Ethan Canin burst onto the literary scene in 1988 with Emperor of the Air, a short-fiction collection that he wrote while attending Harvard Medical School. The late Walker Percy hailed the work as “dazzling, at times breathtaking, at other times heartbreaking.”
For a while, Canin divided his time between writing and practicing medicine. Writing ultimately won out, and he has since published another short-story collection and four novels, including his latest, America America.
Canin corresponded with the Current via email from Iowa City, where he is a faculty member at the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
Tempus fugit! It’s been 20 years since the first book. Any thoughts? Regrets?
It doesn’t get any easier.
You’ve given both writing and medicine a try. Still, I figured you’d opt for doing both, as William Carlos Williams did — delivering babies and literature.
I’ve often wondered whether I should have become a surgeon. I miss both the physical concentration of the profession and the sense of usefulness that it instills. For me, that’s been the hardest part of being a writer — wondering if I’m devoting myself to something useless.
Unlike other writers of your generation, your stories are more about character and storytelling and not the postmodern “me, myself, and I.” Is that a fair assessment?
I’d like to think so. Writing is about imagining yourself as someone else. At least, it is for me. The same, in a way, might be said about medicine.
Many readers hold your short fiction in the highest regard. Yet for the past decade, your output has been strictly novels.
I’m more interested in writing novels these days. I think my novels are better than my stories, anyway. At least, they’re more interesting to me. In my opinion, novels ask rather than answer. I’m just trying to tell a story and to muck around with what interests me.
In the case of America America, I was interested in the nature of political power, in the anatomy of philanthropy, and in the wide-ranging reevaluation that comes with parenthood.
Hollywood has filmed four of your stories — including The Emperor’s Club with Kevin Kline. I gather you aren’t wary of having your work adapted into films.
I like the movie business despite its savage culture. Movies are big, exciting, hopeful collaborations, brought down by venality, pandering, and greed.
What advice do you have for writers who fail to get accepted at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop?
I’d say, if they want to come to Iowa, keep applying. We take many applicants upon re-application. Iowa’s a great place for writers. But it’s far from the only good place.
Your former students have included such “hot” writers as Daniel Alarcón (Lost City Radio), Salvatore Scibona (The End), and Nam Le (The Boat). Do you now see them as competitors?
I still see them as young, eager, somewhat nervous faces across a seminar table. And there are dozens more besides the ones you mention. It’s thrilling to read writing like theirs when it’s still got typos in it. — Gregg Barrios