Daniel Mason in conversation about discipline, style and the inspiration for his fourth novel

From The Bookseller:

Daniel Mason’s virtuosic fourth novel, North Woods, is the story of a single house deep in the woods of New England. The first stone is laid in a clearing by a young man who has fled the established Puritan Colony with his lover, who was promised to a wife-beating minister twice her age. This house—first a simple homestead, a cabin built of log and stone by the pair of runaways—will stand for 400 years in one form or another, and this astonishing novel tells of those who inhabit it over the centuries, both human and animal, alive and spirit.

There is Charles Osgood, originally from Northamptonshire, an English soldier who came to America for war, before becoming obsessed with growing apples. In his search for the perfect apple tree, he finds the one that has grown from the apple eaten by a Puritan militiaman years earlier. Later, a pair of spinster twins grow older on the homestead, before one commits a horrific act. Later still, a merciless slave catcher tracks his quarry; a medium is summoned to deal with rowdy spirits; a crime reporter uncovers a sensational story; a mother worries about her son, who suffers from a mental illness; and a conman seizes an opportunity. Some characters linger on, past their own lifetimes, to return as spirits. Interwoven with the human lives that span the years are the non-human ones: a lusty beetle, a prowling catamount, a squirrel burying nuts that will one day grow into a forest.

. . . .

When we meet at his publisher’s office,  the softly-spoken author, who is visiting the UK from his home in northern California, explains that he wrote the novel over the course of a single year spent in Western Massachusetts on a Guggenheim Fellowship. “California is very unchanging. We have seasons but it’s nothing like New England, so it was just astonishing to arrive in a place that was so lush, so humid, the plants are so high—it was overwhelming.”

As well as being an award-winning author—his last book, A Registry of My Passage Upon the Earth, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize—Mason is also assistant professor in psychiatry at Stanford University and a practising physician.

Knowing he had a year to concentrate on writing, Mason began work in the summer and his first chapter, about the runaway lovers, was set in the heat of June. The second chapter, leaping forward in time and an account of a frontier raid, was set in July. He noticed the pattern and wondered if this might be the organising principle of the novel: “What happens if I just try to write in the season that the chapter takes place in, if I limit myself? Which was good for me also, I think, because I tend to take a really long time to write. My last book took 14 years, not because I wanted it to, that’s just what happened.”

He stuck to this discipline so each of the 12 sections of the book were written during the month in which it takes place. Sometimes he didn’t finish a chapter within the month and had to go back to it later in the editing process. Sometimes he finished it early and so would wait for the month to turn before beginning the next chapter. This process surely accounts for the gorgeously vivid way the natural world is described throughout the novel. “It was exciting, I didn’t know what was going to happen next, it was almost like reading myself. I was waiting and wondering, ‘What’s this season going to be like?’ Broadly I can imagine what it’s going to be like but I’ve no idea what colours are going to appear. It felt very fresh to me to be in that place.

If the book is ultimately on natural time, that’s the timescale we are looking at: the life of a single tree or a forest rather that the people in it who are dwarfed by that larger narrative

“There were times when [this book] absolutely felt like a chore, but much less so that my other books. It always felt like I wasn’t exactly sure what was going to happen and who was going to show and what the seasons would provide.” 

Link to the rest at The Bookseller