Ethan Canin has written For Kings and Planets, The Palace Thief, Blue River, Emperor of Air and most recently Carry Me Across the Water. His fiction has been published in The Atlantic, Esquire, Ploughshares and The New Yorker. He grew up in California and attended Stanford University, where he received a B.A. in Engineering. He went on to the University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop, after which, despairing of becoming a writer, he attended Harvard Medical School. Canin practiced medicine until the publication of his fourth book and is now on the faculty at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He lives with his wife and two young daughters in California and Iowa City, Iowa.
Robert Birnbaum: In a volume of essays of Iowa Writers’ Workshop alumnus [The Eleventh Draft, edited by Frank Conroy] you ended your piece by suggesting that when you left Iowa City, you were not bound for a writing career…
Ethan Canin: I left and I thought, “I’ve given that a try. It didn’t work.” I think a lot of people leave that program thinking, “Well, I gave that a try and it didn’t work.” Even though I think it’s a great program — by far the best program in the country — and I’ve taught at a lot of them. But it’s also humiliating and degrading, it kind of really takes it out of you.
RB: Because it’s competitive?
EC: Yeah, not only just competitive — it would be competitive if there were only two people there. If someone doesn’t like your fiction, it’s really insulting.
RB: Because of what you offer and what you risk?
EC: Yeah. It’s probably true with non-fiction too. More so the more inventive it gets, the more personal it becomes. What they call the personal essay is a form of writing I very much respect. It’s very hard to do, to write a good piece of creative non-fiction in that way. Take an incident, have a plot and some personal understanding or revelation of it.
RB: You think that’s hard?
RB: For a writer, that ought to be the easiest thing to do…
EC: I’d say that and fiction are the two most difficult, the two I most respect. Not just having a decent prose style but be inventive, be smart…
RB: How long have you been at Iowa?
EC: ’98. We came for a semester in ’98, just a semester teaching job. They asked me if I wanted a full-time permanent job. I’d said, “No.” Then they said, “Would you come for a semester?” We’d just had our first child, she was about a year old then. So we came out. And it was just so incredible. Just great with the kid. Easy. Walk everywhere, walk her at night on my shoulder on the warm nights with the bunny rabbits hopping around and the fireflies. Just totally seductive. A parking ticket was three dollars. City services work…
RB: That’s like making a donation…
EC: I know you put more than that in a meter here.
RB: How does it feel to be wanted? Publishing something is so unpredictable. But as a teacher they wanted your presence, they wanted you there…
EC: It’s a little different. It doesn’t exercise the same…you are part of a fixed culture. Being part of the school, the school is running. You’re just doing your job. I like my students. It’s easy. My students are good. writing a book is like an unknown abyss, every time. Every book is different. Contrary to what unpublished writers think, it’s horrible to have a book out.
EC: It’s like being at the high-school dance for a few months.
RB: This [our conversation] is part of it. And going to numerous people and talking…
EC: Oh yeah. I mean there are nice things about it. The guys you see in the airports, the guys that are called ‘road warriors’…I took the Delta shuttle from New York. Every single person was in a black suit, with a tie, talking on a cell phone. Those guys must hate it, too.
RB: Pico Iyer spent a week living at Los Angeles International Airport.
EC: It’s miserable. I hate that fucking life. I hate the airports.
RB: So Carry Me Across the Water was written while you’ve been at Iowa?
EC: Yeah. I wrote some of it in San Francisco. We go back every summer for three months and for a month and a half at Christmas time. I don’t know how I wrote it. We have two kids. I don’t have a lot of time these days. I feel very pressed for time. Add the teaching to it and the kids…and just, you know, the rest of the stuff. It was a relatively easy book to write. I’ve written five books, two of them were relatively easy. This was one of them. The voice came to me. It’s easier to write when you have a voice.
RB: I actually did read a review of your book, mostly because Gail Caldwell wrote it and — in responding to the attention she received for her recent Pulitzer prize — she talked about her reviews as personal essays. She extolled your ability to make this character, August Kleinman, who was a small man, seem so large. You named him Kleinman….
EC: You know what I missed that. I didn’t even realize it means ‘little man’…that’s how smart I am.
RB: I found the combination interesting…’august’ and ‘kleinman’. He was a big character in a very big story that you really compacted. There’s really a lot of story here.
