Excerpted from Evening by Susan Minot. . Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Q: The complex concept of family--structure, strength, dysfunction, history--is an important element in your work. Can you describe the family dynamic in Evening?
A: Families are endlessly fascinating. We all have one, and they have a great impact on who we are and what we do--Freudian as that is. Crisis and death light up a family from a new direction. To observe a family under duress is one way of exploring its dynamics, and that was one thing I was interested in exploring in Evening: looking at human behavior on one of its basic levels. The word dysfunction has, I think, served its purpose and now has lost its meaning. Every family, like every person, is imperfect, after all. The idea that there is a Family somewhere who functions is an odd concept. In my youth I was running from my family to try to find out who I was--their influence distracted me. Now I see what a powerful hold they have, no matter what.
Q: In Evening, Ann Lord is reliving a weekend affair and the greatest love of her life--complete with color, sound, smell, dialogue--while her grown children stand around her deathbed thinking her mind is blank. What are you saying about lucidity, about age and illness, about love?
A: If you have ever watched someone on his or her deathbed it is hard to get the vision of suffering out of your mind. And worst of all is the great divide between the sick and the healthy, no matter how much love is being thrown across the gap. Hearing the delirium of someone drugged with painkillers and dying can be a glimpse into the person beyond the social mask. And for the sick person it can be an opportunity to look at his or her life from a different perspective. Between children and parents there is a difficulty of seeing each other simply as people. Ann Lord's children do not really know their mother as a person, and her illness begins to change their ideas about her. Illness can make us behave in the most surprising ways.
Q: Reviewers have said that one of the staples of your fiction is women coping with desire. Tell us about desire (its forms, roles, repercussions) in Evening.
A: I think desire is one of the main forces driving a person's life--and it seems to me a woman has, in general, a different mode of desire from a man. How a person expresses his desires, follows them, ignores them, reacts to their satisfaction or lack of fulfillment is a measure of a person's character, and therefore an inviting avenue of fiction if you want to explore human behavior and try to get at what it is like to be alive--two of my interests. The power of desire is so tremendous it is hard to ignore as a subject.
Q: The extraordinary Faulkner quote that starts the novel raises powerful questions about time. Can you describe the role of time and memory in Evening?
A: The sense I get from his quotation is that the attempt to conquer the past is just another battle one has with time, and a losing one. Memory, along with desire and death, are the themes that won't leave me. Memory, that activity of the mind and heart which both gives meaning to life and pulls us back from it, which has a dim basis in history but is far more tenuous than we can admit, determines the way we narrate our lives--our experience is stored there--but it is never stored in one mind like another. Memory is another example of the isolation of individuals--each has his or her own, it can never be shared exactly. And yet what treasures one finds there, treasures that seem to last for a while . . .
Q: On her deathbed, Ann experiences an electrifying flood of memories, punctuated by what seem like conversations in the present with her lost love, Harris Arden. How were you able to envision and create this feeling of slipping away, this remarkable and uplifting end of a life?
A: The deathbed is a classic situation where a person given time staring up at a ceiling might find it hard not to review the events of her life. I was interested in what it must feel like to have a fatal illness--something many of us will one day know, many of us not--and to imagine what the Important Things are from that perspective, maybe illuminating the Important Things in life. There is a paradox about having an uplifting end of a life: we die, and if we have found meaning in the world somewhere, then does having the meaning make it more tragic or less? Also we use the verb to die in a curious way, as if it is an active verb, when of course it is not. One is either dead or alive. Death is not something people like to contemplate much--the mind has a hard time getting around it--and yet it has a certain bottom-line quality about it.
Q: Discuss the power of mystery and secrets in Evening.
A: Mystery and secrets: the tip of the iceberg as far as the unfathomability of another person goes. We have secrets from others--so they can only know so much about us--and then even more complex unsolved mysteries about ourselves. I was interested in exploring how much people affect each other and yet how far they also can be from one another. The story of our lives--I'm quoting someone, I can't remember who--is the story of our relations with others.
Q: The rush of falling in love, of love at first sight, is so vividly portrayed in Evening--do you believe in love at first sight?
A: It's not a question of whether I believe in love at first sight or not. It exists, no question. It has happened to me. Why it happens is a whole other kettle of fish--I have no explanation for it, but it can pack a wallop. Whether it lasts is another question, but then one can ask whether many kinds of love "last."
Q: How does Evening fit in the arc of your work?
A: Evening is the first of my books which explores material I felt I went out in search of--because it compelled me--rather than a sorting through of material or concerns which life had presented to me and which I'd tried to make something of because they were there close to my face. I wanted to write a book that was dreamlike, with the rhythms of dreams mixed with waking life, for that is often how life seems to be. As I was writing I thought of the book as a kind of poem, which of course it is not, but I used that as a sort of internal guide.
