Zachary Mason '88
What Homer Left Out: Writing Homer’s Apocrypha
When Zachary Mason ’88 started writing, he had a clear sense of what success would look like. “I wanted to create the sort of book that I’m always hoping to stumble upon in a used bookstore,” Mason says. That feeling of uncovering an old, curious treasure carried over into the form of Mason’s debut novel, The Lost Books of The Odyssey.
Mason’s book is a translation of a fictional pre-Homeric papyrus containing stories that didn’t make it into Homer’s version of the epic tale.
The book unfolds in 44 chapters as Mason plays with the canonical text. Each treats an element from the Odyssey. He retells passages from the perspective of the epic’s minor characters, conjures new episodes in Odysseus’s journey, and artfully warps the endings of popular passages.
In the preface to the first edition of the book, Mason, claiming that he’s an archaeo-cartographer and paleo-mathematician at Oxford, tells of how the lost papyrus was decoded using an algorithm. While this story is also fictional, it does form a bridge to Mason’s actual background.
Mason holds a PhD in computer science and artificial intelligence, and he wrote Lost Books while working full-time at a tech start-up. At one point he did devise an algorithm that he planned to use to order sections of the book. As for the relationship between his two passions, writing and artificial intelligence, “Writing is about beautiful patterns in the mind. AI is about understanding the mind as a beautiful pattern,” Mason says.
When he was a student at Simon’s Rock, Mason studied math and physics, and he was a voracious reader. It was at Simon’s Rock where friends introduced him to some of the literature that has inspired him. The Lost Books has been compared to the work of Italo Calvino and Nabokov, two writers Mason found through his Simon’s Rock classmates. And it was during the summer after his freshman year that Mason discovered Borges, whose work Mason’s Lost Books has often been compared to.
Initially published by Starcherone Books in 2007, a small independent press, Lost Books was a finalist for the New York Public Library’s 2009 Young Lions Fiction Award. That recognition got the attention of agents and publishers, including Farrar, Straus and Giroux, which put out a second edition of the book. In a subsequent Sunday Times review, Lost Books was called “the most revelatory and brilliant prose encounter with Homer since James Joyce.” The New York Times named it one of its 100 notable books for the year in 2010, calling Mason’s debut “dazzling… an ingeniously Borgesian novel that’s witty, playful, moving and tirelessly inventive.”
Now, Mason is writing full time. He recently published a short story, “The Duel,” in literary quarterly Tin House. He also has two book-length projects in the works. One, titled Metamorphica is a complement to the Lost Books based on Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The other, Void Star, is set in a future where construction robots—“essentially 3D printers scuttling around on insect-like legs”—are ubiquitous.