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A Novel of Astonishing Beauty and Power – Arja Salafranca Chats to Craig Higginson About The Dream House

The Dream HouseCraig Higginson chatted to Arja Salafranca at the Kingsmead Book Fair recently about his novel, The Dream House.

“I wanted to write into some strange mid-space where it feels like we were reaching a premature redemption,” Higginson says.

Salafranca calls it “a novel of astonishing beauty and power”.

Read the piece, courtesy of Pretoria News:

Feeling the pull of the past

Novelist wanted to write about present-day SA, but this is no traditional farm novel

By Arja Salafranca

I’m sitting with novelist and playwright Craig Higginson in the grounds of Kingsmead School. We’ve found a bench away from the food, the music, the packed venues of writers at the Kingsmead Book Fair.

We’ve come to talk about The Dream House – a novel of astonishing beauty and power, reviewed below.

I’ve known Higginson for close on six years now – our paths first crossed while we were both doing MAs in Creative Writing at Wits University.

It was there that I first read his novel, The Landscape Painter. Reading a work in manuscript form, on printed A4 pages and with XXs where facts will later be inserted, is not always an easy task. But the power of Higginson’s writing shone even then, and it was clear he was to be a major talent.

I’m curious as to why Higginson adapted the book from a play he wrote in 2010, The Dream of the Dog. Writers sometimes return to familiar themes in their work, and sometimes one genre doesn’t always fit the story being told. Higginson tells me the original play had two productions, in South Africa and England, where it was directed by Janet Suzman and although it did very well, “the bones of the piece felt very good, but in some ways it was a missed opportunity. The productions hadn’t done the stories justice. What the characters are thinking and feeling can’t be accessed in a play; it’s hard for a play to explore their complexity”.

In addition, Higginson says, he missed the KZN Midlands and wanted to write a socially engaged novel in South Africa.

His previous two novels, The Landscape Painter and Last Summer, “had been set in the past and dealt with exile, neither engaged with present-day South Africa. I wanted to write into some strange mid-space where it feels like we were reaching a premature redemption, going into who we are, and who we are going to be”.

In conversation with Sue Grant-Marshall earlier that day on a panel at the fair, he had mentioned that he wanted to write the anti-farm novel; and The Dream House is certainly the antithesis of traditional farm novels. Set on the last night on which an elderly white couple, Patricia and Richard, inhabit the farm they have lived in for years and have now sold, so that they can move to the coast, this novel explores the secrets of their lives through the framework of a single evening and the next morning. But, says Higginson, he was also trying to write into the present, to understand “what the present is”.

And in The Dream House, the present is portrayed uneasily – a place where black and white shift through layers of understanding, trying to grope towards an understanding of the future we are reaching towards.

As Higginson describes it, the novel is about place and land, both the black and white characters are wrestling with the idea of home, each dreaming of a home, in all senses. From Patricia, the elderly white woman dreaming of her retirement home at the coast, to the servant Beauty speaking of a place with views of the Drakensberg, to Richard, the husband’s both real and imagined exile, and his search for a house of the past.

And then there’s Looksmart, returning to the place where he grew up, with his vision of the new homes that will populate this valley when Patricia and Richard have finally moved out.

The novel is based on real characters, originally from Kenya, and on a real house that existed. There were boxes in the rooms – as in the novel – and a dog attack that occurred and is echoed in the story.

He explains: “I need to have the roots (of my fiction) in something that is real, and has happened somewhere.”

The magic, of course, happens in the alchemy that occurs when real life is turned into fiction.

“I draw from all sorts of things in my life, often very indirectly,” says Higginson.

The business of writing is one of a slow accretion of successes.

“I make huge advances with every novel. I try to write something fresh every time. I see plays and novels as having very separate story arcs, and there are such different audiences for both.”

For now, Higginson is opening a new play that premiered at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, The Imagined Land, at Sandton’s Theatre on the Square starting on August 17.

He’s also working on a novel set in Paris, and is a few thousand words into a children’s book. But the pull of the past is strong – and he tells me he is going to research the events at Isandlwana. And he’s also thinking of setting a play in the future.

“There are so many ideas competing for attention, but the good ones keep insisting on their place; they don’t go away.”

Arja Salafranca is editor of Life in The Sunday Independent and the author of fiction and poetry. Her latest poetry collection, Beyond Touch, is now published.

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