Richard Mason Discusses his Newest Novel and his Charity Work
Richard Mason was born in South Africa in 1978 and lives in New York City. His first novel, The Drowning People, published when he was 21 and still a student at Oxford, sold more than a million copies worldwide and won Italy’s Grinzane Cavour Prize for Best First Novel. He is also the author of Natural Elements, which was chosen by the Washington Post as one of the best books of 2009 and longlisted for the IMPAC Prize and the Sunday Times Literary Award.
In 1999, with Nobel Laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Mason started the Kay Mason Foundation, which helps disadvantaged South Africans access quality education. He is the recipient of the Inyathelo Award for Philanthropy. Here, I talk with Richard Mason, who discusses his newest and fourth novel, History of a Pleasure Seeker and more.
Tell me about your company Orson and Company?
Benjamin Morse and I founded Orson and Company to create the eLuminated app, or eLume, of History of a Pleasure Seeker. We were tired of digital books full of distracting gimmicks and animations, and also of ebooks that all look alike. We wanted to create a reading experience that honors the traditions of the real book while celebrating the possibilities of a touchscreen device. The interface Benjamin designed took two years to code, and was inspired by an illuminated manuscript. We created an entire production of the book – Dan Stevens, who plays Matthew in Downton Abbey, reads it to you; all the music is originally recorded; you can look into the world, learn about the history or ask the author questions. Something we did struck a chord with other writers and readers.
Well, we’re being approached daily to make eLumes of other wonderful books. Our first collection, which is going into production now, includes work by an award-winning historian, a New York Times bestselling novelist, and a huge children’s writer.
History of A Pleasure Seeker is a wonderful book. What inspired you to write it?
I wanted to write an adventure story for grownups – a book that would whisk its readers away into the Gilded Age, move them and amuse them and leave them unwilling to put it down. I love it when books do that to me. I’m fascinated by the impact an outsider can make on a tight-knight group. In this case, a dashing young man learns the secrets of Amsterdam’s most glittering family, and changes it forever. In the end, it’s a story about the many different kinds of love.
You have recently released it as the unique and groundbreaking e-lumination. Tell me how that works?
You can try it for yourself! Click here. There’s also a free sample. You can choose to read the eLume, if you wish. Or have it read to you. You can also hear the music in the novel, glimpse into Amsterdam and New York in the early 20th century, learn about the period, and ask me questions. We’re using technology to deepen the imaginative experience, not distract from it.
Do you think it is rather amazing that the book started out being totally handwritten by you in a beautiful leatherbound book and transported itself by you into this latest form?
I wrote History of a Pleasure Seeker by hand because I wanted it to be concise and quick. Microsoft Word encourages wordiness – because it’s too easy to make words, and endlessly change them. The story is set at the height of the Gilded Age, at a time when the styles of the past were being reinvented by modern technology. You had rooms that looked like the ballrooms of an 18th century palace, but were actually shooting across the waves at 24 knots on a glamorous ocean liner. There’s something fitting about the fact that the novel began in the most old-fashioned way possible, and is now (as well as being a hardcover, paperbook and conventional ebook) an eLuminated manuscript that looks like something from the past but is actually made possible by technological marvels like the iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch.
You are truly a renaissance man. You play piano within your e-lumination. Who is your favorite composer and why?
I am a passionate fan of Chopin. Some of the happiest days of my life have been spent at the piano, trying to work out how to play the astonishing music he wrote. Much of it is too hard for me, but the journey is what’s magical. I love music’s capacity to move us, and the books I write are full of music. In the eLume editions, you can tap the screen during a particular scene and hear the music that the characters are playing, singing, or listening to. It makes for a very rich experience. And it also means I get to collaborate with incredible musicians like Spencer Myer and Alex Richardson.
You write about the very elite yet you help the very poor. Tell me about your charity?
I’m from South Africa, a country where too many children are prevented by poverty and poor living conditions from receiving the educations they deserve. I founded the Kay Mason Foundation in 1999, with the proceeds of my first novel, The Drowning People (which will be released as an eLume next year). I began by sending four great kids to high school, and named the charity in memory of my sister Kay, who committed suicide when I was a child. It’s amazing how healing and joyful that gift has been. Over 150 exceptional young people have now gone to high school, and begun to unlock their potential. There are now students studying business, medicine, environmental sciences, journalism, law, and a host of subjects at universities who would never have gone were it not for the KMF. My readers’ generosity makes miracles possible. You can learn more at www.kaymasonfoundation.org.
In 2010, while researching a future book, I founded a green business school in the Eastern Cape: www.lulutho.org. In partnership with a local community, we took 32 hectares of devastated hillside, built a campus for adult learning, eco-friendly accommodations, a nursery, a classroom, and began the planting of a 1000 tree forest.
What is next for you?
A BIG REST. 2012 has been a very demanding year, and 2013 is full of adventures – a new novel, the script of the TV adaptation of History of a Pleasure Seeker, and the prospect of collaborating with some truly great writers, musicians, photographers, videographers and coders on Orson & Co’s first collection of eLumes. I sometimes think I don’t get enough time by myself, writing. And occasionally my body tells me to stop – I got a tropical virus last summer that paralysed the left half of my face and literally forced me to spend hours sleeping each day. But I feel we’re discovering a new kind of storytelling at Orson, one that’s ideally suited to the kinds of stories I want to tell. The response of readers to the eLume, and to History of a Pleasure Seeker in general, makes everything worthwhile.