Excerpted from Rapture by Susan Minot. Copyright © 2002 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.
Susan Minot is an award-winning novelist, short-story writer, poet, and screenwriter. Her first novel, Monkeys, was published in a dozen countries and won the Prix Femina Étranger in France. Her novel Evening was a worldwide best seller and became a major motion picture. She teaches at New York University and lives with her daughter in New York City and on North Haven island Maine.
A conversation with Susan Minot, author of Rapture
Q: Rapture is a very intense story that takes place entirely within one afternoon, when two former lovers meet by chance and end up back in bed. Where did you get the idea for the story?
A: I wanted to write about how two people, while being involved in an intimate exchange--the most intimate one being sex--are able to have such different things going on in their minds.
Q: Was it difficult to write a full story that takes place in such a short time frame?
A: It was originally going to be a very short story of about four or five pages which would have suited the time frame, but, well, it just got longer because I went into the character's minds. And the one thing about thought is that it has a whole different sense of time, if it has any sense of time at all. One could, in theory, write a hundred pages about a momentary passing thought, if one went into all aspects of how it came into being along with the history of the person thinking it etc. So the difficulty in Rapture was stranding the reader in the one place in real time, and reminding him now and then that the present is moving, albeit slowly, along. But sex tends to keep people interested, and I suppose that helps.
Q: Your description of the lovers' sex always seems secondary to the stories playing out in their minds. Was it difficult to balance the erotic scenes with the interior monologues?
A: The balance is really between the inner and exterior life. Certainly some of the interior life is more erotic that what is going in the bedroom. The conveying of the difference between the two is always a juggling act, but very much the stuff of fiction. Every experience we have, while being playing out in the world, goes through the filter of our minds. And sex far more than people seem to agree upon. Yes, the body can have a life of its own, but the body whether engaged in sex or not always has a mind attached to it. And that interests me.
Q: Is it difficult to write a sex scene?
A: Of course! It's one of the writer's great challenges. As William Gass said, "Words become embarrassed in front of sex." Also, describing something so firmly rooted in the physical is always challenging for a writer. Like pain, it's very hard to put into words. And then there is something about making love which goes (mercifully) beyond words. If you're looking for the better art form for conveying sex, I would have to say that music seems to approach the depiction better. But I'm not a musician, alas...
Q: A point you seem to be making with Rapture is that no matter how intimate two people seem to be, they can still be oceans apart and not even know it. In your last novel, Evening, the main character, a dying woman who'd been married several times and had several children, was largely unknown throughout her life by those closest to her. Why does this emotional isolation, if that's the right description, interest you as a writer?
A: We all have this isolation in varying degrees. There is so much that goes on inside a person--it is the filter of all of our experience in life--and so often it is not known by, or communicated to, other people. I suppose it interests me simply because it is one of the basic facts of our experience--the internal life is, after all, one of the major terrains of literature--and also because the isolation can be bridged. We CAN connect and be understood. It just doesn't happen a lot, and it may not be happening when we think it is. Literature, and art, can teach us something about this. Writing at all is an effort to make that bridge, to, in E.M. Forster's phrase "only connect." And the experience of reading, too, is a sharing of that isolation.
Q: If you've given the novel to friends and family to read, have you noticed that men and women respond differently?
A: If I've noticed a difference, I would have to say that women are more likely to respond with a smile, or shiver, of recognition, while men might appear a little more distressed, and--how can I put this?--sort of hopeful that the story isn't really so true. By the way, men and women are, I think, more alike than different, but when it comes to what goes on between men and women, a lot of the differences which are there come into sharp relief.
Q: You recently completed your first collection of poems, Poems 4 A.M., which will be published this spring. Can you tell us a little about the poems?
A: I've been writing poems for over thirty years and they were, one might say, piling up. I thought it would be nice to clear them out, to try to trim some of them into shape and let them see the light of day. Most of the poems selected turn out to be about either trying to find one's bearings in a perplexing world, or that old poetic favorite: heartache.
Q: You've also written the screenplay for Bernardo Bertolucci's Stealing Beauty. What was that experience like? Would you want to work on another film?
A: I love movies and loved writing a movie and loved being on the set and all of that. It was great, and working with Bertolucci an honor. I've written a screenplay adaptation of my last novel Evening which is now with my producers at Hart/Sharp looking for a director and would love to keep working on movies forever.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I'm writing an adaptation for the stage, of a memoir called The Little Locksmith by Katherine Butler Hathaway. It is the story a woman who after a childhood illness which prevented her from growing beyond the size of a ten year old, overcame the limitations of her situation, (mostly the attitudes of those around her), and went on to live a full life, becoming a bohemian writer in Paris in the 30s.
From the Hardcover edition.
