The Piano Tuner

The Piano Tuner

The Piano Tuner

The Piano Tuner



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In 1886 a shy, middle-aged piano tuner named Edgar Drake receives an unusual commission from the British War Office: to travel to the remote jungles of northeast Burma and there repair a rare piano belonging to an eccentric army surgeon who has proven mysteriously indispensable to the imperial design. From this irresistible beginning, The Piano Tuner launches its protagonist into a world of seductive loveliness and nightmarish intrigue. And as he follows Drake’s journey, Mason dazzles readers with his erudition, moves them with his vibrantly rendered characters, and enmeshes them in the unbreakable spell of his storytelling.

Author Biography:

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9785864719282
Publisher: Phantom Press
Publication date: 10/05/2023
Sold by: Bookwire
Format: eBook
Pages: 480
File size: 2 MB
Age Range: 16 Years

About the Author

Daniel Mason was born and raised in Northern California. He studied biology at Harvard, and medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. His first novel, The Piano Tuner, published in 2002, was a national bestseller and has since been published in 27 countries. His other works include A Far CountryThe Winter Soldier, and A Registry of My Passage Upon Earth, and his writing has appeared in Harper's Magazine and Lapham's Quarterly. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

It was afternoon in the office of Colonel Killian, Director of Operations for the Burma Division of the British army. Edgar Drake sat by a pair of dark, rattling heating pipes and stared out the window, watching the sweep of rain. Across the room sat the Colonel, a broad, sunburnt man with a shock of red hair and a thick mustache that fanned out in combed symmetry, underlining a fierce pair of green eyes. Behind his desk hung a long Bantu lance and a painted shield that still bore the scars of battle. He wore a scarlet uniform, edged with braids of black mohair. Edgar would remember this, for the braids reminded him of a tiger's stripes, and the scarlet made the green eyes greener.

Several minutes had passed since the Colonel had entered the room, drawn up a chair behind a deeply polished mahogany desk, and begun to thumb through a stack of papers. At last he looked up. From behind the mustache came a stentorian baritone. "Thank you for waiting, Mr. Drake. I had a matter of urgency to attend to."

The piano tuner turned from the window. "Of course, Colonel."

He fingered his hat in his lap.

"If you don't mind, we will begin at once with the matter at hand." The Colonel leaned forward. "Again, welcome to the War Office. I imagine this is your first visit here." He did not leave time for the piano tuner to respond. "On behalf of my staff and superiors, I appreciate your attention to what we consider a most serious matter. We have prepared a briefing regarding the background of this affair. If you agree, I think it would be most expedient if I summarize it for you first. We can discuss any questions you may have when you know more details." He rested his hand on a stack of papers.

"Thank you, Colonel," replied the tuner quietly. "I must admit that I was intrigued by your request. It is most unusual."

Across the table the mustache wavered. "Most unusual indeed, Mr. Drake. We do have much to discuss of this matter. If you haven't recognized by now, this commission is as much about a man as it is about a piano. So I will begin with Surgeon-Major Carroll himself."

The piano tuner nodded.

The mustache wavered again. "Mr. Drake, I will not bother you with the details of Carroll's youth. Actually, his background is somewhat mysterious, and we know little. He was born in 1833, of Irish stock, the son of Mr. Thomas Carroll, a teacher of Greek poetry and prose at a boarding school in Oxfordshire. Although his family was never wealthy, his father's interest in education must have been passed along to his son, who excelled at school, and left home to pursue medicine at University College Hospital in London. Upon graduation, rather than open a private surgery as most were inclined to do, he applied for a position at a provincial hospital for the poor. As earlier, we have few records of Carroll during this period, we only know that he remained in the provinces for five years. During this time he married a local girl. The marriage was short-lived. His wife died in childbirth, along with their child, and Carroll never remarried."

The Colonel cleared his throat, picked up another document, and continued. "Following his wife's death, Carroll returned to London, where he applied for a position as a physician at the Asylum for the Ragged Poor in the East End during the cholera outbreaks. He held this post for only two years. In 1863 he secured a commission as a surgeon on the Army Medical Staff.

