Stretching our humanity and broadening our perspectives
A Q&A with The Dream House author, Craig Higginson
Author Craig Higginson shares his thoughts and feelings on a wide range of topics related to the novel, including what inspired him to write it, the issues he wished to explore, his interpretation of the motivations of the main characters, what he believes the work suggests about its major themes, and the importance of challenging the idea that what happened in the past is ‘someone else’s business’ and not our responsibility.
English Experience: What prompted or inspired you to write The Dream House?
Craig Higginson: I went to boarding school in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands. On the other side of the hill from our school lived a farmer and his wife who were acquaintances of my family. I started to visit them over weekends. They were very similar to the characters of Patricia and Richard in the novel. They were vivid, eccentric and sceptical of my ‘city boy’ ways, but they were always kind to me. I got to know the farm as well as I knew our garden at home and I always felt welcome there. When I started to write my first play, it was set there. I think it was there, on that farm and in the surrounding Drakensberg hills, that my imagination found its starting place. Several of my plays and novels have been set in that area since.
So, the novel comes from the place and the people, as well as some of the stories that I heard while living there – including the incident when the farmer’s Rottweiler dog attacked a young woman who worked at the dairy – but it comes, first and foremost, from me. Richard, Patricia, Looksmart and Beauty are all aspects of myself. When we dream about other people, we are not dreaming about them, but about ourselves – and our relation to them. It’s the same with writing. Each character becomes an actor in a dramatic scenario you are developing – and the places and people and experiences that inspired them are soon left behind.
“I hope the reader comes away from the novel more prepared to listen, not so quick to judge, with a greater awareness that our truths are partial.”
EE: How long did it take you to write the novel?
CH: I started writing the idea for the novel when I was living in England – perhaps around the year 2000. At that point, it was a play and, when I picked it up a few years later and finished a draft, it was a short radio play for SAFM, called Dream of the Dog, which was first broadcast around 2006.
I then developed the radio play into a stage play and it opened on the Main Programme of the National Arts Festival in 2007, produced by the Market Theatre. I then changed the play again for the Hilton Arts Festival in 2008 and then developed quite a different draft for a production in London in 2010, where Janet Suzman played Patricia. We opened at a small theatre called the Finborough, but the play was so popular that it transferred to a West End theatre called The Trafalgar Studios.
I had realised by then that the bones of this story were very powerful and that the issues explored resonated with a broad range of people – overseas as much as in South Africa. I decided in about 2012 to start reworking the play as a novel and it was first published in 2015 under the name The Dream House.
Of course, the writing of a play or a novel usually starts some time before you start the literal writing. The seed is planted many years before and it can take years for that seed to germinate and start to nose its way towards the light.
“The novel is, ultimately, questioning such absolutes as ‘black’ and ‘white’, ‘African’ and ‘European’.
Identity is portrayed as something that is manifold, complex and, in the end, mysterious.”
EE: What are the main themes you set out to address in the work?
CH: When you write, you ask yourself, ‘What story am I telling?’ This is one level of story. Another level of story, which EM Foster called ‘plot’, tries to answer the questions, ‘What am I saying through the writing of this story? What ideas am I exploring?’ This can then be broken down into different threads or strands and these are often described as ‘themes’. We are often only concerned with this first question when writing the first draft of a novel: What story am I telling? The themes often emerge during the writing process and they are refined and developed through the drafts that follow.
From the outset, nonetheless, I was interested in the theme of ‘the truth’ – and how unattainable this can be. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) required people to tell the truth about the terrible things they did in the past so there could be reconciliation. It was an important symbolic moment for our country, but it only ever scratched the surface of things. How can we reach the truth? Past events can be represented in many different ways – and those representing them don’t have access to all the facts. So, if we can’t get at the truth, how can we begin to reach reconciliation? Is the will to tell the truth and to apologise enough for reconciliation, or does it require more for this to happen? You can already see that the confrontation between Patricia and Looksmart, which lies at the heart of the novel, is very much inspired by this concern.
