"Powder Dreams": How a Psychological Novel Gets Written
Emerging novelist David Ward-Nanney explains his creative process.
Posted Feb 19, 2012
I was first drawn to it - the second book from this emerging novelist - when I saw that the main character undergoes a Jungian analysis. For anyone who's read "Mr. Analysand", the appeal is obvious: After so much writing about my time in session, I was understandably eager to check in on another experience, even if it was fictionalized.
What I found, long before Ward-Nanney's first person protagonist Bo Grayson goes into therapy, was a book that I couldn't put down. Grayson's story provides a uniquely clear window into a person's life, one of an avid skier who must reconcile his identity with an increasingly insatiable drive to make money. Internal struggles are everywhere, rife with conflicts we can relate to and others that amaze, all woven together with Ward-Nanney's instinctual sense for storytelling.
As Powder Dreams unfolded, I got the clearest sense yet of what it might be like to be an analyst, experiencing my client's reality as it's constructed in front of me: You're hearing it all, from a person who feels compelled to reveal their life details to you - the triumphant, disastrous, and mundane - as much as time will allow.
I also got the distinct sense that the author himself had been in therapy -- there is a frankness in Grayson's confessions that analysands might recognize and connect with.
This suspicion was confirmed when I reached out to Ward-Nanney, a native of the Southern U.S. now living in England, and requested an interview. As a writer who deals exclusively in non-fiction myself, I was fascinated to go a little further inside his head, and find out from this craftsman just how such a compelling work of fiction unfolds.
What's been the highlight of your day so far?
My six-year-old son and I wake up at the same time and have a ritual morning together. On the surface this sounds domestic and pedestrian, but we are both fresh and well rested and talkative. I chop blueberries and bananas while he feeds his cat. When breakfast is ready, he and I sit down and eat together against the background of morning light, which can be highly variable in the UK. It is delightful and a real retreat or repose before our day begins and it happens every morning and has happened for about five years now. This is very different from some of my past lives where an airplane meal was surprisingly good or skiing powder was so good I had to skip a conference call.
What makes the allure of skiing powder that you refer to here so strong that it serves as the muse for your new book Powder Dreams - at least on the surface? Besides being a book about skiing, what would you say Powder Dreams is about?
Surfers must experience the same sensation as deep powder skiers. A force of nature is propelling you forward in the smoothest and most rhythmically natural way possible. Skiing powder can be hard work but the sensation is a thrill. It creates the same tribal instincts as surfers. Once you've skied deep powder with a person, there is always a bond. I've read interviews with battle-hardened veterans who speak of their fellow soldiers in the same ways.
The first two sections of Powder Dreams are written specifically with the same rhythm of a long powder day, where the day begins surprisingly upbeat and beautifully. By the end of section two an exhaustion is beginning to overwhelm all other things.
Powder Dreams is about Bo Grayson, a man who sits at the mid-point of his life and is trying to figure out what has happened in the first half of his life. The narrative is really one man taking a compass reading before moving on. Early in life he decides to avoid living a tediously middle class existence, mostly against the backdrop of the Rockies and the Alps. Through the aforementioned tiredness and after having his heart broken, he opts for the great goal of making a fortune. Only it is not so simple as he thinks. The last half of the novel is about him sorting through some very conflicting pressures, the usual suspects: money, love, lust, materialism and the modern malaise. But my goal was to match the psychic turmoil, the inner mental pressures with equally conflicting outer pressures.
Let me state that these themes play out in riveting fashion in Powder Dreams. I was particularly interested that the character undergoes a Jungian analysis throughout the book, to deal with these big pressures. Was this something you experienced yourself in real life? If so, why did you feel compelled to weave that experience into your book - how is Bo's experience in analysis like your own, and how is it different?
Thank you, David, that's high praise.
I went through a particularly prolonged black depression in 2002 and swore that when things turned around I would begin seeing a Jungian analyst. At the time of the depression this was not possible because finances were thin and I was in Salt Lake City, where Jungian analysts apparently do not live.
2003 was a much better year and the fruits of my labor included a weekly session with an analytical psychologist.
The experience was profound and when I stopped seeing my therapist there was a sort of afterburn that continues to this day. When I was searching for narrative devices for Powder Dreams I was aware of Robertson Davies' use of a Jungian analysis in The Manticore. Having come out of this intense therapeutic experience I fully understood why he chose it. If it is done well, it is magic. I decided to give it a try.
Using therapy as a narrative device and being in therapy are vastly different things. If you put what goes on in therapy on paper, it would often bore, look silly and otherwise alienate the reader, although to the patient this is not so. So there was a process in writing where I spent months trying to figure out how to make the material accessible and engaging and yet not lose the essential depth of such an analysis. While I share some of the themes that Bo faces (e.g. the fighter pilot dream, the Puer), the vast majority of Bo's story is his own. Going that deep with a character was not pleasant.
Why was it important to you that your own therapy be a Jungian analysis - what distinguishes that, in your opinion and your experience? And can you explain what you mean by "the afterburn" - how is your therapy continuing to serve you today, and in particular how is it aiding your progress as a novelist?