"It is here, Mr. Drake, that our history becomes more complete. Carroll was appointed as a doctor to the 28th Foot in Bristol, but applied for a transfer to serve in the colonies only four months after his enlistment. The application was accepted immediately, and he was appointed deputy director of the military hospital in Saharanpur, in India. There he gained an early reputation not only as a fine physician but also as somewhat of an adventurer. He frequently accompanied expeditions into the Punjab and Kashmir, missions that put him in danger from local tribes as well as Russian agents, a problem that persists as the Tsar tries to match our territorial gains. There he also earned a reputation as a man of letters, although nothing that would suggest the, well, let us say fervor that led him to request a piano. Several superiors reported him shirking rounds and observed him reading poetry in the hospital gardens. This practice was tolerated, albeit grudgingly, after Carroll apparently recited a poem by Shelley -- 'Ozymandias,' I believe -- to a local chieftain who was being treated at the hospital. The man, who had already signed a treaty of cooperation but had refused to commit any troops, returned to the hospital a week after his convalescence and asked to see Carroll, not the military officer. He brought with him a force of three hundred, 'to serve the "poet-soldier" ' -- his words, not ours, Mr. Drake."

The Colonel looked up. He thought he saw a slight smile on the piano tuner's face. "Remarkable story, I know."

"It is a powerful poem."

"It is, although I admit the episode was perhaps somewhat unfortunate."


"We are getting ahead of ourselves, Mr. Drake, but I am of the mind that this matter with the Erard has something to do with the 'soldier' attempting to become more of a 'poet.' The piano -- and, granted, this is just my opinion -- represents a -- how best to put this? -- an illogical extension of such a strategy. If Doctor Carroll truly believes that bringing music to such a place will hasten peace, I only hope he brings enough riflemen to defend it." The piano tuner said nothing, and the Colonel shifted slightly in his seat. "You would agree, Mr. Drake, that to impress a local noble with recitation and rhyme is one thing. To request a grand piano to be sent to the most remote of our forts is quite another."

"I know little of military matters," said Edgar Drake.

The Colonel looked at him briefly before returning to the papers. This was not the kind of person ready for the climate and challenges of Burma, he thought. A tall, thin man with thick graying hair that hung loosely above a pair of wire-rim glasses, the tuner looked more like a schoolteacher than someone capable of bearing any military responsibility. He seemed old for his forty-one years; his eyebrows were dark, his cheeks lined with soft whiskers. His light-colored eyes wrinkled at their corners, although not, the Colonel noted, in the manner of someone who had spent a lifetime smiling. He was wearing a corduroy jacket, a bow tie, and worn wool trousers. It all would have conveyed a feeling of sadness, he thought, were it not for his lips, unusually full for an Englishman, which rested in a position between bemusement and faint surprise and lent him a softness which unnerved the Colonel. He also noticed the piano tuner's hands, which the tuner massaged incessantly, their wrists lost in the cavities of his sleeves. They were not the type of hands to which he was accustomed, too delicate for a man's, yet when they had greeted each other, the Colonel had felt a roughness and strength, as if they were moved by wires beneath the calloused skin.

He looked back to the papers and continued. "So Carroll remained in Saharanpur for five years. During this time he served on no fewer than seventeen missions, passing more time in the field than at his post." He began to thumb through the reports on the missions the Doctor had accompanied, reading out their names. September 1866 -- Survey for a Rail Route Along the Upper Sutlej River. December -- Mapping Expedition of the Corps of Water Engineers in the Punjab. February 1867 -- Report on Childbirth and Obstetric Diseases in Eastern Afghanistan. May -- Veterinary Infections of Herd Animals in the Mountains of Kashmir and Their Risk to Humans. September -- the Royal Society's Highland Survey of Flora in Sikkim. He seemed compelled to name them all, and did so without taking a breath, so that the veins on his neck swelled to resemble the very mountains of Kashmir -- at least thought Edgar Drake, who had never been there, or studied its geography, but who, by this point, was growing impatient with the notable absence of any piano from the story.

"In late 1868," continued the Colonel, "the deputy director of our military hospital in Rangoon, then the only major hospital in Burma, died suddenly of dysentery. To replace him, the medical director in Calcutta recommended Carroll, who arrived in Rangoon in February 1869. He served there for three years, and since his work was mainly medical, we have few reports on his activities. All evidence suggests he was occupied with his responsibilities at the hospital."

The Colonel slid a folder forward on the desk. "This is a photograph of Carroll, in Bengal." Edgar waited briefly, and then, realizing he should rise to accept it, leaned forward, dropping his hat on the floor in the process. "Sorry," he muttered, grabbing the hat, then the folder, and returning to his chair. He opened the folder in his lap.

