Author Daniel Mason prefaced his remarks at a recent Rancho Santa Fe Literary Society event at the Fairmont Grand Del Mar by comparing the hotel ballroom’s grandeur to other places in which he has given talks.
“This is a little more Austro-Hungarian, this room,” the Bay Area resident said, sparking a chorus of laughter from the audience. “It’s a little bit more gilded.”
Those among the several hundred society members in attendance who had read Mason’s third novel, “The Winter Soldier,” recently released by Little, Brown and Company, understood the reference to the book’s setting.
Mason was the latest among prominent authors featured in the society’s ongoing luncheon series in which the guests talk about their works and careers.
“The Winter Soldier” is an intricately crafted tale of a fledgling doctor from Vienna who, because of the exigencies of World War I, is sent to a hospital in the Carpathian mountains of Eastern Europe before he has received his credentials to practice medicine.
The novel has received praise from reviewers with the New York Times, Washington Post, and other publications.
Anthony Marra wrote in the Times that the character “Lucius’ dream of ‘being able to see another person’s thinking’ is not only the controlling metaphor of ‘The Winter Soldier,’ but the work of literature more broadly. Lucius may fail but the novel he carries is a spectacular success.”
The medical station in “The Winter Soldier” is located in a partially bombed-out church in an obscure, mostly deserted village. The patients are overseen ostensibly by a nun who, out of necessity, has assumed the role of the station’s doctor and surgeon. She performs amputations and other grisly operations as the situation demands.
While the sister, who goes only by the name of Margarete, suspects the young man’s qualifications, she coaches him along in the treatments and operations.
The duties include dealing with the symptoms of shell shock, now known as post-traumatic stress disorder, with which Mason has had ample experience in his career as a clinical psychiatrist.
His presentation at the Fairmont was as much a lecture on the history of diagnosing psychological suffering from war as it was a book talk.
“I just found it really interesting about how an author goes about his craft of writing and comes up with such a detailed, well-researched story and how he’s inspired to create that work of art,” said Lisa Callender following Mason’s speech.
Callendar, the department chair of English at Torrey Pines High School, accompanied a group of eight students who met with Mason prior to his appearance before the literary society.
Of particular interest, Callender said, was “the fact that he’s a doctor and has this full other career, (and) how it really helped give him a different perception, and different ideas in creating his characters.”
Mason’s own studies influenced his characterizations in the novel, which took him four drafts and 15 years to finish, as well as his own work with traumatized veterans.
“These thoughts, these slow realizations that I encountered as I read about this history ... began to not only affect the people that I was describing in the novel, but ultimately affect the way that I saw the illnesses that were presented in my own patients,” he said.
In the novel, Lucius learns techniques from the nun on the job and gets the practical experience to perform interventions that up until then he had only observed.
“A hundred years ago, medical students were there to watch other people practice medicine and to watch from a distance,” Mason said in an interview before meeting with the Torrey Pines contingent.
“For (Lucius) all of a sudden to be able to do some research and try to answer questions is all very heady and exciting,” Mason said. “It’s a chance for him to engage in the science in a way that he can’t (in academia). ...
“Lucius sees that tension there. On one hand, he’s trying to find out how the mind works. For him it’s much more fascinating than going out and helping a milkmaid with a broken finger.”
As the narrative proceeds, the bond between Lucius and Margarete grows, leading to a dramatic sequence of events.
Mason told the audience he originally had not intended for Margarete to have as much of a role in the narrative as she came to occupy.
“This was all supposed to be the back story, but Margarete refused to let it be the back story and became the central character,” Mason said.
The back story to the creation of “The Winter Soldier” begins with Mason’s evolution from unpublished short story writer to professional novelist. While a medical student, Mason participated in a research project on malaria among Burmese refugees along Thailand’s border with Myanmar.
From that sojourn, he came up with the idea of a plot about a colonial-era botanist dragging a bathtub with him as he explored the jungles and mountains in the Shan states of northern Burma. The tale evolved into his first novel, “The Piano Tuner,” published in 2002.
“A bathtub wasn’t really going to make a great novel,” he said. “I don’t know exactly where the idea of the piano replaced the bathtub, but it was there pretty early on.”
As he wrote the piece, he viewed it as something that might entertain family and friends.
“I did not think it would be a novel,” he said. “At that point, I’d never written anything longer than my thesis in college. ... All of a sudden, it’s three chapters, then it’s four chapters and then it’s six chapters. ... And then, I thought, ‘OK, maybe I should actually finish this.’”
The book received a positive reception, was published in many other languages and was adapted into an opera.
Mason’s second novel, “A Far Country,” released in 2007, follows a 14-year-old girl’s journey through a vast, unidentified land in search of her brother.
Mason said the unnamed setting was based on his travels in Brazil while he was engaged in research there. He met a psychiatric patient — a doctor diagnosed with an acute psychosis who also was a stunningly original artist.
The encounter sparked the idea for “The Winter Soldier,” but Mason’s research in preparing to write the book led him to studies done on psychoses in late 19th and early 20th centuries in Central Europe, and Vienna in particular.
The novel includes a reference to Lucius’s exposure to Sigmund Freud.
“In an earlier version of the book, he made a cameo appearance and, unfortunately, I cut it out,” Mason said. “I would have liked to have seen it (in the book), but it didn’t make sense.”
Mason’s next scheduled publication will be the release in May of a collection of short stories titled “A Registry of My Passage Upon the Earth.”
Information about Mason’s books, career, news and events are available at danielmasonbooks.com.