A Doubter's Almanac
is Ethan Canin's fifth novel (and seventh book), and it explores some familiar themes for the Guggenheim winner — power, genius, love, and ethics. It's a character study of Milo Andret, a mesmerizing, brilliant, and infuriating mathematics wunderkind who understands everything about topology and very little about other human beings. But it's also a father–son portrait, as Hans — Milo's son, who shares some of his mathematical gifts and other personality quirks — struggles with his own identity and his relationship with his difficult father. NPR raved, "A Doubter's Almanac
is exquisitely crafted. Canin takes us readers deep into the strange world of his troubled characters without ever making us aware of the effort involved....[A] completely captivating novel." And in a starred review, Publishers Weekly
called the novel "a tremendous literary achievement." We are excited to have chosen A Doubter's Almanac
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One of my colleagues loved this book so much she said she wanted you to write a sequel, Even More Doubt
] Thank you. That's very sweet of her.
Jill: We last talked eight years ago
, and we discussed some of the impetuses for your last book, America America
— being held at gunpoint, 9/11. Was the genesis of A Doubter's Almanac
No, this one started in a much more mundane way. Which is: I love teaching fiction writing but I hate teaching literature, and I occasionally have to do it.
Why do you hate teaching literature?
It's like analyzing a joke. It's no longer funny; it takes the joy out of it. My idea of teaching literature is just to read great passages aloud or to look at it the way a writer does, which is what I try to do. Which is to say: "How does this writer do this? How did he order his scenes? Do you notice any pattern to his sentences?" I'm a craftsman type of teacher. I don't like the thematic type of teaching that takes place in a lot of colleges.
I teach a 14-week semester, and one of the things I do when I have to teach literature is, for the first half hour of the class, I have the students write the beginning of a new story every week. At the end of the semester, even if they have learned nothing about literature, at least they'll have 14 beginnings that they can take with them. [Laughter
I like that idea.
I would do that myself, and it would give me 14 beginnings, too. I would give them a situation each week, and they could either make up their own or they could use my situation for their opening.
I finished America America
, and I knew I had to write another book, not just for personal reasons but because I had a contract. I was looking through my file cabinet, and I had all these beginnings that I had written. I didn't like many of them, but I came across one that I liked.
The only way to create a plot is to have people misbehave.
This was the first time I've ever written the first part of a book that stayed the first part of the book, and that's still the opening of this book: a guy watching as a car pulls up, and his old rival arrives with his old lover.
And it seemed okay to me. I usually dislike my own prose when I read it, but this seemed decent. From there, it just took off. I had no idea that guy was going to be a mathematician. That was a little chance occurrence that took place about 15 or 20 pages into it.
How did that chance occurrence come up? I was going to ask, how did mathematics and topology specifically come into the book?
Who knows? How can any of this be explained? It has a lot to do with one's unconscious thoughts, one's memories.
I had a mathematician in my family. My mother's great uncle when I was growing up was a mathematician. I don't think I ever met the man. Possibly I met him when I was very little, but there was talk of him by my mother, so I knew he was there.
One of the things this guy does in the book fairly early is whittle a tremendously difficult chain out of a tree.
Which is such a beautiful image. I love picturing that, and it made me really want one.
It would be a very cool thing to do at some point. I think just whittling two links together would be enough for most human beings.
So who knows where anything comes from? That's just what started it. Then one of the keys to writing a plot that writers will discover, or that I try to teach my students, is that you really can't think of a plot in advance, at least not for a literary writer. I'm sure a thriller or a mystery writer does that, but for a literary or a psychological writer, I think you can't do that. The only way to create a plot is to have people misbehave. That's, in a way, what plot is, is misbehavior and its consequences. If fiction is gossip, then plot is misbehavior and its consequences. Those are two pretty good rules to live by for a writer.
There's a lot of misbehavior and its consequences in A Doubter's Almanac
Yes, throughout the whole book. It's good for two reasons. One is that readers like to read that. Also it's good for the writer because it creates energy, that sort of clash between what you do in ordinary life and what you can do as a writer.
Most of us — although to be fair, it's not true for all writers — are restrained enough to act reasonably in our daily lives, although there certainly have been writers who weren't. [Laughter
] This is a relatively harmless way of both exorcising those urges, and also exercising them.
We had talked a little bit about ambition being something that you were interested in in your earlier work, and that's certainly something that is a driving force in this, too. What did you want to explore about the relationship between genius and ambition?
To me, this book is more about ambition than about genius. "Ambition" is not exactly the right word. It's about ambition, but it's also about obsession, and obsession and genius are probably linked. I would say they're certainly linked, and they may be two different words for the same thing in a certain way.
