The Double Life of Ethan Canin

Courtesy Entertainment Weekly/Jim Sink

Ethan Canin remembers nearly stumbling into Boston traffic in a euphoric daze when his first collection of short stories was accepted for publication in 1987. And that was before reviewers lavished praise on the book. A tall, handsome, 27-year-old Harvard medical student, Canin quickly found himself tabbed as a literary darling.

It was the start of a strange double life. In one, he was a lowly med student fetching coffee for residents and doctors. In the other, he gave interviews on NPR and lunched at the Four Seasons. An odd time, to be sure, but that period was just an extreme example of the conflict Canin, ’82, has always felt between the safe and the risky, the ordinary and extraordinary -- -- themes he also explores in his fiction.

His latest novel, For Kings and Planets, tells the story of an unsophisticated and insecure Midwesterner, Orno Tarcher, who moves to New York for college. He eventually finds himself through his friendship with a charismatic but destructive New Yorker named Marshall Emerson. The book has been called Gatsbyesque for its ambitious scope and theme (the decadent East apprehended through Tarcher’s Midwestern sensibility). Mostly positive reviews helped push it onto the best-seller list last fall. Critics praised Canin for his ability to write about ordinary people and the moral and emotional complexity of their lives.

Although a voracious reader in childhood, Canin never intended to be a writer. He started at Stanford as an engineering major. But in his sophomore year, he squeezed in an elective creative writing course from lecturer Michael Koch. That’s when he read a collection of John Cheever’s stories, and his engineering career came to an abrupt end. “I was so deeply moved. It changed my life, and I decided to become a writer,” Canin says. He switched his major to English. Koch, one of the early admirers of his fiction, submitted one of Canin’s stories to a literary magazine. It was accepted. “It was the biggest thrill of my life,” he says.

When he graduated, Canin set out on one of the riskier career paths: fiction writing. He accepted an offer to study for two years at the University of Iowa writers’ workshop. To his great frustration, he was struck with a near-total case of writer’s block. In two years he produced only two short stories -- -- just 30 pages. “I panicked. I gave up,” he says. “I realized I was never going to be a writer.” His fallback: medical school. “It was a real failure of the imagination,” he says. “I just couldn’t think of another job.”

He couldn’t write in writing school, but once Canin enrolled at Harvard, he found himself skipping classes to craft fiction. “It became a rebellion. Writing gave the year a sense of naughtiness.” He cranked out 130 pages and published several stories in the Atlantic Monthly. In his second year of medical school, an editor from Houghton Mifflin called and asked if he had a book ready to publish. He didn’t, but he said yes, then quickly wrote two more stories to round out a collection. Emperor of the Air was published in 1988 by Houghton Mifflin.

Soon Canin began to feel like a real oddity on campus. “I couldn’t really tell anybody, because nobody in medical school understood what a big moment in my life it was.” Fellow students sometimes mentioned that they had seen his “articles” in the Atlantic. “I don’t think they knew they were stories,” he says.

Overwhelmed by his sudden celebrity, he took a leave from Harvard and headed to Ecuador for a year with his girlfriend -- now wife -- Barbara Schuler-Canin, ’83. There he wrote most of a second book, a novel called Blue River, which the Los Angeles Times said was greeted by most critics as “a noble failure.”

Canin still had a medical career as a back-up plan, and he spent the next several years bouncing between Boston and San Francisco finishing his medical training and writing in his spare time. He and Schuler-Canin, a journalist and English teacher, finally settled in San Francisco, and he applied for a residency. He was in his second year at San Francisco General when his third book, a collection of stories called The Palace Thief, was published to rave reviews. Encouraged, he was fired up to write another novel. But he was too busy to juggle two careers. The time had come to choose between his still-viable vocation as an internist and the riskier path of the writer.

“It was excruciating, a terribly hard decision,” he says. The day he left the hospital in 1995 was the day he started For Kings and Planets.

Last fall, Canin took a teaching job at the University of Iowa. He and his family (the couple has a 2-year-old daughter) spend the school year in Iowa and summers in San Francisco. “It’s a beautiful town, it’s got great coffee and great bookstores,” Canin says of Iowa City. “And you can get a great house for the price of a studio apartment in San Francisco.”

Canin enjoys teaching, as long as he can tackle literature from a writer’s point of view. He looks at craft. “Why did the author put this scene up front, how does he keep this interesting for 70 pages?” he says. “I’ve always had a passion for practical knowledge,” he explains. “I think that’s a higher order of knowledge than theory.”

For Canin, writing is like surgery or carpentry, says friend and journalist Ethan Watters. Canin remodeled his Edwardian house in San Francisco as well as his office space in a San Francisco loft. “He has the ability to think multiple steps ahead,” says Watters. His teaching, too, is informed by his medical training. “He approaches a story just like a doctor, and he lets you see how all the parts work,” says Julie Rose, one of his students and an instructor of writing.

But writing doesn’t come easily to Canin. When he wrote his first book, “it was a very conflicted passion -- and it still is.” Now he’s under contract with his publisher to produce two more. “If you’re not in that situation, you’re envious of it, but if you are, you’re envious of being free,” he says. “In a way, it’s harder to write now than it was then because it’s not a rebellion anymore.”

Cate Corcoran is a freelance writer in San Francisco.