Inside was a photo, upside down. He rotated it gingerly. It showed a tall, confident man with a dark mustache and finely combed hair, dressed in khaki, standing over the bed of a patient, a darker man, perhaps an Indian. In the background there were other beds, other patients. A hospital, thought the tuner, and returned his eyes to the face of the Doctor. He could read little from the man's expression. His face was blurred, although strangely all the patients were in focus, as if the Doctor was in a state of constant animation. He stared, trying to match the man to the story he was hearing, but the photo revealed little. He rose and returned it to the Colonel's desk.

"In 1871 Carroll requested to be moved to a more remote station in central Burma. The request was approved, as this was a period of intensifying Burmese activity in the Irrawaddy River valley south of Mandalay. At his new post, as in India, Carroll busied himself with frequent surveying expeditions, often into the southern Shan Hills. Although it is not known exactly how-given his many responsibilities -- Carroll apparently found the time to acquire near fluency in the Shan language. Some have suggested that he studied with a local monk, others that he learned from a mistress.

"Monks or mistresses, in 1873 we received the disastrous news that the Burmese, after decades of flirtation, had signed a commercial treaty with France. You may know this history; it was covered quite extensively in the newspapers. Although French troops were still in Indo-China and had not advanced past the Mekong, this was obviously an extremely dangerous precedent for further Franco-Burmese cooperation and an open threat to India. We immediately began rapid preparations to occupy the states of Upper Burma. Many of the Shan princes had shown long-standing antagonism to the Burmese throne, and . . ." The Colonel trailed off, out of breath from the soliloquy, and saw the piano tuner staring out the window. "Mr. Drake, are you listening?"

Edgar turned back, embarrassed. "Yes . . . yes, of course."

"Well then, I will continue." The Colonel looked back at his papers.

Across the desk, the tuner spoke tentatively. "Actually, with due respect, Colonel, it is a most complex and interesting story, but I must admit that I don't yet understand exactly why you need my expertise . . . I know that you are accustomed to give briefings in this manner, but may I trouble you with a question?"

"Yes, Mr. Drake?"

"Well . . . to be honest, I am waiting to hear what is wrong with the piano."

"I'm sorry?"

"The piano. I was contacted because I am being hired to tune a piano. This meeting is most comprehensive with regard to the man, but I don't believe he is my commission."

The Colonel's face grew red. "As I stated at the beginning, Mr. Drake, I do believe that this background is important."

"I agree, sir, but I don't know what is wrong with the piano, or even whether or not I can mend it. I hope you understand."

"Yes, yes. Of course I understand." The muscles in his jaw tensed. He was ready to talk about the withdrawal of the Resident from Mandalay in ...., and the Battle of Myingyan, and the siege of the Maymyo garrison, one of his favorite stories. He waited.

Edgar stared down at his hands. "I apologize, please, please, do continue," he said. "It is only that I must leave soon, as it is quite a walk to my home, and I really am most interested in the Erard grand." Despite feeling intimidated, he secretly savored this brief interruption. He had always disliked military men, and had begun to like this Carroll character more and more. In truth, he did want to hear the details of the story, but it was almost night, and the Colonel showed no sign of stopping.

The Colonel turned back to the papers, "Very well, Mr. Drake, I will make this brief. By 1874, we had begun to establish a handful of secret outposts in the Shan territories, one near Hsipaw, another near Taunggyi, and another -- this the most remote -- in a small village called Mae Lwin, on the bank of the Salween River. You won't find Mae Lwin on any maps, and until you accept the commission, I can't tell you where it is. There we sent Carroll."

The room was getting dark, and the Colonel lit a small lamp on the desk. The light flickered, casting the shadow of his mustache across his cheekbones. He studied the piano tuner again. He looks impatient, he thought, and took a deep breath. "Mr. Drake, so as not to detain you much longer, I will spare you the details of Carroll's twelve years in Mae Lwin. Should you accept the commission, we can talk further, and I can provide you with military reports. Unless, of course, you would like to hear them now."

"I would like to hear about the piano if you don't mind."

"Yes, yes of course, the piano." He sighed. "What would you like to know? I believe you have been informed of most of the details of this matter in the letter from Colonel Fitzgerald."

"Yes, Carroll requested a piano. The army purchased an .... Erard grand and shipped it to him. Would you mind telling me more of that story?"

"I can't really. Other than hoping to repeat the success he found in reciting Shelley, we can't understand why he would want a piano."

