Interview: Chris Higgins
Tuesday, 15 March 2011
I first found Chris on Mental Floss when I stumbled across an article he’d written there. After reading one, I proceeded to read the entirety of his articles he’d posted in recent months; I found them funny, quirky, but also intensely intelligent.
Though he writes frequently for Mental Floss and maintains his own website, Chris is also a past contributor to This American Life, NPR’s immensely acclaimed radio series. His story, I’ve Fallen in Love and Can’t Get Up relates the emotional, evocative tale of a man afflicted by cataplexy.
I recently conducted an e-mail interview with Chris about his art, writing, and life; his answers give important, concrete insights. In all respects, an artist born of our times.
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What have you been working on recently? How do you engage art on a daily/regular basis?
I’ve been working on a nonfiction piece (probably for radio, though maybe a long-form article) about my friend Matthew. About ten years ago, Matthew’s girlfriend painted a spot of white on their living room floor, as a test patch.
The relationship did not last, partly due to a disagreement over whether white would be a suitable floor coloring.
Every time Matthew saw the spot it reminded him of his failed relationship. He enlisted the help of some artist friends to help him change the spot, to make it so that it was something he could celebrate.
After much effort, invention, sculpture, re-painting, and the creation of a fictional nation (the spot on the floor being the entry point into this fictional alternate universe), it worked.
The spot was no longer a point of pain, but a collaboration between Matthew and his friends on a project. The pain point was gone, and not just covered over — it was transformed, joyfully.
Some years passed.
Then Matthew started getting FedEx packages from abroad containing (real) passport applications for the (fictional) nation.
It turns out the arts group had made complex, jokey passport forms and put them online, with Matthew’s address as the immigration office and his name as its head.
Matthew tried to ask his artist friends for help contacting these people, to tell them that it wasn’t real. No one seemed interested.
As the packages kept coming (including entire families, desperate to escape their countries), Matthew became really worried. What was his responsibility to these people? How could he tell them that they were applying for passports to a nation that existed only as an art project? Would they be angry?
What happens next is where it gets crazy. You’ll have to tune in later to find out how it turns out.
So. How do I engage art and writing on a daily basis? I write a daily blog for mentalfloss.com. This is how I’m “forced” to write. If I don’t write, I don’t get paid, and I’m paranoid about not getting paid. (Growing up broke will have that effect on you.)
I think it’s crucial to have someone expecting me to write every day — I’m very glad to have that, because it gives me a daily writing practice. I’ve been up to it for something like four years now. Without that gig, I would not be the writer I am today. I am no longer afraid to sit down and just write some stuff. It’s my job.
I also have a day job (involving mobile phones and computers) that entails only working three days a week. This means I have two full weekdays, plus weekends, to work on larger writing projects. And sometimes that “work” on creative projects involves weeding the yard, zoning out, taking a walk, and so on.
The writing is just the last thing that happens, after I’ve done the thinking and feeling. (For me, if I think while writing, I generally have to ditch whatever I wrote, at the end, and start over — because it’s changed. That’s one way to do it.)
I also take a lot of photographs, watch a fair number of movies (mainly documentaries), and spend a lot of time listening to music. I listen to a hell of a lot of NPR, which is mostly not art, but it is the background sound of my life. It gives me comfort when I’m alone, which is most of the time.
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Do you think art, in this age of hyper-attention, flux and speed is still relevant? Or does art have to be practical and pragmatic to solicit interest?
I actually disagree that this age is that different from any other in recent history. I think every decade or so since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, we’ve collectively freaked out and said, “Things are So Different now that we have the [newspaper, steam engine, automobile, radio, cheap air travel, mass production, television, motion picture, computer] that surely we must have changed as people! My grandparents wouldn’t recognize my daily life!”
Sure, we have a lot of computers these days, in our pockets and stuff, and just like it always has, art has adapted. We change, our art changes. Art will not cease to be relevant, but its expression will change to the point that the old guard will be endlessly frustrated by its apparent dumbening. This is just how it works.
Hell, I already don’t understand what Kids These Days listen to. It’s that quick. (I’m 32.) But to me, the fact that they’re listening to something means that art still exists and has an audience.
I don’t have to personally appreciate the art in order to have confidence that it’s real.
To answer your question regarding art and pragmatism, I’m a strong pragmatist. I don’t create art so I can admire it by myself or achieve an ideal of perfection.
It is my goal to communicate a narrative to a large number of people, to affect those people at an emotional level, and to get paid for doing so (such that I can continue to do meaningful work).
I have lots of friends who do great work that is more internal, less pragmatic, and less commercially viable — and that’s genuinely great. I just don’t know any of them who make a living doing it.
Does the digital medium offer any new, legitimate possibilities for art?
Yes, though I, being an Old Man, tend to look at how digital media enables existing art forms. It’s easier to take photographs now, it’s easier to “publish” now (or at least disseminate your work), it’s easier to record music, it’s easier to write a daily column and have zillions of people read it (or just have your friends read it).
All of these things — pictures, music, words — are existing forms that new technology makes easier. The artist still has a role, it’s just that the tools are becoming cheaper and more pervasive.
