Who was the most influential professor you had while at UConn?
Milton Stern’s classes in American literature were the best classes I had, and he was the professor who impressed me the most with his passion for literature. He got really worked up about it. He would virtually trip over Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Bells” and not be able to stop himself from reciting the whole thing–all those bell bells, bells, bells. The rhythm was infectious, the power of the poem inescapable. I don’t know how he found occasions to recite it, but it seems I heard it many times in his classes. And he was superb with the Transcendentalists. As a result, I have a lasting affection for Emerson and Thoreau and their remarkable community in Concord. (Editor’s note: Dr. Stern passed away in July 2011).
Do you think having a liberal arts education was important to you as a writer?
Unquestionably. A writer has to forage and embrace and explore many things, and that sense of the word “liberal” is essential to a writer’s education.
Do you have a daily writing routine?
I try to manage to get to my desk by mid-afternoon. That is when I have the most mental energy and focus.
You have a new novel just out. Is it difficult to write about your own family even when the material is fictionalized? Do you often get the ideas for your novels from family or friends?
The Girl in the Blue Beret was inspired by my father-in-law’s experience in World War II. His B-17 was shot down and he made his way through France to Spain with the help of the French Resistance. It didn’t occur to me to write a novel about it until after he died. No, I don’t think it was difficult. The novel soon had its own direction and characters. I just wish he had lived to see it.
Normally I don’t get “ideas” from family or friends. I may pick up bits and pieces, things people say, or little details. My parents were the inspiration for many of my stories, through their language and their place.
What’s your next project?
I’m going to learn French if it kills me. This novel takes place in France, and that was a challenge, so I would really like to improve my French. I don’t have another novel in mind, so I hope to write some short stories.
Mason wrote this essay for The New York Times about researching her book.
Here is a Washington Post review of The Girl in the Blue Beret.