To me, it's in many ways about what life becomes for somebody who is so obsessively focused on something unattainable, and yet the object of lifelong passion, and then what that combination does to the people around them. It's also, to me, about the difficulty of forgiving difficult people, which the characters, most of them, work on.
Milo is such a fascinating and also frustrating character. I did want to shake him.
People say that. I kind of find him charming. [Laughter
] I hate to say that, but I've always loved characters who just do their own thing, who are oblivious to others and act on it, in part because it's bad behavior that's based on pain. Even though it might seem like it's based on self-advancement, to me it's based on pain, his craziness. I'm always able to forgive that.
There's a lot of sadness in the book. Hans at one point describes his family as "extravagantly sad," but the tone of the book is really not dark. How did you think about the emotional mood of the book?
That's a great question because I felt playful as hell in the first part of the book. I still felt playful in the second part, but I also wanted to write something that was unequivocally about the tragedy that every life becomes at some point, and just to stay with it and not shy away from it and go right into some very dark things and stay with them. But also, I don't know, be light about it in certain moments. For me, I always felt a tickle as I was writing it. From whatever voice I was in, there was always sort of a tickle.
I felt that a bit. Even with the tragedy of what's happening, there's a playfulness in the tone that makes it incredibly engaging to read.
Yes. If you want to make somebody cry, which is basically what I always want to do as a writer [laughter
], you've got to make them laugh a little first. You've got to make them laugh first, and you've got to make them love a character first. A story about a death is always a story about a life. That's the power of it. It's not the death that makes it sad, it's the life that preceded it that's gone.
Both Milo and his son are addicts, and addiction plays a big role in their lives. Hans has an unusual drug of choice.
It's funny, because I have a house in the woods that I live in in the summers. My neighbor there is a district attorney in a drug-infested area and spends a lot of his time prosecuting drug crimes. He'd never heard of this particular drug, but it was around and it was a precursor to MDMA, which is ecstasy, which obviously is around.
It's a cool drug for someone who's interested in the brain. These things are often called entheogens. Another word for that is entactogen. These drugs that make you feel a connectivity to others and to the universe — that's what this family needs, don't they? [Laughter
Speaking of your house in the woods, Milo has such a connection to the land and the forest there in Michigan. Is that where you're from, or near there?
No, it's true that I was born there, but I only spent a couple of weeks there. My dad happened to be working in that area when I was born in 1960. I actually had never lived there. But then, about 10 years ago, my wife and I bought a little cabin in the woods up there on a lake that has been just the delight of our lives.
Since I'm a teacher, I get three months off, and God, it's great. I go up there, and I can just be around nothing of the world and read, deep in those trees. I must have descended from farmers or from forest people, because it's just so great. Just the smell of it is an incredible relaxant. Not just relaxing, but it excites me. It's unbelievable.
Michigan is a gorgeous, gorgeous state too. It's the Maine of the Midwest. It's kind of unknown to people on the coasts, but it's really a wonderful state. It has beautiful water, beautiful lakes, some of the greatest beaches in the world.
Though the Oregon coast has got some pretty nice beaches, too. I'll give you that. I must say that driving the Oregon coast was probably the most beautiful thing I've ever seen in my life.
Earlier you mentioned the intro of the book, when Milo's prior lover and his rival show up. That general triangle haunts Milo his whole life. Do you think that those early relationships that we have imprint upon us and really shape our lives like that?
Honestly, in my experience, no. But I do think that rivalry is an underappreciated emotion, or at least an under-discussed emotion, and it's really a driving emotion for a lot of people. Especially people trying to do anything unusual or distinctive in the world.
Math is really an imaginative thing. It's about thinking of new ways to solve a problem.
This generation, meaning the younger generation — people who are in their mid-20s now — they're more often my students. They seem to have cleansed some bit of rivalry from their systems, or so it appears in their outward behavior. I just can't quite imagine that's true. They seem to be a cooperative generation, but I don't fully believe that. It might be just what they're showing to the public.
Because rivalry or competition is a deeply rooted human impulse?
A deeply rooted impulse of any living organism.
That's true, for survival.
You wrote a piece for us in which you shared your NBA fantasy draft of writers
, and you wrote about Alice Munro
: "Then you take a look at Munro's later work and you see that she somehow made the leap from traditional logic into dream logic, which has changed the game for all of us since."
How has that changed the game for you in particular?
It would change the game for me if I were writing short stories right now. What they did to her short stories is they made them seem novelistic in their scope. I don't think it pertains so much to novels. A novel is such an unwieldy piece of wool to begin with that, in some ways, a novelist is obligated to give it some structure so that the reader doesn't flounder. Certain readers like to flounder. I am not one of those readers in particular.
