As I may have mentioned a few times, I’ve become obsessed with the subject of color. A gorgeous, brilliant, fascinating subject.
Although I didn’t know this until my obsession took root, there’s a rich literature on the subject of color. I’m slowly working my way through any book I can find, and one of my favorite color books is one that’s brand new: Kassia St. Clair’s The Secret Lives of Color. In it, Kassia tells the story of seventy-five different colors — and it’s a beautiful book to look at and hold.
I thought it would be fun to interview her here.
Gretchen: What’s a simple habit or activity that consistently makes you happier?
Kassia: Walking my dog in the park every morning. I’m lucky enough to live within ten minutes of two quite large ones, Brockwell and Dulwich Parks in London.
Gretchen: You’ve done fascinating research. What has surprised or intrigued you – or your readers — most?
Kassia: I think the story of mummy brown is one of the most fascinating and repelling. It seems so barbaric that for centuries mummified human remains were being dug up, traded to wealthy Europeans, and then ground down to a powder to be used either as medicine or a dark, bituminous pigment. What makes this story even more surprising is just how recently this was still considered perfectly normal. A paint manufacturer complained to Time magazine in the 1960s that while they “might have a few odd limbs lying about,” they had finally run out of body parts large enough to make pigment from, and couldn’t get any more. In ‘The Secret Lives of Color’, the hero of the piece is the Pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne-Jones, who for a long time was completely unaware that mummy brown was, in fact, made of mummies. He learned the secret at a Sunday lunch one day, and was horrified. He immediate pushed back his chair, ran up to get his mummy brown paint tubes, and insisted on giving them a decent burial in his garden.
Gretchen: Do you have any habits that continually get in the way of your happiness?
Kassia: Hitting the snooze button. I work best in the mornings and revel in the feeling of those productive hours, but sometimes getting out of bed is just too difficult.
Gretchen: Which habits are most important to you? (for health, for creativity, for productivity, for leisure, etc.)
Kassia: Sharing my troubles with my husband and seeking his advice. No matter how large or small the problem, talking it through with him puts things into perspective: issues that had seemed so knotty and forbidding melt away like butter in a pan.
Reading is also hugely important to me and always has been. It’s a problem I’m working on at the moment, actually. I’ve always been a voracious reader, but ever since going freelance, writing full time and reading for work for large portions of each day, I’ve found taking the time to read for pleasure incredibly difficult. What I need to do is carve out a quotidian half hour, perhaps before bed or while eating my lunch, and have a strict friend hold me to account.
Gretchen: Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit—or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?
Kassia: Because of the way the publishing schedule worked when I first got my book deal, I had to write The Secret Lives of Color very quickly, in under six months. I’m pretty good with deadlines, but I was working full time at The Economist during this period, so in order to meet the deadline I was getting up at five in the morning, writing until seven thirty, then having a shower and going to work for a full day before coming home and writing for a few more hours each evening. This certainly wasn’t very healthy: once the book was handed in I vowed to make a lot more time for friends, family and fun. This was, in part, my motivation for going freelance.
Gretchen: Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger?
Kassia: I think I’m an Obliger. Although I’d create my own sub-category (if that’s allowed) and say I’m a cyclical Obliger-Upholder. I find personal goals relatively easy to keep up without external obligations for months at a time, but sooner or later something will give way or the routine will break, and then I’ll find it difficult to get back on track. [Note Kassia’s comment above that she needs “a strict friend to hold me to account” for reading. Yes! Obliger!]
Gretchen: Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits? (e.g. travel, parties)
Kassia: Anything that breaks my routine: holidays, illness, moving house.
Gretchen: Have you ever been hit by a lightning bolt, where you made a major change very suddenly, as a consequence of reading a book, a conversation with a friend, a milestone birthday, a health scare, etc.?
Kassia: Not a permanent change, no.
Gretchen: Is there a particular motto or saying that you’ve found very helpful? (e.g., I remind myself to “Be Gretchen.”) Or a quotation that has struck you as particularly insightful? Or a particular book that has stayed with you?
Kassia: A few years ago, when I was having problems with a boss who seemed to delight in making my life a misery, a very good friend told me that there’s only one rule that everyone in this world should live by. She too was navigating around some tricky personalities in her office, and was by turns furious with them for being so difficult and grimly determined to lead by example. That rule, she said, could be summed up in four words: Don’t be a dick. Her advice has definitely stayed with me!
More on Kassia St. Clair.