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Author Spotlight: Ethan Canin on "A Doubter's Almanac"

Ethan-CaninWhen Ethan Canin, now a 55-year-old former wunderkind "burst on to the scene" as a writer, back in 1988, he was noted as least as much for his youth and for how he'd started off with a whole other career path as for the wonderful collection that was Emperor of the Air.

Canin was a Harvard Medical School-trained doctor, who soon chucked it all to write fiction – and while there were successful doctor/writers before him (William Carlos Williams comes to mind) and now, many after him (Abraham Verghese among them), that was a big deal. And he was a *good* writer; that book was praised, more books were contracted, and off he went. Canin seemingly never looked back: he published many more stories and novels, took up teaching at the prestigious Iowa Writers' Workshop, and won plenty of prizes and readers.

I admit I lost track of his work a little while back, and have only vague memories of such books as America, America and Blue River. So it was with more than a whiff of nostalgia that I picked up A Doubter's Almanac, our Spotlight pick for February; I remember Ethan Canin the boy/doctor/writer; I had little idea what to expect of the grownup full-time writer version. That the book turned out to be a fantastic, complex, adult and wise rumination on family and, well, genius, was not so much a surprise as a deep pleasure.

Sara Nelson: The book is about a mathematician who is brilliant on the page but can't deal with his family or his life and ultimately self destructs. Why does it seem that so many talented people are so messed up?

Ethan Canin: I think talent has a huge amount to do with concentration, concentration rather than the athletic ability of your neurons. If you can concentrate on an esoteric piece of math, how can you think about the rest of your life? That's why people can leave their car keys in the gutter; they're in the midst of obsession and concentration.

SN: You could say the same thing about writers, in mid-creation...

EC: That's true. When I was concentrating on the hard parts of this book, I'm sure I was horrible to live with. That's sort of the nature of obsession.

SN: You were trained as a scientist, a doctor. Why did you choose to make your characters in this book mathematicians?

DoubtersEC: I always loved math as a kid, I liked nothing more than doing logical problems and brain teasers. But in terms of math, I was a baby. I've always been good at it, but I don't understand that much. I didn't know the guy [in this book] was going to be a mathematician until 20 or so pages in, but when I stumbled on that, I started asking around to find mathematicians who are social and might be willing to read a literary book. I just happened to find a guy who was a retired mathematician. He read the whole damn thing and gave me 50 pages of notes on the math and I incorporated it, even though my editor said it was way too much math! But I wanted to write it so a mathematician could read it and not be thoroughly aghast like I used to be when I read Raymond Carver stories: he totally made up the medical stuff!

SN: You have now written seven books, and many stories, some of which have been the basis of movies. Does the process get easier?

EC: No, actually, it only gets harder. I was really against the wall with this one. I was telling a friend at one point that I should give the money back to Random House. My usual pattern is to give my wife sections at a time: she's a tremendous reader and generous critic and she has this ability to read as if she's never read it before. I showed her this book as a whole draft. [I was worried] but she said, "No, there's something in there."

On the other hand, there are some advantages to being a writer: you do generally get better as you get older. I think I understand things better. When I was a kid, I was kind of guessing at the emotion. Now I'm interested in writing more difficult books, books that confront the facts of life, of death and dying and failure – the majority of life. You write outwardly imaginative books when you're younger. When you're older you apply imagination to internal experience.

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