Listen to and view a flash presentation of Rapture--the author reads aloud as a series of snapshots taken by the author circulate onscreen in reflection of the fleeting thoughts and images that pass through the minds of the man and the woman on the bed.
1. Time figures prominently in Kay's and Benjamin's relationship (e.g., "Now was their time." --page 72; "They spent far more time keeping away from each other than they ever did together." --page 80). Has time, as Kay puts it, "saturated [the] relations between [Kay and Benjamin] with more meaning, not less" (page 9)? From the moment of Benjamin's first touch, linear time seems to collapse for Kay: "The moment was split for an instant by the future. It was always an unnerving sight, the future. It was uncertain. But during revelatory moments like this, the future asked for a quick consideration to test her orientation. Would this revelation take her where she hoped to go?" (page 32). Do relationships defy the normal laws of time? Does time work for or against Kay?
2. Is it true for Kay and Benjamin that "the only things truly in the past are things completely forgotten" (page 47)? What power does memory have over their relationship?
3. By reliving their relationship in their minds, Kay and Benjamin seem almost to experience it in separate but parallel universes. Where do their experiences intersect? How do Kay's and Benjamin's versions of the same events differ? For example, their conversation at the Christmas party (page 83) made an impression on both of them, but for different reasons. To what extent is either one aware of the other's point of view? If not, how does this perception or awareness affect their relationship?
4. Minot utilizes a relatively brief act of sex during which the ex-lovers mentally span the whole of a three-year relationship. Is this device effective? Are their respective recollections colored by their respective states of sexual arousal over the course of the novel? Is the particular sex act in which Kay and Benjamin are engaged fitting in light of their past or is it somehow ironic? How does the resolution of this one act relate to the resolution of their relationship?
5. Would Kay define love as simply "to give everything out and not ask for anything back" (page 98)? What might be Benjamin's definition of love?
6. Why does Kay leave Angus (see pages 86—88)? What is Kay seeking in a relationship? Is she looking for "comfort" (page 41) or to escape the "dread" of "what is going to become of [her]" (p. 36)? Does Benjamin offer what Angus did not or could not? Does Kay's happiness depend on the man she is with? What about self-regard?
7. Can the reader believe Benjamin was really in love with Kay, if to him their relationship was really just something "Vanessa would have blown . . . way out of proportion" (page 35)? Is Vanessa's total acceptance of him (page 60) something Kay cannot offer Benjamin? To whom is Benjamin referring when he thinks that the bridge to goodness "had burst into fire when he'd not been able to change his life for a person he loved" (page 111)? Does Benjamin's happiness turn on the woman he is with? What about his self-esteem?
8. Compare Kay's character to what the reader learns of Vanessa's character in the brief descriptions on pages 34 and 39. To what attributes is Benjamin attracted in each of them? How do Kay and Vanessa each differ from Benjamin's ideal woman (page 95)?
9. What is Benjamin really like? Minot writes at the conclusion that for Benjamin there "came a further sinking feeling, lower than all the other ones before it. A sharp little truth hunched there. Whatever goodness he thought he might have had was turning out to be less than he might have hoped" (page 114). Has his character changed, or is it just his self-awareness that has evolved?
10. What do Kay's sexual fantasies, which include "doing the job of a whore" (page 36) and finding that "her slavelike posture was arousing" and imagining "him saying crude things" to her (page 91), reveal about her? What is Kay really longing for when she thinks "If she was lucky he would break her and demean her into oblivion" (page 104)? Is "oblivion" the only way Kay can feel? Does Benjamin oblige?
11. Is Kay describing herself when she says: "[W]recks were often more likely to give a high priority to sex" (page 88)? Is her statement confined to men, or does it apply to men and women? How does sex confuse and complicate Kay's emotions? Are Kay's physical needs separable from her emotional ones? Can sex provide the merging of the physical and the emotional for Kay? For Benjamin?
12. Many of Kay's and Benjamin's musings are on gender differences. Did you find yourself agreeing with one or the other's view of gender differences? Is it the gender differences themselves that affect their relationship or their perception of gender differences? To what extent is their relationship a metaphor for all relationships between men and women?
13. Benjamin and Kay each have careers in movie-making, a producer and a production designer respectively. How do their careers symbolically reflect their romantic relationship? How else does Minot utilize the movie motif in Rapture? Where does Minot situate the reader vis-à-vis Kay's and Benjamin's mental replaying of their relationship?
14. One of the sections told from Benjamin's viewpoint is simply "He kept his eyes closed. He felt as if he were whirling down a drain" (page 65). Minot frequently employs such analogies at the conclusion of each section. (See, for example, page 38, page 43, and page 45). How do these analogies serve to underscore the point of each section?