In a novel, you have to have stronger logical connections. But in a short story, being short enough that you can hold it in your mind either as a writer or as a reader, you can actually afford to pull out some of those logical connections. It gives it an expansiveness that she gave to her fiction. That has always been an inspiration to me since I first read it.
I had read that you'd said this was one of the tougher books of yours for you to write. Why was that?
They're all miserable. [Laughter
] It's hard to pick which one was the most miserable, but this was certainly among them.
Was the time between the release of this book and America America
longer than between your earlier books?
Canin: America America
was '08, and this was early '16, so it was eight years. Less than eight years. It's not all steady writing. I probably dallied around for six or eight months and then probably finished a year ago or a half year, at least. Closer to a year before it came out. It's a long time.
This was hard for different reasons. The first part had a driving plot to it that made it fairly easy to write. The second part was a more psychological part, a subtler part. It was hard to figure out where to go with it.
The math was hard. I've always loved math, but I don't understand a lot of this math. I wrote the whole thing without researching. Maybe that was a mistake. I wrote the whole thing and then researched, and then had to correct it.
The sections about the math were beautiful. As a person who is somewhat interested in math, I felt like I got maybe 50 percent. That's about where I landed.
That's pretty good. I don't really want people to care about the math in particular. Obviously, there's maybe one in a zillion people who actually understands it. It's all accurate, by the way. A topologist can read it now and not be grossly offended by it. [Laughter
It's like American Pastoral
, the Roth novel. You don't have to know every detail about glove making in New Jersey to have enjoyed that novel. It's a beautiful novel and a beautiful look at somebody's livelihood, some method of livelihood.
That's what the math is, too. No reader needs to understand it, but a reader needs to feel, or I hope a reader feels, what it's like physically to try it. Also, math is not really equations. That's an expression of math, but math is really an imaginative thing. It's about thinking of new ways to solve a problem.
Mathematicians aren't just trying to compute faster than the next guy. They're being very creative. "Creative" isn't the right word. They're being inventive, trying to find a key that will unlock something of undoable difficulty and make it doable.
I love the way Milo describes mathematics to his son as "a wooden doll giving birth to another wooden doll."
Yes, that was one of the moments I liked, also. That's what it is. There's this debate over whether math is invented or discovered, and I certainly come down on the side that it's discovered. That's why the wooden doll can give birth to another wooden doll.
Milo early in the book says something like, "There was no going forward without intuition." He was trying to find his intuition to solve that problem. What role does intuition play in your writing or in your life?
You could say this book is about math. This book could be about painting, or it could be about music, or it could be about trying to run a bookstore. It's really about trying the difficult thing. At a certain age, you realize, What is intuition? It probably has a great deal of logic inside of it.
Intuition feels like a little glimpse into the operating part of the brain that is normally below the level of cognition or the level of language. I know that might sound a little esoteric.
I've never heard it described like that, but I think that makes a lot of sense.
One of the things I was thinking about when I was writing this book is... one of the things a writer tries to do, or as you get older or longer in the tooth, is try to more closely approximate thought in your prose.
A lot of writers, as they age, they begin to drop out pronouns, drop out verbs, which might seem like an affectation, but is probably closer to the way thought actually occurs.
While I was doing that, I was trying to figure out how I thought, because we're always having these very complicated thoughts. At least, I am unaware of how they're produced in the brain. Are they images? They don't seem to be words. The words seem to be after-the-fact explanations for the thoughts, the same way that equations are after-the-fact explanations for the mathematics.
Certainly, there's a similarity between what language is to thought and what equations are to mathematics. Mathematics is imagination, and equations are the way one shows another person what one had imagined, just as language is not thought or experience, but is the best we have to show another person what we've experienced.
Do you think that for people who do think more visually, who tend more towards images, is it a similar translation, or is that any closer to thought?
I don't know. Even the idea of thinking in images… Spend some time today trying to think how you think. It's almost undoable because you're able to come up with complex processes or complex thoughts.
I'm not going to tell Aunt Sarah about that bad cheesecake, because she was insulted last time I said that
, or something like that. That's at least the language, the expression of what you thought, but that thought took place in a microsecond. You probably weren't visualizing Aunt Sarah. You probably weren't saying any of these things in your head.
It's weird. You certainly get the impression that there's a machine running, and we're just hearing the little blips and beeps outside of it. That's maybe what intuition is. It's the outermost workings of that machine that are occasionally accessible to the outside.
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is the author of seven books, including the story collections Emperor of the Air
and The Palace Thief
and the novels For Kings and Planets
, Carry Me Across the Water
, America America
, and A Doubter's Almanac
. He is on the faculty of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and divides his time between Iowa and northern Michigan.