"Why?" The piano tuner laughed, a deep sound that came unexpectedly from the thin frame. "How many times I have asked myself the same question about my other clients. Why would a society matron who doesn't know Handel from Haydn purchase an 1820 Broadwood and request that it be tuned weekly even though it has never been played? Or how to explain the County Justice who has his instrument revoiced once every two months -- which, I might add, although entirely unnecessary, is wonderful for my affairs -- yet this same man refuses an entertainment license for the annual public piano competition? You will excuse me, but Doctor Carroll doesn't seem so bizarre. Have you ever heard, sir, Bach's Inventions?"

The Colonel stuttered, "I think so . . . I'm certain I must have, but -- no offense intended, Mr. Drake -- I do not see how that has anything to do with -- "

"The thought of living for eight years in the jungle without Bach's music is horrid to me." Edgar paused, then added, "It sounds beautiful on an 1840 Erard."

"That may be, but our soldiers are still fighting."

Edgar Drake took a deep breath. He could suddenly feel his heart beating faster. "I apologize, I do not intend my remarks to seem presumptuous. In fact, every minute of your history makes me more interested. But I am confused. If you so disapprove of our pianist, Colonel, then why am I here? You are a very important person; it is rare for someone of your rank to spend several hours interviewing a civilian, even I know this. I also know that the War Office must have invested a tremendous sum in shipping the piano to Burma, let alone purchasing it. And you have offered to pay me generously -- well, fairly in my opinion, but from an objective perspective, generously. Yet you seem so disapproving of my commission."

The Colonel leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms over his chest. "Very well. It is important that we discuss this. I am open with my disapproval, but please do not confuse that with disrespect. The Surgeon-Major is an extremely effective soldier, an unusual person perhaps, but he is irreplaceable. There are some, very high within this office, who have a great interest in his work."

"But not yourself."

"Let's just say that there are men who get lost in the rhetoric of our imperial destiny, that we conquer not to gain land and wealth but to spread culture and civilization. I will not deny them this, but it is not the duty of the War Office."

"And yet you support him?"

The Colonel paused. "If I speak bluntly, Mr. Drake, it is because it is important that you understand the position of the War Office. The Shan States are lawless. Except Mae Lwin. Carroll has accomplished more than several battalions. He is indispensable, and he commands one of the most dangerous and important posts in our colonies. The Shan States are essential to securing our eastern frontier; without them we risk invasion, French or even Siamese. If a piano is the concession we must make to keep him at his post, then it is a small cost. But his post is a military post, not a music salon. It is our hope that when the piano is tuned he will return to his work. It is important that you understand this, that you understand that we, not the Surgeon-Major, are hiring you. His ideas can be . . . seductive."

You don't trust him, thought Edgar. "Just a concession then, like cigarettes," he said.

"No, this is different, I think you understand."

"So I should not try to argue that it is because of the piano that he is indispensable?"

"We will know when it is tuned. Won't we, Mr. Drake?"

And at his words, the piano tuner smiled. "Perhaps we will."

The Colonel sat forward. "Do you have any other questions?"

"Only one."

"Yes, what is it?"

Edgar looked down at his hands. "I am sorry, Colonel, but what exactly is wrong with the piano?"

The Colonel stared. "I think we have discussed this."

The tuner took a deep breath. "With all due respect, sir, we discussed what you think is wrong with a piano. But I need to know what is wrong with this piano, with the 1840 Erard that sits somewhere in a jungle far away, where you are asking me to go. Your office has told me little about the piano besides the fact that it is out of tune, which, I might add, is due to the swelling of the soundboard, not the body, as you mentioned in your letter. Of course, I am amazed that you did not anticipate this, the piano going out of tune. Humidity works horrors."

"Again, Mr. Drake, we were doing this for Carroll. You will have to make such philosophical inquiries of the man himself."

"Well, then may I ask what it is that I need to mend?"

The Colonel coughed. "Such details were not provided to us."

"He must have written about the piano somewhere."

"We have only one note, strange and uncharacteristically short for the Doctor, usually a man of eloquence, which made us somewhat incredulous of the request, until it was followed by his threat to resign."

"May I read it?"

The Colonel hesitated, and then passed a small brown piece of paper to the piano tuner. "It is Shan paper," the Colonel said. "Supposedly the tribe is famous for it. It is odd, as the Surgeon-Major has never used it for any other correspondence." The paper was soft, a handmade matte with visible fibers, now stained with a dark ink.


