Ethan Canin (BSS #228)

Ethan Canin is most recently the author of America America.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Examining his miserable relationship with America.

Author: Ethan Canin

Subjects Discussed: Neil Diamond’s “America,” the stuttering titular impulse, the Corvair, journalists as heroes, intentional vs. unintentional symbols, the reporter’s instinct, “the ingenuity of the working man,” ideology, the politics of generosity, didacticism in fiction, writing a novel from the point of view from Karl Rove, the four things it takes to be a writer, the declivity of politics during the past thirty years, economic opportunities, philosophy and fiction, print vs. blogs, journalists exploited by big money, Ted Kennedy and Chappaquiddick, Mike Gravel, Lyndon Johnson’s body language, Robert Caro, Ed Muskie, Corey Sifter’s possible alternative history, the Washington Post revisiting the Condit-Levy affair, playing with the public record, the first draft of America America, the risk of reading books while writing, speeches and autopsy reports embedded in the text, playing with names, David Duke, names serving as placeholders, John Updike’s review, subconscious references to the exchange of information, Geoffrey Wolff’s spoiler review in the NYTBR, Ed Muskie’s tears vs. Hillary Clinton’s tears, the emotional connection of narrative, drawing from reality vs. drawing from objective data, authenticity, and writing short stories vs. novels.


Canin: I wish I could act as if there was something more intentional. I’m a little tired here.

Correspondent: Oh, that’s okay.

Canin: Perhaps there was a little more intentionality on my part, but there really wasn’t. But that was just one of those things.

Correspondent: I hope this conversation is intentional. Or unintentional.

Canin: Yeah, it will start to get intentional.

Correspondent: Okay, let’s go into greater ambiguities. This is quite a pasture that you have in this book. The protagonist, Corey Sifter, he writes repeatedly about operating on a reporter’s instinct. Likewise, you have Liam Metarey and the Senator frequently invoking the ingenuity of the working man.

Canin: Right.

Correspondent: And yet, it seems to me that all parties — both these two parties — don’t understand these ideologies that they inhabit, or that they endorse in some sense. And so it seems to me that this particular book is almost this interesting glimpse into ideology. I wanted to ask how much ideology was encroaching upon you during the act of writing or…

Canin: Could I go back? Just stop a sec.

Correspondent: Oh yeah.

Canin: Because that’s too many ideas for me to hold at once.

Correspondent: Oh sure.

Canin: But the first thing you said was probably the thing that motivated me to write this book. And then when I get through that, I’ll be able to grasp the other question.

Correspondent: Sure.

Canin: I think writing a book is asking a question. It’s not answering a question. At least for me. And one of the questions that evolved as I wrote this was this history of public-minded, empathetic — what are supposed to be called liberal-minded politicians. And my own term, that I’ve been using during the past few days, is the politics of generosity. And there’s a history of them. From Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Ted Kennedy. Great liberal public-minded people who are also unquestionably from the land of gentry. And the central question — there was a reviewer in the Washington Post who said something very interesting, I thought. Which was that the book boils down to the narrator wondering whether he’s been helped or used.

And that’s right. That’s what it felt like to me. That’s what I was writing about. A narrator wondering whether he’s been helped or used. Whether these great public-minded political figures are, in fact, public-minded or self-serving. Or whether that even matters, as long as they’re public-minded. And how far that public-mindedness goes. I’m enough of a realist to think that everybody is self-interested. And we have to just use politicians who are at least generous in their interpretation of self-interest.

Correspondent: Yeah. But there is this notion of ideology that all the characters seem to cling to. Particularly the antipodean ends that we’re talking about. Of the working-class journalist-to-be vs. the Senator and this monied family in this particular town. And this makes me want to ask you about the idea of didacticism in fiction. It’s almost as if you’re skirting around that by exploring these questions in this particular book in a manner that leaves a sliver ask these broader questions without necessarily being didactic. And I’m curious about the element of didacticism in this particular book. It’s not overtly didactic. But the irony, such as Glen driving the Corvair and the like, certainly cause one to think that this is essentially a dialectic involving ideology in this particular book. And I want to ask you about this.

Canin: I was reading last night at the Upper West Side. And somebody asked me if I could write a novel from the point of view of Karl Rove.

Correspondent: (laughs) It would be interesting.

Canin: (laughs) Well, I actually think I could. I don’t think I could do anything. But I think I would be interested in doing that. You know, I don’t know what succeeded and what didn’t in this book. And I never will. But I do know that I certainly intended every character to be a mix. I certainly intended every character to be part good, part bad. From the heroes to the obvious villains. Those are the books that I like. I don’t like movies with heroes and villains. I don’t like books with heroes and villains, which is even worse. I think empathy is the thing.

It takes four or five things to be a writer. Decent prose style.

Correspondent: That’s one. What are the other four? (laughs) I want a list here, man.


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