herself find him.
Minot: As far as Evening goes, I would say that Ann actually did forget this guy and did go on. It wasn't a Bridges of Madison County thing where every year she lit the candle on their day. She forgot this guy. But in a self-defensive way she wasn't aware of, a psychological way, she turned her heart in a different direction. She decided, I'm not going to love that way, or I'm not going to risk like that again.
Ann decided, I'm going to have a different attitude toward what I'm looking for in a man, and that's the woman she became. That was the woman who raised these children, so that's how her kids know her. But there was this other woman, a more heartfelt one, one her children obviously would have benefited from if she'd been there for them.
It was only by chance that she happened upon the memory of Harris again and realized how much it meant to her. Which I think happens in memory. We assume that memory will latch us on to those things that are most important to us, and often it does. Very often it doesn't.
Kay on the other hand is searching for something she hasn't quite defined. She doesn't want to think about it. Her way is to gather as much evidence as she can against a mountain of fact and say, "Even though this seems unlikely, in this moment" - in these ten minutes, basically - "this is it." She's not unaware that the relationship isn't going to work, but that's not to say that some part of her isn't secretly hoping it will.
Dave: Benjamin, comparatively, is quite a realist about it, though he's not a realist in many other ways. He thinks over and over, I just don't understand women. He's accepted that. He has no idea why Kay is doing this, but okay, she is, and that's alright.
Dave: You say that Rapture began as a four-page story. So are your novels just stories that become too big?
Minot: I would even say that Evening is made up of a lot of very little short stories.
Monkeys is made up of nine short stories that tell an overall story. Folly is a series of vignettes all put together to tell a larger story. In Lust and Other Stories, there are nine stories - three, three, three; the beginnings of love, the middles, and the afters. So there's slight progression there, too.
I remember when I was in graduate school and someone in workshop would say, "I'm going to bring in a chapter of my novel." The thought that someone could think they'd write a whole long thing... I could only see twelve pages ahead. But then I realized that if you could see twelve more after that, you can start.
Dave: You began to write the stories in Monkeys when you were at Columbia.
Minot: I went to graduate school with zero expectation. I kind of backed into it. I wanted to go back to school because I felt gaps in my literary background. I studied mostly twentieth century English literature in college, so I thought, Maybe I'll go back for my writing.
I got there and it was like a banquet for me. I had so much material behind me, stuff I'd been writing for years that I knew wasn't good enough. I wasn't trying to decide whether I was going to keep writing or not; I just wanted to make my writing better, to learn how to create a distance between myself and the writing so I didn't crumble into a heap when it wasn't working or it wasn't accepted.
It ended up being great. I'd never seen a real writer before. I'd had this idea that they spoke the way they wrote or something. It helped. But if you're looking for it to tell you how to write, it doesn't work in that way.
Dave: You were tagged as a minimalist after Monkeys.
Minot: And Lust.
Dave: And more recently, I've seen articles describing you that way. But Evening, in particular, seems so far from minimalism. Was it a conscious effort to get away from the style of your earlier writing?
Minot: I wouldn't say "change my style," but do something different, yes, with each book.
I was learning how to write short stories when I wrote Monkeys, learning how to polish and be as brief as possible, which is an aesthetic that I prefer. If you can say it in a shorter amount of time, that's better. At the time, Raymond Carver was writing, and people were writing short stories that were full of those Hemingway simple sentences, but also the subjects were about little moments.
The stories in Lust are like that. They are minimal. You don't really know who these people are. It's about the situation they're in, and I think that fits for minimalism. But I hate labels, period. You're dragging me into this conversation!
Dave: We'll mark this passage with an asterisk: This answer provided under duress.
Minot: But yes, I definitely try to write a different kind of book each time.
Dave: And they do feel different. Folly, in particular, feels very different than the others. And after each new book, reviewers compare your style to different authors, which I think is a compliment, whether they're even conscious of it or not.
Minot: There was one review just recently that said, "Minot's admirers compare her work to Hemingway and Woolf. And Minot's detractors compare her work to Hemingway and Woolf."
Dave: What have you been reading lately?
There is a book just out now in paperback called How I Came into My Inheritance by Dorothy Gallagher, a memoir that's just fantastic. She's a friend of mine. Another friend has a book coming out in a couple months, Nancy Lemann. It's called Malaise. It's about living in California. It's very funny.
Dave: Your first book of poetry, Poems at 4 A.M., will be published in May. Are these poems that you've been writing for a long time?
