Magazine article World Literature Today

A Brief Conversation with Richard Mason

Magazine article World Literature Today

A Brief Conversation with Richard Mason

Article excerpt

Richard Mason's first novel, The Drowning People, published when he was twenty-one, sold more than a million copies worldwide and won Italy's Grinzane Cavour Prize for Best First Novel. Born in South Africa in 1978, he is also the author of Natural Elements, which the Washington Post chose as one of the best books of 2009. In 1999 Mason, with Nobel laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu, started the Kay Mason Foundation (www.kaymasonfoundation.org), which helps disadvantaged South Africans access quality education.

WLT: The South African hillside where you sometimes live and farm sounds quite unlike the first-class accommodations Piet Barol pursued in History of a Pleasure Seeker. How did you end up there?

Richard Mason: When Piet Barol reached South Africa, I knew I could not continue his story. I knew what happened to him, but I did not know the people among whom it happened. I wanted to bring the richness of South Africa's Xhosa society to life-with the confidence I had brought to the European characters in History of a Pleasure Seeker. As a white child raised in South Africa under the Apartheid regime, it was impossible for me to render truthfully a story that involved black Africans. There was only one thing to do: leave my comfortable nineteenth-century house in Scotland and go live in the rural Eastern Cape.

WLT: What is a typical day there like for you?

RM: Nowadays, my day at Lulutho begins on a red pullout chair. I wake in a tent with a mud floor and a desk made at Lulutho itself by Lubaballo and Landu, the two young men who trained as carpenters during the project's early phases. In my tent is a piano on a wooden pallet to protect it from dampness, bought for 150 euros and transported on a lorry from Cape Town. It is a wonderful piano, though very out of tune because I have not yet had the energy to entice a tuner all the way from East London, which is the nearest large town. Interestingly, the highest note in one of my favorite Chopin waltzes is still in tune-which makes me feel like the instrument is meant to be here, and forgives my ill treatment of him.

If it's cold, I put on an extra two layers. If it's hot, shorts and boots. (You don't wear flip-flops because of the snakes.) Up to the shoddily built wooden hut that serves as our kitchen, where Sibusiso (one of Cape Town's best chefs, tempted by me to join us on an adventure and give up his Michelin-starred kitchen for a wooden hut) makes breakfast. …

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