u_topn picture
Books & Authors
Atlantic Unbound Sidebar
'How Did Your Life Turn Out?'
An interview with Ethan Canin, the author of the new novel For Kings and Planets, who believes the only story worth writing is the history of a human being

November 25, 1998

caninbk picture When Ethan Canin published his first book, a collection of stories titled Emperor of the Air (1988), he was a fourth-year medical student at Harvard. During his time as a student at the Iowa Writers' Workshop in the early 1980s he had written two short stories, but had decided that a career in writing was not in the cards. Once he was in medical school, however, the stories began to come. When Emperor of the Air became a national bestseller, Canin decided to take time off between medical school and his residency to work on a novel, Blue River (1991). His next collection of stories, The Palace Thief (1994), won the 1994 Commonwealth Club Gold Medal for Literature. That same year Canin began a residency in internal medicine, but recently he returned to Iowa City to take a permanent position on the faculty of the Iowa Writers' Workshop. His new novel, For Kings and Planets,chronicles a ten-year friendship between two unlikely friends and the woman they both love. It is part of a trilogy Canin plans to write that will follow these characters through their lives.
Discuss this feature in the Arts & Literature forum of Post & Riposte.

Previously in Books & Authors:

Tell it Like it Was (November 1998)
Steven Spielberg turned to him for advice on Saving Private Ryan. Now, Stephen Ambrose talks about his new book, The Victors-- the culmination of his work on the Second World War.

Coming to Life (October 1998)
An interview with Anne Fadiman, the new editor of The American Scholar, whose latest book proves what she has always suspected -- that there is an essayist lurking inside her.

Redefining Rape (October 1998)
Alarmingly, when it comes to sexual assault, "no" doesn't always mean "no" in a court of law. The legal scholar Stephen Schulhofer talks about his new book, Unwanted Sex, and about why the laws need to change.

Body Language (October 1998)
What's behind the work of John Edgar Wideman, the author of the new novel Two Cities, is simple: if you're going to talk the talk, walk the walk.

Manifest Destiny (September 1998)
A conversation with Robert D. Kaplan, whose latest work, An Empire Wilderness, suggests that the future of the United States won't be at all what we expect.

Fear of Falling (September 1998)
Andrew Todhunter talks about his new book, Fall of the Phantom Lord, about the rock climber Dan Osman, and examines the lure of putting one's life on the line.

More Books & Authors interviews in Atlantic Unbound.

More on Books in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.
Canin spoke recently with Jane Rosenzweig, a former staff editor at The Atlantic who is currently a student at the Iowa Writers' Workshop.

Your second novel, For Kings and Planets,is your first in seven years. In the meantime you published The Palace Thief,a collection of long stories. What made you want to return to the novel?

I'm becoming more of a novelist as I get older. The novel just seems the truer form. There's less artifice involved. I started out writing stories because that's all I wanted to read, but now I don't know if I'll ever write one again. Short-story writing just isn't interesting to me anymore. A ten- or twelve-page story seems too easy, which is a funny thing to say considering that writing a decent short story is devastatingly difficult. Yet it still seems easier than a novel. You can turn a short story on a single good line -- ten pages of decent writing and one good moment.

I'm much more interested in character these days. Not necessarily in understanding it, but in getting to a point where one can see on the page the history of a human being. You can do this in a long story, but not in a short one. The short story can't really hold an interesting event. It can't hold a death or a war or a loss of great magnitude the way either a long story or a novel can. Right now the only plot worth writing, in my mind, is: "How did your life turn out?"

caninpic picture
Ethan Canin
What about the novella? You've often spoken of it as your favorite literary form.

The novella is my favorite form because it has some of the directed relevance of the short story, in which the reader has an implicit understanding with the writer that every word he or she reads is important -- instead of, as is the case with a lot of novels, the writer going on for pages and pages of wrong turns. And yet the novella is still loose enough to mimic the disorganization of a real life. In a short story you can't spend much time with thought or feeling or history and still fit a plot in, whereas in a novella you can.

I was thinking the other day about how people always say it's all been written before; that there's nothing new. I've taught about a dozen semesters in my life, and I've probably read about a thousand stories by students, and I've never seen two stories that are even close to being the same. And these are from students who say they can't think of anything new. But it's all new. Each time you look at a person you can imagine a life for him or her. What went into him? How did he end up here?

