From his greatest regret to the trait he most deplores in himself - Craig Higginson answers the Proust Questionnaire

‘What is your greatest fear?’ is received with a heavy sigh, followed by a pause; a frown etched across his forehead. “I’m afraid of wasting my life, I suppose...”

10 January 2019 - 15:13
By Mila de Villiers, pan macmillan AND Pan Macmillan
A sepia snapshot of the scribe.
Image: Supplied A sepia snapshot of the scribe.

The sound of the ringing doorbell of acclaimed novelist and playwright Craig Higginson’s home in Johannesburg’s leafy suburb of Parkview is met with enthusiastic barks.

Dressed in bootleg jeans, his casual shirt rolled up at the arms, and a pair of brown Chelsea-esque boots (“I think I got them in somewhere like Woolworths”), the tall, blonde author opens his blue front door, revealing a garden and a modern Dutch Colonial house.

The canine welcoming committee – two Cocker Spaniels introduced as Rosie and Chuckles – follow the writer into his open-plan kitchen, where a kettle is whistling on the stove.

“I always make too much,” he apologises with a smile as he passes a near-overflowing mug of tea across the kitchen counter, of which a few droplets land on the wooden corridor leading to his study cum writing room.

The room (“which I’m very happy to have”) is brightly-lit with natural light pouring in through a window displaying a driveway and colourful flowers; a computer, stacks of books and a lamp to write by atop his desk.

Considering that this bibliophile has read “thousands and thousands” of books and declares re-reading as “the greatest”, it comes as no surprise that a large bookshelf – featuring titles as diverse as Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy and Nathan Hill’s The Nix – occupies the space behind his writing desk.

A vintage couch with a floral print and two matching armchairs surround a coffee table in the middle of the room. Higginson seats himself in one of the armchairs, draping his left leg over his right and placing his fingertips against one another, drawing attention to the array of colourful – yet unobtrusive – beaded bracelets adorning his left wrist; his right wrist sporting a digital watch.

And thus the questionnaire call time commences…

Apologies to Charles M. Schulz, but happiness isn’t always a warm puppy

Higginson runs his hand through his mop of hair, a pensive look on his face as he considers his response to the first of several questions featured on the Proust Questionnaire: ‘What is your idea of perfect happiness?’

“I suppose being able to do what you were … made to do,” the native Jo’burger eventually replies in his cultured voice, his tone relaxed.

“I think I’m pretty happy,” he continues. “I’m able to do what I want to do and I’ve got quite a rich life. I mean it’s a suburban life and the drudgery of having the pay the bills squashes you,” he says, his head resting on his left hand.

“I think everyone’s life – whoever you are, whatever your job is – there’s an element of drudgery and there’s an element of magic and you’ve got to make sure that the drudgery doesn’t snuff out the magic,” the author muses.

“For me, it’s being able to do what I was kind of brought into this world to do.” This being none other than “writing”, he confirms without hesitation. (Naturellement!)

Higginson received little encouragement from his family to pursue his writing, but maintains he preferred it that way.

You've got to make sure that the drudgery doesn't snuff out the magic.

“It was quite nice to develop a secret thing,” he explains.

“If I had told everyone or shared my poems with my mom, the subversive nature of writing would be lost.”

Higginson’s sister was an avid horse rider and the tedious days spent at the stables with her and their mother propelled him to storytelling; he’d while his boredom away by “going internal; I developed my own internal imaginative landscape.” This included making up words, games and cartoon strips.

He wrote his first story at age 10 – seven exercise books in total, he recalls – about a boy who ran away from school and forms a bond with an owl. These seven exercise books would ultimately materialise as The Hill, published in 2005.

“When I was at school [Higginson attended Michaelhouse], I just wrote stuff without anyone telling me to,” proclaiming that a teacher of his encouraged him to pursue art. This didn’t stick well with Higginson…

“And I was, like, ‘why do I want do art?’” he incredulously asks. “‘I want to be a vet’.”

His teacher’s counter-argument was that Higginson received the highest mark in his year for art which Higginson found odd, as he laughingly admits that “I just drew the same kingfisher over and over again!”

Yet he did decide on taking art as a matric subject, which, he says, introduced him to the “arty kids, alternative music, and an interest in books. It was a whole different way of being in the world.”