Jung had always been in the background. If it I wasn't reading a book like The Manticore then I was being told about Jung before a Myers Briggs test. During 2002 I remember reading Darkness Visible by William Styron. It is an excellent account of his depression, which nearly drove him to suicide. The doctors relied on anti-depressants. They later found out the chosen medications inflamed his condition. I've heard too many stories about pharma-psychology like this. Besides I don't even like to take an Advil unless absolutely necessary.
So this left me with a choice of talk therapies and the one that kept sticking was Jung. He actually embraces depressions as a sort of road sign that things are not right. Whereas popping a pill for a depression is more of denial that the depression has a source. Jung's method leaves intact the wonders of the world. He does not try to explain what is inexplicable. He prefers to stand in awe.
This is necessary for the kind of rebirth and reinvention that keeps a person alive for the eighty or ninety years we're likely to live.
The afterburn comes from being shown the Jungian method and then being able to do it yourself. It is essentially a reading of the various forces of your life and making some kind of deal with them. So the propulsion I felt in therapy is now self-sustainable. I often wake up with ideas and things to do that are clearly ballasting me and I find that my appetite for the day is only growing. This is in direct contrast to my twenties when I was in constant conflict with myself and the world around me. Somehow or another the process has worked beautifully. And it works for Bo Grayson, too. The method has an excellent track record.
What does having that experience of life in general open up to you creatively? How does it help you to create something as complex as a novel?
I find that Jung's approach has opened me up creatively. This cannot be overemphasized nor overstated. The technique relies on identifying controlling symbols and the impact they have on you and other people. At the heart of great works of art is the symbolic truth. The approach has removed a lot of the personal baggage that went with writing and also allowed me to see much more deeply into the characters.
The other thing that I find so helpful is Jung's Personality Types (or typology). A person leans towards or away from approaching the world intuitively, sensationally, with feeling (not the same as emotion) and with thought. On top of that each person is disposed towards introversion or extraversion. On the surface this appears simplistic, but once you've experienced the typology in action, you realize how very complicated and unique each person is.
When you sit down to translate your ideas into a novel, these are tools that really allow you to go both deep and wide with characterization, which is still only a small part of putting together a novel.
As a 100% non-fiction writer, I'm interested to hear what you feel are the other parts of putting together a novel -- what do you feel goes into it besides characterization? And of those which come easiest to you, and which come hardest?
The great thing about being a novelist is that you are only bound by your imagination and technical skill. I suspect as a non-fiction writer you have to hold yourself back occasionally.
With this in mind each novelist brings a different mix of elements. For me I usually start out with a story and several vivid scenes. I never plan the ending so it is always a surprise. The next piece is ironing out the plot. During the process several symbols inevitably emerge. The road and the Ferris wheel were two that arrived early in Powder Dreams. I write every day and am constantly rearranging the material. Eventually I come up with a plan and a structure for the story. A sort of depression settles in after the first draft because the work does not come near to what I imagined. Then I begin the real work of spinning the tale in such a way that it both pulls the reader along and develops the various elements I had in mind. Usually by this time I'm approaching the material with a technician's eye. The last drafts are when I drill down at the chapter level, at the paragraph level and even at the sentence level to get it right. At this point it takes me 1-2 days to get a chapter into shape.
There are all kinds of tricks and tools, how a writer manipulates time or runs characters or scenes in parallel. The plotting and story are the easiest for me. The most difficult is developing a clear sense of scene. Once I get that right, I am greatly relieved and feel like the rest is the daily grind, a most excellent and fun kind of work. The actual sufferings of the characters are the hardest to push through.
While a novel is a vehicle for self-expression, it's also a work that's intended for an audience. As you're writing, do you ever have a picture of the reader that will be attracted to that particular story? And in the case of Powder Dreams, specifically, is there a profile/"psychological makeup" of the type of reader who you think will be drawn to and benefit from it?
At times in the past, I tried to imagine an audience of one, someone with whom I was sitting and telling a story. This technique never got me very far. One day I was driving back from a sporting clays shoot, which is one of my pastimes in the UK (they have great shoots here). I was listening to "Desert Island Discs" and Stephen King was on. He said that the very first person he tries to please when writing is himself. It was such a simple idea and yet so often overlooked. It has been my guide ever since. If I don't find the material interesting, few others will.
In a similar vein Jung was asked just before his death what he thought of all the attention his work had garnered over his lifetime. Here was a man who knew his death was near and had battled intense personal and collective demons for most of his life. He had a huge audience and it was clear that his work would stand the test of time. He responded to the question by saying that he was shocked by all the attention because from the beginning he was only writing about himself.
I do not have a clear sense of who would like Powder Dreams. The marketing materials were focused on skiers, Jungians and men, but I've already heard from plenty of women who could not put the book down. My hope is that the readers are the kind of people with whom I'd like to sit and have a coffee or a beer and have an interesting conversation. After all this is the very essence of the reader-writer relationship. It doesn't matter how good a novel is, without good readers it may just as well not have been written. Writers' second loyalty is to the reader. His first is to himself and his family. The rest is just scenery.
-- Mr. Analysand