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Twenty-one-year-old Richard Mason reaches far beyond his childhood dreams with an international book deal.

Literary Wunderkind

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Junior League of Richmond's Book and Author Dinner featuring Michael Cottman, Iris Ranier Dart, Thomas Friedman, Richard Mason and Alice McDermott
7 p.m.
Thursday, May 13
Richmond Marriott Hotel

Some kids want to be cowboys. Others, firemen, the president, or a professional athlete.

Richard Mason had a different dream.

"Ever since I was a child, I've always wanted to write, in the way that people want to climb Everest or win an Oscar," Mason says by phone from his parents' home in London. But unlike most would-be cowboys and ballplayers who find happiness in fields different from those they aspire to as children, Mason has achieved his dream of writing for a living.

And it didn't take him very long.

Mason, 21, is the author of "The Drowning People," which made headlines in England last year when Penguin U.K. signed Mason to an $835,000 two-book deal. (The rights were sold to Warner Books in the United States.) The novel, a literary thriller about a 70-year-old man who has just killed his wife, will be officially released in America May 12. Mason recently returned from promoting the book in Europe, where he learned that "The Drowning People" has sold 100,000 copies in the five weeks it has been for sale there.

Mason wrote the original draft of "The Drowning People" while he was living in Prague, working on a different writing assignment, an Eastern Europe travel guide. Mason spent a year there, between high school and university, and got caught up in the romantic city.

He calls Prague, where a large portion of the novel is set, "1930s Paris reinvented for the 1990s." "If you can't write a novel in those conditions, how can you?" he asks.

Mason, who played piano in a jazz bar to help support himself while in Prague, worked feverishly to finish the first draft of his novel before he began school, at New College, Oxford, writing about 5,000 words a day.

Once at Oxford, he began trying to get an agent. He submitted the book to Penguin U.K., who refused him, but politely. "They took me out to lunch to refuse it," he says. Mason says Penguin offered him encouragement and said they would look forward to hearing from him in the future. Soon after the Penguin lunch, Mason managed to get an agent. After he completed a third revision, Penguin signed Mason to his contract. He was just 19.

Mason is affably humble about the deal that gave him tons of money, and the media hype that swirled around him in the wake of it. "It was incredibly exciting," he says. "I hardly sat down for about six months." But he adds that his friends and parents helped him to keep his feet on the ground and not get caught up in the hype. And he had a semester of university to complete.

Mason has used his considerable paychecks to treat those friends to some good times, ("You've got to spread it around as much as you can," he says amiably.) and he's also establishing a scholarship fund for underprivileged children in South Africa, where he was born. His parents, staunch opponents of apartheid, immigrated with him to England when he was 10.

Mason is taking the year off from Oxford, although he plans to complete his degree in English literature. He now lives in Paris, where he's working on his second novel, between whirlwind tours to promote "The Drowning People." He visits Richmond May 13 as part of the Junior League of Richmond's Book and Author Dinner.

For Mason, the life he now leads is a dream come true. "I find myself living in Paris, [with] the freedom to devote myself to writing for the next 20 or 30 years," he says. "I don't need to type in offices to be able to do what I love most."

Read a review of "The Drowning People."

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