I’m encouraged to see that now, almost everyone has a relatively decent camera in his or her pocket, as part of a cell phone. Most of those phones are also audio recorders AND audio players.
When I was in high school, I carried around a 35mm camera and a Walkman with a mic, along with rolls of film, batteries, a notebook, a pen and pencil, and tapes.
I wore a photographer’s vest every day for four years, because I needed all those pockets for all that crap. Now I just carry a phone in my pocket.
When I was in high school, I put out two albums on tape. I had to buy a four-track cassette recorder, beg/borrow/steal microphones, record songs, master them to another cassette or DAT deck, send the master to a duplication house (along with a hefty amount of money), and get back a bunch of cassettes in a huge box.
I had to have “J-cards” (those printed inserts in cassette cases) printed by a friend, and I hand-inserted them into clear cases, along with the cassettes. Then I had them all shrink-wrapped by another friend.
It was very expensive and laborious. Kids These Days have computers that can help them do a lot of this stuff, without all the manual labor. And they’re doing it.
As for new possibilities for art, yes, I suppose so. Interactive fiction (see Jason Scott’s documentary “Get Lamp”) is a legitimate new form. To be honest, I care less about new forms than I do about the ease with which existing forms can be created and distributed.
I’m not going to answer this question directly.
I have a degree in Library Science. I love books. Let me say this again: I LOVE BOOKS. I have a lot of books. I have a lot of CDs. I have a lot of LPs. I have a lot of prints and paintings hanging on my walls.
I love real stuff. I also love computers, and have a lot of them, with absurdly large displays and absurdly small displays. They’re all together.
I make a living writing for websites, for print, for the radio, and so on. I sell photographs that are used on physical and virtual products (apparently one of my photos is now on the cover of a fairly successful book about crackpot 2012 theories — and I sold the license to that photo for a decent price).
I’m starting to give talks now, which is a new thing. In all of my work, there are tons of boundaries being crossed, and it’s fine.
For example, I did a radio piece for This American Life. You can stream it from the $2.99 iPhone app, or for free from their website. I think that’s the best thing ever.
My office (a converted bedroom in my house) smells like books, because it’s crammed floor-to-ceiling with them. I have two shelves, containing every book Nevil Shute ever wrote (same with Neal Stephenson, and some others).
I also have a nice chair I sit in when I read books. Sometimes I read them on paper, sometimes on an iPad or a laptop. I listen to a lot of audiobooks, particularly when I’m driving. These are all wonderful things.
As my high school Chemistry teacher used to say: “Not just no, but HELL NO.”
Art is anything that touches its audience. I don’t care who makes it or how it gets made. If someone wants to build an ivory tower and preserve “real” art inside it, great, good luck with that. Hopefully they’ll let me hang out in that sweet tower sometime.
Remember that all artists, real or otherwise, were once children with simple tools. For me those tools were pencils and paper (including carbon paper, a technology that is almost certainly unknown to Kids These Days), musical instruments, crayons, and Legos.
For children today the tools also include computers. The availability of better tools does not threaten art. The availability of lots of crappy art does not threaten art, either: it threatens artists who are scared of losing their status. And if you spend a significant amount of effort worrying about losing status, you’re done.
For me, art is anything that creates an emotional effect in the viewer/listener/participant/whatever and that is at least partially created with intent to create an emotional effect.
Art can be a joke, a painting, a book, a poem, a song, a weird noise, and so on.
The effect it creates does not have to be purely predictable or intentional — but as long as there’s an effect, is passes my test.
I can’t tell you the number of things I’ve created with the intent to make the reader sad, only to find out that people appreciate the jokes (or vice versa). I’ve also written plenty of stuff that probably hasn’t affected anybody.
So, the wind blowing through the trees would not count as art (under my definition) because it was not created with the intent of having an emotional effect.
But any representation of wind blowing through trees created by, recorded by, or otherwise instigated by a person with intent — sure, I’ll buy that.
Filmmakers - Werner Herzog, Errol Morris, Godfrey Reggio.
Music – Philip Glass, Leslie Feist, Kathleen Edwards, Girl Talk (Greg Gillis), Bob Dylan, Frank Black.
Writers – Nevil Shute, Kurt Vonnegut, Peter Hedges, Nick Hornby, Amy Hempel, John Hodgman.
Painters – Kelli Rule, Mark Rothko, Patrick Nagel, Zak Margolis.
Architects – I have no knowledge of architecture. I did break into Fallingwater one time and wandered the grounds. (Seriously. You just drive in via the “out” road on days it’s closed.)
Philosophers – I have no knowledge of philosophers in a formal sense, but I’ll say that The Catcher in the Rye, Galapagos, Breakfast of Champions, Demian, and Siddhartha were extremely important books to me in high school.
The most important philosopher of my time was Kurt Vonnegut. I got to meet him once (in 1998-ish, at Florida State), and I asked him whether, if he were starting his career in the modern era, he’d choose a medium other than books — like movies (I asked this because I thought I’d make my living writing screenplays).
He didn’t seem to understand or particularly care about the question, and dismissed it. He later told me he was just pissed off that he couldn’t smoke on stage. So it goes.