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"North Woods": Interview with Daniel Mason




Art by Savannah Voth


An interview with Dr Daniel Mason, Pulitzer Prize finalist, Stanford faculty psychiatrist, and author of North Woods (2023), an intertwined collection of generational stories centred on a woodland home.

...


Josie: What's your hope for the reader as they embark on reading North Woods and experience a novel so adventurous and unique? 


Mr. Mason:

I hope that the reader gets involved in the story. There are secondary hopes, which is that people come to a new or renewed appreciation of the woods like I did while working on the book. But, before that, the goal is to write an engaging and enjoyable story. 


Josie: You accomplished those goals. I had to take a long walk outside after I finished your book. 


Mr. Mason:

That's great. That certainly makes me happy to hear. 


Josie: Along with the incredible writing, your narrative took on such a complex form as you wove together so many different storylines and snapshots seamlessly. I'm curious how you planned it all out. 


Mr. Mason:

When I started the book, I didn't think it would necessarily be these different kinds of voices. I wanted a series of short stories that took place in the same place, but I had yet to imagine them being particularly connected. As I read different sources, I was very drawn to the various sounds and melodies of the source language. For the second chapter, I reference captivity narratives, which are accounts that were written over long periods. They were popular during the late 17th century. There was a particular kind of propelling, engaging rhythmic language. I thought it would be fun to try to tell the story in this way. And I found that I could alternate between standard third person with these other chapters composed of documents. 


Over time, I realised that the manuscript caught the way our language changes and American literature evolves. But in the beginning, it was for the pleasure of the musicality of language itself. 


As far as plotting, I didn't have a plan from the beginning. However, there were a few structural elements that were pretty straightforward. One is that I knew that the novel would run forward in time. The other is that I found myself writing in the season where the chapter occurred. So, I wrote the apple chapters in September and October, and at that point, I would make myself set the chapter for the month that I was writing it. This became the only real rule that as the novel progressed forward in time, there would be this circular nature to the storytelling- moving from June to June again. The storytelling was evolving, so I didn't necessarily know what would happen, but because of the recurring seasonality and because I had these characters from early chapters to work with, characters would sometimes reappear. And this actually made it a lot of fun because it felt much more spontaneous, I think, than had I plotted it out from the start. 


Josie: I could very much feel the tangible difference in time as you went through the changes in language throughout the story. 


Mr. Mason:

All these Englishes are our Englishes, right? The language you and I speak is developed from an older version of ours, but their traces remain in the language we speak today. But we think of it as an old or remote style of writing, but it's something still present, which is one of the novel's themes. 


In the same way, one goes out and looks at the forest. You are not just seeing the forest now, but you are seeing something that is dependent on a long history that runs before that. So, the idea that language has a history and that language today is contingent on the past is something that drives the story. 


Josie: And you said you got some of the inspiration for how language changes through captive stories? 


Mr. Mason:

In the book, there are these numbered chapters, and then there's a final one that utilises a third person voice. Then, the other ones are these different texts that are stylistically different. I would call them "found texts". Each of these found texts had a literary model on which I based them. The first one, Nightmaid's letter, was based on a captivity narrative. This is a broad term for any kind of narrative written by someone in captivity, but specifically, there's a whole genre of literature written by English colonists who Native Americans captured at various points in history. Many were written during the French and Indian War, with a handful of very famous ones. Up through the 18th century you have frontier accounts of people captured who would then write about their experience. Broadly, they're lumped together as a genre. There's often a propagandistic quality to captivity narratives, because they are usually written by people after they are freed and are attempting to sell books while highlighting the quote, unquote, "savagery of the people who captured them" and "superiority of European life." At the same time, some of them are quite moving. They capture people in moments of incredible stress when their family has been slaughtered or they've been captured and taken away. They're quite complicated texts. Historians spend a lot of time trying to figure out how much is real and how much is propaganda. 