The novel is also about the mysterious nature of the present. It is full of characters who are withholding information from other characters, creating dramatic irony for the reader (who often knows more about what’s going on between the characters than the characters themselves do). So, in this sense, it’s not just a post-TRC novel about memory and forgetting, but also an exploration of our contemporary situation as individuals and South Africans.
“The landscape of the novel is in transition and in a middle space between ruin and regeneration, which seemed to me a fitting image for contemporary South Africa.”
This concern with ‘the truth’ is a central theme running through the novel, but it also gave birth to a set of sub-themes. The theme of burial and digging up, of revealing and concealing, of opening things up and getting a better perspective, for instance. This theme is embodied in images like the dog, the mist, the child’s and the dogs’ graves, the bloodwoods, and the house itself, which Looksmart intends to make ‘open plan’.
It also led to the theme of love and hate and the relationship between these feelings. The ‘truth’ of what each of these is can sometimes seem indistinguishable; for instance, when Grace and the dog are locked together in a single image during the dog attack. ‘My love and your fear,’ as Looksmart describes it. Looksmart thinks he hates Patricia, but he realises by the end of the novel that he loved her and, perhaps, in part, loves her still. Trying to identify and distinguish between love and hate — or what Sigmund Freud called the life-force (Eros) and the death-force (Thanatos) — is an important concern running through the novel. It affects each of the characters in different ways; for example, the letter John Ford leaves for Patricia.
A third theme that springs to mind is that of ‘the home’. Where are we most at home? Are we at home in our homes? Are we at home in our country? This is also related to ‘the truth’ because it’s about finding your real or authentic home as opposed to the false home or homeland you might reside in now. Each character is dreaming of a house where they will one day live. No one is happy with the house they are in now. It feels false to them and inadequate. This theme is something that was not really in the play, Dream of the Dog, but it became such a central concern of the novel that, ultimately, it inspired the title of the novel itself. One thing novels do much better than plays is to get right inside the minds (or consciousnesses) of their characters. So, in the novel, the characters are able to dream more, which is perhaps why this theme and the title emerged so strongly.
The landscape in transition was also something that became more prominent in the novel. On one level, the houses rising up out of the mud are structures for a brand-new future. On another level, the houses are like ruined buildings in a battle zone. The landscape of the novel is in transition and in a middle space between ruin and regeneration, which seemed to me a fitting image for contemporary South Africa.
“The novel is showing that each of us – black and white – has an ambiguous relationship with the country in which we are living.”
Another question the novel explores is whether or not we can, or should, be defined by our past actions. The Greek philosopher Aristotle argued that character is defined through action. You are not a courageous person if you think you are courageous or tell other people you are courageous. You can only be described as courageous if you act courageously. The same goes for things like honesty or generosity or kindness. We prove we are these things by doing them – consistently — so our past actions should define us.
In all my writing, however, this idea is made problematic. If we don’t know what someone is thinking or intending when they do something, how do we know what their action means? A good example in the novel is when Patricia doesn’t want Grace to go to the hospital in her car. She never says why. Looksmart interprets this statement (which amounts to ‘an action’ as it is a turning point in the story) as Patricia saying she doesn’t want Grace’s blood on her seats, but Patricia never says this and, later, she honestly can’t remember thinking this. So how can Patricia be defined by this action? We don’t know what her motives were, so we can’t properly interpret the action.
We also repress things about which we feel bad. If we’ve done something about which we feel guilty, we can try to forget it, but this action will never go away. Even if we pretend that it never happened, it will affect us – and come to define us and our future actions. Richard has dementia and has forgotten his actions, and he has also probably tried to repress them, but they come back to haunt him. In the novel, he wants to disinter (dig up) his dead child, which, it turns out, is not only the child he had with Patricia, but also the unborn child he had with Grace (who died with Grace when he murdered her).
Ultimately, the novel is not denying that people do things in the world – good or bad – and that these can’t be reached or uncovered. It is simply suggesting how complicated and difficult this process of discovery can be. By the end of the novel, Patricia learns much more about Richard’s actions regarding Grace (and much more than Looksmart will ever know) and, although Richard hadn’t been defined in Patricia’s mind by this action before, he now is – even though he has lost his own mind – and the consequence is that Patricia decides to send him to ‘a home’. She finally finds the resolve to get rid of him.
