As soon as I tell Ethan Canin that I’m from northern Michigan, he takes out his phone to show me a photo of a storm. In the picture, Canin’s wife stands on a dock that extends into an inland Michigan lake near Elk Rapids, where Canin has a cabin. A tubular cloud, dangerously lit up with green, fills most of the frame, dwarfing his wife, the dock, and the evergreens on the shore. “How beautiful is that,” Canin says, demonstrating his unrestrained interest in, well, everything—from how important it is for voters to understand statistics to the glove-making scenes in Philip Roth’s American Pastoral.
Canin’s newest novel, A Doubter’s Almanac, which is being published by Random House in February, is set partially in this region of Michigan. Milo Andret, the brilliant mathematician at the crux of the book, experiences his first flashes of genius in the woods outside of his house in Cheboygan, where he obsessively and fanatically carves a chain from a fallen tree at age 13. More than 25-ft. long, this object portends the greatness of his career to come. “For me,” Canin says, “this is a book about ambition, about trying the difficult thing, and the cost of that choice.” After reaching the pinnacle of his field and then methodically subverting his success with alcohol, Milo will later return to these same woods, seeking—and failing to find—that original spark of insight.
The novel begins by tracking Milo’s life and career. But midway through, there’s a shift to first person. His gifted son, Hans, a fellow mathematician and addict, takes over the narration. A Doubter’s Almanac is a devastating look at a life spent mitigating brilliance with substance abuse; it tackles the legacy of fathers and sons, the challenges of love and responsibility, and the impact of great achievement and great failure on exceptional minds and their families. PW called it a “tremendous literary achievement.” It brought this reader to tears.
Canin is tall and friendly, and he has a Midwesterner’s polite tic of deflection. My hello—a nervous, blushing one—has somehow transitioned into a very comfortable conversation that consists largely of him asking me questions, so that I keep having to remind myself to redirect the focus, a trick he seems to resist. Canin, who likens his writing process to method acting, is very obviously more interested in other people than in himself: his parents (musicians); his wife of 34 years (they met in 1981, at Stanford); his three “crazily capable” daughters (ages 11, 16, and 19); and the characters of his seven books. “To me, point of view is everything. I read for the sensation of becoming another person; I write for the same sensation. As I write, I try to be the character.”
This process can be uncomfortable. “This book almost killed me,” Canin says. “I published my last book [the bestselling America America] in 2008, so that’s, what, seven or eight years ago, but I wasn’t working the whole time. Writing [A Doubter’s Almanac] was actual agony. I remember going out to a bar with my closest friend in Iowa a couple of years ago and saying, ‘I’m going to have to give the money back. I can’t do it. It’s a huge, huge mess.’ ” This huge mess sits before us on the table, in ARC form, with its blockbuster cover and glowing blurb from Pat Conroy. Of all Canin’s books, “this one was the most agonizing to write,” he says.
Yet Canin has no desire to return to the shorter form that launched his career; Emperor of the Air, his debut short story collection, was published in 1985, when he was a 26-year-old medical student at Harvard. Two of the stories, including the titular one, were adapted for film. And nine or so years later, the success of The Palace Thief, another collection, prompted Canin to drop out of his medical residency and make writing his priority. “I’m not as interested in writing stories anymore. I guess I just like to do the difficult thing. And novels are harder than stories. You know that thing people say, poetry is the hardest, stories are the second hardest, novels are the easiest? I’m here to tell you that novels are the hardest. Writing a novel is unbelievably difficult. It’s nightmarish. I was in tears and anxiety for a year on this thing.”
So how did Canin finish? “I just stuck it out,” he says, sounding a little mystified, and also sort of tired. It seems fitting that he struggled with this novel, which is infused with the suffering and obsession that accompanies “doing the difficult thing.” Milo spends the first half of his life trying to solve an unsolvable mathematical problem, and the second half on one long dead end. Hans applies his talent to the finance sector, where he makes millions, but has to live with the nagging fear that he’s betrayed his own ability, and in doing so, his father.
“Even when you succeed, you fail,” Canin says. “Even when others think you succeed, you fail. I mean, how can anyone write a novel? Every novel is a failure.” Though he’s talking about himself, he might just as well be talking about Milo.
I ask Canin if he’s read the whole thing start to finish, now that it’s in galleys. “No. I couldn’t bear it,” he says. “I wonder where this self-consciousness comes from. You could say that it’s an extreme form of egotism.”
One of the most striking aspects of the book is the way that it grapples with complex mathematics—topology, geometry, physics—in prose that’s readable and dramatic. Milo’s inability to abandon a problem before reaching the bitter end invests these abstractions with forceful narrative momentum. “A lot of literary readers are math averse,” Canin says, though he is not one of them. As a kid, he estimates that he read a book a day, and his interest in math and science developed alongside his interest in books. “When I was very young, like 13, this physics Ph.D. who was friends with my dad came over to our house and gave us all a problem that had been on some kind of exam. All I did for like the next two weeks was try to figure it out. And I figured it out! It wasn’t that hard, but it proved to me that I had this power of concentration. All I wanted to do was think about it.”
Despite Canin’s proficiency, the math in A Doubter’s Almanac eludes him, though it is correct. I point out that he could have made it up, for all that most readers, including me, would’ve known. “The field that Milo is in, topology, I happened to stumble upon this super-friendly topologist who had just retired from the University of Iowa, and he read this entire book, God bless his soul, and gave me notes. I wrote a draft in which I incorporated his changes, and my editor was like, ‘Whoa, this is way too much math.’ ”
I reference a quote from a Poets & Writers profile, in which a friend calls Canin “pathologically well-rounded.” After undergrad at Stanford, Canin attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where “he didn’t write much”; from there, med school, and eventually a residency in internal medicine at UCSF. In the wake of the success of his first book, he temporarily moved to Quito, Ecuador, where he wrote a novel, Blue River (also later adapted to film). Four books followed, as did a faculty position at the University of Iowa, where Canin still teaches, and where, his website boasts, he has worked with many students who’ve gone on to literary success, including Daniel Alarcón, Maggie Shipstead, and Justin Torres. “I am so proud of my students. They’re brilliant. I’ve been teaching for 20 years. I have such great relationships with these sweethearts, and I have seen them through a lot. It’s fantastic.”
And now, at 55, after experiencing the agony of writing a book seven times over, here Canin is, in this dim New York City hotel lounge, being grilled about his latest and longest novel, A Doubter’s Almanac. I ask if he’s taking a break before diving into something new. The answer, of course, is that he’s not—that he’s 100 pages into another novel, this one threatening to be long, though he says he wants to write something straightforward. Does he have any particular ambitions for A Doubter’s Almanac, this most ambitious of his novels? “Well, there are two dreams,” he says. “One is your standard dream of success. But the other is the one you cultivate after a time, which is just to connect with the people that you connect with. The work is the thing. You have no control over anything else. But when you do something that moves somebody, that somebody loves, that’s what matters.”
Julie Buntin is the director of writing programs at Catapult. Her debut novel is forthcoming from Henry Holt.