EC: Yeah. Which is nice because usually I’m writing these little interior books, where nothing much happens. It’s nice to have a story. I never had a story before. It’s much easier. This book also started out as a novella.
RB: What’s a novella?
EC: A long story, whatever. Not long enough to get paid for as a whole book, that’s what a novella is.
RB: That must be why they are published as a ‘novella and two stories.’
EC: Right. Exactly. I wrote another novella at the same time about a guy who gets involved in the Weathermen. I was publishing those two together as a book. But this got just long enough. So there it is.
RB: This story started out with you having a very good sense about the character?
EC: I started out with a single sentence. Which was, “He killed one man and possibly a second and had told Lyndon Johnson he was a coward after paying two thousand dollars to meet him.” I got the voice and personality: he had chutzpah and was a capitalist but an anti-capitalist. A guy who has marched to the top but has some semblance of social conscience.
RB: He seems to have more than just a ‘semblance’…
EC: Sure. It’s hard to talk about a book. The truth is, it’s just like…blah, blah, blah…(laughs)
RB: (laughs) I agree. It’s hard to talk about a book. What’s the need to explicate what you have written?
EC: I have to teach a literature class once a year. I just cannot stand it.
RB: Because you’ll get questions like, “Did you purposely name your character ‘small man’?”
EC: Right. And someone will write a dissertation on it. I was thinking about it the other day. How did that grow up as the way literature is taught? I think the idea was that we have to teach people to write. So then, who can we hire to teach them to write? [The answer] People who read books. So they started teaching books this way. Read a book and write an essay about it. Or you analyze it.
RB: I recently spoke to Elizabeth Cox, who told me that when she wanted to write her first novel, she took a course in Sonatas and Symphonies, and she then when she wanted to write her second novel, she took a course in Astronomy…
EC: That’s a very good pathway to writing. That’s what I do, sort of. That’s why this book was easier for me, because I read a bunch of stuff on World War Two, the journals of soldiers published on the Internet. Or Studs Terkel‘s book, The Good War… those oral histories, which are incredible. That’s like the Holy Grail for a fiction writer, even though they are only a page or page and a half. That kind of emotional power and story, revelation…
RB: Because the person has spoken some truths about themselves?
EC: That’s right. Native English speakers or native anything speakers are so attuned to the subtleties of language. And you can tell within a sentence if something is fiction or non-fiction. You can tell in the artifice of the language or the care of the construction (I say that in a pejorative way) the difference between art and life. I would like to try to get more towards that real sensation. It’s hard to know how to do that.
RB: Who is good at doing that?
EC: You know who I think is very good at doing that, although it’s not a world that I know particularly, but there is something about his writing that makes me feel as though he is telling a true story, is Peter Taylor. He’s a Virginia writer. Or maybe Tennessee?
EC: Read The Old Forest and Other Stories. It’s probably not your cup of tea — I don’t really know what your cup of tea is. It’s the genteel South. There’s something in it that appears almost to be true.
RB: I am very fond of southern writers. Elizabeth Cox, who I just mentioned, is from Tennessee…
EC: Well, they have an advantage, like lefty pitchers.
RB: Why do you think that is? When I ask writers if they are ‘southern’ writers, they don’t react as if they have an advantage. In fact, frequently the opposite.
EC: Oh, do they? They must feel that because of New York. They are probably ghettoized in the world of New York publishing.
RB: Betsy Cox told me that when she went to New York with her first book, publishers wanted to see anyone from North Carolina…
EC: Like seeing a shortstop from Cuba…
RB: Or the Dominican Republic…Any other writers you admire? Elmore Leonard?
EC: I never read Elmore Leonard. Alice Munro is an extraordinary writer.
RB: Everyone loves her.
EC: Oh my god, she’s the greatest. Read Open Secrets. Everyone loves her? She’s totally unknown. Every writer loves her. She can really do it. She’s got it. And if you read her early work, it was very standard. It was well constructed, a piece of artifice. You know, a piece of art. Some beautiful writing and a climax eight pages from the end. And now she just — I don’t know if it’s dementia — I really say that seriously. I knew a writer who is moderately well-known who became a magical realist but I always suspected he was a little demented and didn’t understand that things were moving back and forth in time. And Alice Munro in her later life has sort of pulled the string out from everything that is holding things together. Pffffft. All the beads fall right on the floor. But it’s just great. Read Open Secrets, it’s one of the great books of the last ten years.
