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Ethan Canin is a fiction writer who prefers nonfiction

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Nina Subin

Ethan Canin moved to Boston to study at Harvard Medical School in the late 1980s. By the time he left to begin his residency in San Francisco, Canin was a well-respected and best-selling writer, thanks to his debut story collection, "Emperor of the Air." Canin, who has long taught at the Iowa Writer's Workshop, has just published his fifth novel, "A Doubter's Almanac," the story of a tortured mathematical genius.

BOOKS: What are you reading currently?

CANIN: In the last three weeks I've read Lawrence Wright's "The Looming Tower" about Al Qaeda. It was fascinating. The most interesting thing to me was how Osama bin Laden was kind of a goof early in his career. A couple of nights ago I just started "The Price of Silence" by William D. Cohan about the Duke University lacrosse scandal. I also want to read "The Last Tycoons," his book about the Wall Street investment bank Lazard Frères & Co. I just finished "A Constellation of Vital Phenomena" by Anthony Marra, who was my student four or five years ago, and I read "The Quants" by Scott Patterson about these mathematicians who changed Wall Street. I read a lot of fiction for my job, but for myself I prefer nonfiction.

BOOKS: What kind of nonfiction draws you?


CANIN: I like to learn when I read. One of my favorite books of all time is "The Making of the Atomic Bomb" by Richard Rhodes. It's probably dated now but what a great book. Unless fiction pulls me in instantly with point of view I resist it. Maybe that is because I read fiction like a professional. My daughter asked me what she should major in it. She's a great reader. I said, "Don't major in English. It will ruin books for you.''

BOOKS: Didn't you major in English?


CANIN: I started as a mechanical engineering major and then switched. I can only remember two books from college that moved me, E.M. Forster's "Howards End" and F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby." The writer Nancy Huddleston Packer, who is the mother of the writers Ann Packer and George Packer, was my English professor. She taught a class on the short story. She suffered no fools. So many of those stories have stuck with me. That might have been the first class that convinced me I wanted to be a writer.

BOOKS: Did you have time to read when you were in medical school?

CANIN: I read "Pathologic Basis of Disease" by Vinay Kumar and Abul K. Abbas. You are going to think I'm joking, but I never learned from classes so I didn't go. Instead I found and read medical texts that were beautifully written like that book.

BOOKS: What will pull you into a novel?

CANIN: Point of view gets me. If I can feel like a character rather than a reader I'll read that book. John Williams's "Stoner" really pulled me in that way. Another book I read from a lot is a collection of William Trevor stories. He and Alice Munro are the two greatest living short-story writers. One of my favorite stories of all time is one of Munro's called "Carried Away," in which a guy gets his head cut off in a table saw.

BOOKS: Who have you read the most by?


CANIN: Maybe Saul Bellow, but I haven't read all of his work. I think even great writers only write two books that you might like. When I think of my touchstone writers like Saul Bellow, I think of "Henderson the Rain King." With Don DeLillo, I think of "Libra."

BOOKS: Where do you like to read?

CANIN: In the winter, I read next to a wood-burning stove. In the summer we have a place up in Michigan where I like to read in a hammock. It's almost entirely hidden by cedar trees and right up by the water. You can climb in there and see nothing but water and be seen by nobody. It's perfect.


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