Q&A with Daniel Mason: Diagnosis and Distillation

Regan McMahon

After publishing three novels, The Piano Tuner (2002), A Far Country (2005), and The Winter Soldier (2018), Bay Area author Daniel Mason released his first collection of short fiction in May, A Registry of My Passage Upon the Earth (240 pages; Little, Brown). As he does in his longer works, he takes us into the minds and hearts of complex, nuanced characters and places them in intricately described settings, often in the natural word, detailed with the depth and precision of a botanist or anthropologist. He is, in fact, a man of science—by day he’s a clinical assistant professor in the Stanford University Department of Psychiatry. He wrote his first book, The Piano Tuner, while still in medical school at UC San Francisco.

Mason lives in his hometown of Palo Alto with his wife, novelist Sara Houghteling, and their two young boys. His work has been translated into 28 languages. The Piano Tuner was adapted for an opera in 2004, and a film adaptation is in development. Last month he received the 2020 Joyce Carol Oates Prize, which is a $50,000 award from the Simpson Literary Project, a partnership of the English department at UC Berkeley and the Lafayette Library and Learning Center Foundation. We talked to him via email about his work and the Joyce Carol Oates Prize.

ZYZZYVA: You’re known for historical fiction, but I noticed on the Simpson Literary Project website you said, “My writing has increasingly turned towards this current time, and I will use the prize to continue new work set here in California.” Can you tell us some of your California story ideas? 

Daniel Mason: A Registry of My Passage Upon the Earth contains one story—“For the Union Dead”—which is set in California, and it was fascinating to me to look at the place I was born and have lived in for most of my life. Several new stories, and the early stages of a novel are also set here. The natural world—our oceans, our flora, our fires—all play a central role in all of them.

Z: Do you see yourself as a doctor who writes fiction, or a fiction writer who’s a doctor? Are you the same person in both roles? Or is there an intrinsic tension/dialectic at play? What is the difference between diagnosis and character creation? 

DM: This has changed over time—at first, it felt like inhabiting two different people, now I feel more like the same person. There are so many overlaps between the two fields. Diagnosis may ultimately be a process of distillation, but to get there, we need narrative. This may be just a simple story, but it usually is much more complex, taking in account of a patient’s work, family, childhood, fears, wishes. This process feels a lot like storytelling. When I write, I constantly ask whether I am missing something, how I can make a character more real, who else is in their world, what questions would bring them more fully to life.

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Z: Your characters seem especially introspective. Does being a psychiatrist give you a particular empathy and imagination regarding other people’s minds? 

DM: I’m not sure if being a psychiatrist gives me any more empathy than other writers. After all, my favorite writers of the internal world are not psychiatrists, so it means this is hardly a precondition. If there is a connection, I think it is this sense that human beings are mysteries. Since I was young, human beings have always been puzzling to me. If anything, this interest drove me towards both fields…

Z: The stories in your new collection were written over a long period of time. Together, do they represent your personal journey over time, or your growth as a writer? Are there any autobiographical details in the stories? 

DM: There are many autobiographical details—when I went back to look at them, I’m struck by how personal they are. Alfred Russel Wallace’s wonder at the natural world is my wonder (his endurance is more of an aspiration, rather than a reality for me). [The story, about the British naturalist who independently of Darwin conceived of natural selection, is titled “The Ecstasy of Alfred Russel Wallace”]. The worry of the mother in “On Growing Ferns” is my worry for my children in a future of climate change. The balloonist in “On the Cause of Winds and Waves” confronts the boundary of fiction and creation which I find myself living in whenever I write. In “The Line Agent Pascal,” the main character finds connection with others despite extraordinary isolation—I think the core of this comes from wondering about how people forge different lives that still have deep meaning, something I think about often outside of my writing.

Z: You didn’t become a fiction writer or hone your skills by going through an MFA program, as many novelists have. When did you fall in love with words? When did you know you were a writer? 

DM: I would read constantly when I was a child—I can still remember leaning on my bed, knees on the floor, like some kind of archetypal position of bedtime prayer. I also wrote—little stapled books and stories for myself, school contests, etc. And in college I took a writing course with the wonderful Jill McCorkle. But I never really knew what to do with this interest until I started writing The Piano Tuner, very much accidentally, and it occurred to me as I approached the end that it might actually be a book. But even then, the idea of publishing it somewhere seemed inconceivable.

Z: Detailed descriptions of the natural world are a big part of many of your stories and novels. Have you been influenced by any nature writers or travel writers?

DM: Both Tolstoy and Melville are, of course, so much more than nature writers, but if you stripped their books of everything but the natural descriptions, I think you would be left with the most vivid nature writing in literature. I also love older classics of travel—Wallace, Darwin, [Henry Walter] Bates, [Richard] Spruce. Then there are writers who aren’t explicitly nature writers, but who organize their narratives around movement through physical space, like W.G. Sebald. I also read field guides obsessively, a habit that began almost 20 years ago, first with plant guides, then fungi and lichens; now it’s spiders. There is something I love so much about technical description, the drive to create in words something that exists in the world, the way a creature appears in the mind, the vocabulary. There is a thrill of being 44 years old and encountering whole books of English words that I have never used, or even encountered before… chelicerae, pedipalps, spinnerets…

Z: Do you approach writing short fiction any differently than you do a novel? Have you ever written a story and thought it deserved to be expanded to a novel? Or conversely, thought you had a great premise for a novel and then decided you’d tell that story in a more compact way? 

DM: I realize that despite the fact that I’ve been doing this for 20 years, I still don’t know. There is a certain quality to an idea or image which suggests a shorter arc—my novel ideas have tended to appear as much messier worlds. It is harder to articulate more than this, though. None of my novels have come out of short stories, and none of my abandoned novels (and there have been many) became short stories. Many of my stories in this collection were ideas from years ago, that sat there waiting until for some reason, the story itself emerged.

Z: Your stories have so much precise detail, descriptions, and vocabulary—from The Piano Tuner’s description of the mechanics of pianos and malarial hallucinations, to the insect specimens in this collection’s “The Ecstasy of Alfred Russel Wallace.” By the time I got to the final, title story of A Registry of My Passage Upon the Earth, about the real-life schizophrenic artist Arthur Bispo de Rosário, who catalogued and organized every experience and object he had, it hit me that in a way, that’s what you do: give readers all the detail and information about a character and his or her place, and leave it to us to make sense of it. Do you relate to his obsession?

DM: It’s wonderful that you noticed this. I very much relate to him; I feel he articulates something so fundamental about the act of creation itself: the drive to discover and record something, to capture something beautiful or strange about the world, to turn it over in one’s hands and then set out to make something with it, a memento, something that could say, “I experienced this… I was here.”

Z: Lastly, how did you feel when you learned that you’d won the Joyce Carol Oates Prize? How will it affect your life? 

DM: I was both honored and quite surprised. Writing is such a private experience—it is surreal to me to realize that someone has read my writing closely, let alone a jury or a writer like Joyce Carol Oates, whom I have been reading for 30 years. As for how it will affect my life, the honest answer is I don’t know right now. We are in such a tumultuous time—on a practical matter, the pandemic has made something as simple as a research trip very difficult; on a larger scale COVID, and the protests and re-examination of American history sparked by the killing of George Floyd, have all affected how I think about my writing in the world.

Regan McMahon is the Books editor for Common Sense Media and the copy editor for Zyzzyva. She lives in Oakland, California.

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