The Erard grand can no longer be played, and must be tuned and repaired, a task which I have attempted but failed. A piano tuner who specializes in Erards is needed urgently in Mae Lwin. I trust that this should not be difficult. It is much easier to deliver a man than a piano.

Surgeon-Major Anthony J. Carroll, Mae Lwin, Shan States

Edgar looked up. "These are spare words to justify sending a man to the other side of the world."

"Mr. Drake," said the Colonel, "your reputation as a tuner of Erard grands is well known by those in London who concern themselves with the matter of music. We anticipate the entire duration of the journey to be no longer than three months from when you leave to when you return to England. As you know, you will be rewarded well."

"And I must go alone."

"Your wife will be well provided for here."

The piano tuner sat back in his chair.

"Do you have any more questions?"

"No, I think I understand," he said softly, as if speaking only to himself.

The Colonel set the papers down and leaned forward in his seat. "Will you go to Mae Lwin?"

Edgar Drake turned back to the window. It was dusk, and wind played with the falling water, intricate crescendos and diminuendos of rain. I decided long before I came here, he thought.

He turned to the Colonel and nodded.

Copyright © 2002 by Daniel Mason

What People are Saying About This

Jeffrey Lent

An extraordinary piece of work. The Piano Tuner is a novel of journeys and the shifting grounds of perception, but at heart it is a story of the human urge to be absorbed fully into life, to cease to be a bystander, to be thrust into the essential dreamscape of human strivings. Daniel Mason's debut is shining and striking. He transported me thoroughly, well beyond the initial reading. Days later, the scenes shift and stir and agitate within me. This is writing of deep potency and resonance. Of beauty and pain and all things in between. -- (Jeffrey Lent, author of In the Fall and Lost Nation)

Arthur Golden

Daniel Mason has woven together an elegant and unusually engrossing story, one that offers the reader the best possible journey -- into a world that no longer exists. Rich, atmospheric, and evocative of the sights, smells and textures of 19th-century Burma, The Piano Tuner is an astonishingly accomplished first novel. I truly enjoyed it.

Reading Group Guide

The introduction, discussion questions, author biography, and suggested reading list that follow are designed to enhance your group’s reading of Daniel Mason’s enigmatic and compelling first novel about the Anglo-Burmese war, a rogue major, and the fate of an ordinary piano tuner drawn into an extraordinary entanglement.


A Conversation with Daniel Mason, author of THE PIANO TUNER

Q: Between college and medical school, you spent a year studying malaria on the Thai-Myanmar border. Why did you decide to make that trip, and what was the experience like?

A: In college, I wrote my senior thesis on mixed-species malaria infections, on what happens when someone is infected with more than one of the four species of parasite that cause human malaria. I was fascinated by the subject—it appears that infections with two species may at times be better than infection with one—but my work was mainly mathematical, and I had never had the opportunity to work in the field. Then not long before I graduated, reports began to come from the Thai-Myanmar border that mixed infections were more common there than previously thought. Soon after, I received a scholarship from the Luce Foundation for a year of research at the Faculty of Tropical Medicine at Mahidol University, in Bangkok, Thailand.

I spent a year in Thailand, splitting my time between the university in Bangkok and our field site in the province of Ranong, along the southern Thai-Myanmar border. There, most of our patients were Burmese migrant workers who had come to Thailand to work in wood mills or fishing boats, or travel to offshore islands to cut wood. The work was extremely interesting; there was a lot of malaria, and because most of the staff was Burmese, I began to learn about Burmese culture, history, medicine. After a year in southeast Asia, I returned to California, for my first year of medical school. Then the next summer I went back to Asia again, this time with a Japanese-Thai project studyingmalaria in northeastern Burma, specifically the Shan States, where much of The Piano Tuner takes place.

Q: When did you begin THE PIANO TUNER? Had you thought you would work on a novel when you first left for Thailand?

I never intended to write a novel when I first went to Thailand. I didn't even really keep a journal, only jotting ideas down from time to time, things I wanted to remember, but this was on napkins, bus tickets, nothing formal: Thai or Burmese words, brief impressions. I think there was simply too much that was new, that there wasn't really any time for reflection. It was only when I came back home, and began medical school, that I began to feel the need to write. It was a strange time to write; I would either work in the early hours before classes, or slip books on Burmese history between anatomy and physiology books.

Q: Where did the idea for THE PIANO TUNER come from?