The novel explores this question, but it doesn’t offer a simple answer. We should be defined by our actions, but often we aren’t, or can’t be, and the novel explores some of the reasons why.
“I think the novel … is challenging those who think the past is ‘someone else’s business’ and that the needs of the present are not their responsibility.”
EE: Why did you choose this subject matter for the novel?
CH: Writers aren’t always that aware of why they write about what they write about, but the play and the later novel were about ‘the State of the Nation’. They were about trying to capture where we were at as a country and a society. The issue of the truth – in the present as much as the past – seemed to me very important. It felt to me as if we were all running away from the complexity of our past and our present and I worried that, if we continued to will ourselves into this kind of blindness, or numbness, it would affect our future. So, I had public reasons for writing about this subject matter, if you like. I probably also had private reasons, which remain, at least in part, as obscure to me as anyone else.
EE: How did you decide on the title of the novel?
CH: I have talked about this in relation to the question of ‘themes’ earlier. When I came upon the title, all sorts of things fell into place. I had something fresh to explore for each character: Do they feel ‘at home’ in their houses and their country? Have they ever felt ‘at home’? What ‘home’ does each of them dream about? What are they doing to make that future home a reality?
Richard spends the whole novel trying to get back to a home in which he has never felt ‘at home’. Patricia dreams about the house in which she grew up in Durban and she thinks she can return to the person she once was, before she moved to the farm with Richard. Beauty dreams about the house she will build when she retires, with its view of the Drakensberg, and she has already secured a piece of land from the Chief. Looksmart, of course, returns to the nightmare house that he wants to transform and make ‘open plan’, with a ‘better view’ because he’ll cut down all the trees around it. He also wants to reproduce this new house throughout the valley – to try and stamp out that old house. But, of course, this dream house will only ever be the original house, reproduced with slight variations. Looksmart is still too attached to his wound, his sense of grievance, and is not free from it. He is creating a ‘gated community’ for people fleeing the crime in the cities. He is not creating a place beyond fear and hate, but reproducing it, albeit unconsciously.
Yet the characters still dream and, through that dreaming, they move forward and make some progress. Patricia exiles Richard from her dream house by the sea, Beauty sets off into a more promising future and Looksmart will return to his family in Johannesburg more at peace with himself and, as a result, possibly able to be a better father and a less conflicted, more faithful husband.
EE: Why did you choose this particular narrative form to tell the story?
CH: The novel has a five-act structure, which is something more associated with plays than novels, but the five-act structure is a shadow that underlies all storytelling. You have the world as it is (Act One), the inciting incident (Looksmart’s arrival at the house, which triggers Act Two), and then the accumulation of dramatic events or narrative ‘turns’ (or ‘rising action’) that usually culminates by the end of Act Four. Act Five is about the characters licking their wounds and beginning to imagine a new future for themselves.
More crucially, this five-act structure is not just carried by the main character/protagonist in The Dream House. It is carried by a chorus of characters – Patricia, Looksmart, Beauty, Richard, Bheki and John Ford. Each offers fresh perspectives and insights along the way. Each introduces a new level of complexity. In each section, we are only in that character’s point of view. Although the narration is in the third person (‘he’ and ‘she’) as opposed to the first person (‘I’), we are trapped inside that character’s head and we don’t have access to what is happening inside the heads of the other characters. This is a device called ‘attached third person’ or ‘free indirect discourse’. It enables the writer to move around more. It also means the novel doesn’t have a single ‘authorial’ narrator with full ‘authority’ over what is happening. Here, the story is in the hands of the characters and each must fight their own corner. It is for the reader to work things out for themselves.
“Fiction can provide a kind of obstacle course that can stretch our humanity and broaden our perspectives and our empathy.”
I chose to use this approach because I wanted the reader to be active – like an investigator who has to decide between what is right and what is wrong. As citizens of South Africa, and the world in general, we have to do this every day in our own lives. Fiction can provide a kind of obstacle course that can stretch our humanity and broaden our perspectives and our empathy. So, the form in which this novel is written provides a kind of work-out for the reader – one which, hopefully, makes them more involved, more engaged, while also renewing their relationship with the world – making them more aware of the needs and complexities of others.