RB: I’ll read it when I take a vacation from books I have to read.
EC: There are other writers who draw immediate attention to the fact that it’s fiction. And I like some of that, but it doesn’t really have the power…
RB: I steer away from so-called comic novels.
EC: Right, you don’t mean comedy? Which books are you thinking of?
RB: I just got one in the mail today from Algonquin Books. Richard Russo‘s novels are described as comic novels and, of course, they are comedic but I think the ‘comic’ is a misnomer.
EC: Did you read his new book, Empire Falls?
RB: Yes, I’m about to talk to him again. He’s a funny man.
EC: I’ve only met him once, in O’Hare. Briefly. Nice guy. That’s funny actually, it was my last book tour that we crossed. And now we’re on another book tour. Must have the same pace, the same snail’s pace. John Irving is a comic novelist but I really respect Irving. I think he does a good job. Do you like his work?
RB: Yes. I liked Widow for A Year, the last book of his I read. When someone crosses over beyond literary fame, I think things change greatly for them. It seems like….
EC: Irving, you mean. His fame was before that. He was as famous a writer as there was. He was a schmuck driving around Putney, Vermont, for ten years, writing eight or nine books, without earning a living at it…before The World According to Garp came out. Not a schmuck, that’s the wrong word…struggling like everyone else.
RB: A working stiff.
EC: I didn’t like that movie [The Cider House Rules]. The kid and the doctor were good. I hated that interlude with the apple pickers. Did you like that? It struck me as artificial. The whole thing with the abortion, the obvious political message, seemed heavy handed to me. And also, the guy that raped his daughter. It didn’t seem to make a lot of sense. He acted as this great and wonderful man and then it didn’t make sense that he was raping his daughter.
RB: As long as we are talking about what made sense, perhaps you can tell me about the scene in your book where a mobster type tries to take Kleinman’s business from him?
EC: Like what was that doing in there? Well, it’s a funny thing because the one scene I took out of this book, which my editor wanted me to take out and my wife wanted me to take out — but a number of friends said it was the best scene in the book — was when that guy returns.
RB: (laughs heartily)
EC: He comes back and he’s a salesman for Microsoft. That was my little joke. He meets him thirty years later and he’s selling for Microsoft. My little joke and they said it’s not a joke, take that out.
RB: How many people are reading you in-progress?
EC: Just a few. Do you know Po Bronson [Bombardiers, The First $20 Million is The Hardest, Nudist on The Late Shift]?
RB: Yes. I thought he was an accountant? Didn’t he run Consortium for a while?
EC: Yeah, he’s a wonderful editor. Really smart guy. I show him all my work. He helps me with it. And my wife.
RB: He works for a book distributor. He writes. And he’s an editor?
EC: No, he’s just a friend. He and I and another friend started an office of writers in San Francisco. We now have nineteen offices now. Writers and artists…just a great spot.
RB: Is it referred to as an incubator?
EC: I wish it was an incubator. And Po could do all that. He’s like Mr. Businessman. He gets million dollar offers all the time to do all this stuff in business. But for some fucked-up reason he wants to be a writer.
RB: So he doesn’t take the offers? That would only make him more desirable…
EC: Yeah, I know. He gets all this money to talk, too.
RB: Lecturer. Possible editor. Business man…
EC: He’s an amazing fellow. He’s a little manic. He has a lotta stuff. He’s an incredible athlete, too. He’s a great soccer player. Played semi-pro soccer.
RB: Po, what an odd name? Is he southern?
EC: He’s from Seattle.
RB: When I talked to you last had you just had a child?
EC: Yeah, we must have had a six month to a year old.
RB: I remember we got to talking about tragic stories about kids, like John Burnham Schwartz’s Reservation Road and Stephen Dixon’s Interstate. Did you ever read Schwartz’s book?
EC: I read it. I just saw John, and I told him I only read that book because I like him…it’s like Jane Hamilton’s Map of the World. I can’t read it. Isn’t it funny how that, it just changes your…changes everything. John, of course, is gonna look at…he and his wife are trying to have a child now. He’s going to look back on…he’s going to be embarrassed. And probably be humiliated that he would write that without realizing what it meant.