The book began with just an image of a piano in the jungle. I wish I remember when I first thought of this, but honestly, I don't. I was often struck by reports of colonists bringing items from Europe to the colonies, for example there is a story of Frenchman bringing a bathtub to Indochina. Or the opera in Manaus, in Brazil. A piano seemed like a wonderfully complex symbol of colonialism; one can object to many aspects of European colonialism, but the beauty of at least some European music I think is universal. So it began with a piano; I wrote one page of a story about a pianist in Burma, and then decided that a piano tuner was a more interesting character, a person who is called to do a job, and therefore has room to change as a character. Of course, I would have had to have a piano tuner somewhere. It may be a fine to write a piano into the jungles of Burma, but such a piano cannot escape nature, humidity. As I wrote, I became more and more fascinated by piano tuning. While at first I thought of it as a relatively mechanical task, the more I wrote, and the more tuners I interacted with, the more I realized that the act of tuning a piano is really quite sublime. A composer provides a song, a pianist the motor activity, and the piano the mechanics, but a tuner is the one whose work transforms human motives and construction into beautiful sound. The idea of a broken piano is tragic, imagine the beauty in taking a contraption of metal and wood and strings and transforming it into something that can bring us Beethoven.

That is where the ‘story' part of the novel came from. The general theme of how people are irreparably changed by their experiences came from my own sense of dislocation, loneliness, and disorientation when I returned to the United States after working in such a different place.

Q: You don't have a musical background. What drew you to using music as an important element in this story, and how did you gain a working knowledge of tuning, composers, etc. More specifically, what led you to chose an 1840 Erard grand, or Bach's The Well-Tempered Clavier?

Once I decided to write about a piano, I was suddenly confronted with the task of choosing what kind of piano, what was wrong with it that needed tuning, and what it would play. The first task was perhaps the easiest. I looked at books on the history of pianos for one I thought was beautiful—it was a visual image of the piano which drove the book, so it would be only fitting that I chose a handsome instrument. After that, it was like the personality part of a beauty contest. Erards were particularly interesting because of their past; Sebastian Erard was a tremendous innovator and technician, and the piano itself has a wonderfully bloody history entwined with the French revolution, which Edgar describes in the book.

As for tuning, I began with old tuning manuals, trying to learn how the instrument would work, what the basic tasks of a tuner are, and what unique things might have gone wrong with ornate 50 year-old instrument in the tropics, in the midst of a rebellion. Later, I had the fortune to share ‘my piano' with two piano tuners. One, Ben Treuhaft, is a piano tuner in New York, who had actually tuned an 1840 Erard that was once played by Liszt. I remember being in his little piano shop on the Lower East side of Manhattan surrounded by an array of piano parts, while Ben read the manuscript and pointed out to me all my mistakes, some which were due to the uniqueness of an 1840 Erard, others due to my general ignorance. It was a day which makes one realize how wonderful it is to be a writer. Ben and I batted plot and dialogue back and forth, and tried to reconcile both narrative and technical considerations.

My choice of the musical ‘theme' grew out of my choice of tuning. As is obvious by its name, The Well-Tempered Clavier is a piece that is closely related to the art of tuning a piano; it is a celebration of equal temperament, the tuning technique which allowed Bach to write a piece in all keys that could be played by a single instrument. The more I listened to it, the more enamored of it I became. Now I listen to Bach almost obsessively, especially before I write. Later, after I chose this piece, I would realize how wonderfully the structure of a fugue fit with the book's pattern of overlapping stories, not to mention the double meaning of the word itself.

Q: Why did you decide to set the story in 19th century Burma and the Shan States?

For some time, I thought of setting it in Thailand. I spent most of my time in Thailand, spoke Thai, and was very interested in Thai history. But 19th century British Burma allowed real historical and political tension, while Thailand was never colonized. There were other reasons as well. There are many wonderful accounts of Burma written in English by British officers, administrators, or simply visitors. Also, since I spent so much time on the border, where one could see the wink of pagodas from the mountains across the river, there was always something distant and elusive about Burma. Virtually all of our patients were Burmese, and I was always hearing stories of what it was like. Occasionally we would cross to a small Burmese city famous for its kickboxers, where the immigration office was on little island and you had to jump from the boat to get your passport stamped. But we weren't allowed farther inland.

Q: What kind of research did you do for the elements of British military history, Burmese history, geography, politics?

