Ethan Canin is the kind of writer that I would imagine makes other writers jealous. He published his first book, Emperor of the Air, at the age of 27 to extraordinary reviews, while he was still a student at Harvard Medical School. The Boston Globe claimed, "The stories prove Canin guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of brilliance." Another story collection and three novels followed, which won him more critical attention and a growing audience. Canin's newest work, America America, is a sweeping, epic novel that more fully explores themes he has written about previously — class, politics, fatherhood, wealth, and power — in a multigenerational American saga.
America America tells two related stories: the tale of Corey Sifter, a lower-class boy who was hired as a jack-of-all-trades by the extremely wealthy Metarey family; and a fictionalized version of the Democratic Primary in 1972. As an adult, Corey is a journalist at a paper in Saline, the small New York town he grew up in. The novel moves back and forth in time between the present and Corey's past, particularly the pivotal years of 1971-1972, when he was a scholarship student at a prestigious boarding school, Liam Metarey's right-hand man, and an occasional driver for Senator Bonwiller, the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination.
Kirkus calls America America, Ethan Canin's first novel in seven years, "[a] novel of character [that] is powerful and haunting, a major work." Ron Charles, writing in the Washington Post, raves, "Ethan Canin's best novel...[I]t couldn't have arrived at a more auspicious moment than this season of potentially epochal political change." In this interview, Canin discusses his new book, the politics of generosity, class-jumping, and method acting for writing.
Jill Owens: In an interview several years ago, you said you started Carry Me across the Water with a single sentence. How did you start America America?
Ethan Canin: In desperation. I knew I had to start a novel, and I wasn't getting anywhere. I was searching through old material, and I came upon that scene where the main characters are on a sailboat, and the sister jumps off the back of the boat into the water, and I thought it was an okay scene.
America America really started as a book about class, about a boy who jumps class. This was in early 2001. I was working on that mildly and contentedly, and then September 11 happened. I'd also been held at gunpoint.
Jill: I read something about that; that was on a book tour?
Canin: Yes, that was in L.A. It was after a reading at Dutton's, which used to be a great bookstore in L.A. It recently closed, unfortunately. I was having dinner across the street with Mona Simpson and a couple other friends of ours. The restaurant was fairly empty, and nine armed men walked in, forced us under the table, and one of them held a gun right to my head. I had just left my daughter at home; she was about five years old at the time. The man said, "I'll blow your fucking head off," basically.
We were under the table for about 10 or 15 minutes, and I was trying to call 911 on my cell phone — which made beeps every time you pressed a number, so some people were saying not to do it, and some were saying, yes, you should do it... In any case, we were fine, in the end, and they left without shooting anybody.
The combination of that and September 11 — September 11 more than that incident — really stopped me in my tracks. I stopped writing for about two years. It didn't seem that important to me, as I think happened to most writers at that point. Then life slowly began to get back to normal.
I became much more political. I'd always been political, but I became interested in writing something about politics, writing (without sounding presumptuous) more important books, books about bigger things like history and politics. For example, in this case, what cost the country is willing to pay for politicians who have great vision. That became the other theme of this book, at least for me: How much wrong are we willing to put up with in the service of right?
Books grow on their own. So it became really two stories: a story about a boy jumping classes, and a story about a great but flawed politician.
I certainly don't have any idea what I'm going to write when I write. I know that some people do, but I don't.
Jill: When did you start the book? I first read it in January, when the Democratic primary was becoming so much more closely watched, and of course the primary season in your book, in 1972, was in a similar situation.
Canin: It was weird. I was looking at the book recently, at a speech Senator Bonwiller makes about the bridges of hope, and I was struck — I wrote that maybe three years before I even knew Obama was running.
Jill: That was clairvoyant of you.
Canin: Yes, clairvoyant! There was also a little bit in there about stagflation, economic stagnation along with inflation, which occurred under Nixon. It rarely happens; it only happened for the first time in the seventies. That now seems to be happening again, to a certain degree.
And then of course Eliot Spitzer... Although if you write about a political scandal, you can pretty much count on being prophetic. [Laughter]
It's interesting that probably one of the most closely analogous scandals was Gary Condit; his paramour, Chandra Levy, was found murdered, and that to this day remained unsolved.
