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He's Got the Book--and the Look

July 13, 1999|PAMELA WARRICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It is true what they say. You can hardly take your eyes off him. The wavy dark hair, slightly tousled and falling just so, across the high, smooth aristocratic forehead. The lush black eyelashes. The whiter-than-white teeth, perfectly aligned behind the slightly self-conscious smile.

Even next to Hugh Grant--the movie star to whom he is endlessly compared--Richard Mason is, as the publicist for his book promised he would be, "utterly adorable."

Which brings us to the book and to the unavoidable question: Would Richard Mason, a 21-year-old Oxford lit student who has set the international publishing world on fire, be as hot as he is today if he weren't so darned cute?

This is no idle query. Entire reviews of Mason's debut novel--"The Drowning People" (Warner Books, 1999)--have been built around the extraordinarily pleasing physical attributes of its author. Mason's youth (he was 18 when he wrote the book and 20 when he got it published), his accent (British but not snooty), and his innocence ("I fear I'll wake up and find I'm 14 and have a French test in the morning!") all have combined to create an undeniably appealing package.

But is it worth $1 million? The photogenic Mason is the first to ask. Ensconced recently at his publisher's expense in the extravagant Four Seasons Hotel to greet the media and sign copies of his romantic thriller, the young author is flattered but still amazed by what he calls "this whole bizarre journey."

The youngest son of a human rights activist and a real estate developer, Richard was born in Johannesburg, South Africa. The family, weary of battling apartheid, moved to England when Richard was 10. By then, the precocious boy with the dreamy brown eyes had already penned a number of short stories.

"My family has always been very articulate about how we feel," Mason says, "and I was encouraged to put my emotions into words early on." "The Drowning People," which he wrote during the interlude between his studies at Eton and Oxford, is told from the perspective of a 70-year-old man who has just murdered his wife. Quite a reach for Mason, both chronologically and emotionally.

But the psychodrama about murder and revenge among the emotionally repressed English upper class has already hit the bestseller list in the Times of London, and sold foreign rights in 21 countries. In the United States, bidding for the book turned into the media event of the season with Warner Books acquiring the novel in a two-book deal for more than $800,000.

"My [British] agent was having a drinks party for me and my parents--it was evening in London, lunchtime in New York--and my agent kept returning to the table as the bidding escalated [for U.S. rights]," Mason says. "When he said bidding had hit half a million, the whole restaurant stood up and clapped--which is very un-English."

Over the last several weeks, as Mason's book tour has taken him from the East Coast to the West and back again, he has learned a few un-English tricks of his own to win over the American glitterati.

Beginning with a pub party in May at the New Yorker where he wore a white V-neck T-shirt with a London-tailored black velvet suit, Mason wasted no time making an impression.

"I can't believe I'm here!" he exclaimed to a style reporter for the New York Times. The reporter christened Mason "lit-world it-boy."

He posed for Vogue magazine's "People Are Talking About" page, lounging on the deck of a pool. Vogue recommended Mason's book to readers as "glamorous, ghostly and decadent in the tradition of Daphne Du Maurier's 'Rebecca.' "

Asked over a Beverly Hills lunch about that comparison and another that likened his style to that of the 19th century British heavyweight Henry James, Mason mumbles something about being "hugely flattered" and waves off any suggestion that he believed a bit of his own publicity.

"I've had a number of big breaks in my literary life, and the first was being born in a country that speaks English. Did you know that English has 6,000 adjectives? . . . And if you find the right one, you know that sentence you're constructing is going to work."

His other big break, says Mason, was a post-Eton visit to Prague, a city that in the '90s feels very much like Paris in the 19th century. "I had no money so I got a job playing piano at a jazz bar and I wrote."

When he finishes the book tour Mason will go "home" to his rented flat in 20th century Paris. "It's on the seventh floor, and there is no lift [elevator] and I love to go there to be alone and to work," he says.

Work on the next novel, perhaps? "Oh, yes, it's rather well along--77,428 words, to be exact," he says. And then? "And then I'll go back to Oxford."

Oh, right. He's still in school. But exquisitely turned out in his black silk sweater and ivory gabardine slacks, Mason could be any handsome young celebrity taking in the sun from his chaise lounge at the Four Seasons pool.

Even Hugh Grant.

Pamela Warrick can be reached by e-mail at pamela.warrick@latimes.com.

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