There's one particularly famous one, "The Captivity of Mary Robinson." If you Google it, you can see similarities between our styles. In my book, the Nightmaid's tale is different from a typical captivity narrative. She begins to develop sympathies for her captors. Usually, the people who wrote each account felt antagonistic towards those who captured them. The one I wrote is very different. She's writing it privately in the margins of a Bible. Nonetheless, it was inspired by this particular American genre. 


Josie: Thank you so much. I'll definitely be looking more up tonight. 


Mr. Mason:

I can tell you that later on in the book there's a kind of a commentary on it. This is sort of hidden in there. In the chapter of Morris Lakeman, the amateur historian, when he gives the address to the Historical Society of Western Massachusetts, he references these texts. In a way, he does what I just did with you. He provides the reader with historical context. 


Josie: That is incredible, thank you.


Mr. Mason:

You touched on a pretty big thing.


Josie: That must have taken so much research. 


Mr. Mason:

Yes and no. I was mostly trying to capture the voice and my characters are very much their own person. There are great histories of this period, and one book in particular instructed me on this period. But at the same time, the main goal is a fictional one which is to create someone who seems like she could exist. I didn't have the same sort of demand that a historian would if they were writing about it. 


You are not just seeing the forest now, but you are seeing something that is dependent on a long history that runs before that.

Josie: A lot of your books do seem to go really deep into the historical nuances. I haven't personally read it, but I've heard a lot about how your book, the Winter Soldier, was incredibly accurate. And I was curious how you get into all those historical nuances and why do you feel so drawn to historical fiction? 


Mr. Mason:

So, definitely, the Winter Soldier required much more research than this book did. And in some ways, when I was starting this book, I told myself, I don't want to do that again. I want to focus on the fiction here, and I don't want to get caught up in history. So things have changed a bit from when I started out. I think I've always been drawn to history, and it's an interesting way to see our present time. It is a place where one encounters different human experiences, different languages, and all that is very compelling and exciting for me. So it's fun to research and it's fun to write. I think as time has gone on, I've become a little bit more interested in plot and character as well as the sounds of language and the history that defines the setting of a book. In some ways, North Woods certainly has history, especially in the early chapters, but as the book progresses, there's less and less. And I was very deliberate. I didn't want to get stuck. Winter Soldier took a very, very long time to write, and I got stuck many times. And, I didn't want that to happen again. 


Josie: That makes a lot of sense. I was curious which form of writing, like captivity narratives, case files, poems and even a music sheet at one point did you most enjoy integrating into your story? 


Mr. Mason:

All of them were fun. One thing that I should mention is the music sheet. The music sheet is an image. It is not mine, it is in the public domain. Not all the images are credited because of this. Some have been a bit confused by this because at the beginning I credit some of the images because someone owns them. But, I would say all of them were fun in their own ways. 


Josie: That makes a lot of sense. You picked elements that incorporated themselves so seamlessly into the story. I really connected to the two twins in your stories. My own little sister, Ellie and I, we occasionally share a somewhat similar rapport, but just without the murder. 


Mr. Mason:

(Laughter)


Josie: Do characters often do things that you don't expect when you're writing? 


Mr. Mason:

If all is going well? Yes. So that's the best situation where the person does something that surprises me, but that feels right, that feels consistent, like a real, real thing. 


Josie: Yeah. I struggle with that when I do my own writing. I can't make the characters do anything spontaneous or something that doesn't align with them perfectly logically. That's been a bit of a struggle.


Mr. Mason:

I mean, it's hard not to, not all characters bloom and maybe you have a good sense of who they are. But people still surprise you, probably your sister, your parents, they surprise you too, right? Even when you think you know them. So a character can do that as well. 


Josie: How do you create so many distinct individuals that all contain such intricate psychological depth, and then they all have honestly, completely different voices? What methods do you use to develop their personality? 


