Daniel Mason graduated from Harvard College with a degree in biology. The following year he spent researching malaria on the Thai-Myanmar border, and upon his return to the United States he began medical school at the University of California at San Francisco. He has also written his first novel, The Piano Tuner. The story is about a 19th century Englishman, a piano tuner, who journeys to the jungles of Burma to tune a rare grand piano for a British army surgeon major. Mason is continuing his medical studies and working on his second novel.
Robert Birnbaum: One review I read commented on The Piano Tuner being a wonderful 19th century novel. I started to think about what that meant and that led me to wonder what possessed you to spend a year in what seems to be a primitive place, the jungle of Myanmar?
Daniel Mason: I went there for malaria research. I studied malaria while I was here [Boston/Harvard] as an undergraduate and shortly before I graduated there were field reports of a phenomenon that we were studying here—very theoretically, because we don't have any cases—appearing along the southern Thai-Burmese border. And so I decided to spend my year before I went to medical school studying there. I spent most of the time in Bangkok, about 2/3 of the time in a lab preparing the project and about 1/3 of the time in the field, when it was mosquito season and malaria is being transmitted.
RB: Where did you grow up?
DM: Palo Alto, California.
RB: Before your coming to Harvard as an undergraduate, what travels had you made to places that you were unfamiliar with?
DM: A couple. Not many. A family trip to Europe, and in the summer we used to drive around the US in a van. My time in Thailand was my first real trip away to a place significantly different—I also dreamed of being an archaeologist. I actually started out studying archaeology in school—I spent one summer in Mayan ruins in Honduras. That actually got me interested in infectious disease.
RB: Let me get this right. You went from an interest in archaeology to infectious disease?
DM: Right, right.
RB: I see the connection.
DM: We spent half of our time talking about it while we where there. We were all afraid of getting it. You'd hear all the archaeologists talking about getting sick and delirious.
RB: Sometimes that's a good thing. Anyway, so you are in SE Asia on a prolonged trip from your home and what Americans call civilization. Was it a voyage away from civilization? Did you feel deprived when you where in Bangkok?
DM: It was a shift in civilization more than anything else. That's probably what struck me most about the experience. It wasn't my first trip away, but it was my first trip to a place that didn't share a common European history. That was pretty striking.
RB: Bangkok is, I'm sure, modern in many ways. But then you went out into the bush. What was the four months there like?
DM: Bangkok's very modern, but in a way it's extremely Thai and very traditional. The temples within the giant city and the way people behaved toward each other, I think, still feels very traditional, despite the veneer of western-ness to it.
RB: How do they behave toward each other?
DM: Extremely polite and patient. It's a very different way. So I'd spend most of my time in Bangkok and then much of the rest of the time in the jungle. For malaria research, one of the things you obviously worry about is getting malaria. You are looking for it and, of course, you go to places where it is and so there is the risk that you will get it. The malaria parasite in that part of the world is probably the most drug-resistant parasite in the world.
RB: So how do you protect yourself?
DM: You can't. That's the danger. In most places in the world you used to be able to protect yourself by taking chloroquine, a classic drug, that soldiers would carry into battle. Then drug resistance to it came up so they started using Mefloquine or Lariam. It's more famous here for giving people bad dreams when they are in foreign countries. You hear that a lot, "I don't want to take." Of course, no one wants malaria either. That would be the standard prophylaxis. We didn't take that because the parasite there is resistant—it's a huge problem. You can take prophylactic doxycycline but there are reasons not to, other infections, sensitivity to the sun, which is a bad thing in a tropical country. The best way to avoid malaria is to stay away from biting mosquitoes. The malaria mosquito needs clean water and it only bites at night. As long as you stay out of the jungle at night you are safe.
RB: What's the fun of that?
DM: Yeah, right. (both laugh) Once it's fun, many times you are happy to be back in the city.
RB: How big a problem is malaria?
DM: A gigantic problem. Depending on what numbers you use, 1 to 3 million people die of malaria.
RB: Die of malaria?
DM: And 200-300 to 500 million get cases of it.
RB: Why no big fund-raising initiatives or benefits to eradicate malaria? No American Malaria Association or $500 a plate dinners at the Four Seasons Hotel?
DM: That's what happens when you have a disease that affects poor people.
RB: That reminds me of Nick Tosches, who has diabetes, writing in In the Hand of Dante that diseases are matters of fashion. While diabetes kills more people than breast cancer and AIDS, more research money goes to the latter two.
DM: Yeah, it doesn't have political lobbying behind it, neither does malaria. There was recently a big advance in malaria. They decoded the genome of the parasite. All the malarialogists say this is great, and yet we don't have the money to spray fields and houses. So the high-tech end is progressing much faster than the very basic tried-and-true methods of controlling the disease.
