a conversation with Susan Minot      


Bold Type: How did this story originate?

It was originally going to be just a three- or four-page very short story. I wanted to write about two people in an intimate situation, the most intimate being sex , who have completely different things going on in their minds. As I was writing I realized that without really knowing who these characters were the story didn't have the same impact, and it just got longer.

Had you fleshed out the characters in advance?

No, because it was just going to be a short story. But as you write, each time you put the character in a new situation or challenge them in some other way, their personality is revealed. They don't exist except on paper.

This book could probably be entitled "Justification" That's one of the things going on with these characters. In having sex they find themselves in a situation that they've both been fighting. This allows them an opportunity to go over in their minds how they got here, why they are continuing to see the other person. They're trying to justify their behavior.

Is the title, Rapture, meant to refer more to Kay's mindset than to Benjamin's?

Very much so. I don't think there's very much in Benjamin that could qualify as rapturous.

How do you feel about the fact that the reviews of this book reveal its conclusion—they talk about Benjamin's spiraling into despair and Kay's fooling herself into thinking that she may really love him. Did you intend for there to be more of a surprise element to the story?

The surprise element is probably the first reason that people read books, but it's never really been what drives me to read. I can see a movie knowing the whole plot in advance and it won't ruin anything for me; I can still experience it as a surprise. I myself read a book because the consciousness of the story interests me, the way something's being told is intriguing. It's not to find out what's going to happen.

In this novella I'm painting a portrait of a kind of relationship and of what two people do in that kind of relationship. They're trying their best, even though it's a disaster. Relationships like this are often dismissed with "Oh, that's a bad choice," or "They're bad for each other," but they're not all bad, They're very human and very real and painful, because there's a lot that doesn't work or isn't accepted. I wanted to write about that reality, and not to write a guide on "How to make relationships work better."

You managed to write what's been touted as an "erotic novel" without relying on graphic language. Though it's implied, you don't actually name the sex act until two-thirds of the way through the book. Was this challenging?

It was. I would hesitate to call it "erotic"—I think that's a stretch. The book is about sex, but it's not about the eroticism of sex—it's about other aspects. When you write about erotic sex, it overwhelms everything else. I had to remove eroticism in order to explore different elements, such as the fleeting reflections you have during sex: "This is a weird position I'm in," or comparing it to the different flavors that sex can have at different times. Even in those rare times when your mind is completely focused during sex, when you're swept up in the sensation, there's still a tiny "thought tape" playing somewhere. I wanted to try to get at that a little bit. In this case they're reflecting not so much on the present. If they had a solid relationship, if they'd been together for ten years, these wouldn't be their thoughts; they'd be thinking more mundane things. But because this is a dramatic meeting it becomes an occasion for them to reflect on their history and to question their behavior and how they got here.

Is this a chance encounter?

I think that there are a lot of impulses that put them there. I think chance encounters only occur between strangers.

In earlier drafts of the story was their more dialogue between Kay and Benjamin?

No, it was pretty much going to be a silent encounter in the present. Kay does say one thing, but that's it. They're communicating in a different way. They're not completely on different wavelengths; Benjamin is aware that she is quite into it, though he's not, and she's kind of aware that he's not madly into it. But beyond that they only have a vague idea of what the other is thinking.

At this point, is Benjamin cheating on Vanessa?

He would be able to justify it and say that he wasn't. In theory they're not together, though he is trying to win her back.

When it comes to physical versus emotional cheating, is one type more threatening than the other?

I know people always say the emotional one is more threatening, but I think the physical is. That's the one that can be helped. The other one can't be—it's what you do with it that matters, whether you let it manifest itself physically or not. That's where the control comes in.

Mortality is a recurring theme in your work—I read a quotation in which you said "Death is a constant obsession of mine." How does this factor into Rapture?

There is a small intersection about death. The moment when Kay feels as though she actually might be falling in love with Benjamin, when the affair touches her heart for the first time, occurs after she's found out that a man she knew well died unexpectedly. There's the idea of death pushing us deeper into life, of its having a transforming effect.

The fact that Rapture takes place over the course of a single encounter stretched into a novella brought Nicholson Baker's Vox to mind. Was this story inspired by other works or writers?