Mr. Mason:

It's a great question. I don't know; beyond trying to picture the person and asking myself constantly while I am with them, what else do I need to know about them? I will ask what this person would be doing and then put her into a situation and watch to see how they respond. And in many ways, I don't know how they are going to respond but keeping them consistent is something I think about. When a character does something there's a difference between being surprised and not believing it. One of the great challenges of characterisation and fiction is to create someone who is pushing the boundaries of your expectations but, at the same time, remains believable. 


Josie: Oh, that's so quotable. Thank you. Sure. Your case file about the schizophrenic Robert was so fascinating. I was curious how your background as a physician and a psychiatrist factored into this book, and did that happen to draw at all from a real life case? 


Mr. Mason:

It did not come from a patient of mine. I haven't written many psychiatric stories because I am very cautious. I don't want to write about my own patients. And one of the reasons I had a lot of trouble with Winter Soldier in the beginning was because the main character was going to be a psychiatrist. I had trouble figuring out the boundaries between my own work and my patients and his work and his patients. This was a little different, in part because of the historical distance. 


So this is a story taking place about a hundred years ago. I think also the fact that it was case notes meant that I could draw on other people's writings. And so there wasn't exactly like one other doctor that I based the case notes off of, but it's an amalgam of many, or I'd say...a handful of different psychiatric texts about psychosis. And so even though his particular beliefs and his particular symptoms are very much his, and particular to this story, this kind of structure with the physical description followed by symptomatology, followed by the detailed report of psychiatric symptoms is based on case reports from the early 20th century. 


Josie: That makes a lot of sense. This is a somewhat similar question, but how do you mix medicine and humanities throughout your work and profession? I know, like you mentioned earlier, the Winter Soldier delved into a lot of surgery and some trauma disorders.


Mr. Mason:

Sure. I'm aware that medicine's a big theme in my books. And when I'm thinking of new projects, I'll often find myself thinking about medical themes and they're comfortable to me because it's the world that I know. And if I wish to write about another period of time, or is different from my normal experience, it's something which is a little closer. And so in some ways easier. Like in some ways, writing about a patient with psychosis is easier than taking care of psychosis. There are aspects of the practice of psychiatry and of medicine in general that map nicely onto certain parts of writing fiction. Fiction and what we were just talking about, characterisation and trying to get a sense of a whole individual as quickly as possible is very much a medical exercise. So when a patient gives a history and a doctor takes the history and tries to create a coherent narrative out of it, that feels very much like a similar kind of act that occurs in writing about a character. 


And so the kinds of questions that I mentioned that I ask myself about a character, is this likely, is this possible? Is this realistic? Those are the kinds of questions that a doctor's asking themselves all the time when they're trying to piece together a history. 


Does it make sense that they decided to come into this hospital at this period of time? They stopped hiking their diabetes medicine, but I don't really understand why now? Why did they stop taking it when they've had these kinds of stressors in their life for the last 15 years. 


So that's a similar kind of question of characterisation, a question of narrative. So I think that the exercise of asking myself these questions is something that probably affects the way I think about characters when I write. 


I think there are other ways that I think about the interaction that can get complicated. And one thing that I've found is that, you know, particularly in a book like this where there's a psychiatric patient, is that there's a tendency, a very important imperative, in medicine to appreciate the complexity of a patient, but at the same time reduce their experience down as much as possible into a series of recognisable patterns you can then use to guide diagnosis and treatment. And so there's always a kind of data loss, and there's a kind of simplification, and there's a kind of demystification that occurs in medicine and that occurs in surgery as well as in psychiatry. But in fiction, I think that tends to make characters that are flat, characters that are predictable, characters that are less interesting. And so the characters that I love reading about are characters that, like I mentioned earlier, characters that surprise me, characters that retain a kind of mystery. And in some ways that feels very different from medicine. And so I find sometimes I have to try to get away from the kind of medical habits and impulses that are part of regular clinical life. 