EE: What research did you undertake when writing the novel?
CH: This novel came directly out of my own experience – both as a boy growing up in apartheid South Africa and my time as an adult since. I have written other novels that have required extensive research, such as my historical novel The Landscape Painter, but this one came out of my own life and the lives of those around me naturally.
It is worth looking at the word ‘research’, as well as the word ‘remember’. To re-search means to search again. To look again for something that you haven’t found and may never find. It is an ongoing process. To re-member means to put something together again, something that has been dis-membered. When we write, we search again, and we put things we have experienced together again, but in new combinations. In other words, we are not reproducing the past, but reinventing it in accordance with the needs of the present.
EE: On that note, what do you believe the novel suggests about the relationship between the past and the present?
CH: I think it is trying to break down the division between the two. Whether we like it or not, the past is still present. But how present is the present? Many of us are still looking at the world through the lens of what happened in the past. Looksmart is a prime example of this. The challenge of how to be present in the present – fully alive and aware and receptive – is something that can get more difficult the older we get. Like Patricia, we sometimes need to be shaken a bit and woken up. Habit is a terrible thing, it makes everything around us feel naturalised, already-known, half-dead. The novel is trying to make the ‘past present’ so that we may be more properly present in the present and, hopefully, have a better chance of not repeating past mistakes in the future.
EE: What do you believe the novel suggests about the relationship between memory and truth?
CH: There are events that happen in time. Two airplanes fly into the Twin Towers in New York, for instance. No one can deny that the event happened. But the event was witnessed by millions of people – both in New York and across the world on live television. Each person experienced that event differently. It has a slightly different meaning for everyone because each witness to it is in a different place, not just physically, but psychologically, emotionally, socially. This means that the event has a different meaning for each person. It is not one event, but many events – too many events, in fact, for anyone to be able to capture. It’s full meaning will never be available to us, even if we can’t deny that it happened.
Philosophers like to ask: If a tree falls down in a forest and no one sees it, did it happen? This might be worth thinking about. It might have happened objectively, but what meaning does it have if no one knows it happened? Clearly, there is objective and subjective truth. Objective truth: a dog attacked a girl called Grace. Subjective truths: for those, you’ll have to read The Dream House!
EE: What point do you think the novel makes about forgiveness and exoneration?
CH: I think the novel is saying that forgiveness is available to those who genuinely understand what harm they have done and ask for forgiveness. Patricia realises that she hurt Looksmart – consciously or not – and asks for his forgiveness. She receives it. Richard does not ask for forgiveness and he does not receive it. Forgiveness is complicated, however; if you say you’re sorry, does the harm you caused go away? Not usually. The consequences live on and we have to live on with them. See the last phrase of the novel, for example, where they ‘raise their hands and carry on’. We can never be fully exonerated because we can’t remove the harm we have caused. We have to live with this knowledge and, hopefully, try to live better in the future.
EE: What do you believe the novel suggests about the relationship between inequality and race?
CH: This is a very complex issue and not one that the novel tries to solve. The novel is about post-apartheid South Africa more than it is about apartheid, but apartheid casts its shadow over the present, whether we like it or not. It seems that little has changed since 1994 for Beauty or Bheki, but much has changed for Looksmart. Quite a bit has also changed for Richard and Patricia, who have been left behind by the progress of history. As the novel shows, there has been more transformation in the urban than the rural areas, but the changes are finally beginning to reach the rural areas too – although not necessarily in the ways that we might have hoped. As Looksmart observes, he is not giving the land back to ‘his people’, who were ‘dispossessed’, but to more affluent people who are fleeing the cities – most of them white.
The novel also demonstrates that class is becoming an increasingly important factor alongside race. See the way, for example, that Looksmart uses English when he speaks to Bheki.
So, race is a factor and class is a factor, but education is also a factor. It is what helped Looksmart – at least, initially – to transcend his circumstances. Bheki sees the value of this and that is why he decides to remain on the farm: he believes that Looksmart will help to educate his son in the way Patricia once helped Looksmart.