For Kings and Planets chronicles the ten-year friendship between Orno Tarcher, a "country boy" from Missouri, and Marshall Emerson, a sophisticated New York intellectual. What drew you to the exploration of what Christopher Lehmann-Haupt called, in The New York Times,a "deceptively familiar plot"?

I wrote the novel right after I read an Updike story in The New Yorker about two men who are friends for sixty years. I didn't set out to write about "country boy" meets "city boy." I had no premonition of that. I had nothing plotted out. I just started writing about the first time they met.

In fact, I wouldn't know how to plan a novel. I suppose you would outline it, and then pick an assignment each day and write it, but that takes the life out of it. The controlled unraveling of a foretold event doesn't work for me. It's in the discovery that I find the energy to invent. Once I've thought something through, certainly if I've ever explained it to someone else -- "This is going to be a novel about a young boy's realization that ..." -- I know I'll never write it. Discovery is the only time that there's life in writing, at least for me.

In a number of your stories, and now in For Kings and Planets,you have explored the consequences of genius. What about genius draws you?

Genius is such an illuminative subject. One of the most fascinating people in the world, to me, is Bob Beamon. He was a low-level long jumper on the U.S. Olympic Team. At the Mexico City Olympics in 1968, Beamon made his first two jumps and didn't even place. The leader was ahead by about a quarter of an inch. In his third jump Beamon went up to the line and ran down to the pit and broke the world record -- by something like two and a half feet. And he never did it again. It was a preposterous feat, a superhuman feat. It points out just how little one understands the human animal. I think genius points this out also.

You have said that a story's characters -- not simply the geniuses, but all characters -- should be as smart as the most intelligent reader. What do you mean by this?

I want to read about characters who interest me as an adult. I don't want to read a four-hundred-page book from a limited, emotionally stunted point of view. In some ways that means characters have to be brilliant. I don't necessarily mean that they have to demonstrate brilliant self-analysis -- although that certainly helps. But they do have to entertain ideas, even in crude form, that will interest a psychologically minded reader, one who wants to read and learn something about character.

You recently joined the faculty at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, where you were a student yourself in 1982 and 1983. Do you think writing can be taught?

I wrote almost nothing when I was in the workshop, and I learned nothing. I was paralyzed -- utterly paralyzed. All I knew was what was wrong with other people's writing. I went to medical school because I gave up. I'd published a couple stories, and I'd gotten two copies of Ploughshares as payment. I needed a job. I thought, Oh well. I tried writing and it didn't work out.

At the same time, I know I wouldn't have been a writer if I hadn't come to the Iowa workshop. It was the loose braid in the knot of my own binding, which later I was able to pick at when I was going through medical school. Iowa is sometimes overwhelming, but when you leave you look back on your days here with nostalgia. You have two years to wander around this little midwestern town with a hundred other impractical romantics, worrying about your next paragraph. Where else are you going to find that life?

How has the Iowa Writers' Workshop changed since you were a student there?

It might be because as a faculty member I'm looking at it from a safer vantage point, but the workshop seems much kinder than it was when I was a student. People seem very supportive of one another. But rivalry is still a huge part of this program or of any such program. I've been through this place, and I've been through medical school, and there is no question as to which is more competitive: the Writers' Workshop.

One of the tests you either pass or fail here is the test of whether you can separate yourself enough from the politics of envy to get your work done. And it doesn't get any easier when you leave here. With a few exceptions, monetary success and fame are not related to quality. There are a lot of good writers, and who becomes rich and famous seems arbitrary.

As a teacher, what are the most common mistakes you see in student writing?

I think the prevailing characteristic of bad writing is narcissism -- a central intelligence that exists to inflate itself and disparage the minor characters in the story.

Another problem is that of selection. That is, for beginning writers the standard thought is, I'm a writer now, I should write. But what do I write? Should I describe the clouds, the coastline? You can describe anything -- the sunset, the clouds, the trees, the leaves on the trees, the way the leaves are swaying. But how do you know what to describe? When do you stop describing? If you're describing a character's clothes, do you stop at the shirt and pants? The watch? The headband? And the answer to all those questions -- the single fundament of knowledge from which all other directives flow -- is that if you deeply imagine yourself as your character, you will describe what the character would notice. It's very easy, and it's not conscious. If you're a bank robber walking into a coffee house, for instance, you'll notice different things from those a woman about to give birth will notice. The bank robber might notice the back door and the cops. The pregnant woman might look for a phone, a couch, and boiling water.

