Author Ethan Canin at Aspen Winter Words
March 11, 2011
ASPEN – Ethan Canin says he is roughly two-thirds of the way through his new novel. “Just at the point where, in my optimistic moments, I think I might finish it,” he said, before adding that he has been working on the book for two years.
In his stories, Canin tends to be rich in detail, particularly effective in creating full-bodied characters and evoking moods and settings. But when it comes to his unfinished work, he is far less expansive. Claiming superstition, Canin declined to disclose the title, or give even a hint of where and when the story takes place.
Which leaves readers guessing until 2012, when he expects the novel to be published. But these guesses won’t necessarily come out of the dark. The 50-year-old Canin has created a substantial enough body of work – four novels and two story collections – that some reasonably safe predictions can be made about the forthcoming novel.
We can speculate that the book – let’s call it Novel No. 5 – will not be set in upstate New York, Pittsburgh, Boston or Manhattan. Canin has already used those settings, and he is not one to continuously revisit familiar geographic terrain. Canin offered the explanation that, when he was a kid, his family moved around, hitting Michigan, Iowa, California, Pennsylvania – and Aspen, where Canin’s father taught violin at the Aspen Music School for three summers, 1962-64. Those wanderings have continued, to an extent, in adulthood. Canin has lived in San Francisco and Boston, and he currently splits his time between two homes – in Iowa City, where he is on the faculty of the University of Iowa’s celebrated Iowa Writers” Workshop, and in northern Michigan.
“I don’t have my own geography, because I moved around a lot as a kid. I’ve never been wedded to a single setting,” he said from Iowa. “I don’t have New Jersey like Philip Roth, or Mississippi like Faulkner, or Canada like Alice Munro.”
Of the elements that one would expect to appear in No. 5 – baseball references, scenes set in prep school – perhaps the one that is most distinctively Canin-esque is the movement back and forth in time. Canin’s last novel, “America America,” from 2008, shifted between the current era and the early ’70s; at times Canin would relocate the setting every few sentences. Similar in structure was 2001’s “Carry Me Across the Water,” which tracks an old man’s bygone days in Nazi Germany and post-World War II New York, and follows him into modern-day Pittsburgh and Japan. Even his short stories – like “The Palace Thief,” from the 1993 collection of the same name, in which a teacher looks back on a relationship with an antagonistic student – can involve complexities of time.
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In Canin’s writing, such movements are not simply an opportunity to explore various eras. Crucial to his narratives is that the characters seem always to be reflecting back, assessing their lives from the perspective of age.
Canin says this tendency is a fall-out from his own past life – back when he was a doctor practicing internal medicine.
“I spent so many years doing internal medicine, and essentially the only people you’re dealing with are old. I learned early to see life through those eyes,” said Canin, who will talk about leaving medicine to take a chance on a literary career when he appears on Wednesday, March 16, at The Little Nell, in an Aspen Writers’ Foundation Winter Words event. “Many of the characters come back to this reconsideration of a life – a dream versus a result.”
Novel No. 5, however, might throw readers with its overall straight-ahead narrative. “This is much more linear. It flows chronologically, which is unlike the last two novels, which jumped around,” Canin said. He added, however, that in the middle “there is a big break, where everything changes.”
Those who have followed Canin closely would expect No. 5 to be a long haul of reading. Canin’s stories have tended to get longer and longer. His first book, 1988’s “Emperor of the Air,” featured short stories; 1993’s “The Palace Thief,” contained four long stories. “Carry Me Across the Water,” from 2001, was a short novel; “America America” closed in on 500 pages.
“When I was a kid, writing stories, I thought if I could write something longer than 12 double-spaced pages, that would be something,” Canin said. “Now, I cant write an introduction in less than 12 pages. I guess I have more to write about.
“I’m 50. I’m losing memory. But in return, in place, you get a better ability to make connections between people, behavior, events. And as a writer, you’re not only drawing on your life experience, but everything you’ve read, too. Which can have a huge influence.”
In fact, Canin expects No. 5 to end up slightly shorter than “America America.” “But there are more pages per moment of plot,” he said. “I think as you progress, you want to spend more time on the individual moments.”
Perhaps what Canin is doing is savoring those moments. It’s not something that can be gleaned from reading the books, but Canin says the process of writing them, up to now, has not been pleasant: “For most of my life, it’s been agonizing,” he said. “It’s almost physically difficult, like pushing through ice. I carry that dread with me the whole process.”
But with the new book, Canin has discovered, at last, enjoyment in writing. “I hate to say it, but now it almost seems like a pleasure,” he said. “Don’t tell anyone, but it’s actually fun.”
Which leaves the question of why Canin left medicine, in 1998, to pursue something that has been mostly torturous. One answer he quickly rejects is that, when the writing is finally done, he has something to bring to the world that is of eminent social value. He has serious doubts about a novelist’s contributions.
“When I think of the wonderful and profound books I’ve read, I think it can be very important,” he said. “But day to day, it’s hard to convince myself of that. At times, I’m thankful, but amazed I’m being supported in such a useless enterprise. In my heart, I don’t feel it’s that important.”
Exactly why he chose the pen over the scalpel is left a bit vague. One answer is that Canin has proved good at writing. “The Palace Thief” earned the California Book Award, and last year, he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship. And Canin seems to welcome the peculiar struggle that comes with artistic pursuits.
“When it’s going well, it feels good,” he said of writing. “When it’s not going well, any artistic gamble is hard, emotionally.”
Canin mentions that, as he is working on the novel, he is also remodeling the bathroom in one of his houses, handling the carpentry himself.
“I need to feel like I’m doing something other than banging away at a typewriter,” he said.