There’s more to fear than arachnids, death and failure

‘What is your greatest fear?’ is received with a heavy sigh, followed by a pause; a frown etched across his forehead.

“I’m afraid of wasting my life, I suppose,” he responds in a considered tone. “I would hate to look back and think that I didn’t use it properly. We probably all feel that a bit…

“I’m scared of…,” he starts, pausing once more, studying his hands, “…of … not being alive when I’m alive.”

He can’t overtly state whether he’s alive at the moment, reasoning that “it’s layered.”

“Like, yesterday we [Higginson, his wife and young daughter] went to the zoo and looked at animals and the spring blossoms were out. It was lovely to be there but I felt…” He interrupts himself, a meditative look on his face. “One has anxieties and preoccupations and those things often come between you and the present,” he reflects.

Trying to be nice proves to be a trying task

Not even one’s inner demons, insecurities or irksome habits are immune to this 19th century questionnaire popularised by Proust and Higginson’s response to ‘what is the trait you most deplore in yourself?’ is met with a very human and relatable counter-question: “What do I hate the most about myself? I think lots of things…”

I think it takes great courage to just be yourself.

Shifting in his armchair, Higginson confides that he has spent most of his life fitting in with other people, “trying to be nice. Not trying to be liked,” he says, placing an emphasis on ‘liked’, his brow furrowed, “but making other people feel better about themselves.

“I think it takes great courage to just be yourself,” he continues.

Higginson’s ‘true self’ comes through in his writing: “I’m much more alive, much more clever when I’m writing as a person in the world…

“I’m quite self-effacing. Well, that’s what my perception of myself is,” he laughs.

“Other people probably see me completely differently. They probably think I’m this arrogant, loudmouthed, pushy person,” Higginson says with a playful grin on his bakkies.

He reiterates that he dislikes “trying to be nice to everybody” but struggles to adhere to this social norm since it’s “also important to be nice to people, and to make people feel comfortable, to be respectful of people.”

After a lengthy pause, Higginson smiles wryly. “Sorry, these are big questions.”

Consider your criticism

“Criticism without self-awareness” is the deliberated, yet determined answer in question to the trait he most deplores in others.

The origin of this pique results from a conflict of interest with a PhD supervisor of Higginson’s whilst he was completing a doctorate in creative writing at Wits University.

Two of his three supervisors “loved what I did, but one said she suspected I was re-inscribing white male centrality through my writing.”

The criticism of The Dream House (which was the PhD novel) was very superficial, the author says, elaborating that The Dream House is “all about issues of representation and the end of white centrality. And how nice that is; how healthy.”

Higginson is conscious that he, as a white male writer, does re-inscribe white centrality “because I am the narrator of my own narrative and I am a white male and I am central to my own narratives.

I hate the pomposity of these people who think they're so important.

“All forms of criticism is a form of autobiography as Oscar Wilde said,” he continues, expounding on this statement by reasoning that people who don’t question their own centrality do so owing to a woundedness.

“There’s a wound and they react out of that wound; they criticise out of that wound without that kind of level of self-awareness.”

The ability to criticise, dismiss and categorise a middle-aged, middle-class white male is “very easy” he says with distaste.

“I deplore laziness in others – and myself,” he quickly adds, “but in other people as well,” harshly criticising “knee-jerk defensive reactions that are about promoting one’s ego.”

Visibly exasperated, Higginson condemns the perpetuation of one’s own ego and self-importance, bluntly stating “I hate it.”

Higginson’s loathing of egomania is “probably” the reason why he thinks of himself as self-effacing.

“I hate the pomposity of these people who think they’re so important. None of us are important,” the author reminds us.

“We’ll all be dead soon, we’re all passing through, we’re all going to be forgotten,” he says, with a slight shake of his head. “We’re not special and that’s good.

“All those things make me panic,” he nervously laughs.

The anxiety caused by the insignificance of our lives incites Higginson to write books and “to make it matter. I want to make meaning and create something.”

He imparts that it’s a “great honour” when his books are read reasoning that you (as an author) are able to connect to someone you’ve never met and shift something in them. “You get them to feel something. You’ve touched each other,” he explains in a slight reverie.