Researching the Shan Revolt was probably the easiest part of the book: the history is so interesting and colorful, that studying it at times feels like reading a novel (much of it reminded me of adventure stories I used to read, with jungle battles, legends of sorcerers). Surprisingly, I found that some of the most difficult history was actually that which is most well known. For example, it is much easier to learn about the local Shan rebels (for which there are only a handful of sources) than the history of the Raj. Because I found the history so fascinating I felt a certain commitment to it, and tended to be a little obsessive about making the story fit history, dates, etc. I remember at one point going to Lloyd's List to find a particular ship that Edgar could have left England on, but then knew I would have to follow its every stop, so I chose an imaginary ship instead. This kind of choice came up continually.

As for Burmese geography, I was lucky. I originally was going to set the novel either in the Chin states, in the west, where there was a revolt by a monk named U Ottama, or in amongst the Karenni, another tribe, among whom the name of the warlord Sawlapaw still brings stories of awe. But then I came across the story of the Shan revolts, and specifically, of the bandit chief, Twet Nga Lu, a legendary brigand whose body was said to be imbeded with amulets, and who, when he was killed, was boiled down to make a magical potion. Then, just when I had decided to focus on the Shan States, I was offered the research position in Myanmar that summer, in the Shan States. So by chance, I got to travel within a miles of my imaginary site. Unfortunately, I couldn't go there. That part of Myanmar lies right in the Golden Triangle where opium production and local insurgency has led the government to cut it off to outsiders. I would love to go there one day, to see if it is like how I imagined it.

Q: Dr. Carroll, the Surgeon-Major who commands the remote fort of Mae Lwin, is the only person capable of maintaining an unsteady peace in the Shan States. Is he, or any of the characters, based on actual historical figures?

All of the main characters are fictional. The only true historical characters to appear are some of the Shan princes, and references are made to certain British officers. Twet Nga Lu is the only true character "with a speaking role." One interesting point about Carroll, is that early in writing the book, I relied on several sources by a British officer named James George Scott; both a wonderful ethnography called The Burman, His Life and Notions, as well as some other gazetteers and histories. Only later in the process, when was I introduced to Scotts biography, Scott of the Shan Hills, did I realize how very much he was like Anthony Carroll. He was one of those amazing 19th century breeds of polymath, interested in everything, from linguistics and ethnology to natural history. And compared to other officers, he was very committed to ‘pacifying' the Shan States with as little bloodshed as possible. So I think that Scott was an unconscious inspiration for Doctor Carroll: I used his writings to create a character, but only later, did I realize how similar the two characters were. It was very wonderful, like meeting an old family member. Scott appears in The Piano Tuner, although never directly. Carroll refers to him as his friend.

One aspect of this mix of history and fiction which I found interesting was to meet people from the areas in my book. Because I did not have the opportunity to travel to that area of the Shan States, this was rare, and so even more exciting. For example, in Rangoon, I met a woman who was the granddaughter of one of the Shan prices. In northern Thailand, I met a waiter from Mongnai, which is one of the most important Shan principalities. I could hardly control my excitement. I think he thought it was a little bizarre I was so interested in Mongnai, but enjoyed talking about his home. It so happened that there was a melodrama on Thai TV at the time about an ancient legend of Mongnai; although it is in Burma, the Thai and the Shan are very similar, and share many moments in history. So we used to go to this little ice cream shop to watch the show together. It was very surreal: it was like a soap opera, but with giants and magicians, and we would sit and watch and eat ice cream at about nine in the morning.

I think that for any author, after spending so much time with your characters, it becomes hard to convince yourself they aren't real. When I was in London, I remember looking in an old London Directory for the name Edgar Drake. There were several men with that name, and the old directories used to list professions. For a moment, I thought that I would see "piano tuner," and felt my heart race. I didn't, but I found myself double-checking.

Q: When you are a doctor, do you hope to emulate Carroll?

I hope so! Carroll is such an admirable doctor, he is very kind to his patients, he is well-studied, and he is humble in admitting when he doesn't understand something. I definitely hope to emulate these aspects of his personality, and his commitment to serving in underserved, remote areas. But I am also deeply envious of people like him, who can commit themselves to learning so much about a local area, who can sacrifice so much of their personal life in the pursuit of humanitarian goals. I could never stay in the jungle for so long. It is wonderful, for a time, but I get too homesick.

Q: Story-telling is an important part of THE PIANO TUNER. As Edgar travels from London to Burma, and eventually to Dr. Carroll, he hears many tales along the way. Was this an important element for you? How did you see this interacting with your role as an author?

