a conversation with Daniel Mason      


Bold Type: The entire time I was reading your wonderful book I kept thinking "How on earth did this guy come up with the whole 'piano tuner' scenario?" And lo and behold, in your author's note you actually let us know where you got the inspiration. Can you please tell us about it? Once you heard the music, how long before you came up with the idea and started writing The Piano Tuner?

Daniel Mason: I should begin with a little apology, as I fear that the author's note is unintentionally misleading, and I am going to correct it in future printings: I had written almost all of the book by the time I heard classical music coming out of a little hut near the Salween River. The reason I included the anecdote is that I am even more fascinated by the idea that I heard the music after writing. So much of The Piano Tuner is about the interplay between truth and fantasy. Since I drew virtually all of the background of my story from historical fact, I was always haunted by the idea of what would happen if somehow this story in which I had so deeply involved myself actually was true. On a number of occasions, I had experiences in which my book seemed to meet me in life: I learned recently of a modern Burmese piano tradition tracing from the mid-19th century (most likely brought by an Italian ambassador, rather than a British army officer); when I was in London, I found a list of piano tuner's names in the London Directory at the time, and a real chill ran down my spine when I ran my finger along the list of "D's" (alas, no Edgar). Hearing the piano music (and I am 99.99% certain it was either from some old record player, or more likely, some pirated CD), was like suddenly leaving this world and entering that of my story.

BT: Were you inspired at all by The Heart of Darkness? Though of course your book wasn't quite as dark...Were you more intrigued by Surgeon-Major Anthony J. Carroll or Edgar Drake—in terms of their inner workings?

DM: Of course I was always aware of the superficial similarities between my book and Heart of Darkness; it is impossible that any book about the jungle (or perhaps any book, period) would not be influenced by it. And yet, I really think that my book is very different. The theme of traveling into the jungle is such an essential, fundamental one, I think that I could have written The Piano Tuner without having read Heart of Darkness. I think that they both draw from an incredibly common human experience of the unknown. Superficially our setting is similar, but I think that with regards to theme, as well as inspiration, my book owed much more to The Odyssey. I was fascinated by the comments of one reviewer, in Bangkok, that he thought my book is more similar to Death in Venice, in its treatment of the deep emotional impact of beauty and one's tendency to confuse love of a place and love of a person. This was not intended either; I didn't read Mann until after writing most of The Piano Tuner, and to be honest, I didn't recognize the similarities until it was pointed out to me, and yet I would agree with him. This said, I was aware of Conrad—I wrote a book about a boat and a river, and he had written a far greater one, so he loomed over me always. To draw an analogy to art, anyone one who ever intends to paint a mother and a dying son will be somewhat influenced by the pietas that have gone before them, even if their motive comes from wanting to paint the tragedy of the scene, not from wanting to create a derivative work.

And so, while I share a physical setting and a journey with Conrad, our books are different by most other measures. I was most fascinated by Edgar and the personal changes he undergoes. And Carroll is definitely not Kurtz. He is too civilized; he has taken the imperial mandate of spreading "civilization" too seriously, and in some ways, does not fully appreciate the severity of the war raging about him. While he sees this as a opportunity to bring music, the Shan, and the British army, see it as war and only war. This perhaps is the most tragic aspect of his character.

BT: A lot of the book was written, and perhaps inspired by, during your time spent on the Thai-Myanmar border where you were studying malaria. Can you tell us a little bit about that? How much has everything changed in the last hundred years or so?

DM: In college, I wrote my senior thesis on mixed-species malaria infections, on what happens when someone is infected with more than one of the four species of parasite that cause human malaria. It turns out to be a fascinating subject—it appears that infections with two species may at times be better than infection with one—but my work was mainly mathematical, and I had never had the opportunity to work in the field. Then not long before I graduated, reports began to come from the Thai-Myanmar border that mixed infections were more common there than previously thought. Soon after, I received a scholarship from the Luce Foundation for a year of research at the Faculty of Tropical Medicine at Mahidol University, in Bangkok, Thailand.