Q: You wrote the screenplay for Stealing Beauty--what was the experience like, and did you enjoy it?
A: I love the movies, and I was thrilled to write a script for Bernardo Bertolucci, who was one of my cinematic heroes. Writing a script is hardly Writing. It is, rather, creating a blueprint for another form: the audio and visual one of film, and not something a fiction writer should necessarily be able to do. But having been steeped in the movies--they are as important to me in their way as books are in theirs--I had some sort of feeling for their structure and so was able to work with Bertolucci, executing ideas of his. It was the master class in non-Hollywood scriptwriting.
Q: What's next for Susan Minot?
A: I am currently working on a screen adaptation of Evening for Kennedy/Marshall at Disney. I have a collection of short stories about three-quarters done--stories I've been writing in between the novels and scripts. I have started on a book about a young man in search of his soul, tentatively called My Life with No One.
1. For discussion
2. Minot gives the novel an epigraph from William Faulkner: "I give it to you not that you may remember time, but that you might forget it now and then for a moment and not spend all your breath trying to conquer it." How does this quotation relate to Evening? Does Ann try to "conquer" time?
3. Minot renders Ann's thoughts in what might be called stream-of-consciousness. Which things does Ann remember most distinctly? Which does she remember least distinctly? Which does she repress? What does the relative weight she allows each memory tell us about the emotional shape of her life?
4. Outsiders see Ann rather differently than she sees herself. Her daughter Constance, for instance, says that "her big thing" is "her stuff"; "That's what she cared about, her house and her pictures and all her things" [p. 129]. Her daughters imply that she doesn't laugh much [p. 32]. The doctor's wife says Ann is "just like other women, maybe a little more stylish if you had to say something, but like other women" [p. 12]. What, if anything, does this elderly Ann have in common with the young, passionate Ann she still feels herself to be? What does this dichotomy imply about the differences between our inner selves and the outer person our friends and family see?
5. What might have attracted Ann to each of her three husbands? How did she come to view each of them as the years went by? How does the language in which Ann recalls her marriages differ from the language in which she recalls Harris, and what does this difference in language tell us about her feelings?
6. Ann wishes that she "might have been able to read the spirit within herself and would not have spent her life as if she were only halfway in it" [p. 137], then goes on to reflect that "her life had not been long enough for her to know the whole of herself, it had not been long enough or wide" [ibid]. In what ways has it not been wide enough? Does the fault for this lie with the cruelty of fate, or with Ann herself? If fault lies with Ann, what might she have done to make things different?
7. How would you describe each of Ann's children? How has each been molded and shaped by his or her relationship with her? How does each of them behave toward her? Has the essential sadness of Ann's life rubbed off on them?
8. How has Paul's death affected Ann, Teddy, and the other children? Has it made them closer, or estranged them from one another? How, and at what times, is Ann compelled to remember Paul?
9. What sort of a person is Harris, really? What do you deduce about him and about his feelings, principles, and desires from his behavior, from what others say about him, and from the short section written from his point of view [p. 232-233]?
10. In one of Ann's imaginary discussions with Harris, he says that she might have become a little "hard" [page 224]. Does this seem a fair assessment, judging from what you know of the older Ann? If so, how does this hardness manifest itself and why has she become hard?
11. How does Minot thematically link Buddy's fate with the fate of Ann and Harris's romance? In what ways is this particular weekend the turning point in Ann's life, and how has Buddy's fate intensified this process of change?
12. Does Ann ever feel responsible for what happened to Buddy? Does Harris? Does a sense of responsibility for this tragedy, or a lack of one, have any specific effect on Ann's future life?
13. Ann conducts a number of imagined conversations with Harris in which the two meet again, for the first time in forty years. What sort of person is this elderly, imaginary Harris? Is he the sort of character you can imagine the young Harris growing into? How do you think the real sixty-five-year-old Harris might remember Ann?
14. If Ann and Harris had married, what sort of a life might they have had? Would they have been happy together? Might Ann have been unhappy and unfulfilled even with Harris?
Suggestions for further reading
Anita Brookner, Hotel du Lac; John Irving, A Widow for One Year; William Kennedy, Ironweed; Penelope Lively, Moon Tiger; Alice McDermott, Charming Billy; Kazuo Ishiguro, The Remains of the Day; William Maxwell, So Long, See You Tomorrow; Sue Miller, Family Picture, The Good Mother, While I Was Gone; Alice Munro, Open Secrets; Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient; Philip Roth, American Pastoral; Jane Smiley, A Thousand Acres; Anne Tyler, Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, A Patchwork Planet; John Updike, Rabbit at Rest.