RB: Maybe it’s the only way it could have been written. It was a well-written book. So, how many cities are you going to, to talk about your book, that you don’t really want to talk about?
EC: Maybe a dozen, fifteen.
RB: This isn’t your first tour?
EC: It’s my tenth, my ninth tour.
RB: One for each hard cover and paperback edition? That might discourage one from writing book?
EC: It’s both good and bad. It’s not the worst thing. If I were one of those guys selling enterprise software or something, it would be worse. On the other hand those guys don’t care if the customer doesn’t buy it. They don’t have a personal stake in it. They’re not being reviewed in public all the time So, there are a lot of ups and downs. Part of the problem with it is that also…one sine qua non — however you pronounce that — you have to be pretty honest to be a fiction writer. You have to be smart enough to see the world for yourself and honest. The whole book-publicity thing is not really honest, at base.
RB: Because your interlocutors haven’t read the book?
EC: That’s why I qualified that. A lot of times it’s, “Tell us what your volume is about?” (both laugh)
RB: Your tome…
EC: Actually somebody said that to me yesterday, “What is this volume about?”
RB: This being your ninth publicity tour, do you strike an attitude when you go out? Have you got expectations?
EC: I’ll tell you a story. This funny thing happened to me. A week ago yesterday, that’s changed my opinion completely, of what I do now. And that is, I was in LA. I wasn’t going to go into this, but I might as well. I was giving a reading at Dutton’s, in Brentwood.
RB: I understand there are some bookstores in Los Angeles.
EC: Yeah, not that many actually. You know Brentwood, fancy area of town. Remember Metza Luna? Rings a bell with everyone but no one remembers… Remember why it’s famous?
RB: Uh, no.
EC: That’s where Ron Goldman worked, the guy that OJ killed.
RB: That I wouldn’t remember.
EC: Oh really. God, I watched that with such intense interest. I remember where I was, it was like Kennedy’s assassination. I was in the hospital, on call and the screen was in a patient’s room and I was following this white Bronco…
RB: But we digress. Metza Luna. Dutton’s.
EC: I was at Dutton’s and went to dinner at this very fancy diner across the street called Vincente’s. It was empty, it’s 10:30 at night. Mona Simpson and three friends of ours. We’re eating dinner and there are ten people in the restaurant and eight armed men come in. Six armed men and two armed women. Hold guns to everyone’s head. They said, “Get down on the ground or I’ll blow your fucking head off.” Had me on the ground. Had us all on the ground for ten minutes, pointing guns at us. Then I heard, “Lock the door. Get away from the windows.” I thought we were hostages now. Turns out they had fled and that was the owner of the restaurant yelling out. But you know the guy had a gun to my head saying, “You move and I’ll blow your fucking head off.”
RB: So that changed your feelings about book touring in what way?
EC: Yeah, it changed my sense of the book tour. I don’t care what kind of reviews I get. I just want to get home. I cancelled my trip to Seattle and Portland. In a funny way, it’s like getting very sick. It really helps to clarify things.
RB: There is that truism that you are never so alive as when you think you are going to die.
EC: I don’t think that’s true. You’re never so alive as after you thought you were going to die. Actually, I didn’t mind dying. It’s very interesting to see. Have you ever been in a situation where you thought you’re going to die?
RB: Probably not. I think I would remember immediately.
EC: I learned some things like, “What do you think about in that situation?” I was pleased to see that I thought about my kids. I really didn’t mind being shot. Like if he had killed me? I was thinking of my older daughter, and how would my wife explain to her, that I was not coming back? My younger daughter — I actually thought — she’d probably think that fathers always go to work and get killed. That would be all that she’d know.
RB: Did you at all think about using this experience for a story?
EC: I didn’t think it at the time. But afterwards, I did. Not a piece of fiction, but an essay. I probably will write an essay about it.
RB: Do you write essays?
EC: No. I haven’t before. But, I think I could do it.
RB: I’m sure you could, but what has stopped you?
EC: writing is such misery that if I’m going to do it I might as well work on a book.
RB: Is it that much misery?
EC: Oh yeah!