RB: My purpose in following this digression was to talk about what the notion of a 19th century story is, which I take in part to be about adventure and exploration and though you could have written something—like The Beach [Alex Garland]. It doesn't seem unlikely that you would have come up with this story of an English piano tuner traveling to Burma in the late 19th century. What do you think?
DM: Absolutely agree.
DM: I am asked that often. I'll be asked—First, they'll say, "This doesn't sound like the story of you living in America." And it's not. It's biographical not in the direct sense of the word but psychologically, the changes the character undergoes are very much similar to the changes I underwent. Edgar Drake's inability to return home was similar to mine—early on I think it's clear he is, psychologically, going to have a difficult time returning home. I started writing the book when I came back because I felt the absence of that experience.
RB: In my reading of The Piano Tuner, I felt early on that Drake would have difficulty coming back.
DM: I think it's preordained in away. Whenever I talk about it I wonder at what point is it okay to give away the plot. In general, there is a sense, even from his wife that when he comes back he is going to be different. That's why it is so difficult for her to let him go and at the same time she feels he needs to go. He hears all these stories which later are eerily similar to his own experience: which are all stories of people unable to return home. There are a couple of times where I drop rather blatant hints that he may disappear but there are still many possibilities.
RB: I started thinking of Amitav Ghosh's wonderful novel, The Glass Palace and some of the stories in Andrea Barrett's riveting The Servants of the Map. It seems that not much fiction has been devoted to the history of the Asian subcontinent and South East Asia.
DM: Ghosh's book is wonderful and it begins in 1885 and takes off from there and is a sweeping history of the area. It talks about something that I had never seen in literature before. I looked everywhere for sources maybe in memoirs and but not in fiction. The have been some other wonderful books published recently. I was incredibly surprised to find a book written by Andrew Marshall called The Trouser People, a non-fiction account of a British administrator in the Shan [in Burma] states, named James George Scott. I had relied upon Scott as my primary source of information for my book. He was an incredible polymath who knew everything from flowers and history. It was amazing to read these giant compendiums. He wrote about everything. He has been ignored for a hundred years. It's impossible to find his biography in this country. I found a photocopy in Rangoon. All of a sudden in the same year my book comes out, The Trouser People, about his life, is published. It was great; finally I found someone else who collected these stories. What was also fantastic about Scott was that he didn't dismiss the local stories and myths but included them.
RB: I heard the word 'polymath,' which brings me to you. You are going to medical school and you wrote a big novel. So, what's next?
DM: I'm going to stay in school and I'm working on another book now. I'm going to try to integrate the two of them. I know it's hard as far as time goes. My dream is to be able to find something in medicine that I can continue to practice part of the time.
RB: Are you thinking of research or being a clinician?
DM: Where as previously I was doing more research. I am now going to move almost entirely clinically and continue to write. I can't do the three of them. The research demands the same love and attention. Good researchers have just a single love and it's their research. I like different places and traveling around. That's perfect for clinical medicine because each different patient comes from a different place.
RB: Which came first, your interest in writing or in medicine?
DM: I've been interested in both for a long time. In college I tried to decide whether I would want to do creative writing. I felt like I didn't have much to write about. I wrote a couple of short stories, ran out of ideas, and decided to do biology.
RB: I noticed you mentioned writer Jill McCorkle in your acknowledgments.
DM: She was my creative writing teacher in college. She taught the one creative writing class I took. She's a fantastic teacher. I love her writing; it's so different from mine. It gives me even more respect for her. She was able to read my short stories and find out exactly what was wrong with them and they were so much better for having been read by her.
RB: You are working on another novel?
DM: Still very vague in plot and it changes by the day, set in Brazil, historically based like this one is. Not a historical fiction in the sense that it's telling an event through fictional characters. It's more that it's just history as a backdrop for other characters.
RB: Do you know Brazil?
DM: Not at all. But I have always had a fascination with the Amazon. One of the reasons I wanted to study malaria and archeology comes from loving stories of the jungle when I was little kid. I've always dreamed of going to Brazil and if I hadn't gone to Asia, I would have gone to South America to do research. I had this incredibly romantic vision of the jungle. Every time I'm there I realize how silly that is.
RB: You continue to refer to where you were as Burma though it is called Myanmar and it is a repressive totalitarian state.
DM: Habit. I call it Burma because I've spent the last three years researching and every historical source calls it Burma.
RB: You don't call Thailand, Siam?
DM: No, I don't. Burma's name is a much more recent change. Also, the people are ethnically Burmese.
RB: I remember traveling to Corfu, off the coast of Greece and noticing that there was a striking difference between the coastline of Greece and Albania. I am told that's true of Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Can you tell when you cross over from Myanmar to Thailand?