Jill: What did you find interesting artistically or aesthetically about writing about politics?
Canin: I am a political hound. I am obsessive. I love every election year. I used to follow sports as a kid, and now I follow politics. What could be better? It's got everything.
Jill: I think you and I started talking about Obama within about two minutes of meeting each other in L.A.
Canin: Exactly. He in particular is such an exciting candidate. He's about as gifted a politician — and "politician" has sort of become a pejorative, but I don't mean it as a pejorative — as gifted a political figure as I've seen, at least in my adult lifetime.
For various reasons, I've been listening to some old political speeches, and I was listening to FDR's inaugural a couple of days ago. I have to say, Obama is a wonderful speaker, but he's still no FDR. FDR is a perfect example: he was quite a flawed man. He did not treat Jews well. He himself evidently had several affairs, certainly one long-term affair, not that anybody cared then. But he had a great vision of generosity for the country. That's the question you always have to ask: how much are we willing to put up with personal peccadilloes for that kind of vision?
I like to think of it as the politics of generosity. That's what I've been thinking of it as, instead of liberalism or conservatism. I think of the great liberal figures as leading a politics of generosity.
Jill: In addition to Senator Bonwiller, Liam Metarey, in the book, practices a kind of politics of generosity to Corey and to the larger town, as well.
Canin: Right. That's another American tradition. It's another thing I was thinking about with this book, that you can have these great political figures like Teddy Roosevelt and FDR and John Kennedy and Robert Kennedy and Ted Kennedy who come from the landed gentry. There's no question that they're in the upper classes, yet they have a sense of togetherness with the common man, and a proper sense that the country doesn't thrive unless its lower classes thrive.
We are in serious trouble now. The difference between the top wage earners in this country and the working class is a death knell for our culture. Not to rant, but it's crazy how much people are earning while working people are struggling. It's obscene. Do you ever read Bob Herbert in the New York Times?
Jill: I do.
Canin: He had a good piece yesterday about Bernie Sanders, the senator from Vermont. He polled working-class people in Vermont about how difficult it is for them right now, and the stories are quite something.
Jill: Didn't one woman describe burning her mother's furniture for heat this past winter?
Canin: Exactly! It's happening all over. And here's my other pet peeve: money has become an achievement rather than some kind of contribution. Rather than the marker of achievement, money has become the achievement itself.
I went to my daughter's sixth-grade graduation a few days ago. They do this thing where they predict for one another where they'll be in 20 years. It was striking to me that so many of them — over half the class — predicted that so-and-so would be CEO of this or that. Only one that I can remember wanted to be a scientist. They all wanted to be CEOs.
Jill: I'm amazed that sixth-graders even know what CEOs are.
Canin: It's impressive and depressing. It always seems like your own childhood is better, but we wanted to be ball players, or scientists, or whatever. No one even thought of being a CEO. Now they probably want to be CFOs, for all I know.
Jill: You would have been 12 during the 1972 primary. I was wondering how much your own early impressions, if any, played into the book.
Canin: I was just barely conscious of politics, in an early way. I remember McGovern, and that's about it. I can remember conversations about McGovern, and a little bit about Nixon. I mostly did research and reading, a mixture of articles from that time.
But I do have those early memories. I was living in San Francisco at that point, and I don't think I knew anyone, or even of anyone, who voted for Nixon. That's just the kind of place San Francisco is. Now that I live in Iowa, of course, it's much more diverse politically, which is interesting. It keeps you sharper to be surrounded by different views.
It was my first political consciousness, and I remember going door to door with a can, raising money for McGovern. Not that I knew anything about his policies. I was probably just absorbing my parents' politics.
I've always been fascinated with Nixon, who seems to me to be a key moral figure of the next 35 years, politically. At the same time, Ted Kennedy symbolized the great rise of liberalism, but also, because of Chappaquiddick, he gave conservatism a face of fear that they could plant on what I would again call the politics of generosity.
Jill: In discussion of the book so far, I I haven't seen people bring up Kennedy and Chappaquiddick much, which seems an obvious parallel to Senator Bonwiller in some ways.