EC: It has a lot to do with my own fears. Fears of failure, fears of inadequacy. More than the actual process of writing, is the fear of it.
RB: The fact that you have done good and decent and well-received work in the past doesn’t help?
EC: No, not at all. I can’t say not at all. Because I don’t know what it’s like not to have published, to have been writing for twenty years and not have been published. That’s probably worse. But no, you think every time…I think that’s a universal truth. I’m sure Saul Bellow sits down and thinks, “Am I going to figure it out in this one?” And art is so personal. I’m very comforted by the fact that certain movies that I love, other people hate. Certain books that I love, other people hate. You can’t please everybody.
RB: Are they a litmus test?
EC: Not a litmus test, but it just has to do with experience. I didn’t like Cider House Rules. You loved it…
RB: I thought you meant it more as way of differentiating and placing other people based on their choices.
EC: No, because I think it varies so widely.
RB: So you don’t know something about some one because of their aethestic choices.
EC: No, but I can say generally people who like science fiction, I don’t like. But other than that…
RB: I’ve never understood the diminished stature of genre fiction. Especially, because I so admire Elmore Leonard and Carl Hiaasen. But something you said has helped me see. There is a baseline, a structure which suggests something predictable. They are not exactly starting fresh each time.
EC: Yeah, which is a huge life raft, actually. And in some ways a big novel writer has the same…if you write a book about the civil war, there is always the war to take you through it. The sinking of the Titanic, there’s that to take you through it.
RB: Do you read much contemporary fiction?
EC: Yeah, a fair amount.
RB: Does it seem like the great injustice of American publishing is that basically there is New York and there is dribs and drabs for people who live in the hinterlands…like Charles Baxter.
EC: It depends. Maybe Charlie’s happy. Writers know him. Literary readers know him. He doesn’t have to go to all those parties and do that stuff.
RB: A sane man.
EC: And that’s cocaine. The more you have the more you want. You are never satisfied. You’re climbing that tree, forever. Like Rick Bass loves it out in Montana.
RB: Barry Lopez in Oregon.
EC: I’ve lived in New York before. Everybody says it helps with publicity and awards and stuff like that. I’d rather have my nice life, for example, in Iowa. I’m sure Charley would too. If not, he would have been there.
RB: A few years ago Studs Terkel was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters. And I wondered why they waited so long, since Studs is almost 90 and it’s not like he hasn’t been doing the same great work for sixty years. A few people I mentioned this to claimed it was that he was from Chicago…
EC: If he lived in New York, he’d be…LA,too.
RB: What writers live in LA?
EC: Joan Didion?
RB: She does not. She lives in New York.
EC: No one would want to live in LA. Mona Simpson. T.C. Boyle. People only live there because they have a spouse or the movie business or something. All I’m thinking is that the publicity machine also works out of New York and LA.
RB: Does it seem like book publishing is being annexed by the TV and movie business?
EC: One of my books is being made into a movie. Which is great and everything. It shows you the difference between publishing and movies and the money difference. The catering budget is…
RB: (laughs, heartily) How do you know the budget? Are you producing it?
EC: I’ve become friendly with the producer.
RB: What’s being made?
EC: The story of The Palace Thief. It’s like a medium-budget film.
RB: Will it be an art film?
EC: They’re going to make it a big release.
RB: Who’s starring?
EC: Kevin Kline and he’s terrific. He wants to make it into an art film. But you know, publishing, economically, it’s a little gnat on the rump of the movie elephant…
RB: Which can be a serious distraction to people serious about the writer’s craft… What happens to the kids who come to Iowa with the idea of movies looming in the background? On the other hand would you want to become a writer after seeing Barton Fink?
EC: I loved that movie. I loved that Faulkner’s girlfriend was doing the writing. Some people come there [Iowa] after having been screenwriters.
RB: Why did you visit the movie set of Palace Thief? Were you invited?
EC: I was invited, and I’m interested in it, and I’ve read the script, and the script is good.
RB: Who wrote the script?
EC: Neil Tolken.
RB: Sounds familiar.
EC: No. Actually, it might be because his brother and father have been screenwriters. I can’t tell whether it’s going to be good yet because I’ve seen one scene here and one scene there. But it’s physically very beautiful. So that’s a good sign. There’s a really good cinemaphotographer, the guy who did Mephisto.
