Success at a price

2008-07-16 00:00

NINE years ago, when I interviewed the 21-year-old Richard Mason on the publication of his first novel, The Drowning People, the headline over the story was “Making waves, not drowning”. It could have hardly been more ironic.

He seemed to have it all — the Hugh Grant looks, easy confidence from his Eton and Oxford education, success with a first novel written in his teens and the backing of a hyperactive publicity team that saw him giving 400 interviews to the print media. But in a piece Mason wrote for the Mail on Sunday in Britain this May to mark the publication of his third novel, The Lighted Rooms, he tells the truth about it all — the panic attacks, his bipolar disorder, the viciously jealous reviews and his thoughts of suicide.

Sitting down to talk to the nine-years-older Mason, I ask about the Mail on Sunday piece. I say it was brave to be so candid. “I hesitated when they asked me for a memoir,” he says. “But I thought, if I’m going to do it, I have to tell the truth. People say it was brave, but the brave thing was to have lived through my 20s — writing about it didn’t take so much courage.”

The whole hype and razmatazz that surrounded The Drowning People was emotionally destructive to Mason. And, because he knew he was fortunate to be getting what all authors dream of, he felt he couldn’t admit to the problems; he simply had to be grateful. The critics didn’t help either. Although The Drowning People had some good reviews, one calling Mason the defining voice of his generation, others were dismissive — and one, unforgiveably, said that the young author should have killed himself as well as so many of his characters. For Mason, whose sister had hanged herself at the age of 24, it was a devastating comment.

“My literary life took off at an early age, but the rest of my life wasn’t in sync. I still had to get a degree and even a driver’s licence. I had always found that self-discipline gets you through, but I realised it doesn’t, not always, not for writing.”

In his mid-20s, Mason began to doubt that he wanted to go on writing, his ambition since childhood. He began to have panic attacks that would leave him unable to get out of his cinema seat, crying in the lift at his publishers or on London buses. Writing his second book was a struggle and the fun he used to get from writing had gone. He began to think seriously about suicide.

“It was a very dark time in my life and suddenly I wasn’t sure if I wanted what I had always wanted. I began to realise I had made an astonishing number of mistakes, even though I tried so hard to do it all right. I spoilt the one free shot everyone has. I don’t want to pretend that I didn’t have any fun, but anxiety took the edge off it. I wanted to recapture the sense of joy in writing I had as a child and a teenager.”

And so Mason took a decision to work on his third book in his own way, forgoing any publisher’s advance, going for a more literary publisher — Weidenfeld & Nicolson in the UK and Knopf in the United States — and staggering the publication — Britain, Italy and the Netherlands in May; South Africa in July; five more countries in September and the U.S. next year. Mason still enjoys the publicity tour angle and likes to meet his readers, but he has learnt that he has to give himself breathing space.

The Lighted Rooms is a well-constructed, ambitious novel set in South Africa and London, ranging across the world of business and finance, the slow slide towards senile dementia by an elderly woman and the horrors of the British concentration camps in the Anglo-Boer war.

Mason’s great-grandmother was a prisoner in one of them. Mason was born in this country and lived here until he was 10 years old. Now his parents, brother and sister have returned to live in South Africa, and he spends a good deal of every year here. “My great-grandmother thought hell was English and Roman Catholic. I had great-grandfathers on both sides in the war and I still only have a South African passport. I get described as if I’m an all-round SuperBrit, but it’s nonsense.” It is another irony around this complex man.

For me, one of the most fascinating things in a very readable novel is the character of Joan, the ageing woman who has to give up her independence and move into a very upmarket old-age home. She is a remarkable and appealing creation from a young man. “I had been planning a novel set entirely in the Anglo-Boer war, but then this old woman came to me and I realised she could imagine the 19th-century part of the story,” says Mason.

Doing his research, he spent a lot of time with elderly people in retirement homes. “I wanted to challenge the notion that old age has to be miserable. In a nursing home in Cape Town, I was with a 90-year-old woman and I told her the plot — she was the first person I had told. I said I thought that losing your mind would be terrifying, but maybe it could also be good fun. She took my hand and said: ‘It is!’ ”

Joan’s daughter Eloise is a high-flyer in the world of finance and she has to face the crisis of her ageing mother, as well as taking a huge gamble with her company’s future, something that gives the novel a lot of narrative suspense. While Joan was the character who appealed to me the most, Mason admits to a particular fondness for Eloise.

“Some of her depression is taken from my own life. There’s a scene where she is walking down the street, wishing she could join the other people having a drink and acting ‘normally’. But she’s in a different place.”

It is a place Mason knows well and which he knows is always waiting for him. He says that being open about the past 10 years has made his publishers very kind. “They structure tours carefully — they tell everyone, ‘Richard has to have a nap every afternoon or he might go crazy’.”

But it is not much of a joke. It is not just the “SuperBrit” label that is wrong. The privileged “golden boy” of 1999 is a man whose success has put him on a perpetual knife edge.

The Kay Mason Foundation

Named after Richard Mason’s sister who took her own life, The Kay Mason Foundation was set up by Mason after the publication of The Drowning People in 1999. He was anxious to see the kind of education that had been reserved for white South Africans extended to all their compatriots.

Using the money he made from his first novel, he started with four disadvantaged children and sent them to two schools. By 2003, when Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu became the foundation’s patron, there were 30 children at nine schools, and now there are 51 children at 14 schools. Mason takes all the policy decisions for the foundation and is in control of the fundraising, but is not as closely involved in the day-to-day running as he was at the outset.

Parents of the children who are part of the project pay what they can afford and the foundation makes up the difference, and provides counselling, extra lessons, uniforms, pocket money and help with transport — they now own their own minibus. All but one of the KMF pupils have graduated from high school and gone on to university.

• For more information, visit www.kaymasonfoundtion.org

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