Being a Writer F*cks Up Your Life

An interview with Craig Higginson.

Craig Higginson - The Dream House“I think about dying every day — I’m very aware of time passing, constantly,” Craig Higginson tells me. “I think it’s practically impossible to be present in the present. It’s always just struck me as so mysterious — life — it’s such an extraordinary, strange sort of dream we’re in. And I’ve always wanted to catch some of it and explore it and try understand what it might be.”

We’ve met on an early, crisp morning at a restaurant in Johannesburg to chat about his fifth novel, The Dream House, which charts the return of Looksmart, a wealthy black businessman, to the Natal Midlands farm where he grew up. As his conversation with Patricia — the elderly white woman who supported him during his childhood — unfolds, Higginson captures the tense uncertainty of contemporary South Africa with astonishing power and eloquence.

“I received absolutely zero encouragement to do anything artistic in my entire upbringing — it was probably actively discouraged,” Higginson says with a wry smile. Despite this, he wrote poems and even a novel while he was growing up in Johannesburg. By the time he was in matric at Michaelhouse, he wanted to be a painter, and went on to spend two years studying fine art at Wits. And then he fell in love — his first “proper relationship”. As poems started pouring out of him in response, he knew he wanted to be a writer, and so changed over to studying a BA.

“I’ve never really left that state that I started writing in when I was 19 — essentially the state of being a poet in the world. I don’t think of myself as an activist. I see myself as someone who’s trying to write poetry — it’s just that the forms in which I write are fiction and theatre.”

He believes poets “de-familiarise the familiar” — their work is “about us re-engaging with the everyday. Because the everyday is extraordinary — it’s all we have access to. The problem with human beings is that everything becomes naturalised, normalised.”

“I want my reader to be more alive to the world,” he says. “I think if we were a bit more like that, we would be less inclined to live in the destructive cycle that we’re all locked into.” South Africans, he believes, “are a frightened, rather harassed group of people, and what that does to us is that it makes us kind of shut down and put ourselves back into a sort of laager state.”

After finishing university, Higginson worked as an assistant to the legendary Barney Simon at the Market Theatre, before moving to the UK and falling into the theatre scene there. Over 10 years, he facilitated workshops and read scripts at the likes of the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Young Vic and was also a theatre critic for Time Out.

Embodied Laughter, his “little bit embarrassing” first novel, came out in 1998. “I kept trying to leave the theatre,” he recalls: what he really wanted to do was write fiction. The stage wasn’t finished with him, however. In 2004, he was lured back to South Africa, to become the Market Theatre’s literary manager, helping to transform compelling but poorly written stories into strong scripts. He agreed, conscious that South Africans “are my people — I care about these people. I had never been connected to the people in England; I had never wanted to write about them or speak for them.”

The past decade has seen a steady stream of work flowing from Higginson’s pen: plays (some original, some adaptations) performed all over the world, as well as novels. Initially the two forms were very different in scope. The plays were “politically engaged, state of the nation” pieces. Watching plays at the Market Theatre in his school holidays in the 1980s “changed my thinking and they woke me up to the world and I’ve always thought that theatre had that function; it has to be in some way socially engaged.”

His novels, in contrast, were rather Joycean, “shunning the public and the political”, exploring “the internal consciousness of the protagonist”. “There were no heroics in any of the novels” while in the plays characters tended to meet their fate “in a grand sort of way”.

Now they’ve begun to merge, reinvigorating each other.

“I realised after The Landscape Painter (his 2011 novel) I need to start doing my fiction much more urgently because we’re living in such extraordinary times; we’ve got to do battle with the present and I think as writers we’re failing if we don’t engage with what’s going on around us, and I saw less and less of it in my contemporaries,” he says.

With The Dream House — which had its roots in his first original play, Dream of the Dog — “I wanted to write a novel that had dialogue at its heart, and so the theatre was a good model for that”. This is not just dialogue between characters: it’s also internal dialogue — and the gap between what people are thinking and feeling and what they’re saying.

“All of the relationships are ambiguous, really. I’m trying to find a form that doesn’t shut down the strangeness of the present, this middle space that we’re in, but actually tries to dramatise it and catch it.”

Higginson is currently working on play and novel versions of a new story.

“I have a feeling I’ll drift more towards fiction than theatre in time,” he says. Novels are “more satisfying” — there’s more control over them than with plays, which can often feel like “a bit of a missed opportunity” because of their collaborative nature and tiny budgets. “The South African theatre scene really just depresses me. There’s absolutely zero room for formal experimentation of text-based theatre,” he says, complaining of conservative audiences, critics and producers.

I ask him if he ever gets creatively drained.

“I think you get fit by doing it. I don’t think there’s any shortage of stuff out there to be stimulated by. And when I write a thing, it’s usually something that’s been bubbling away for quite some years. I’ve got lots of things in the wings. The good ideas don’t go away.”

“I wouldn’t be able to live without [writing],” he says. “When you’re doing it, you feel good about yourself; you feel alive and you feel OK about yourself in some way fundamentally.” But he warns: “I wouldn’t necessarily recommend being a writer. It fucks up your life.”

The Dream House was published by Picador Africa.

This article first appeared in Wanted’s October 2015 edition. Higginson’s most recent novel, The White Room, was released in 2018.

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