I spent a year in Thailand, splitting my time between the university in Bangkok and our field site in the province of Ranong, along the southern Thai-Myanmar border. There, most of our patients were Burmese migrant workers who had come to Thailand to work in wood mills or fishing boats, or travel to offshore islands to cut wood. The work was extremely interesting; there was a lot of malaria, and because most of the staff was Burmese, I began to learn about Burmese culture, history, medicine. After a year in southeast Asia, I returned to California, for my first year of medical school. Then the next summer I went back to Asia again, this time with a Japanese-Thai project studying malaria in northeastern Burma, specifically the Shan States, where much of The Piano Tuner takes place.

Some parts of both countries have changed tremendously. Bangkok, for instance, is extremely modern, although it has retained so many aspects of "Thai-ness" in fascinating amalgams of modernity and tradition. Other areas, such as the Shan States, resemble very much the world that I read about while researching my book.

BT: How long did it take you to write the book? How did you find the time to write while going to medical school? Do you still have plans to continue your medical career, or are you thinking of dedicating yourself to writing full time?

DM: It took me about two and a half years to write and edit the book. I really think I probably never would have written this book if I hadn't been in medical school. In some ways, there was a thrill to writing, in the sense that I wasn't supposed to be doing it. This is not to say my medical school wasn't supportive; some of the most warmth and encouragement I have received has come from people at school who have gone out of their way to help me write and study at the same time. But, I very much think my book began as a response to medicine. When I first came to medical school, I suddenly had to confront issues of death and disease and healing on a level, which I could have never prepared for. And because students know so little, there is very little we can do, which can be extremely sad and frustrating. So writing was a way to process some of what I was seeing. Beyond the inspiration, I really think that medicine is wonderful for the art of writing, from teaching me about people who are so different from me, to training me to look for details, to simply allowing me to write more accurately about disease.

BT: Across the board you received stellar reviews, were you nervous ahead of time?

Of course I was nervous, although to be very honest, this whole process has been so new for me that in some ways I think I have been spared the anxiety of reviews. I still can't get over how funny it is to see my name, and my book in the papers. One part of the publicity that I have been concerned about is how it would affect my career in medicine. Although medicine and writing overlap in the many ways I just mentioned, one place they don't is that medicine is an intensely private profession. I don't know what patients will think that someone who is involved in their care has written a novel; I will know more when I go back to school in March.

BT: How has it been meeting your readers? Do you have any fun/crazy fan stories to share?

DM: It has been wonderful to meet readers. Writing is such a quiet experience. Even publishing is a quiet experience. Other than my book tour, there are days that go by where it doesn't seem as if I have written anything at all: I have never seen someone buy my book, nor reading it. So my tour in the US was a wonderful chance to meet people and hear their thoughts, which tend to be a different kind of response compared to reviews, usually much more personal. I just finished a tour in Asia and Australia/New Zealand for Picador, my publisher in the UK. It was fascinating to see the different responses to my book there, where people tend to be more familiar with the history of the Shan States, and British colonialism in Asia. What I love most is when readers come with their own stories related to mine. For example, a Burmese woman in Bangkok came to tell me that when she was a little girl, her parents had warned her that if she didn't behave, "Twet Nga Lu would get her." (Twet Nga Lu was a famous Shan bandit prince, who plays an important role in my book.) An interviewer in Minneapolis pointed me towards a collection of old pianos, where I was able to see my first real Erard.

BT: What has been the best part of this experience (from writing the book through the book tour), what has been the worst part?

DM: Writing is the best part, by far. I didn't think that this would be the case. I think I always thought that the best part would be having a book to hold in my hands (which is wonderful too). But there is nothing like feeling this story unfold before you. As for the worst part? I feel very fortunate, and really can't think of anything. I tend to be a shy person, so the touring has been hard at times, but I love talking about my book and the history of the period, and am so amazed that people would be interested and would want to read something I wrote, that the publicity has been more fun than I had expected.

