Published in Financial Mail 19 January 2017
SA-born author Richard Mason says writing calls for more than disciplined effort.
The novel Who Killed Piet Barol? is a revelation in many senses. Not only is it enlightening in terms of SA history, but it is beguiling in a way that pays tribute to the storytelling finesse of its award-winning author, Richard Mason. This work, his latest in a collection of interrelated stories, inspires me to make more time to read for my own pleasure.
But this is not a book review. It’s an account of an interview I had with the author that, after a solid hour, yielded exactly two words in my notebook: Oscar Wilde.
Neither Mason nor I can recall the reference, and it was written down before I switched on my voice recorder. If you watch Mason recount the background to the book on YouTube you might understand something of his magic.
Despite being a natural storyteller, he says he was surprised that anyone even read his first novel, The Drowning People. Written at the age of 21, it propelled him into the spotlight, a position he doesn’t like much and tries to limit to every five years or so, when he releases a new book.
“[Before] I write a book I think about it for years. At a certain point, I’ll tell someone the whole story and record what I say. In the course of telling it, things happen and explode. It’s like this enormous brain churn — it takes me weeks to listen to the 3½-hour tape because every little bit reveals more detail. It’s like Google Maps: you get [drawn] further and further in.”
Disciplined by nature, Mason says that this quality can get you only so far. “It would be much easier if the harder you try, or the more disciplined you are, the better the book is — but that’s not what it’s like, because it’s a work of art. There’s something serendipitous about it.”
[Before] I write a book, I think about it for years. At a certain point, I’ll tell someone the whole story and record that, and in the course of telling it, things happen and explode.
For The Lighted Rooms, the first in this collection of stories that focuses on SA, Mason decided never to worry about the creative process and just let it happen. “That worked. Liberating yourself from worry is so freeing.
“With History of a Pleasure Seeker, where we first meet Piet Barol as a young man in his 20s in Amsterdam, I decided to try something else. To write only when I felt like it.” He wrote it the fastest of any of the books, by hand, in a specially commissioned leather-bound notebook, because he is very much against using Microsoft Word “as a tool for creative writing”.
Who Killed Piet Barol? was written largely in a woodshed at the edge of the Breede River, at the end of a 45km dirt track, on a “trusty” 1982 Brother Electronic typewriter because Mason wanted the narrative to go quickly.
In the story Barol and singer Stacey Meadows are in colonial Cape Town, short of cash and living a lie. They find a way to inject new life into their furniture business, and Barol sets off with two Xhosa men in search of wood for it. Their stories, set against the backdrop of the Native Land Act of 1913, make for gut-wrenching reading, and they are all real.
“You can’t understand contemporary SA unless you acknowledge some of the big acts of theft that have taken place in the past. It doesn’t mean you’re personally responsible for it, but it also doesn’t mean you bear no responsibility,” says Mason.
Very soon after creating Piet, Mason says, he knew how the character would die. But he felt he couldn’t create the story without the “lived experience” he needed to write about Xhosa characters.
Through the Kay Mason Foundation, which he had established in memory of his sister to educate 75 scholars a year in Cape Town’s best secondary schools, he helped found Project Lulutho, a rural regeneration project at Nqamakwe in the Eastern Cape.
Mason says that, aided by the Hans Hoheisen Charitable Trust’s sponsorship of one of the largest solar-powered water extraction facilities in the country, Lulutho kept hundreds of people and animals, as well as a whole ecosystem, alive during the worst drought in a generation.
“I borrowed a fortune … and rocked up on this devastated hillside with a chef from my favourite restaurant, who cooked for us in a Wendy house with three gas burners and an anthill oven.
“Trailed by a French film crew, I had to jump right into all the issues of the book — a white guy trying to gain control of land in the area, endless government meetings …
“When my life has its tough moments, which it definitely does, I think about the profound effect this book is having on people’s lives and on my life. It was an amazing experience, but also a very challenging one.”