DM: If you put Rangoon and Bangkok right next to each other, the difference is vividly apparent. Because the regions of Burma that border Thailand are so remote you could cross and you wouldn't know.
RB: Is there ethnic hostility?
DM: There is hostility but it's more political. They have fought some big wars. The Burmese sacked a Thai capitol in 1767 and it's a watershed date. Occasionally the countries butt heads as they fight over the border. The border area has mostly tribes like the Karen and the Shan.
RB: So after your year researching in what we now called Myanmar you came back to the US and start to write a novel. With any thoughts about whether you were going to get it published?
DM: Absolutely not! No idea whatsoever. It really began because I wanted to put the experience down. It helped not thinking that it was going to become anything. I didn't feel the pressure that someone might actually be reading it.
RB: What about the time you were investing? Didn't it take a lot of time?
DM: It took a lot of time and the research took a lot of work. Because it was so new it wasn't like work. In comparison to my other work, it was so different. Even though medical school is a lot of work, in the beginning when you are working in the library you can't spend 10 hours memorizing lists of muscles. It's impossible. So I would spend 5 hours memorizing lists and then a couple of hours just pretending that I'm in a different place. There are other things about it: meeting people for the first time and hearing incredibly intense stories that you feel like you shouldn't be hearing because they are not yours. It's probably why so many people in medicine write…
RB: What happened after you finished the first draft?
DM: I wrote most of the book during my first year. The second year I was so busy I didn't get to it until the summer. Halfway through the book I began to suspect that I could finish it and that it was a story. I finished it and I showed to my family and I showed it to some friends. And then when I decided I was actually willing to show it to someone that I didn't know personally I started the arduous task of trying to find someone to look at it.
RB: Who was that person?
DM: In the beginning you ask everyone you know if they know anyone in publishing. So it turned out the father of doctor my father knew was in publishing and was associated with an agent. His name is Donald Lamm, and he jokes about it now, "The minute he heard 'my son wrote a novel,' he knew it was trouble." But he agreed to look at it and his reader really liked it.
RB: Your editor at Knopf, Robin Desser, is mentioned in your press materials.
DM: She went on tour with me in a number of cities.
RB: I guess she likes to get out of the office. She edited a wonderful novel I read earlier in the year by Elizabeth Inness-Brown, called Burning Marguerite.
DM: I don't know what that book is like, but I wouldn't be surprised if it was extremely different from mine.
RB: It is.
DM: I have such strong opinions that I want to change things to my style. Or my way of editing is to change things to my style. That's why I have such admiration for Robin who is working on 6 books at a time and for Jill McCorkle who reads 50 stories a week and keep everything in its original voice.
RB: How many drafts were there for The Piano Tuner?
DM: I never tore it all up and started again. There were parts which were expanded. Some things were cut out. I had a lot more history that was cut out or condensed. Most of Robin's comments were like, "I think this character is really interesting. Can you tell me more?" That's probably how she is able to edit all these books, just picking out what she feels is important and leaving it up to the author.
RB: On Drake's voyage he meets a deaf man…
DM: "The Man with One Story."
RB: What's the origin of his story?
DM: I made that story up.
RB: Good one.
DM: Thanks. I wanted Edgar to hear a fable. I wanted him to hear a story that was told to him as a story. A lot of times when you are traveling you hear little bits and pieces in conversation. I wanted him to hear a story that is structured as a story and foreshadowed as a story. The captain of the ship says that everyone hears this story and Edgar senses right away. It came later in writing, as I became increasingly enamored of the process of telling a story. I loved the idea that I was writing and possibly my characters would be hearing stories at the same time that I was writing. It makes us experience the same thing at the same time. He has this faint awareness through the book that he is living a story. In a way that [the deaf man's story] is a way to hearken that.
RB: At an important point in the story a passage from "The Odyssey" is cited. When did you know you were going to do that?
DM: At the end of the book? From the beginning "The Odyssey" inspired the book. At Harvard I took a course from Gregory Nagy called Concept of the Hero in Greek Civilization. An incredible course on Greek literature. I knew the story of "The Odyssey"…I think you are born knowing it. It was the first time I studied it. I like the idea of sailing around and having one adventure after another. A short story I wrote in college was about a migrant North African farm worker in Spain finding it difficult to return home because of falling in love with the land. That was based on "The Odyssey" and this [book] in the same way…not wanting to return home because you have been changed by your experience.
RB: I get the impression that you actually enjoyed your undergraduate career.
DM: I did.
RB: Was that unusual? Did your peers also enjoy their education?
DM: They seemed to enjoy school. I had ups and downs, a sophomore slump. The last two years of school were really wonderful.
RB: I have this unexamined bias that college has become vocational and career oriented.