Minot: For about thirty years.
Dave: Why publish them now?
Minot: Five years ago I was writing them a lot for some reason. I'd shown them to my friends, but they're not like the poems they're teaching at Columbia. They're more accessible, maybe, like pop songs or something. I wondered if they were too simplistic.
Just to get some feedback, I showed them to an editor who is also a poet, Deborah Garrison, who was working at the New Yorker at the time. She gave me some orientation. She suggested maybe putting together a collection. I thought, Okay - and I didn't do anything for another five years. Now they've crept out.
Dave: You're still writing stories, too?
Minot: I haven't in a while, but in theory, yes.
Dave: You haven't closed that door.
Minot: No, no, no. I'd never close that door. They're my first love, short stories.
Dave: I found an essay of yours in McSweeney's, "This We Came to Know Afterward," about your trip to Uganda. Paul Theroux chose to include it in The Best American Travel Writing 2001. Have you written a lot of nonfiction?
Minot: I've published a few personal essays here and there. And also travel stories.
I used to write essays for a magazine called Victoria, "find the peace in yourself" kinds of things. It was at a time when I was pretty broke. They offered me a writer-in-residence position: write six essays and we'll pay you well for it. It was a challenge because you couldn't write about sex, violence, anything disturbing. So I wrote an essay about the pleasures of walking, another about the pleasures of sisters, one about letter writing...
The Uganda story was a crossover from a travel story. The idea behind it was to keep it as a travel story, to not try to report on the subject because I'm not a journalist. I start to clutch up when I feel like there's a lot of information I must make sure everyone understands. I like to be able to process it myself, then give that impression back.
Dave: Your sister published a novel recently.
Dave: Did you grow up in a literary household?
My mother celebrated the imagination. Come on, sit around the table. Do your paints. Oh, that's so lovely! She was appreciative of making things and always showed an appreciation for the imagination. That definitely generated an encouragement for creating things. I have six brothers and sisters, and they're all artists. My brother, George, is working on a novel called The Blue Bowl which Knopf is publishing in the next year, probably.
I started writing because I was compelled to. When I was thirteen or so, I spent two or three hours a day writing in that adolescent, struggling, angst-ridden way. By the time I was twenty-one I'd spent so much time doing it that I allowed a small practical idea to enter my thoughts: Well, if I'm doing this so much, maybe I can make something of it. I was learning to write, learning what it took to write.
When I was about twenty-one, my mother was killed in a car accident. My little sister, Eliza, was seven. After I graduated from college I moved back home to look after her and be near her. I justified it by thinking, I can write. While she's in school, I'll write. So she grew up from the age of seven or eight always seeing someone at a desk, writing. As far as she's concerned this is a normal activity.
She's very talented, a beautiful writer. I don't know if she values her talent that much because she just does it. You know, She did it, I do it. There's no big question about how to get from here to there. She saw the practical side: you sit there and write - a lot.
Dave: How did you end up writing the screenplay for Stealing Beauty?
Minot: A mutual friend of mine and Bernardo Bertolucci's, a writer named Fernanda Eberstadt, was working on a profile of him for the New Yorker. He had an idea for this new movie centered on a young woman, and he wanted a young woman to write it. He didn't feel like he could inform that perspective: female, young, and from another country. He asked Fernanda, I think, first, would she be interested, but she was finishing a novel or something so she suggested me because she knew I was a real cinephile.
He was familiar with Monkeys because it had been published in Italy had done well there. He read the stories in Lust, stories about "boy calls a girl the wrong name and she has a fit," and I think he was attracted to the challenge of that. It wasn't his normal thing. He'd made what they call the Oriental trilogy, big movies - Little Buddha, about the birth of Buddhism; The Last Emperor, about Chinese dynasties; and The Sheltering Sky. He was looking to make a small movie.
We met and talked about the kind of movie he had in mind. One of the movies mentioned in our conversation was Renoir's Rules of the Game, which was a favorite of mine and a favorite of his. We definitely had a good movie talk.
From there, I wrote a ridiculous piece of writing, a cross between a treatment and a short story. It mapped out the characters and what I saw happening. He gave me feedback. It was very much a collaborative effort from there.
I'd always wanted to write for the movies. It was like a fairy tale.
Susan Minot visited Powell's on February 13, 2002. "There's Minot, North Dakota," she explained, but my name isn't pronounced like the city. It's not My-knot; it's Mine-it. As in, 'What do you do with gold?' You mine it."
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Books mentioned in this post
Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State