From Vladivostok to Gibraltar on His Knees: A Profile of Ethan Canin

Kevin Nance

It is possible, Canin says, that he won't keep writing. Each book leaves him exhausted, racked with anxiety, and uncertain whether he can ever do it again, and right now, America America feels like his Waterloo. "I've written six books, each time thinking it's the end, but I really sometimes think this could be it," he says. "This feels a little different from the others. This feels like a better book than any other I've written, or at least more complex, so therefore I feel maybe more exhausted after it."

The exhaustion is worsened by Canin's standard operating procedure in fiction, which is to imagine and identify with his characters in a way that's reminiscent of method acting. When practiced at the highest levels, this can sap a writer's creative energy.

"A tremendous amount of language that is untouched—sort of clamped by reason—I try to unclamp that a bit by getting into the character," Canin says. "I try to teach my students, ‘Don't write about a character. That never works. Be that character, and then write your own story.' And that's sort of a fundamental rule or truth in fiction writing. Deeply imagine somebody else, and then everything else takes care of itself. Otherwise it's paralyzing. Questions students ask, like, ‘Where should I start the story?' are answered by that. You are that person, so where would that person start it? Anyway, I try to get to that state where it's half unhinged, to see what results. I think [about] the point where I became half unhinged, especially after September 11, and that's when the book started working. But it takes a lot out of you."

This news of Canin's battle fatigue may come as a surprise to his readers, but it's familiar to his friends and former students. "It sounds in keeping with what he always said about the frustrations of being a writer—chiefly that it's a slog that's unending," says Nam Le, a 2005 alumnus of Canin's class and author of The Boat, a short story collection published by Knopf in May. "It's a very unique and unremitting type of pain to write a novel, and he expressed and communicated that quite often. That's not to say there aren't incredible pleasures and satisfactions or that he didn't inspire us to keep going through all the troubles. But he was never shy about expressing the fact that, in his mind, writing wasn't always, in the moment, pleasurable."

Bret Anthony Johnston, the author of the story collection Corpus Christi (Random House, 2004), who was a student at Iowa in 2002 and has since become a friend of Canin's, thinks his old mentor is merely being honest. "I think most writers feel the way he does, and that doubt is what fuels our best writing," Johnston says. "Ethan is very rare in that he speaks candidly, where many other writers try to obfuscate their real feelings. We're all a braid of self-doubt and bravado, and Ethan is just more honest about it than most. I, for one, don't believe for a second that this will be his last book. If I have to go over to his house and drag him to his desk every day, I'll be happy to do that."

For all the author's uncertainty about his future writing, it's clear that his writer's heart is still beating. One night in mid-March, Canin heard the ice groaning on Elk Lake, a sign of the coming thaw. The following afternoon, the ice was still sixteen inches thick under Canin's boots—he measured it himself, jabbing a hole through the surface like an ice fisherman—which meant it was safe for his nine-year-old daughter, Ayla, who was skating figure eights nearby. "Hi, sweetheart," he called. "You look great out there!"

Then he pointed out an odd and disturbing sight: the intact, picked-clean skeleton of a deer, a femur caught fast in the ice. "Must have been killed by coyotes," Canin said. "It started over there"—a spot several yards away bearing traces of blood and skin and hair, like a crime scene—"and then..." He went eerily still for a moment, picturing it, working out the details of what happened, or might have happened, in his head. You could almost see the gears shift as he processed this violent little drama, then set it aside to be recalled later and, maybe, embellished and transfigured for a story.

His closest friends would have recognized it as a classic Canin moment. "There's something about stillness that's important for Ethan," deNiord says. "I've been with him when he's been still for twenty, thirty, forty minutes, just thinking about something. He did that once in a room he was planning to remodel in his house. I realized he was just figuring out what he had to do, step by step by step. He's the same way with fiction, which for Ethan is scientific. He's a puzzle solver. And he is, in the end, a writer. Try as he might, he can't get away from that."

And perhaps even as Canin continues his lovers' quarrel with literature, he's hedging his bets. By the time he returns to Michigan this summer, the deer skeleton will have sunk to the bottom of the lake, but he'll know just where it is. He marked the spot.

Kevin Nance is critic-at-large at the Chicago Sun-Times.