Daniel Mason on his novel 'North Woods'
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Daniel Mason's new novel, "North Woods," opens in the 17th century with a young man and a woman running from their Puritan village into the forest. The book tells the story of civilization and generations through a patch of land in the woods of what's now western Massachusetts. Let's ask the novelist to read what happens when the couple reach that spot with a pond clearing and seedlings raising their heads through ash.
DANIEL MASON: (Reading) Here, he said. They stripped their last rags, swam and slept. It was all so clear, so pure. From his little bag, he withdrew a pouch containing seeds of squash and corn and fragments of potato. At the brook, he found a wide flat stone, pried it from the earth and carried it back into the clearing where he laid it gently in the soil. Here.
SIMON: What follows that here - life, death, despair and desire. An orchard grows. Ghosts prowl. Poisons lurk. Forbidden love blooms. And apple seeds sprout from the ribcage of a murdered English scout. There's also romance among all species in "North Woods." The novelist, Daniel Mason, joins us now. Thank you so much for being with us.
MASON: Thank you so much for having me.
SIMON: I want to begin by asking you about one of my favorite characters, Charles Osgood, which I may not have to tell you is an honored name in the radio profession. Your Charles Osgood is enthralled by apples, isn't he?
MASON: Right. So Charles Osgood was a major in the British army, and he's stabbed by a bayonet, which has recently been used to cut an apple. So perhaps that's the reason why he becomes bewitched with apples and obsessed with the idea of raising his own orchard. And so he leaves this illustrious career and decides to head up into the mountains to found his own orchard. And the tree that he finds is the tree that we've seen 60, 70 years earlier growing up from a seed, which is from an apple in the belly of this English soldier that you mentioned. Much of the book then follows, in some ways, not only the history of the people who live in the house but also their interaction with this apple tree that sits around for a long time. And there's, like, a lot of drama, without giving away too much of the plot, that occurs around the apple tree itself.
SIMON: What do the apples represent to him, do you think? What do you call it? Pomomania, if I'm not mistaken.
MASON: Yes. It's an invented word, pomomania. Maybe it'll become a true recognized...
MASON: ...Psychiatric condition one day - so literally a mania for fruit. You know, I think for him, he's somebody who has spent his life in the service of human goals and for the first time has turned towards the land. Something that I found in researching "North Woods" is when one wanders around in the woods, one encounters old apple trees everywhere and in places that seem like untouched forest. And you realize there must have been someone here at some time who planted this and cared for this and brought it up. And so for him, I think it also connects him to a kind of history, as well.
SIMON: Yeah. You also tell these stories through letters and poems and journals, case notes of a psychiatrist at one point. How do you communicate in so many different voices - not just people but personalities who are in different eras?
MASON: So one of the fun parts, I think, about writing this book was that there's a lot that I want to say, but there are limits. And in this case, using these older voices not only was fun. It's like finding some instrument that you've never seen before and trying out, like, an old rusty trombone you find in the attic somewhere - seeing what it sounds like, seeing what kind of music it makes. But also, there's this opportunity to express thoughts that perhaps my contemporary English don't enable me.
And so I think, for example, one of the characters who I love is a mid-19th century painter, the kind of Hudson Valley School-like painter who paints the natural world and is very, very attentive to what he's seeing is part of his job. And so using his voice enabled a kind of indulgence - really, almost a kind of overriding but in a real sort of indulgence in description, which I think I really couldn't have gotten away with if I had just used the voice that I regularly write in. Later in the book, there's some sensational killings. There's a true crime story. Again, that allows a sort of tone that I otherwise wouldn't have been able to touch.
SIMON: I have to ask you about a scene in particular, and I note that more than one review has centered on this, too. Midway through the book, you have the most vivid, detailed - you can tell where I'm going...
MASON: I know where you're going. yes.
SIMON: ...Luxurious and erotic scene. And it's about beetles.
MASON: Right. Can we talk about this on public radio?
SIMON: Undoubtedly, we have to issue a warning. Next few minutes, we will be talking about beetle procreation. Please go ahead, Mr. Mason.
MASON: OK. All right. Well...
SIMON: Not just beetle procreation, I mean, romance. You describe it as true romance. Yeah.
MASON: You know, even though I've - I love writing about nature, I had previously really mostly written about nature as a kind of setting. And this time around, I thought, I want to write about it as a kind of protagonist. What would it be like to treat it like I treat my human characters? And, of course, all the good stuff that makes up the stories that we want to hear about human characters - all the drama, the sex, the violence, the treason - are ones that we can find in the natural world, as well. So what happens in the book is that, I think many people know, New England forests have been dramatically changed by a series of diseases that have come either...
MASON: ...In by wind in the case of chestnut trees. Or in the case of the American elm, which used to line most streets and most northeastern cities across the United States by a little beetle that that carries the pathogen in when it burrows in to set up its nest and eventually to mate. And so this is really a moment where if we focus our attention on the beetle, we're seeing is not a story of destruction, which, of course, it is for the tree and, of course, for the people who live around the tree. But this is the great romantic moment of the beetle's life. And what would happen if we turn our lens onto that experience?
SIMON: I mean, I'm reluctant to ask you what kind of research went into this (laughter).
MASON: Yes. Well, so this is one of those moments where truth is better than fiction. As I was reading around about - let's just call it the erotic life of insects, I came across this wonderful academic piece that very vividly described the mating patterns of the skeleton beetle. I believe it was subtitled "A Romp In The Sac."
SIMON: Oh. Ooh. S-A-C, yes? Right. Yeah.
MASON: Yes, that's right. A very funny title for an academic piece.
SIMON: All of the lives in here that pass through this forest and pass through this house and inhabit this patch of earth at different times, separated by years and even centuries - do their lives, do our lives feed off one another?
MASON: I certainly feel that that's the case. And I think one of the fun parts of writing "North Woods" was thinking about how so much of the world around me right now is filled with meaning that I actually am not aware of. All the houses that I've lived in, all the places that I walk are places that have these tremendous histories, tremendous amounts of drama, all of which has been lost for time. And yet there are ways of sort of peeling back that history, either through reading or literally through archaeology. Or anyone who has an old house who's had a moment to see what lies behind the wallpaper knows that there's an incredible depth to these stories. And so that gives me a lot of solace, not only a connection to people around me at a particular period of time, but the sense of a connection to the people and plants and animals who went before me.
SIMON: Daniel Mason - his new novel, "North Woods." Thank you so much for being with us.
MASON: Thank you so much for having me, Scott.
(SOUNDBITE OF PIERCE CRASK SONG, "NORWEGIAN WOOD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
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