Canin: I can't really deny that some of that was what brought me to write. But I'm a lot more interested in Kennedy because he's probably considered universally by Republicans and Democrats as the greatest senator in recent years, and has probably done more, in terms of passed more bills for education and health care, than any other senator. He's probably done more good than anyone else in Congress, yet he does have that... I can't speak with any authority on whether it's a character flaw or an isolated bad decision. Who knows what happened that night?
Nonetheless, he gave figure to the fear of that generosity, of giving away too much to the underclasses, and that was in some ways responsible for the decline of liberalism that has occurred since that time.
Jill: Most of your books are written in first person, and often, as in this new one, the characters seem to be consciously aware, at least in part, of telling a story. Do you think about their individual storytelling styles as a part of their voices?
Canin: Absolutely. To me, the question that defines all of writing is, "What would the narrator tell you at this moment?" This book, for example, starts out with the narrator trying to calculate how many people are at the funeral. It's a funny way to start out a book, except later on, you find out that he was the guy who used to tell Senator Bowiller how many people were in every political rally.
I always tell my students, "Don't write about a character. Become that character, and then write your story." For me, it's almost a physical thing. I sit at my desk, and it's about thirty seconds of letting the room drop away and imagining yourself into this other human being. Everything that you would notice, everything that you would tell, in the order that you would tell it, is then told.
It's kind of like method acting for writing.
Jill: I was going to ask you that, how you inhabit your characters. I remember back when I read Emperor of the Air marveling at how well you seemed to describe being old, when you were still pretty young.
Canin: I used to be a doctor, so I was spending all my time with old people and the dying. Old, dying people were basically my stock in trade. That's what you did when you were a medical student and a resident; I don't think I saw a healthy, young person in all my time there.
That might have been part of it. But it really is almost like throwing your voice, or throwing your consciousness across the room to someone else. Writing is essentially about 85 percent misery. That moment of empathy is one of the few pleasurable things I can take from writing, to imagine life from somebody else's point of view.
Jill: America America has many strong female characters, but I think the one that stood out for me the most was Trieste. I like what Corey says about her at one point, which is essentially, "What does one say to a seventeen-year-old who talks like that?"
Jill: No. I've always wanted to read him, though.
Canin: Those are great books, those three novels. If he had stayed alive, I'm sure he would have won the Nobel Prize at some point (of course, he died a few years ago). In one of those books, there's a character, Liesl, who is just a magnificent strong-minded female character. I read those books 15 or 20 years ago, but that has stayed with me since then, the idea of writing such a strong-minded woman.
Jill: Corey is frequently uncertain as to the motivations of some of the other characters, though he generally gives them the benefit of the doubt. How clear were their motivations, even to you?
Canin: That's part of what I was talking about in terms of inhabiting another character. Quite intentionally, I let myself know no more than Corey knows, and I think he still can't fully decipher what happened. He doesn't know what happened in that apple orchard. He doesn't know what happened with Henry Bonwiller and JoEllen Charney. He doesn't know how much of this is motivated by Liam Metarey's desire to end the Vietnam War, both for his own son who is over there and for all the other sons who are over there.
He doesn't even know whether Metarey was at heart a generous man; he thinks that he was, but Metarey also does some things that are distinctly ungenerous and risky for Corey. He doesn't know why Metarey ends up doing what he does (without giving any plot points away).
I know some people like books with answers, but to me, this is a book that stays with questions more than answers. I tried to look as closely as I could from the point of view of the character during the time that all this happened, and figure out what I could, and I had to leave mystery at the heart of it.
Jill: Re-reading your earlier work in the context of America America, it seems a little like you've rolled all these themes that come up in your earlier books and stories into one sweeping, seamless novel — class, character, power, ambition, discipline.
Canin: People are going to ask me what this book is about, and I'm going to quote you on that. [Laughter]
One of the more chagrining aspects of writing is that it's fairly easy to discern what one's obsessions are, or for someone else to discern my obsessions. Class, envy, ambition — what else did you say?
Jill: Discipline, power... and you've said generosity. How to live decently in the world, I think, comes up a lot in your books.
Canin: Yes. I personally happen to love the character of Liam Metarey. I have a lot of affection for that man, and I think he was a man with enormous talents, enormous weight, and enormous resources. A sort of ballast of history, trying to do the right thing. Those figures abound today, from George Soros to Bill Gates. I don't know what those men's real motivations are, but certainly they're trying to do good things in the world.
