A Q&A with Daniel Mason: Combining psychiatry and writing
Stanford Medicine Psychiatrist Daniel Mason, MD, recently won the California Book Awards Jury for Best Fiction for his latest book, “A Registry of My Passage Upon the Earth.” Previous winners include such luminaries as John Steinbeck, Wallace Stegner and Joan Didion.
The collection of nine short stories, filled with lush landscapes set long ago, explore themes such as the need for connection with each other and with the natural world. He was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize for fiction this year.
Mason’s career as an author began two decades ago when, while studying medicine, he wrote his first novel, the international bestseller, “The Piano Tuner”. He has since successfully combined a dual career as a novelist and assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences who research, teach and treat patients.
Mason also recently received the Guggenheim Fellowship and is on sabbatical to work on his next novel.
I asked him how his two passions – medicine and writing – coexist and what inspires his writing. This Q&A is condensed and edited for clarity.
You wrote ‘The Piano Tuner’ while studying medicine. Did you want to be both a writer and a doctor?
I never really felt like I had a plan. I had not imagined that it could be published and I really started it primarily as a way to explore ideas and images that I had encountered during a year of malaria research in Southeast Asia. South East. But it turned out that writing was a wonderful way to think about what I saw in medicine (as it always is). It helped me explore issues of disease, meaning, connections between people.
How has your career in psychiatry influenced your writing?
Over time, the two careers have interacted in unexpected ways. I often find that fiction informs my medicine as much as the reverse. Whether it’s thinking about patients’ stories in terms of narrative structures, or trying to be more attentive to a person’s material world or to step into a character’s inner world, these are all essential elements of fiction which also constitute a large part of a clinical encounter.
Your news suggests that you are an explorer at heart. Can you tell us about some of your trips – and how they helped shape your writing?
I started the first story in “Register of my time on Earth” in 2003, at a time when I traveled a lot. It was mostly in Brazil, where I was working on a novel. But I ended up being wonderfully distracted in the Amazon, a trip that remains one of the most amazing experiences of my life.
I haven’t left the United States for over a decade now. Much of my “trip” has been imaginary. For example, I never had the chance to go to the mountains of Eastern Europe where my latest novel, “The Winter Soldier” takes place.
But even when I write about a faraway place, I usually draw inspiration from my own world. This is especially true for “Registry,” which deals with very Californian concerns – from the effects of environmental degradation to the isolation brought about by technology.
I read that you respect ancient literature. Could you clarify this?
As with travel, I have always found that history offers ways to explore the diversity of experiences and make sense of where I am. But I am drawn to unusual language and narrative forms, especially non-fictional texts like medical journals or older travel accounts.
For example, in the short story “Death of the pugilist”, I was captivated by the energy and the rhythm of the beginning of the 19e Boxing tales of the century, which use a vocabulary that is both familiar and utterly strange. I was excited in the same way a musician would be excited to discover a new instrument – you want to play it and see what sounds it can make.
But I’ve come to wonder if this interest is also a way to explore my English, seeking its precedents and thus serving as a personal archeology of the language that shapes my world and my thoughts.
Astonishment for the natural world blooms on so many pages of this book. What role does the environment play in your writing?
I have always been deeply drawn to the natural world. I grew up in California and spend a lot of time outdoors. But something happened in my late twenties, especially on that trip to the Amazon, and suddenly the majesty of the natural world became apparent in an almost ecstatic way. That sense of awe only grew, and many of the stories in the book were ways to explore people who find themselves in awe of the beauty and wonders of the natural world.
This book is published by Little, Brown and Company.
Photo by Dariusz Sankowski