The importance of stories became increasingly fascinating for me throughout the process, and in many ways, now I think the book is really about this more than anything else. Edgar hears other characters' stories as he travels, and is struck by them, until he slowly realizes how his own journey has begun to take on similar aspects of a tale, so that the book becomes a sort of Russian doll of stories, tales within tales, and the line between fiction and truth gets blurred. I loved the idea that Edgar could have started dreaming at any point in the story, and he wouldn't know, I wouldn't know. The stories Edgar hears tend to intertwine themselves with the story he is experiencing, until it becomes difficult to extract himself, to know again what is real and what is his imagination.

Perhaps one reason that I became so entranced by the idea of story-telling is that it is the thing that I share with the characters, all of whom are story-tellers in some way. This includes both characters who literally tell stories, to others whose reflections are ultimately reflections on the story itself. I realized after I wrote it, that when Edgar decides to write a letter to the War Office about the piano, deciding that its ‘absence was an obvious omission in the narrative thus far,' this is not only a criticism of the War Office (who he feels care too little about the instrument) but in a way of me, the author, for not discussing the piano as much as he probably would have wanted.

Although this wasn't obvious to me when I started writing, the ambiguous lines of truth and fiction, between author and story, fit wonderfully with the concept of tuning a piano. At one point Edgar recalls a teacher who told him that in all pianos lie a song, and it is a tuners job to liberate it. The implication for literature is that stories exist as entities greater than the author, who is only a medium for them to escape, enabling pen and paper to express a story, as a tuner enables wood and string to express music.

Q: One can sense certain literary influences—Dante and Homer with regards to theme,Conrad to setting. Are there certain books or writers that have been important influences on your work?

I think that I am definitely influenced by other writers; I think that the best way to learn to write is to read. I think that in no other art form can you learn so well from the work itself as in writing. It is impossible to know how a sculpture came to be, or how one dances well, or how to paint. But everything is there in writing. We know exactly how, for example, Faulkner can create such a sense of fear because it is all there, on the pages. I owe so much to other writers as my teachers.

The authors that you mention are fascinating, because I think it is impossible for a writer not to be influenced by them. The Odyssey is such a fundamental story that I think that any story about a journey would seem to come from it in that it is so elemental. This said, I do feel directly influenced by it as well. I love the story, on so many levels, but mostly as an adventure story, in the same way that I first read it in my illustrated D'Aullerie's Book of Greek Myths as a child. Maybe this sounds simplistic. But in college I took a course on it, and I remember that despite all of the analysis, I couldn't escape the fact that it was just a great tale. And so when everyone discussed all of the complex reasons for Odysseus not reaching home, I remember just thinking: He doesn't want to; I don't want him to; When he gets home the adventure ends. This comes up in my book very often, and Dr. Carroll articulates it better than I. If my character's story is that of a journey, there is an always an element of him not wanting it to end but knowing it must, a conflict which I think has wrenching consequences. Of course, I wasn't the only one to read The Odyssey in this way (although I think that as a college freshman, I was probably convinced I was); one finds this reading in poems by Dante and Tennyson.

Conrad is also an interesting reference. Yes, I was influenced by Heart of Darkness, but this is only because it so wonderfully articulates such a deeply universal theme, the voyage into the wilderness. My book is not based on it, as say, Apocalypse Now is; Carroll is not Kurtz. But I think it comes from the same place as that book, the same imagining about what it is like to travel upriver and into the unknown.

Q: How have you managed to balance writing this book during medical school?

I really think I probably never would have written this book if I hadn't been in medical school. In some ways, there was a thrill to writing, in the sense that I wasn't supposed to be doing it. This is not to say my medical school wasn't supportive; some of the most warmth and encouragement I have received has come from people at school who have gone out of their way to help me write and study at the same time. This has been so important because my greatest fear is that writing would interfere with medicine, which I love. I really think that the two professions are wonderfully complementary. It is very hard, as a twenty-six year-old male med student, to imagine what characters who are not twenty-six year-old med students would do and think. But being able to talk to so many patients from so many walks of life gives a tremendous window into people's lives. This is not to say I want to write about individual patients, but I think that after listening to the concerns of people who are so different from me, I can more realistically portray characters who are so different from me.

There are other reasons I think that medical school helped me write. While medicine creates material for writing, perhaps even more important is that it also creates 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. And 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. There are many things you see while training to be a doctor that can change you, in bad and good ways. Writing was a way of trying to understand these experiences.

Q: What is next for you?

Another piece of fiction set within history, this one taking place in Brazil. I have begun researching, and have written some, but am far from done.

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