Jill: Liam is humanized, too, because he's so down to earth. He does all his own repairs, for instance, and never wastes anything, and has the same sort of feeling that Corey does of almost being undeserving of all this that he's been given.
Canin: That's interesting. I think that's right. It also occurred to me that people are always of two classes, those who have jumped class. I feel in some ways that I have jumped class in my lifetime. My brother was the first person in my family to go to college, and I was the second. I ended up going to Harvard Medical School, so I really got to see the east coast establishment, the fancy houses at the Cape, things like that, when I was in my twenties. That made quite an impression on me.
Now, being a writer, I don't mingle in that society, but I've been exposed to it, and I feel comfortable enough in it. I think if you've done what I have, in any way, you always have the feeling of being in two classes at once.
I was reminded of that during Hillary Clinton's campaign, by how comfortable she seemed in working-class Pennsylvania, with lunch-bucket Democrats. Of course, her father was a well-to-do businessman, but her grandfather was a lace factory worker, and before that they were Welsh coalminers, I believe. I think she felt so comfortable there, though she'd been elevated to this other class for most of her adult lifetime. I can imagine the comfort she must have felt sliding back into the class of her ancestors.
There's a permanent discomfort if you've done that class-jumping. It's certainly true in that first generation, but I think it persists, that class discomfort, the pressure between the past and the present, at least through two or three generations.
Jill: It seems to promote self-examination, at least in your characters. Corey is constantly scrutinizing his own behavior in light of where he comes from and what he's doing now.
Canin: That to me is what fiction is about. Something interesting happens and then a morally thoughtful person analyzes it. That's the kind of fiction I like to read. Something's got to happen, but someone also has to think about what happened. That's what it comes down to.
I like contemplative narrators myself. I wanted to redeem Henry Bonwiller a bit. I didn't want there to be an easily nameable villain or an easily nameable hero. I would hope that people would see both in Henry Bonwiller and Liam Metarey and Corey. Henry Bonwiller makes a small speech near the end that, to me at least, redeems much of what he does.
Jill: America America is a traditional, epic American story. I've noticed that more books like that are being published this year — Siri Hustvedt's The Sorrows of an American is another, and in a way, so is Andre Dubus III's The Garden of Last Days. What do you think that says about American writers right now?
Canin: I hadn't noticed it, because I have not read, for example, either of those two books yet, but I wonder if it circles back to something we were talking about earlier, which is September 11. I don't know if this is true, but I bet if you looked at the book publication rate of American writers, there's a dip there for three years after that. Then I suspect people began to take on more serious themes, just as the country did.
I suppose writers, without acknowledging it or realizing it, reflect the zeitgeist. In 2000, O. J. and the white Bronco were the most serious things I could think about. Think of those things now. Things have gotten a lot more serious now, and we have to think about bigger things. We're probably witnessing an empire in decline, and certainly that promotes thinking broadly.
Jill: How do you think your writing has changed over the years?
Canin: I still hate it, most of the time, and I'm deathly afraid of it. I still have to drag myself to do it. I'm getting just a slight, slight bit more confident in my ability to pull off something a little larger. In some ways, that's what this book was for me — a reach towards something bigger. Now that I've made the reach of this book, I think I could stand on that platform, and reach again.
I'm always trying to learn something new or try something new in each book. It seems silly, but I remember thinking to myself, "How am I going to have this guy run for President? How do you even introduce that idea into a book?"
It seems silly now, because it seems that all you'd have to do would be to write the sentence, "He decided to run for President," but how do you make that believable?
I just reviewed Sacred Hunger by Barry Unsworth on NPR. It's one of the books I most admire, a magnificently large and imaginative book that truly transports you. To be able to do that is really something, and that's what I would like to be able to do in my next one, to stand on this platform and reach again.
Each time you write a book, you're hammering another two-by-four into the tree and taking another step up the trunk.
Jill: One of your earlier characters talks about having a practical goal but a secret dream. How have those categories applied to writing and medicine, for you?
