As a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at Stanford University, Mason has spent much of his career researching the subjective experience of mental illness and the influence of literature and culture on modern medical practices. And as an acclaimed novelist, the Palo Alto native has spent nearly two decades writing fiction and nonfiction inspired by his research.
Mason said his dual career took off unexpectedly when he was a medical student at the University of California, San Francisco. Between college and medical school, Mason, then 26, decided to conduct infectious disease research in Southeast Asia for a year. That trip, he explained, inspired his debut novel, "The Piano Tuner," the basis for a 2004 opera of the same name.
"I ended up writing a book about someone who, maybe like myself, had gone away — very far away — for the first time and was struck by the experience," he said.
Over the years, Mason has written numerous novels and short stories, including "A Far Country" and "The Winter Soldier," which have been translated into 28 languages.
In May, he released his latest book, "A Registry of My Passage upon the Earth: Stories," a collection of nine short stories, many based on real people, that probe the connections between art and science, madness and genius. His body of work has earned him the 2020 Joyce Carol Oates Prize, which honors authors in the middle of their careers and includes a $50,000 cash award. As an award recipient, he has spent the past year participating in a series of virtual lectures and literary events.
The title story in his collection chronicles the chaotic existence of Arthur Bispo do Ros?rio, a real-life Brazilian folk artist diagnosed with schizophrenia, and how he noted the minutiae of every day and constructed from it something mysterious and captivating.
"He created this extraordinary body of work — embroideries, collages, sculptures — all with the intent of sharing what life on Earth was like," Mason said. "I just felt like, what an extraordinary person, what an amazing way to think about the creative impetus that drives people to make art."
In the book, Mason also writes about a desperate mother in Industrial-age London seeking a cure for her son's life-threatening asthma in "On Growing Ferns and Other Plants in Glass Cases, in the Midst of the Smoke of London." In the short story "The Second Dr. Service," Mason tells the story of an unassuming physician contending with his own doppelganger, who turns out to be more capable and likable than he.
Other selections spotlight a female balloonist, an English pugilist and a lonely telegraph operator in the Amazon.
In "The Ecstasy of Alfred Russel Wallace," one of Mason's favorite stories, a self-taught "bug collector" corresponds with Charles Darwin, unaware that he has just scooped the older scientist's Theory of Natural Selection.
"When I heard the story about the correspondence between him and Darwin, I was really struck by wondering what it would have been like for (Wallace) to be in that moment, waiting for this reply," Mason said.
With only one minor exception, the stories in "A Registry" are set in the past. What is it that drives Mason to explore historical settings and eschew contemporary ones?
"I feel I'm drawn to the language of the past. I'm drawn to the material world of the past. Writing about the past feels like traveling, so there's the chance of being somewhere else. I also think that I find it to be a way of writing about questions that are perhaps more contemporary, but liberating myself a little bit from needing to be immediately applicable."
When Mason's book hit the shelves last spring, it was just two months after the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 pandemic.
"Publication kind of came and went," Mason said. "I was thinking about what everyone was thinking about: 'What's this disease and how is society going to change?'"
As time has gone on, Mason said the pandemic has had varied effects on society and his writing has increasingly turned toward the present.
"The pandemic is causing huge amounts of stress in different ways," he said. "At the beginning, it seemed like there was a group of people who actually found some of the changes made life less stressful, but now as things have dragged on, most people seem to be negatively affected."