The best medicine
Medical student writes best-selling novel
By Kim Curtis
SAN FRANCISCO -- Daniel Mason earned a bachelor's degree in biology from Harvard University. Then, he went to Stanford University medical school. Now, he's a first-time author of a best-selling novel.
Mason's novel, "The Piano Tuner," is a sprawling work of historical fiction set in late 1880s Burma. It's a compelling tale of a docile London piano tuner who gets summoned by the Crown to leave behind his wife and travel 5,000 miles to war-torn Burma -- all to repair an eccentric army officer's piano.
For the 26-year-old Mason, it's a long way from "The Ice Cream Cone Murder Mystery," a short story he says he wrote in second grade.
He continued writing "little adventure stories," he says, in elementary school. In high school, he entered short story contests and considered a writing career. He took a creative writing class in college, but eventually steered himself back toward science.
"I really felt I didn't have anything to write about, so I decided to study biology and write on the side," he says.
Writing and studying
He wrote "The Piano Tuner" during his first year of medical school. He had just spent a year studying malaria on the Thai-Myanmar border and he wanted to remember his experiences there.
"I was fascinated by the culture, the language, the history," he says.
Mason says he didn't devote hours to writing, but mostly jotted down notes with images and impressions.
"I thought, 'Do I want to go home and write or do I want to go to a Thai-Burmese kickboxing match?"'
Mason decided to write after he returned to California and was in his first year of medical school at the University of California, San Francisco.
"You can only spend six hours a day memorizing facts," he says. "The writing was a wonderful complement to hours of rote memorization."
Medical training also taught him how to watch people, ask questions and get a peek into their lives. He learned to pay attention to details and look for clues about their behavior. He also found he had a psychological and emotional need to write.
"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," Mason says. "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."
Mason wrote on a laptop in the medical school's library, in empty conference rooms, in coffee shops, even in nearby Golden Gate Park.
After he got fixated on the image of a piano in the jungle, he says, the story just took off.
"I got past 15 pages and still had a story to tell. After 40 pages, I had this growing suspicion that I could turn it into a full-length book. But I never thought I would finish it."
He did. Then he let a few friends and family members read it. They encouraged him to find an agent.
"It kept me up until three in the morning and I was bedazzled," says Robin Desser, an editor at Alfred A. Knopf Publishing, who receives about 30 manuscripts a week.
Desser said Knopf acquired the novel "within a matter of days," which is quite unusual.
"We have about 100,000 copies in print. We're in a third printing. Sales are fantastic," she said.
Mason is working on a second novel set in Brazil.
Mason, who says he has no intentions of choosing one career over another, returns to medical school in the spring.
Reviews for "The Piano Tuner" have been outstanding.
Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times called it "a novel that immerses the reader in a distant world with startling immediacy and ardor, a novel that testifies to its young author's impressive gifts of imaginative sympathy and narrative aplomb."