DM: At the same time all the practical classes came and went because whatever career you are in you end up learning the career on the job essentially. But you have the stories that persist with you forever. The class was a big class, maybe a thousand people in the class and I'm sure that the professor knew that not everyone was going to go into classics.
RB: 1000 people?
DM: Maybe, maybe a little less. Yeah, it was a really big class. It's a nice idea that there are doctors and lawyers and investment bankers all walking around remembering "The Odyssey." Everyone speaks so fondly of these liberal arts classes. I got together with some friends last night, lawyers and some in business and the classics and philosophy classes pop up. I wish I could go back to school. I agree with you that when you are older you appreciate school more. When you are in college you are also worrying about a lot of other things.
RB: I recently watched the movie version of One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest. And I thought of the '60s canon: Kurt Vonnegut, Richard Brautigan, Herman Hesse, RD Laing, Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs and so on. What are the books that were popular when you went to school?
DM: Big books that were talked about outside of school?
RB: Was there such a thing?
DM: I read very little fiction outside of school. I enjoyed what I read for pleasure but not discussing it. It would be hard to find enough of a group that was reading modern fiction at the time that we could discuss it. I remember reading Arundhati Roy's book [The God of Small Things] and the conversation would have been only, at the dinner table, "Have you read it?" "I read it. I love it. It's a great. A beautiful book." There were more conversations about books we were reading for school.
RB: How did you come to read a mid-century master like Kesey?
DM: I read it in high school or junior high school. It was probably on a summer reading list or my parents recommended it to me. It was a long time ago and I don't remember it except loving. It. There is something about reading a book when you are 14, 15 or 16—maybe even younger than that. Those books seem to influence your life much more than something you read later.
RB: I felt that way about the books I just mentioned. I wonder who knows Kurt Vonnegut today.
DM: Because interests are so vast they are there. The Internet enables people who are interested to get together and it's created communities.
RB: I find that odd and ultimately unsatisfying?
DM: Being able to communicate with people from different places?
RB: I love things about the Internet. I find the notion of the chat room is really anathema and yet fascinating. I am trying to figure out the threshold at which I integrate the Internet into my way of working and organizing information. Just as I won't do phone interviews I have turned down so-called live e-mail interviews…
DM: I agree it's never as satisfying, there's an ersatz pleasure involved with any sort of interaction with the computer.
RB: Part of what bothers me is the anonymity associated. Anyway, can I deduce that you don't have much time to read?
DM: When I was in medical school I had some time to read.
RB: Don't tell anyone.
DM: It worked pretty well with clinical rotations. They don't work well with writing. It's exhausting. At the hospital, if you are waiting around for a patient and it's a slow day, books are great. I do read now. It feels like this constant struggle to read enough.
RB: What were some of the books that influenced you when you were young that stayed with you?
DM: There were so many. The one that always come to mind, that I decided would be my favorite is Cannery Row by John Steinbeck. From a beautiful writing point of view, I love the first 2 pages. I read that book every 6 years; I read the first 2 pages every year. Its ability to cast characters, I love it, it feels so real. I love everything by William Faulkner and then I really like books from other places. I like Portuguese literature. I like what Portuguese writers write about. I've read a half a dozen Jose Saramago novels [Nobel laureate]. His way of dealing with conversations influenced me. I just read a book by Antonio Lobo Antunes that was interesting, The Return of the Caravels. I like writers who travel like Bruce Chatwin. I like A.S. Byatt. I've read a lot of George Orwell. He writes so well. I read an anthology in which he describes these coal mines. When I stopped reading I felt like I knew what the coal mines looked like more than if I gone myself. I haven't read 1984 and Animal Farm in 16 years but they are the fundamental books that completely influenced they way I look at the world starting at age 14.
RB: I like to reread Garcia Marquez as much as I feel some guilt about rereading—the stack of books to be read never gets smaller.
DM: His books make you fall in love with reading.
RB: How far ahead are looking in your writing career?
DM: Not too far ahead.
RB: Project by project?
DM: Yeah. The same thing with medicine. I don't want to deal with career choices right now.
RB: You are not a writing program graduate so I take it that your life is not much in that world. You don't have a lot of writer friends and you don't wear writer clothes…
DM: (laughs) I'm meeting my first writers. It's funny. At a couple of events I've been to I feel like such a fan. Staring starry-eyed at the people that I have admired.
RB: You know about the next novel and you are continuing with medical school…
DM: I have ideas for other books that I'll get to at some point. I plan to keep writing.
RB: You have no interest in going to school around writing?
DM: I'd be interested in getting more of a liberal arts education. I'd be interested in more formal training in reading. I'd love to go and study English classics or any form of literature.
RB: Well, good, thanks so very much.
DM: Thank you.
Copyright 2002 by Robert Birnbaum
All photos by Red Diaz / Duende Publishing