Photo by Huger Foote”Do you mind if I tape?”
“Do you mind if I film?”
Susan Minot is holed up at the Oceana, a blue-and-yellow, vaguely Medi-terranean beachfront hotel, the kind of place where the sun streams in the windows and paints the walls with bright, Mondrianic squares, where a writer braced for rounds of predictable questions — Why did you become a writer? How did you get inside the mind of a dying woman? What are your influences? — might score some peace, not to mention good lighting angles. “In order to keep myself from going crazy on this tour,” Minot tells me, “I’m making a documentary out of it. Do you mind?”
I worry about the distraction of her brand-new little machine’s beeping as she starts and stops the shoot, but not for long, because Minot in conversation proves no less involving than her writing, even if her petite blond presence in black boot-cut pants and platform sandals makes her seem more like a familiar college acquaintance than an acclaimed author of startling fiction. Minot’s new novel, Evening, tracks the hallucinatory reveries of a 65-year-old woman named Ann Lord as she lies dying of cancer, floating from various points of view through the sensory memories of her life — from the smells of romantic summers to the crushing agony of loss — and the sensations of the present as she slips away into death.
Despite a couple of mainstream blurbs written by men who, Minot believes, “just didn’t get it,” reviews of the book have been near-fawning, acknowledging both the impossibility of the task — Evening is in some ways a young woman’s love story set in the 1950s, which had many critics anticipating maudlin — and the absorbing, true detail with which Minot accomplished it. She is perhaps less mysterious than a writer of her caliber has the right to be, more lithe than one expects from a woman who devotes large swaths of her time to sitting, surprisingly buoyant for someone who admits to being preoccupied with death. (“I don’t describe it as ‘death-obsessed,’” she says. “Would anyone say they’re ‘life-obsessed’?”) She recites shards of poetry at regular intervals as if it’s the most natural thing in the world, but remains somehow strikingly short on pretensions. Minot is in equal parts wise and normal, impressive and accessible, eloquent and comfortably colloquial — the perfect subject from whom to extract the closely held secrets of fiction writing.
Except that they aren’t really secrets. If Evening, like her two previous novels, Monkeys and Folly, reads as if it spilled from Minot’s mind fully formed onto the page, it’s only because she constructs her stories so carefully. If she seems to have positioned herself as the heir to a literary tradition that includes the likes of Faulkner, it’s only because she knows exactly what that means, and how much dedication it requires to maintain the legacy. A banker’s daughter and the second oldest of seven children (two others of whom are writers), Minot started writing when she went away to boarding school at 13. “It was a solace and an exploration, and it just seemed to not give out,” she remembers. She went on to major in English as an undergraduate at Brown, and at 22 enrolled in Columbia University’s graduate writing program. “There were gaps in my literary background,” she admits, “and I didn’t really know how to form a story. I remember going into the classroom, and there were people who were working on a novel. The concept was just so beyond me.”
Part of getting the concept under control was recognizing just how long it takes. Minot worked on her novel for a full year before settling on a story, or a point of view, or even a length: Evening began as a novella called “Report From Nurse Brown,” a study of a terminal cancer patient’s lingering illness, told through the notebooks of the attending nurse. The smaller story survives in the novel as a chapter — and as a relationship so impenetrable it often excludes Ann’s adult children as they waft, bewildered, in and out of their mother’s sickroom. But Evening evolved into a meditation on how it must feel to gradually lose one’s grip on life, on what the murmurings of a dying person reveal about how thoughts and events flicker by in a consciousness fading to black.
“My grandmother died like that,” Minot says, “and a lot of her murmurings didn’t seem to make any sense. But I thought, well, maybe they did make sense. Even if, like our dreams, they were just jumbles of images, I don’t think they were just a meaningless series.” For Ann, the visions of delirium gradually bring into focus the events of a weekend in her 25th year, when she fell in love over the weekend of a friend’s wedding. The narrative of the romance unfolds intermingled with the smells and sounds and images of other events that held sway over her life, other weddings, deaths, children and lovers, and with the comings and goings of visitors, some of them real, others conjured.
“A lot of people have asked me, ‘How did you imagine that?’” Minot says. “But it’s kind of an impossible question to answer. I just imagined it, just like an actor would do, from knowing what it’s like to be sick, or drugged from an operation, from having watched someone being tended to when they’re in that state. It was part of the reason for writing this book: I wanted to put myself in the mind of someone who was lying there knowing that she was going to die.” And the readers who marvel at her success, Minot points out, must have done some imagining themselves. “They say, ‘How did you know? How did you convey it so well?’ Well, how do you know I did it so well? Because, you know, neither of us has died.”
A better question might be how Minot brought her readers into Ann’s dream state without plummeting them into despair: Evening is as much a sensual wonderland as it is a document of Ann’s final days. Ann’s thoughts are not without pleasure, and at times her groggy disappearing seems an enviable escape from the broken marriages and dwindling bank accounts her own daughters muddle through. Her story is dislocating in a way fiction should always be but almost never is, and the effect can be thrilling.
“It’s a new experience,” says Minot, who makes a telling distinction between a story that’s sad and one that’s depressing: “Sadness can sometimes be voluptuous. It can contain a great deal of love — it can be bursting with love that maybe is gone. But depression leaves you no out.” And even Ann on her deathbed has a chance to examine her life anew, albeit “at the terrible price of suffering and isolation,” Minot allows. “I think if you’re really hanging on to life, it’s an awful, awful state to be in. But I’ve read a lot of accounts of people’s last hours, and rarely was someone crying out, ‘Wait, no, don’t take me away!’ Only the people around them were saying, ‘No, don’t go.’ There’s sudden death and violence, horrific deaths, but a lot of it is a gentle passage.”
Which doesn’t mean that Minot altogether embraces her own mortality. “It doesn’t sit right with me,” she admits. “There’s an Edna St. Vincent Millay poem that says, ‘Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave/Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;/Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave./ I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.’
“That,” she says, “I agree with. But at the same time, death is a fact there at the bottom of everything, whether we acknowledge it or not. If you don’t believe in an afterlife, which I don’t, then this is it. This is it, and it’s going to end. What does that say about it all?”