“Yet, as the novel shows, the past is never past, and it keeps reinventing itself.”
EE: What do you believe the novel suggests about the notion of ‘white guilt’?
CH: I think the novel is about the absence of white guilt. It is not saying white people need to carry on feeling ‘guilty’, either. It is challenging those who think the past is ‘someone else’s business’ and that the needs of the present are not their responsibility.
We share an equal humanity, no matter how young or old, male or female, dark or pale. This is what Patricia doesn’t understand – or, indeed, feel – when Grace is attacked by the dog. She doesn’t respond to a black woman being attacked in the way she would have if a white woman had been attacked. Looksmart sees this and his relationship with Patricia is devastated by this fact. He sees the great gap between Patricia and Grace and, therefore, the great gap between himself and Patricia.
Whether Patricia was worrying about her seats or not is not really the point. The point is that she didn’t respond in the way Looksmart expected. Patricia is made to acknowledge this, at least to some degree, in the novel. Not so that she can feel guilty, but so that she can be honest. Looksmart thinks he deserves at least that.
EE: If you were asked to try and summarise the message of The Dream House, how would you do so?
CH: If a book could be distilled down to a simple message it may not be worth writing. The book is about dialogue, ambiguity, uncertainty. Yet I could, perhaps, sum up its spirit, which is one of openness and empathy. It is showing how different we are and yet we are not different at all. We each have hopes, fears, sources of pain and regret. Even Richard, the most morally reprehensible character in the novel, is not denied his humanity.
Apartheid has taught us that drawing a line can be an act of violence. While we may do things that are wrong, and things we regret, we are always free to change the legacies we’ve inherited and find a different way of being in the world. I hope the reader comes away from the novel more prepared to listen, not so quick to judge, with a greater awareness that our truths are partial. When Looksmart first arrived in Johannesburg, he used to give money to beggars and draw a strange comfort from the touch of their hands. Later, he stops seeing them. Perhaps I would like my reader to re-engage with the world – and see everyone equally, beggars included, and meet their gaze.
“We are always free to change the legacies we’ve inherited and find a different way of being in the world.”
EE: Do you believe that South Africans are still burdened by the past and, if so, in what ways?
CH: The legacy of apartheid – like the legacy of colonialism before that, and slavery before that – is something that will be written deeply into us forever. Not just in our psyches, but in the land itself: who owns it, where people live on it, the journeys they have to make between home and work, and so on.
South Africa must try to find a way of functioning that helps all of its people to live more prosperous lives. The country is also burdened by the present – mass illegal immigration, corruption in government, exploitation in the workplace, limited access to education and basic services, climate change, etc. We shouldn’t fixate on the burden of the past, but we need to carry on carrying it because, if we deny it or hide from it, it will only come back to haunt us, as it haunts Patricia, Richard and Looksmart.
“We shouldn’t fixate on the burden of the past, but we need to carry on carrying it because, if we deny it or hide from it, it will only come back to haunt us.”
EE: How do you imagine seventeen-year-old South African students will respond to The Dream House?
CH: I have no idea. I didn’t write it for any specific age group. The novel has a thriller structure and there is a great deal of tension running through it, as well as dramatic surprises along the way. It is a novel full of ideas and allegorical resonances, but it can also be read as a gripping story. I think it’s important that a reader would want to turn the next page to find out what will happen next.
EE: Do you think younger readers will be able to relate to the older characters and their experiences?
CH: Good books are able to take us into places that are unfamiliar. They make us care where we never thought we would. The task of the writer is to make the characters and the events in the novel matter. Whether this novel is a good book or not is something for each reader to judge for themselves.
EE: Could you describe the inspiration behind the complex character of Looksmart?
CH: Driving around the streets of Johannesburg, there are a great many young men who look a lot like Looksmart: they are young, successful, confident, black. They are the very picture of success. But life is not so simple – not for any of us. In a way, I suppose, I wanted to question the idea that a man in a suit with a smart silver car is everything to which we should aspire and that a semi-literate, rural domestic worker is someone we should look down on or dismiss. In the novel, it is the character with the least education, the least money, the least love, the fewest prospects, who is also the carrier and dispenser of the truth: Beauty.
