Compelling and truthful

2011-06-15 00:00

BACK in 1999 when I first interviewed Richard Mason, I met a golden boy, a publishing phenomenon, who at 21 had received a huge advance for The Drowning People , written in his gap year between Eton and Oxford.

But even then his success had a dark side: the knives were out for someone who seemed to have it all, so easily. In 2008, when Mason did a publicity tour for The Lighted Rooms , I met a man struggling to overcome the demons let out of the darkness by his celebrity status.

He had suffered panic attacks, bipolar disorder and reviews so viciously jealous that he had been on the verge of giving up writing, all he had ever wanted to do.

So, setting off to meet Mason at a launch for History of a Pleasure Seeker , his fifth novel (see review below), I was not sure who I would find. The book is a hit, having gone to number two on Foyle’s list in the United Kingdom within 10 days of publication. Mason’s charm, boyish good looks and air of easy success are all still there: he quickly has the launch audience eating out of his hand.

But I wonder if he is more at ease with himself now as he describes to me the frenetic pace at which he lives his life, the struggle to balance writing, his work for the Kay Mason Foundation (see box), and material success. “It’s a daily challenge to manage that,” he says. “However, I’m calmer in myself as a storyteller, and I’ve been able to keep it all together for 12 years.” But he admits that success means people see him as invulnerable, and he is not. The jealousy he attracts, particularly in the hothouse atmosphere of Britain’s literary world, can hurt. Maybe it is the need not to have too much time to brood that makes slowing down and taking time out not an option.

The last three words on the last page of History are: “To Be Continued”. So, is this going to be a series, a kind of rake’s progress in the mould of George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman?

“I’m making a galaxy of novels, not a series. They can be read in any order, I hope as a compelling and truthful story about the interconnectedness of things. The Lighted Rooms was the first, and now this one.” The two are dissimilar in tone and style, but there are links, and as he writes more, they will become clearer.

Mason doesn’t care for the Flashman comparison. He sees his character Piet Barol as a moral person, unlike Flashman.

Driven to get to the top maybe, but not malicious. “He cares about people,” says Mason, who also cites this as a reason why he is a writer. But, like his author’s, Piet’s charm and success attract resentment. However, readers can rest assured: there will be more about Piet in the next book.

The novel is set in the Edwardian period which Mason sees as having parallels with the present. “We are in a similarly gilded age, affluent people can travel, eat and buy what they like, communicate endlessly — and all the time ignore the dark storm clouds on the horizon. It’s a book that savours the luxury that reached a climax in the early 20th century, and hasn’t been reached again. I wanted that atmosphere in the context of this galaxy of books. It will have a more profound impact the more of them you read.”

Besides the luxury, History of a Pleasure Seeker contains a lot of sex, a notorious minefield for writers, so much so that the British Press has a Bad Sex Award every year for novels. But Mason handles it with a deft touch. “I thought hard about how to do it. What stops it from being pornographic is that it’s in the characters’ heads. And no euphemisms — if the narrator is embarrassed, so will the reader be. I write it truthfully. I spoke to a lot of middle-aged women on the subject, which was intriguing.” It must have been, but no doubt the Mason charm saw him through.

 

The Kay Mason Foundation (KMF)

 

Founded by Richard Mason in memory of his sister who took her own life at the age of 24, KMF aims to provide a good education to previously disadvantaged children in the Western Cape. Since it began in 1999 with four children, 100 students have now gone the whole way through, with a 98% matric pass rate. This year, the foundation is educating 48.

Mason, who was born in this country and was ten years old when he left with his parents (they returned to live here in 1994), still only has a South African passport, although he is currently living in New York. He meets up with the children and their parents several times a year for workshops and raises sponsorship for the KMF, which has now expanded to set up Lulutho in the Eastern Cape, a community project to give people, both youth and adults, skills. The aim there is sustainable development.

To quote Mason: “You have a choice in life — leave behind the people who don’t have a good education and the chances I have had, or you do something about it. I can’t fix the poverty in this country, but maybe one day the KMF will have educated a minister of housing who can.”

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