“Anything is better than lies and deceit” – Hear, hear, Tolstoy

Higginson deplores falsehood of the self, but this does not dismiss the fact that humans. do. lie.

In question to when he lies most often, the writer acknowledges that he lies “to protect people from truths that are hurtful” but without intentionally hurting someone.

“The problem with – or maybe it’s a good thing,” he starts, grimacing slightly, hands clasped together. “The problem is I hate feeling that I’m lying.”

Unclasping his hands, he professes that he would never be able to have an extramarital affair as he’d hate living with a dishonest version of himself.

He adds that if he were to attend the premiere of a friend’s play which he didn’t particularly take to, he’d withhold his commentary (you’re under enough duress as it is – nerves, media, cameras), and critiquing it on the night would be unnecessarily pernicious.

The present is pleasant

‘When and where were you happiest?’ is followed by a pause from Higginson which, if likened to sheet music, would have been indicated as a fermata…

“I spend most of my life not really worrying about whether or not I’m happy,” he eventually answers.

“I know that sounds terrible,” he says with a slight smile.

I spend most of my life not really worrying about whether or not I'm happy.

He was aware that, as a writer, he wasn’t going to live to accumulate money, security and a decent pension, furthering that he “lived to be a creative person, to make works of art.”

Higginson describes his pursuit of a creative life as relentless and quite uncompromising, admitting that on the rare occasions that he allowed himself a holiday it was purely for research purposes.

“I think now that I should have thought more about happiness,” comes the contemplative, fairly concerned response. Throughout the years he’s often sacrificed having fun, owing to his busy schedule and having to fit “so much” in a day.

“Another thing I don’t like is how I sometimes lose the roots to just having fun, just being light. I can get too serious, you know?” he says, with a piercing gaze of his deep-set blue eyes.

“I’m happiest now,” he decides. “I’m doing what I want to do. Each day is a good day.”

(Craig’s day, by the way)

 - he wakes up

- takes his daughter to school

- sits down, writes-

does his day job from home (“I love being able to work from home”)

- walks the Westcliff steps (all 10 000 of them!)

- listens to “really lovely” music whilst walking

- checks out the spring blossoms

- thinks his thoughts

- chats to his family

“It’s a lovely day but kind of the same day,” he ruminates, before stressing the importance of travelling; to go to different places; try things that are scary; get outside of your comfort zone.

“Happiness isn’t the be all and end all,” he straightforwardly states. To stay alive; to grow; to be excited and adventurous; “to try and find the magic” – that’s what’s of great importance to the author.

After a contemplative pause, he mentions that he’s uncertain as to whether that’s the same as happiness, and that we often tend to mistake comfort for happiness.

He explains: “You think if you have security and a house and a dog and everything, ‘I’m really happy’. That’s not true.”

Higginson draws on South Africans’ propensity to emigrate to Australia as an example of mistaking comfort for happiness.

With undisguised contempt for those who decide to leave the country for the Land Down Under, he reasons that they expect to be happy in this “promised land” but “they take all their kak with them … It’s just an alien land.”

“Oh, the places you’ll go!”

 Speaking of countries…

“Either a flat in South Africa and a little house in Europe or, like, a flat in Europe and a little house in England,” Higginson responds in question to where he would most like to live.

He likes being in Johannesburg as a working person but wouldn’t want to grow old there, clarifying that he’s “always lived in Jo’burg”, save for his years at boarding school and the 10 years he spent abroad.

As he is equally attached to the city and the countryside, the imaginative author has plenty of options to play with.

“I’d like to be by the sea … Or have flat in Paris or London and a beach cottage on the coast of Natal, the Eastern Cape, or the Transkei.

“How about that?” he beams.

A portrait of the author as a young man posing with his daughter, Phoebe, during a seaside holiday.
Image: Supplied A portrait of the author as a young man posing with his daughter, Phoebe, during a seaside holiday.

He adds that that will only be possible if he were “a whole lot richer.” (The house belongs to his wife, actress Leila Henriques.)

At the mention of his house, his eyes drift around the room, settling on a section of the ceiling which had recently undergone repairs.

“We had a hole in the ceiling – in the roof – when it rained,” he explains as he gestures towards the slight blight.