RB: It’s an endless source of wonder to me, to time after time, sit in a movie house and think about how and why the film makers bothered to release a film. Did they really think it worked at any level?
EC: You wonder how it can go wrong with so many…there are a lot of smart people doing it. How does it go wrong? It’s interesting to see it too because there are so many competing interests. The money interest…for me the big question is, are they going to make it subtle or not. I’m sure they won’t make it subtle. If you make it subtle you lose. Which is unfortunate.
RB: Does the Neil Tolkin talk to you about what he’s doing?
EC: No, not about what’s he’s doing. It’s already written. I talk to him, but they change scenes and stuff. We just talked recently about a scene they wanted to change, and I got him to agree with me that they shouldn’t change it. Actually, they shot it both ways. I don’t know how they’ll end up cutting it or editing it. At first I thought it was unreal to see all this money being burnt. There are fifty people on a set, all earning union wages. The lowest paid person there was the makeup girl and she was making $50 an hour. They work twelve-hour days. At first I thought, “What a fucking waste.” Then I thought, “Well, it’s better doing this than making missiles out of it.”
RB: Okay, but the waste is still waste. What about the hundreds of thousands and sometimes millions that are spent on projects that don’t even get made? Or screenwriters who have written many things…
EC: And gotten rich and never had anything produced. I was talking to a woman whose husband is a set designer — for Matrix II and III — said they built a mile and a half of freeway. The scale is just preeeeeeeeeeeposterous (elongates this word) for these big movies.
RB: When do you get back to writing what ever it is you want to write next?
EC: I have a book due in April 2004. End of a two-book contract.
RB: Is that standard these days, the two-book contract?
EC: No, I like that stuff because I need something to drive me on. A lot of writers don’t get contracts until they are done with the book.
RB: Is April 2004 enough time?
EC: No. Just around now I should be starting. But I’m not going to be able to start for another year. I am going to try to get some kind of fellowship next year and get a year off and write. You only have one child, but the second child makes it much more difficult. Bedtime, getting to kids to sleep, is much harder than with one. You have the second one to wake up the first. It used to be I could read at night, work at night, now I can’t. Now, I’m putting the kids to sleep. Then I fall asleep. So it takes a big chunk out of your life in terms of work.
RB: Do you get up early?
EC: Not particularly. Our kids sleep late, thank god. Usually summers I write, but now I’m on this tour. To have too much time is not good either, you have to force yourself. And human beings aren’t meant for true freedom. I’ve learned that, having had it.
RB: So for some foreseeable time, you would like just to write?
EC: Yeah, although I have no burning desire to write it right now. Right now I feel like, “Who the fuck wants to write another book? I’ll never write another book.” I’ve felt that after every book, though. And then something changes and you write a few pages. You know, if you write a page a day in couple months you have a good chunk of the book and then after a year you have almost a book. It’s not that…hard.
RB: You don’t really need three more years? What if you turn it in early?
EC: Yeah, that would be great. Get the money earlier. I’ve written five books, a book every three years. I’m fairly lazy and it doesn’t take that much…people who are not lazy are Isaac Asimov …
RB: Joyce Carol Oates…
EC: Philip Roth. If you really did work hard, if I worked hard, I could write a book a year. Who couldn’t?
RB: Do you entertain thoughts about not writing?
EC: Oh yeah, all the time.
RB: Beyond thinking about it, do you consider other things, such as glassblowing?
EC: I work with wood a lot. I like building. I think of building. I would love to buy land on some water somewhere and build a house. That’d be nice. Or do something entirely different. I think I have one more chance to do something completely different.
RB: We do live in a country that allows this reinvention. It’s encouraged.
EC: Yeah. A certain subculture of it, yeah. The culture that you and I live in, yeah it’s encouraged and expected. In lots of other parts, not. Last year I was in France, and that’s such a rigid culture.
RB: But they seem to understand life after work. Retirement, which is earlier there, seems to be a new beginning.
EC: Yeah, they do wonderfully. There is respect for humanity and they’re nice to children.
EC: Nice to talk to you.
RB: Nice to talk to you, as well.
©Robert Birnbaum 2001. All fotos by Red Diaz / Duende Publishing.