WALNUT CREEK, Calif.—Daniel Mason stoops to pick a worm off a sidewalk, then jogs to catch up with his companions. He explains, “It’s kind of embarrassing, but it’s something I’ve done all my life. If a worm is on the sidewalk, I put it back in the earth.”
The earth. It’s a subject of endless fascination for the author. In his debut novel, 2002’s The Piano Tuner, his protagonist comes to grips with 19th century Burma as he travels through a hostile jungle to repair a priceless piano.
The arid landscape in his new novel, A Far Country, is a far cry from the lushness of Burma. The characters are as parched as the land, which Mason describes in fervid detail:
“In the hills, they searched for drinking-trees, held their bird-pecked fruit, ate their withered leaves and chewed their tubers until the sweet alkaline juice numbed their mouths. Slowly, the great trees began to die, their roots torn up, their leaves scratching at the dust as the wind swirled them away.”
Mason’s heroine, Isabel, is a child of the natural world, he says. At 14, she’s quiet and uncomplicated; he doesn’t like to use the word “simple” because he is afraid it would be insulting to her. He says Isabel is complex in her own way.
“I love her. I’m very close to her,” he says. “I get this sense that she’s around. I have this affection for her like I might have for somebody who is alive, which is a little bit odd. She’s imaginary.”
It is because of Isabel that the land around her is so painstakingly described in A Far Country. It reflects who she is, Mason says. “She knows all the plants, the different kinds of stones. She spends time thinking about the birds.”
Isabel lives with her family in a desiccated, nameless country in South America, where the men work in the fields during cane season, and in construction the rest of the time. The women tend the homes and the small gardens that yield food from the roots of plants. Frequent droughts wreak havoc in their lives.
“She’s grown up in this little town where very often the days are similar, and they’re very comfortably settled into the natural rhythms of the place,” Mason says. “It’s a very difficult life—they’re starving much of the time—but she knows what it’s like.”
The family sleeps in hammocks. Their tiny home is surrounded by the homes of relatives. When the droughts come, often families travel to the city a few days away to get work, and to live in settlements filled with other refugees. Sometimes entire villages are forced to move to special drought camps.
Isabel has an almost mystical closeness to her brother, Isaias, and follows him to the city when he leaves the village, against his parents’ wishes. The connection the brother and sister share is reflected in the title of the book, a quote from one of Mason’s favorite philosophers, the sixth century Greek Heraclitus: The soul of man is a far country, impossible to explore.
“In my mind, it’s a title about their relationship and how it’s formed by the place,” Mason says. “But ultimately, it’s about their relationship, and her attempt to understand her brother.”
Mason, who lives alone near Berkeley’s Elmwood District, was in Brazil working on an idea for a different book when he began noticing massive migrations of people from Northeast Brazil to cities such as Sao Paulo.
“What happens to somebody when they come from a traditional society, when they use a particular language, when they are completely connected to the physical, natural world, and are suddenly torn out of that situation and put in the modern world?” Mason says. “How do they confront it? How does their view of the world change when their old world is taken away from them?”
Mason desperately wants his readers to empathize with Isabel and understand where she comes from. “I wanted it to be spare, so I wrote and rewrote. It was so important to her character,” Mason says. “In my first book, it was the setting (that was important). In this book, the setting is (Isabel).”
Mason, 31, grew up in Palo Alto, where his mother taught art and his father was a radiologist at Stanford Hospital. He wrote short stories for fun, and headed east to Harvard, where he studied archaeology, economics, environmental science and biology. Biology took: He came home and studied medicine at UC San Francisco. He was in med school while he was writing A Far Country, which took 4 ½ years.
Mason credits one of his professors in med school for encouraging him to write. “He teaches all these lessons to his students that are lessons for writers. Like, how to look at patients. They may say one thing, but you have to notice the clothes they are wearing, if they are wearing jewelry, the way they hold themselves, if they are well-mannered. The way they speak. It’s trying to figure out what’s going on in their life from these peripheral clues.”
The decision to place Isabel in a nameless country in a nonspecific time was very deliberate. As he was in Brazil, he contemplated setting it there.
“I found, though, that whenever I mentioned a historical event, it was a relief from the very claustrophobic world Isabel finds herself in. I was relieving the reader from the claustrophobia I wanted them to feel,” he says. “I wanted to as much as possible retain the point of view within her world.”
After Mason’s book tour, he’s buckling down to write his next book, which he says will be different from A Far Country, but will still touch on his interest in how different people view the world.
But it seems he’s still not quite ready to leave Isabel behind. “She continues to fascinate me,” he says. “And I continue to wonder, if I were to meet her, did I actually get it right?”