“Parkview is nice,” he says after a while, although it can sometimes get “too much. I know everyone…”

When your vocation happens to be your favourite occupation

A resolute “writing fiction” is Higginson’s response to what his favourite occupation is, describing his day job as a script writer for the immensely popular TV series, Rhythm City, as “not really writing.

“I’m not being horrible or snobby about it,” he goes on, specifying that the impersonal and collaborative nature thereof makes it hard to feel as if it “feeds you in a nutritious sense.”

He returns to the question, stating if he was to do “all this over again, I’d probably be a psychologist. Or an architect.

I'm an ageing, white male in an increasingly transformed space...

“Not that I dislike what I’m doing. I’m just quite insecure….

"I’m an ageing, white male in an increasingly transformed space where the stories are kind of black reality stories,” he conveys in a subdued tone.

“There’s a whole generation of amazingly talented black TV people and writers.

"It’s quite a young industry, why do they need someone me? They actually don’t and increasingly they won’t,” he answers matter-of-factly.

From McEwan to St. Aubyn – here’s who Higginson reads

‘Who are your favourite writers?’ is a question Higginson has most likely been asked ad nauseam but he seems happy to comply with this famed questionnaire’s personality catechism.

“I’ll always read the new Ian McEwan, the new Tim Winton,” the author begins before leaving his armchair, walking towards his desk, and picking up his copy of Maggie O’Farrell’s I Am, I Am, I Am. (“I recently discovered Maggie O’Farrell – this was great.”)

Although a fan of both Jonathan Franzen and Michael Ondaatje, Higginson admits that he was disappointed by Purity and gave up halfway through Warlight before losing interest. He sheepishly confesses that he doesn’t read many local writers.

He turns to his book case and hands me Edward St. Aubyn’s volume of The Patrick Melrose Novels, pronouncing St. Aubyn’s monographs as “brilliant.”

Be mindful of your mental health

Higginson returns to his armchair and, once seated, earnestly and introspectively discloses that his greatest regret is giving up on himself after university; not taking better care of himself as a younger person and neglecting his mental health in the process.

His involvement with the Market Theatre, working in a bookshop in London and “my nebulous theatre career” was met with years which “I wasted by losing that momentum I got.

“I regret not just taking better care of myself as a younger person. I should have gone to therapy,” Higginson says in a heavy voice.

“I think I was quite depressed for a couple of years, without naming it or even being aware of it,” he continues.

“It’s very hard to take control of your life when you don’t have parents who are present or someone in your life who is saying ‘what are you doing next?’”

The author hesitates before revealing that he was always left to his own devices, with neither family nor friends enquiring about his mental well-being.

You have your one life and you don't have a second draft and then you die and that's that.

He’s of opinion that youth is definitely wasted on the young, as you’re “so depressed and riddled with fear and anxiety and self-fear.

“They don’t actually know what they’ve got … The gift of freedom to go and live anywhere in the world … To do anything…”

He chuckles slightly as he realises that that was exactly what he was doing twenty-odd years ago and now regrets doing that.

“You have your one life and you don’t have a second draft and then you die and that’s that,” he says solemnly, his eyes focused on his clasped hands.

“You’re going to get things wrong and the most important thing is that when you do fuck up and when you do make a mistake, is to turn that into something positive,” he furthers with an intense look in his eyes.

“Which I think I have done, you know. Ja…” Craig Higginson trails off, a small half-smile on his face, picks up his cellphone, and announces that it – unfortunately – is time to get back to the drudgery…

Three concluding questions

1. What is your motto?

I try not to come at anything with a motto. I try to make sense out of what stands in front of me – and then move on from it, as if it’s a stepping stone to somewhere more present, more accurate.

2. Who is your hero of fiction?

I don’t have one and I have learned from a wide range of writers. Graham Greene, for instance, taught me that you can write into places that are dark and into the lives of people who are despairing but still come away with a novel that is affirming and uplifting. He was also able to write books that dug deep but were always story-driven and entertaining. His writing style is clean and supple and I like the way he proceeds with so little fuss.

3. Who are your heroes in real life?

I most admire people who don’t whine and complain about things that impinge on their own self-interest. There’s that term ‘grit’ – which to me means perseverance, humour, perspective, courage – what used to be called ‘character’. There are so many reasons to be bitter and twisted – but what contribution are we making and how immediately boring we are if we submit to that?

What contribution indeed.