Ethan Canin wants you to read between the lines. A wordsmith who at 27 dazzled critics with his debut short story collection Emperor of the Air, Canin has learned an appreciation of the tacit, the unsaid. "Space adds immeasurably to the power of fiction," said the author of Carry Me Across the Water.
"If you just go from Monday to Tuesday, it's not as effective as going from Japan in 1940 to Brooklyn in 1990. You can sort of trigger a reader to drop his emotional defenses," Canin says.
These leaps, these spaces add heft to his new novel, which tells of 78-year-old August Kleinman. After emigrating to America from Germany as a boy, Kleinman became an American success story, complete with business, wife and kids. Now more than comfortable in his accumulated wealth, Kleinman is less comfortable with his own grown children. He is capable of generous, even grandiose acts but since the death of his wife, Kleinman has become, as Canin writes, "a stranger to his own life." Re-examining his life, Kleinman on impulse flies to Japan. His hope, which he can barely articulate to himself, let alone to his family, is that by redeeming someone from his past, he can also redeem himself.
Despite the acclaim earned by Emperor of the Air and two other collections of short stories, Canin saw Kleinman's story as a novel. "To me, a novel is the story of a life. That's what interests me. The guy who works in the laundromat, the professor, what happened to them? Where did they make their mistakes? Why didn't they take that job? Why didn't they marry someone else? You could spend the rest of your life thinking about that." Canin hasn't been to Japan, isn't a businessman and at 40, has a long way to go before his children, ages two and five, are adults themselves. "I've never written anything autobiographical. I don't work that way. I make just about everything up." With Kleinman, he's created someone of "an age where one has some authority, where you can look at your life with some equanimity. I've never been interested in young people," said the author, sounding closer to Kleinman's age than his own.
The gravitas belying his boyish face perhaps dates from when he studied at the University of Iowa's prestigious Writers Workshop. Iowa prides itself on being a literary boot camp only the talented and thick-skinned can survive, and while Canin produced short stories there, he concluded he didn't have what it takes to be a writer. "I left having given up. I went to medical school with my tail between my legs," he said.
Thinking his writing days were over, Canin applied and was accepted to Harvard Medical School. While immersed in his studies, Canin received a call from an editor who'd read several of his short stories. She contacted him about putting together a collection. "I forget if I was a third-year or a fourth-year student, but either way, you're the lowest of the low, you're humiliated daily," said Canin, and to be celebrated as the author of Emperor of the Air felt "intoxicating, oh my God, incredible."
While savoring his literary success, Canin didn't quite trust it. He continued to write on the side, making medicine his livelihood, even after publishing a novel, another short story collection and a book of three novellas. He didn't have the confidence to leave medicine until 1995, the year he published his novel For Kings and Planets. Canin hasn't given up on the day job concept, though. He now teaches at the Iowa Writers Workshop, the place he left in defeat more than a decade ago. Either Iowa has changed since his student days or Canin has. "I don't know if it's the zeitgeist, but people seem more overtly supportive and generous. I'm sure they have the same serpentine rivalries when they're in their own dens, but they seem more cooperative," he said. In the five years since joining the faculty, he's learned as much from his students as he has taught them. As Carry Me Across the Water shows, Canin has become "a little more confident" about sustaining a narrative throughout a novel. "You've got to give it a rhythm, from bold to quiet, go from love to horror, travel across space and time, move it along that way," he said.
To achieve that rhythm, Canin sketched out the arc of Kleinman's life on "a huge story board that takes up the whole wall. All the plot lines are in different colors on different index cards. It was the only way to keep it straight in my mind," Canin said. "Orange is when he goes to his son's house, pink was the war, pale pink was with his wife. I spent the most time on those moments where you go from one plotline to another. It gets to be like a jigsaw puzzle at the end. You've got four or five things and they've got to add up and you have to decide what do you reveal, what do you keep hidden." Through flashbacks and transitions flowing back and forth in time, Canin creates Kleinman's entire life. What seems effortless and all of a piece on the page was actually "pretty hard," said the author, who finds the process of writing "agony. I hate it, I really do." Canin laughed and explained that, fortunately, the agony works in accord with "some kind of Jewish idea that if you're enjoying yourself, something's wrong." What makes Canin return to the computer every day is the desire to break new ground with every work he writes. It's a metaphor with real meaning for him.
"Excavating prose is pretty much what writing is like," said the author who won't even reread his early short stories. "I would be embarrassed by their thinness. Right now, a true short story has no appeal for me. It's so shallow, just an affect carried off by a few words. In this book, I've toned down my prose style, tried to make it invisible," said Canin. "I have a greater regard for truth over beauty."
Ellen Kanner is a writer in Miami.