Canin: I guess that's pretty clear to me. Writing was the practical — I'm sorry, medicine was the practical goal. That was a Freudian slip, wasn't it? [Laughter] Medicine was practical; writing was the secret dream. It's not so easy, if you have to pay a mortgage and send your kids to college.
Jill: I didn't realize that you went to Iowa and got your MFA first, before medical school.
Canin: I was whatever age you are when you're a junior in college, around 20, and decided one night that I wanted to be a writer. God bless my parents. My father's a musician, and the last thing he wanted was for me to go into the arts. He wanted me to have a paying job.
I went to Iowa, but I left defeated as a writer; I figured that was the end of that. I was happy to have found out I couldn't do it.
Jill: What do you mean by "defeated," exactly? Why did you think you couldn't do it?
Canin: It was hard; I wasn't good. I got a couple of things published, but I got paid two copies of the magazine for one story. I did get either $1200 or $1500, I can't remember now, for a story in Redbook, which was a good amount of money at that time. That was enticing, but not enough.
It was too hard. I just couldn't do it. I didn't have any kind of discipline then; I was a very undisciplined kid. Only later in my life did I develop any sort of discipline at all. It takes a number of things to be able to write. I think I had a decent prose style, early on, but I did not have discipline, that's for certain.
Now I'm discovering that if you're just standing, 20 or 30 years later, you're doing okay.
Jill: What is something that no one has asked you about this book yet that you'd be interested to have readers know?
Canin: You leave certain clues around. I think it's a book you might have to read twice to pick up all the clues. There are some answers to the mysteries in the book, but it certainly takes a second reading. I've always loved books that you get more out of on a second reading.
Jill: I've read it twice now, and I would definitely put this book in that category.
Canin: It's very gratifying to hear that. I've always admired the work of Alice Munro, partly because I know that the more I read it, the more I get out of it. Whereas there is some confusing fiction which, when you read it again, you get even more confused. There's very little art or discipline or organization behind it.
William Gass once wrote an essay about experimental fiction that I really like. It talks about experiment as a true scientific idea, meaning you made a hypothesis and you tried it to see if it was working. For a long time, experimental fiction has been synonymous with senseless fiction, but I believe in experimentation.
For example, in these last two novels, America America and Carry Me across the Water, I was experimenting with how you jump forward and backward in time. I have my own theories about it. When there's a break between scenes, I think you shouldn't go from 2:00 on Monday until 3:00 on Monday. You can go from June 1948 in Jakarta, Indonesia, to September 1990 in Brooklyn.
I think the moment of disorientation and then reorientation is actually really gratifying for a reader. At least, that's what I've always found when I read. The cost of it for some readers is going to be some confusion, but I think the gratification of it, to me at least, is worth it. Being disoriented, discombobulated, and then reoriented.
Jill: I think that's one of the pleasures of fiction generally, the initial disorientation of someone else's vision and then reorientation into it.
Canin: Exactly. It's the reader's version of the writer's empathic jump.
One thing about this book I'd like people to realize: who the old man is at the beginning of the book, weeping at the funeral. And Liam Metarey at one point, at least in my vision of it, is letting Corey know what happened, in that orchard scene later. He tells Corey in code what happened.
I like to put a number of things like that in there, knowing full well that few readers will pick them up.
Jill: What have you been reading lately?
Canin: I've been reading All the King's Men by Robert Penn Warren, because this book has been compared to that, and I've never read it. I'm 200 pages into it. I'm reading Away by Amy Bloom, and I'm about 150 pages into that. She's just killed the john in Seattle, so she hasn't really quite fully started her trip. I don't know what happens, but I think it gets a little more wild from here.
Jill: It does.
Canin: I'm going to Seattle tomorrow, so I thought that would be a good time to read it. I'm reading a novel called The Sand Cafe by Neil MacFarquhar, a New York Times reporter who happens to be a friend of mine. And two unpublished novels, one called Jimmy Twice, which will probably be around within a couple of years, and a novel by another of my old students named Lewis Robinson called Waterdog. He also wrote Officer Friendly and Other Stories, which is a wonderful book.
I first met Ethan Canin in Los Angeles at Book Expo America early in June. For this interview, I spoke with him on the phone on June 16, 2008.
Books mentioned in this post