Josie:  That makes a lot of sense. I've never thought about it like that before. But I was a little bit curious on the topic of taking something very, very complex and turning it into fiction; what was it like to tackle the topic of white and native relations, and how did you navigate the political complexities of representation? 


Mr. Mason:

I think that one thing that's complex in writing about that period of time is that I'm writing from the perspective of the character who has a very different view of Native Americans than I do. She's a colonist living in this state where there's a lot of conflict. She has a lot of race beliefs and she's very fearful. When she's captured, all her prejudices are gonna come out at that moment. One thing that's always difficult about writing a character like that, is there's part of me as an author, a person in this world, who wants to sit down with a reader and say, this is what my character thinks. This is not what I think. But at the same time, you just can't do that. That doesn't make for good writing. I mean, authors will sometimes try to signal that, but it gets in the way of good fiction. At the same time, I know that readers are intelligent and I have to count on the intelligence of the reader to understand that the politics of my characters are not reflective of my own. For the most part, that's been my experience when I've spoken to creators about their books. Every once in a while I'll meet someone who thinks that this character in North Woods feels a little bit too enlightened, that she becomes too sympathetic as her narrative goes on. At the same time, she's also an individual. She's somebody who begins with a prejudice of her time, but then gets transformed by her own personal experience, becoming marginally more enlightened. It's this interesting balance. You're trying to capture someone who would be politically realistic for a particular period of time, but they're also a malleable individual. There's always the opportunity for them to change their politics. I hope that the reader follow them on this transformation. 


Josie: Is it easy for you to shift into the headspace of someone with you so different from your own? 


Mr. Mason:

No, it's always hard. There's always this act of imagination that I hope is right or I hope is realistic, but I never know for sure. There's been many times, I mean many times, that I don't get my characters enough. It's always a question of can I get it? Am I missing something here? At a certain point, I let go. Maybe, for some reason, this imagined person is beyond my abilities and beyond this story. It's always hard to tell which characters are gonna resist exploration. It's not always somebody who seems like they're very different from me. Sometimes they're people who seem superficially similar.


Josie: There was a really lengthy online discussion about some biblical influences in your book. People were comparing the Cain and Abel story to the one of Alice and Mary, and they were talking a lot about how the original couple that began your book was very similar to Adam and Eve and, you know, the motif of the apples. I was curious if you actually did take any influences from spiritual texts or real people. 


Mr. Mason:

Definitely. I'm curious, where was that? I didn't see that. 


Josie: I found it on this Japanese bookstore blog. 


Mr. Mason:

It's so interesting. It's wonderful to think about the afterlife of a book and imagine people's conversations. I mean, I think that the biblical references were inescapable for me. So, you know, North Woods begins with a founding story, in an Eden-like setting. And it's impossible to write about a couple who find themselves in a state of nature without having the story of Genesis looming over you. I just knew it was there from the start. And in some ways the question was how much of this can I engage in a way that can lead somewhere exciting for a reader without being too obvious? You know, there's no serpent. When it came to picking names, I liked the name Alice, but I was careful about its similarity to Abel. I wanted to be careful, to make sure her sister's name didn't begin with a C. I felt that would be hitting the nail on the head a little bit too directly. The wonderful part about allusion is that you have these other texts that do the work for you. In some ways, isn't it wonderful to be able to describe a couple in the woods? I have my, I don't know, 10 pages about them, but if the illusion functions correctly, it brings in this whole other world for a reader. I hope that then adds to the story without me actually having to do much more work. So I'd say it's lovely when it happens correctly, but in this one, because I was aware that I was in this territory, I wanted to avoid a heavy handed touch. The challenge was to keep those references without hitting the reader over the head.


Josie: It felt original while also containing a bit of those familiar tales. So I, I really appreciate the way that you did it. 