BT: I know you've sat through many interviews by now and I'm sure you must get a lot of the same questioned asked of you over and over...can we ask whether more people seemed surprised over your age or the fact that you were in medical school?

DM: Both, it seems. And yet there are so many doctors who write and so many young writers, that I never know how to respond.

BT: Our readers always seem to be interested in your writing process. Meaning, when you find time to write. How many hours a day you write. Do you have a schedule? Do you have a favorite place where you work, so on and so forth?

DM: My writing schedule has varied widely, from when I was in Thailand until now, and as this was my first book, I am still really just figuring out "the way I write" myself. I never intended to write a novel when I first went to Thailand, I didn't even really keep a journal, only jotting ideas down from time to time, things I wanted to remember, but this was on napkins, bus tickets, and nothing formal: Thai or Burmese words, brief impressions. Back at school, I would write whenever I could in the early hours before classes, or slip books on Burmese history between anatomy and physiology books, for breaks when I studied. I think having so little time made writing seem all the more precious. When I am not in classes, I try to stick to a schedule, otherwise self-discipline is very difficult. I usually write in the morning, for about four hours at least, and if I am caught up in the story, I write longer. I leave the afternoon for research. I write either in Golden Gate Park, or in some very drab conference rooms up at the hospital.

BT: Now it's time for the did-you-always-want-to-be-a-writer question (aka: have-you-always-had-literary-aspirations question)? Sooooo...?

DM: No... well, maybe. I always have been writing, but I never could have dreamed I would be able to finish a whole novel, let alone have it published. I wrote short stories when I was a little kid, adventure stories usually, usually set in far-off places. So in a sense, I guess The Piano Tuner is a form of the same sort of day-dreaming.

BT: In terms of your writing career, what is your future plans? Are you working on book number two now? Can you tell us anything about it? Any interest in writing short stories, essays, or plays?

DM: I want to write and practice medicine, somehow. I am going back to school in March, and will graduate in about a year and a half. I am working on another book, a historical novel set in Brazil, and will be going to Brazil to research it before my tour in Europe starts in January. I would love to work on some short stories, but the Brazil book is taking all my time now.

BT: Do you have any head-trips about the book number two curse? (ie: the fact that you have done so well with book number one, great reviews and all—is the pressure is always on for book number two?)

DM: What worries me more than the reception to book two, is how the publicity and reviews and attention to book one will affect my writing it. There is a danger, I think, in good reviews, in that they encourage one to try to repeat what worked the first time.

BT: Now it's time for the obligatory, "who are your favorite writers" question. So?

DM: It is so difficult to pick just a few. My favorite author is probably John Steinbeck, my favorite book probably Cannery Row. It was so inspirational in showing me how it was possible to evoke a particular place and time. The first two pages of that book are some of the most beautiful writing I have ever read. It is what inspired me to begin my book similarly, with an image setting the scene. Other of my favorite books include those by William Faulkner, George Orwell, A.S. Byatt, Bruce Chatwin, Jose Saramago, and the contemporary poet, Kevin McGrath. Great books I've read this year? The Tin Drum, by Gunther Grass, The Carpenter's Pencil, by Manuel Rivas, Across the Sabbath River, by Hillel Hankin, The True History of the Kelly Gang, by Peter Carey. I am deeply deeply influenced by other writers who have gone before me, and will often read to learn how they resolve situations and challenges that have stumped me.

BT: Care to offer any final last words of wisdom to all those out there with their own literary aspirations? Something that they need to think about when they feel their never going to finish their great American novel?

DM: It's so hard to offer any words of wisdom, as I still feel like I need them more than I can dispense them. If I could make up an adage, I would probably say something like, "write what you love to read; take inspiration from works that you admire." I am still working on that, myself.

BT: That's it, Daniel! Thank you so very much for your time especially as you were on your way to Australia when we caught you!

--interview by Jenny Lee
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    Photo credit: Elena Seibert