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Daniel Mason: ‘The more time I spend in the woods, the more in awe I am at the richness of the natural world’

Mason discusses his new novel North Woods, his love of the natural world and being a practising physician

North Woods is your fourth novel after the acclaimed The Piano Tuner, A Far Country and The Winter Soldier. How has your writing developed in theme and style?

It’s hard to know since each book is such a different project. But overall, I think I have become increasingly interested in the internal world of my characters. And I have felt freer to experiment with different forms.

Your previous work, A Registry of My Passage Upon the Earth, was a collection of historical stories. The stories of the various occupants of a house (human and otherwise) in New England over time gives your new novel North Woods its structure. What is the appeal of historical fiction?

I love the opportunities for exploration offered by history, the chance to explore my own world through a different lens.

What inspired North Woods and what were the challenges and surprises as it evolved?

I spent part of the pandemic in New England, and became fascinated with how the past could be read both in the forest and in old homes. It made me think how little I knew of the places that I had lived in over time.

There were lots of challenges – particularly in trying to construct a narrative that flows through many characters rather than a single protagonist. And the biggest surprises were how many of these characters continued to haunt the story (literally and figuratively) long after they were gone.

Why did you choose the epigraph from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s American Notebooks (“…to build a fire on Ararat with the remnants of the ark”)?

Hawthorne’s quote struck me as a powerful commentary on how meaning can be lost to time. Even something as extraordinary as the ark becomes but firewood in the end.

You live in northern California but wrote this on a year’s fellowship in New England. Did this help ground your work?

Very much so. I just had to walk outside to see the world I was writing about.

Your last novel took 14 years to write. This you wrote roughly one chapter a month, set in that time of the year. Did that discipline help?

Yes! It felt like there was something external to me that was setting the pace. The woods made a lovely assistant!

The timescale here is the life not of a person but of a tree or a forest. What was your purpose?

The more time I spend in the woods, the more in awe I am at the richness of the natural world. I had written about people in nature before, and yet we are surrounded by other non-human beings whose lives contain narratives so different from our own.

Did you enjoy the ventriloquism of writing in various period styles?

Very much – so much of the richness of our language lies in its history – language is a bit like the woods, with remnants of the past (timbers of that ark). And there was the sheer fun of trying out “different Englishes” – like different instruments, strange but also familiar.

North Woods was influenced by Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse but also science fiction classics, Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles and Foundation by Isaac Asimov. How so?

Each book operates on a longer timescale, and thus has to balance the meaningfulness of an individual life against a big picture in which we are insignificant. To paraphrase Woolf, every little rock will outlast Shakespeare.

As well as being an author, you are an assistant professor in psychiatry at Stanford University and a practising physician. Does this feed into your writing and vice versa?

Some aspects are similar. I do feel my writing helps my medicine more than vice versa. Broadly speaking, medicine tries to understand and explain, while I feel the best fiction maintains a sense of mystery about a character’s internal world.

What of the practice of turning patients into material?

I don’t use my patients for material; I just published a short story (in The Paris Review) about the damage that can be caused by a physician writing about his patients.

Is reading therapeutic?

It is for me!

Which projects are you working on?

Not sure yet. I have a bit of writer’s block.

Have you ever made a literary pilgrimage?

Many. For this book, the best was eating apples from a tree they say was planted by Melville.

What is the best writing advice you have heard?

Nora Roberts: “Ass in the chair.”

Who do you admire the most?

There are so many people. Right now, I admire environmental activists who are persisting in the face of constant setbacks and bad news.

You are supreme ruler for a day. Which law do you pass or abolish?

Laws to stem environmental loss, though I would need to consult people more knowledgeable than I to decide which one.

Which current book, film and podcast would you recommend?

Book: And I am not just choosing this because this is an interview with The Irish Times – I thought Kevin Barry’s Night Boat to Tangier was extraordinary.

Film: I just attended a Cat Video Fest with my kids. I would highly recommend this just to listen to a room of a thousand little people laughing for an hour.

Podcast: I’m a big BBC In Our Time fan.

The most remarkable place you have visited?

In my 20s I spent a month in the Amazon – there probably hasn’t been a day since that I haven’t thought of the forests there.

Which writers, living or dead, would you invite to your dream dinner party?

I am assuming the dead authors would be freshened up a bit first? If so, then for the sheer amazement (and the autographs): Homer, Shakespeare, the Yahwist(s)? And a very good translator.

What is your favourite quotation?

When I was nine, I got a fortune cookie with a quote (unattributed, but it’s from Oscar Wilde) – “Discontent is the first step in the progress of a man or a nation.” It was pretty heady note for a nine-year-old’s fortune cookie.

Who is your favourite fictional character?

The Good Soldier Svejk, Omar Little (from The Wire), Leopold Bloom.

A book to make me laugh?

Gargantua and Pantagruel (I’m serious; it’s really funny).

A book that might move me to tears?

Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree (I’m also serious).

North Woods is published by Granta