Mr. Mason:

Great. Okay. I'm glad. Making these decisions always leads to an interesting place. Like I mentioned, I loved the name Alice. There's, you know, a magical quality about Alice, in terms of allusion. We're all kind of primed to think of Alice as a character entering strange new worlds. It's a lovely name. When I was thinking of their names, I thought of the name Mary. And by accident, I realised, and this is referenced very briefly in passing the book, but their names together, if you take Mary's initial and you put in front of Alice, it forms the word malice. 


Josie: Oh my gosh. 


Mr. Mason:

But that's even secondary to the cooler thing. M-A-L-U-S is the Latin name for Apple. I love the idea that their names are together, like when they carved their names onto the trees; that's sort of what happens. Again, I wouldn't expect anyone to know this. As their names sort of fade on the tree, I think this is still there in the book. Maybe I'll check it. The way I imagined it, the "M" is kept from Mary's name, and then Alice's name remains. Their father, when he briefly thinks of their names, notes it sounds like the word "malice". I love that this was totally accidental. But to think all of a sudden their names combined creates the Latin world for Apple was incredible. These accidental things tend just to happen. 


Josie: I can't believe I didn't pick up on that the first time. 


Mr. Mason:

No. You wouldn't have to, I wouldn't expect you to. This is one of the fun parts about writing. There's an afterlife to a book in which I get to explicitly share things that excited me while writing that I couldn't directly discuss in the book like these kinds of conversations. 


Josie: All right. I've heard certain writers discuss that a few themes always appear throughout all their works. I'm curious if you have any favourite connections across all your stories, considering that the tales in these books were so closely intertwined. 


Mr. Mason:

That is a great question. I can't even think of anyone who's ever asked me that question before, but it's such a true question for any writer. I mean, I would say that the majesty of the natural world is pretty common across all my books. 


It's much more prominent in North Woods. In other books, there's always a lot of natural setting described, but nature doesn't have its own kind of agency, and it doesn't function as a kind of protagonist in the same way that it does in North Woods. I would say that a pretty common theme is individuals in states in crises. Like my short story collection, all the stories are about people in moments of epiphany or crisis. I would say in North Woods, there's maybe a little bit of less of that. Although it's certainly there in chapters about Charles Osgood. He's kind of a classic character for me, a sort of eccentric, slightly off guy who sort of finds himself in this kind of epiphany. I love writing that kind of character. My stories collect many characters like that. Other characters like Helen, the two lovers, and the Crime Reporter are a little bit less typical to me. Characters like Morris Legman, Mary Alice, Charles Osgood, those are sort of very familiar, you know, people facing moments that are bigger than them. That's a great question. I haven't been asked about that much, but super. 


It's wonderful to think about the afterlife of a book and imagine people's conversations

Josie: How does this book reflect your own views on the intermingling of the past, present, and the future? 


Mr. Mason:

That's also a good question. I think that one of the particular joys of writing the book was seeing the natural world in a different way. Instead of a static, beautiful and inspiring sort of place, I wrote it as a place very much determined by history. Every tree is there because of past trees, fungi, and animals. It seems in some ways so simple, but I hadn't thought about the forest that way, as something that has developed over time and changing, constantly changing. And so now, when I go out, there's always this question of not just, "What am I looking at?" but "How did it get here, and what was there beforehand?" And it's also, I think, changed the way that I've looked at houses as a sort of physical landscape. I am always astonished when I go into a city and try to imagine what it looked like beforehand. If we go over a bridge and there's a culvert, you know, it was once a river and it used to be a wetland and what did that look like before? Nature is a constant overlay of real ghosts and the book uses ghosts very literally. But thinking that we're surrounded by this kind of overlay of the past, I think like it's something that has changed for me, um, and that comes from, from writing this book. I'm grateful for the experience of writing North Woods. It makes the world looks very different.


Josie:

Yeah. Same for me, after I read that book, it was the first time I really appreciated the simplicity of going out and admiring my own yard. Thank you so much. 




JOSEPHINE WONG is surviving Woodside Priory High. She enjoys feeling marginally superior to incoming freshmen.





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