What made you leave medicine and return to writing?

I got to medical school and wrote most of a book my first year, because I wasn't supposed to be writing. Miraculous trick. The idea of invention when you're in medical school is just beyond the pale.

Medicine is extraordinary, because you see people in their moments of crisis. But it is also horrific for anyone with an aesthetic sensibility to have to take a book six-inches thick and try to memorize it -- and to have to use that pseudo-technical language all the time. I loved to feel at home among this chaos, but I didn't love having to memorize the side effects, the duration of action, and the dosage of five thousand drugs, then the chemical name, the trade name, and so on. I couldn't stand the culture of that.

My first night on call I was responsible for taking care of very sick people on the AIDS floor. I was unused to being awake those kind of hours, because I'd been out of school for a while. I remember I drove home that first night and I had to get gas, so I pulled in, put the gas in the tank, and then drove off with the hose still in the gas tank. And I'm sure I committed an analogous error in the hospital. I remember days when I thought to myself, Oh good, I get thirty-five minutes of sleep tonight. Nights when I got three hours were like nights on a cruise ship.

Do you have a particular writing regimen?

I write one single-spaced page a day. If you write 500 words a day -- which is not that difficult -- or, if there's a lot of dialogue, if you write 100 words, and you do it five days a week and take a couple weeks vacation a year, you're Joyce Carol Oates. You're Isaac Asimov. You can write a book every eight months. I never write for more than one hour a day. When I'm revising something I can work for four or five hours straight, but I can't actually make something up for more than an hour.

I've always set assignments for myself. The assignment for the story "Emperor of the Air," for example, was to write a story in which an unlikable character becomes likable by the end. For "Accountant," it was to write a story in which a pair of socks takes on large emotional importance.

That's how you started "Accountant"?

That was the challenge. Can you make a pair of socks seem important to somebody? The challenge with For Kings and Planets was to see if I could write a book that would be a page-turner -- but not because of plot. I wanted the reader to be so interested in someone's character that he or she would want to keep reading. Stop-Time, Frank Conroy's novel-memoir, is like that for me. I remember reading it and not being able to put it down -- not because of the plot, but because I wanted to know what happened to this person. That's the kind of book I want to write.

A trend in contemporary literature has been a kind of ghettoization of writers based on gender, race, or ethnicity. You are a Jewish-American who has not carved out a niche as a Jewish-American writer. Has it been a conscious decision not to write more about Jewish characters?

I've been conscious of not being a Jewish-American writer or a Young Urban Male writer. In a way I wish I were, because it seems easier. I grew up all over the country, moving from town to town when I was a kid, so I never felt a very strong sense of place. My parents were Brooklyn and Queens Jews -- and I was a child in Ohio. I didn't live in a ghetto and yet I had ghetto history in every word my parents said. I remember the first time I set foot in New York: I was twenty years old, and the first time I heard a New Yorker open her mouth I thought, Oh my God I'm home. I realized I'd never been truly comfortable with the outside world before I got to New York. I still think New York is the friendliest city in the country.

When I look up my own name in a card catalogue, it says, for example, "For Kings and Planets: 1. Fiction, 2. Men." I've always wondered about that. Does the Library of Congress always do that? Does somebody actually read my books and think, This is men's fiction? Or do they just figure that since I am a male writer, the subject of my fiction is men? I suspect it's the latter. People do consider me a writer about men, which is funny. I prefer women in general. Or unusual men. I try to write fiction that's more emotionally detailed than most so-called men's fiction.

What are you working on now?

I'm writing a novella. I'm hoping to put together a book out of a few of them. And then I want to write a bigger novel. A novel with horses and battle scenes. Not necessarily a historical novel, but a novel that involves armies and continents and is also a novel of character.

Discuss this feature in the Arts & Literature forum of Post & Riposte.

More Books & Authors interviews in Atlantic Unbound.

More on Books in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.
Copyright © 1998 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.