The interview occurred right as the final volume of Dance was being published in the States, and it features both discussion of the series and of Powell's memoirs, on the writing of which he was just embarking.
I was surprised by the following exchange:
I suppose I may have known at one time that Powell didn't keep a card index, but if so I'd forgotten--and it's almost impossible to conceive, with the dozens and dozens of characters and the long span of time. It's a testament, I suppose, to how real the world he was creating appeared to him, and how well he knew the characters he was leading through their paces.INTERVIEWER
When you first considered doing a long novel, did it occur to you that this might be rather a gamble?POWELL
Yes, I think that is perfectly true. I think that really until the last page of the last volume was finished one never knew whether one was going to be able to bring it off, you see. You always have this terrible feeling, “Am I going to dry up?” Apparently Kipling felt the same: He never got up from his chair without feeling that he was never going to be able to write another line.INTERVIEWER
How far ahead did you plan?POWELL
That's a very difficult question to answer, because it's perfectly true that you set out in advance with a certain number of characters, but as they do different things, inevitably you have to trim your sails to what they've done, just as you do in real life. And I think that if the book has any vitality, it's due to recognizing this fact: that if you've got your character right, then up to a point what he or she does is fairly logical . . . But of course as you advance with your book, you're advancing on a wider and wider front, and there are all sorts of things that have to be taken into consideration. And I wouldn't for one moment suggest that it was easy to correlate all that, but in that does consist the hard work of writing a long novel.INTERVIEWER
Did you keep a card index?POWELL
I made one on the first volume, but it was such hard work that about halfway through the second I concluded that if I had the energy to write a card index, I really had the energy to write the book. So that was that.
Then there's this portion, which covers three bits of ground that I find interesting or amusing in Dance: the lack of children--specifically, the way that the characters have children who, for the most part, are never seen nor mentioned again; Powell's circumspect, yet effective and unsqueamish, treatment of sex; and, finally, Nick Jenkins's reticence about his wife and his own marriage:
That final answer reminds me of one of my favorite passages in the whole of Dance, when Nick reflects on his marriage while on his way to visit Isobel, who is in the hospital recovering from a miscarriage:INTERVIEWER
There are scarcely any children in the novel. Is this significant?POWELL
Well, I think children are extremely difficult to deal with, you know. And I would generally avoid dealing with children simply because I haven't got the capacity. Very few writers have—though Gerhardie pulled it off in The Polyglots. The children in The Polyglots are brilliantly done. But I think most children in novels are embarrassing to a degree. I introduced them once or twice in my earlier prewar novels, but I think not perhaps very happily. And again, as you work you get to know up to a point what you can do and what you can't do . . . and one rather steers clear of things one can't do.INTERVIEWER
Remembering what you said earlier about writers and their treatment of sex, I think it's interesting the way you manage to introduce a very strongly erotic element, but do it elliptically.POWELL
Well, I think that really is the only way you can do it. I mean I've no strong feelings about people giving detailed descriptions of people going to bed except I never really feel it's the right way to do it. Oddly enough, when I was in London yesterday I was passing a cinema and there was a still outside of a chap sort of lying on top of a girl. And I thought, Well, really, you know, I'm not sure that I really particularly want to see him having her. I think my own imagination would be better about that than him doing it. People are awfully odd about that. But I'm glad you think the erotic bits are erotic—one always hopes they are.INTERVIEWER
I think Nick's first clinch with Jean in the car stands out. In fact I think their affair is one of the central things of the whole novel—more so than Nick's marriage to Isobel.POWELLWell, there again it's frightfully complicated, but clearly people don't tell you what their life with their wife is like if they're at all satisfactorily married. Therefore apart from any other considerations there'd be a great unreality in the narrator talking about this, you see. This is one of those instinctive things you've got to remember, I think, if you're writing a novel. You are simply telling a story and you want it to be convincing. Well, very often the greatest amount of detail is not the way to be the most convincing. After all, there's such a lot one goes through life not knowing when people are talking to you about something—you've got to guess and so on. And I think up to a point the novel wants to be like that, too. You get stronger effects.
A future marriage, or a past one, may be investigated and explained in terms of writing by one of its parties, but it is doubtful whether an existing marriage can ever be described directly in the first person and convey a sense of reality. Even those writers who suggest some of the substance of married life best, stylise heavily, losing some of the subtlety of the relationship at the price of a few accurately recorded, but isolated, aspects. To think at all objectively about one's own marriage is impossible, while a balanced view of other people's marriages is almost equally hard to achieve with so much information available, so little to be believed. Objectivity is not, of course, everything in writing; but even casting objectivity aside, the difficulties of presenting marriage are inordinate. Its forms are at once so varied, yet so constant, providing a kaleidoscope, the colours of which are always changing, always the same. The moods of a love affair, the contradictions of friendship, the jealousy of business partners, the fellow feeling of opposed commanders in total war, these are all in their way to be charted. Marriage, partaking of such--and a thousand more--dual antagonisms and participations, finally defies definition.That very acknowledgment of marriage's impenetrability is, I think, what makes Powell so good at writing about it: Nick's married friends surprise us like our own do, suddenly presenting him with facets and conceptions of their union that he would never have suspected, while giving the lie to comfortable illusions we may have, often unconsciously, grafted onto it. And because Nick (like Powell), never presumes to know the ultimate truth, he is perpetually attendant to what he can make out of the vicissitudes of the marriages around him; the glimpses he thus gets of their interiors remains murky, but it nonetheless affords insights of the sort that allow fiction, at its best, to inflect our daily lives.