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Interview With an Author: Tim Mason

Daryl M., Librarian, West Valley Regional Branch Library,
Tim Mason and his first adult novel, The Darwin Affair

Tim Mason is a playwright whose work has been produced in New York and throughout the world. Among the awards he has received are a Kennedy Center Award, the Hollywood Drama-Logue Award, a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, and a Rockefeller Foundation grant. In addition to his dramatic plays, he also wrote the book for Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas! The Musical. He is the author of the young adult novel The Last Synapsid. The Darwin Affair is his first adult novel and he agreed recently to talk about it with Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog.

What was your inspiration for The Darwin Affair?

My long-time love of the works of Charles Dickens led me to Inspector Bucket, of Bleak House. I thought a story which featured him as the central character, instead of a supporting one, would be fun.

Decimus Cobb is one of the most unsettling characters I’ve read about in a while. What/who inspired him? Did he “spring forth” fully formed or did he take a while to develop?

The origins of Decimus are harder to pin down. He emphatically did not spring forth fully formed (as it were, spoiler alert). I was writing Decimus before I realized his whole personal story, and when I did I was shocked and had to make sure this was possible, physically. It was.

How did the novel evolve and change as you wrote and revised it? Are there any characters or scenes that were lost in the process that you wish had made it to the published version?

Searching for scratch paper today, I found a scene I had forgotten entirely. Thank God it didn't make it into the book. So, yes, the novel is about evolution, and the book itself evolved.

You are a very successful playwright, what prompted you to write a novel? How are the processes of writing a play and a novel the same? Different? Now that you’ve done both, do you prefer one over the other?

In 2000 I spent 6 weeks in Creede, Colorado where my partner Leo was making his thesis film for New York University Film School. A story occurred to me there, sitting on a bluff above the former silver mining town, a story that couldn't be told on the stage. Its lead characters were 12 or 13 years old. So I spent the next couple years writing The Last Synapsid (it required lots of research into the earliest eras of Earth). Random House published it in 2009 for middle school kids. This whetted my appetite for prose fiction.

Are you a fan/enthusiast of the Victorian era?

I am a fan of Victorian novelists, Dickens, Trollope, Thackery. I didn't know I was a fan of the era until I started writing The Darwin Affair.

What types of research did you need to do to write The Darwin Affair?

Lots and lots of research, in books, online and in person. It took about 4 years to write.

What’s currently on your nightstand?

Reading The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone by Felicity McLean. Also, Louis Bayard's Courting Mr. Lincoln.

What was your favorite book when you were a child?

The Otterbury Incident, by C.Day Lewis, the poet. (Daniel Day Lewis's father).

Was there a book you felt you needed to hide from your parents?

The Last of the Wine, by Mary Renault. As a gay teen, I first hid it, then decided to keep it in plain sight on my bedstead.

Is there a book you would most want to read again for the first time?

Shakespeare's Hamlet.

What are you working on now?

The Nightingale Affair, a prequel/sequel to The Darwin Affair.

Mason, Timothy

In The Darwin Affair, Tim Mason, a successful playwright, provides a top notch historical mystery, spinning a tale of intrigue and conspiracy that ranges throughout the highest levels of the British aristocracy and church and centers on the works of Charles Darwin.

Mason uses his dramatic skills well as there is plenty of excitement and action, well timed and paced, along with nicely executed dialogue. There is also a wonderful sense of the Victorian era, including cameos by some of the more famous, and infamous, individuals of the time. But, where The Darwin Affair really shines is Mason’s characters, especially the two main characters: Chief Detective Inspector Charles Field and Decimus Cobb.

Field, the novel’s protagonist, is a wonderful creation (even though he is based on the man Dickens’ used for inspiration of the same name). He is a rough-raised individual that is in no way comfortable in the higher social strata in which he continually finds himself. Field knows the difference between right and wrong and feels that justice needs to be dispensed evenly, regardless of the standing of the perpetrator.

In sharp contrast to Field is the character of Decimus Cobb. Cobb is a tall, imposing figure who appears to glide rather than walk and comports himself like a gentleman at almost all times. He is a former choirboy, has garnered a reputation for his skill as a surgeon at a local operating theatre (in spite of having no formal education or training) and is a complete and utter sociopath. While he has his own reasons for not wanting Darwin honored for his theories, he is, and has been for a long time, working at the behest of some of the most powerful men in England, committing crimes so their hands are, at least figuratively, clean. Decimus Cobb is a truly unsettling character. And he is the perfect counterpoint to Field’s genial, but often poorly executed, good intentions.

The Darwin Affair is a wonderful read, full of atmosphere, action, suspense and memorable characters.