“I wanted to question the idea that a man in a suit with a smart silver car is everything to which we should aspire and that a semi-literate, rural domestic worker is someone we should look down on or dismiss.”
EE: Why does Beauty keep the truth to herself for all those years?
CH: The #MeToo campaign has shown that it often takes many years for terrible truths to come out. When a bad thing happens to you, it often feels impossible for you to talk about it, let alone report it to the police (if it’s illegal). Beauty was in no position to dispute Richard’s version of events. She would have been cast out and almost certainly fired. As she explains to Patricia, she needed her job. Yet the world changes and, sometimes, we find ourselves in a context that is finally ready to accept the truth of what happened. By the end of the novel, Patricia is finally ready to hear the truth about Richard. In Beauty’s opinion, Looksmart is not. Perhaps because – unlike Patricia – Looksmart still has too much to lose.
EE: What do you think ‘the dream house’ symbolises for Patricia and Looksmart, ultimately?
CH: Patricia’s dream house in Durban is about returning to an untroubled past. Looksmart’s dream house is about creating an untroubled future. By the end of the novel, they have both become a bit more ironic about such a notion. Yet they will both continue the journey towards their dream houses, crossing over on the driveway at the end of the novel, as they both go off in opposite directions.
“Patricia’s dream house in Durban is about returning to an untroubled past. Looksmart’s dream house is about creating an untroubled future.”
EE: Would you argue that Patricia and Looksmart come to terms with their pasts by the end of the novel?
CH: Patricia is the protagonist of the novel and, yes, I think she does to the extent that anyone can. Looksmart also does, to a great degree, even if we, the reader, know he doesn’t have access to all the information. Looksmart still thinks Grace loved him and was raped by Richard (when, in fact, the truth is more complicated, even if almost as terrible). Yet, as the novel shows, the past is never past, and it keeps reinventing itself.
EE: What do you think the novel suggests about English-speaking white South Africans and their identities as ‘Africans’?
CH: The novel is showing that each of us – black and white – has an ambiguous relationship with the country in which we are living. The characters in the novel are not yet living in the ‘homes’ they envision for themselves. The fact that the ‘English-speaking white South Africans’ in the novel are fluent in Zulu does not change this. It does not help Patricia to gain access to Bheki’s inner thoughts and feelings, for instance. I’m not sure any of the white characters are trying to be ‘African’. Is Looksmart trying to be ‘white’ because he speaks to Bheki in his impeccable English? No – I don’t think so. He is using the English language playfully, ironically, sometimes as a weapon, sometimes as a wand. The novel is, ultimately, questioning such absolutes as ‘black’ and ‘white’, ‘African’ and ‘European’. Identity is portrayed as something that is manifold, complex and, in the end, mysterious.
“[Looksmart] is using the English language playfully, ironically, sometimes as a weapon, sometimes as a wand.”
EE: What reactions to the novel from readers have surprised you the most?
CH: The novel has had one very critical review and a great many unambiguously positive reviews – in South Africa and abroad. I have been surprised by the positive responses and encouraged by the positive responses from black – especially Zulu – readers. I think this response is, in part, because I set out to write a novel that was bigger than myself and my own concerns. I was trying to write a narrative prose poem that was choral in nature – sung by a range of sometimes conflicting voices. My previous novels are less about ‘the State of the Nation’ and more about individuals – often unusual individuals. Critics were also much concerned with ‘the farm novel’ and whether or not this was a farm novel. I was writing very consciously against this trope, but not all readers understood that.
EE: If you were to rewrite the novel now, would you do anything differently?
CH: I have rewritten it enough now – as a radio play, a stage play (with three distinct versions) and a novel. Each time, the story and characters changed because the context in which I was writing changed. The thought of writing it again now only gives me a headache!
EE: What is your next novel about?
CH: My new novel is called The White Room, which is due to be published in September 2018. It takes some of the issues raised in The Dream House further and places them in a more international/global context. It is set in Paris and is — superficially, at least — about the relationship between an English teacher and her student of Congolese descent.