I was aware of Harold Brodkey's story Innocence, which is a long short story about a man performing cunnilingus on a woman. It's about his efforts. I was aware of this story's configuration, but I wasn't thinking of Rapture as my version of it. I definitely thought of Nicholson Baker, of the convention of stretching out time. The classic reference that's always given to two different peoples' memories going back over the same terrain is Rashomon. I was thinking about that when I wrote Rapture, about how two different peoples' versions of the same event can vary.

How, then, does the reader determine the "truth"?

There isn't one "truth" as far as getting the evidence down and determining who did what. The story is about the way Kay and Benjamin each experience the relationship, and that is their truth, separately and together. I don't think an objective version of the story exists. That's the one that historians would write, and to me it would be wrong; it would be a factual version that wouldn't tell either person's experience, and would therefore be one step removed from the events.

Are Kay and Benjamin products of modern-day New York or could this story be set in another time and place?

They are products of their time. Their expectation for what their lives should be is a very free one; fifty years before these expectations would be quite different. Kay probably wouldn't be working, for instance. On a social level, the dynamic between men and women makes it a challenge to stay unattached, to be free with one another, to not have responsibility toward one another. This is definitely determined by the climate of the time. People have a lot of choices today, and Kay and Benjamin's relationship is an example of how all this freedom can have a bad influence as well.

Was writing about sex an intimidating process or did it come easily to you?

It's totally impossible. William Gass said "Words become embarrassed in the presence of sex." The classic and graceful way to portray sex is to have a little detail of pre-sexual situation and then have the door shut or the light go out. It works well, but what it misses, and this is one of the reasons that the book got longer and longer as I wrote, is that it misses the consciousness that goes on during sex. This is not written about very much. Consciousness is written about more often in an erotic way than a non-erotic one. I play down the erotic side in order to not have the story overwhelmed by it.

Were you ever self-conscious about showing the manuscript to people you knew because of the subject matter?

I wasn't necessarily self-conscious, but I did have trepidation that I wasn't pulling off what I was trying to. The challenge was to not make this into a New York relationship "magazine" story, to have it be more of a meditation of relationships and sex and the experience of intimacy in an urban setting.

You had an interesting collaboration with Bernardo Bertolucci, writing the screenplay for Stealing Beauty. How did this come about?

I was introduced to Bertolucci abstractly by a friend who was writing a profile on him. He had a two-sentence idea for his next book, a coming-of-age story about a young girl in Tuscany. He was looking for an English or American to write it., and my friend suggested me. All of his movies before this had been big stories about existentialism and the desert and the history of China or the birth of Buddhism. He was interested in focusing on a smaller type of story. He read the stories in Lust, which are about as small as it gets—there's one about a girlfriend being called by the wrong name, for instance, and what that makes her realize—and he'd read Monkeys when it came out in Italy. We met to discuss what he was looking for and talked about movies; it turned out we shared love for a lot of the same ones. I'd always wanted to write for the movies, so I was thrilled by this collaboration—I'd have been thrilled just to have this meeting with Bertolucci.

That must have been quite a coup as a writer. Was the finished product as you'd envisioned it?

It was thrilling, both writing and then being on the set and watching him direct. I'd never really envisioned the outcome—I'd have a different vision with every version I wrote, but I never held it too tightly because I knew that this was his movie. I did try to hold onto certain things, particularly in writing the main character, Lucy. I wanted to make her a real girl instead of a cinematic one—the type who knows herself really well, knows how to control things, and is much more self-aware than most eighteen-year-old girls.

What are you working on now?

I have a collection of poems coming out in May and I'm working on an adaptation for stage of a memoir called The Little Locksmith, by a woman named Katharine Butler Hathaway. She was a bohemian writer who was born in Boston and lived in Paris—she died in the '40s. When she was 10-years-old she developed tuberculosis of the spine. The treatment then was to basically strap her to a bed and keep her back straight so she wouldn't curve. She was treated this way for several years, and so she never grew past the size of a ten-year-old. All her other faculties were highly developed—she was a very bright woman. So it's the story of a woman who has all these normal, natural feelings, but the world does not treat her as a normal person for most of her life. She eventually does have love affairs and get married.

How did this project come about?

I'm living on an island in Maine now and there's a small theatre group here. The director of the group gave me the book and asked me to write a one-woman show based on it; we plan to put it up next summer.

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