Near the end of Ethan Canin‘s 1998 novel, For Kings and Planets, the stolid Midwestern Orno Tarcher reflects, “He had always expected to decide his fate the way his father had decided his; to decide his character, really — upright decisions in an upright life. But instead he had merely discovered it, merely stumbled upon the pieces and bits, laid murkily before him.”
August Kleinman, the 78-year-old protagonist of Canin’s taut and moving new novel, Carry Me Across the Water, also stumbles upon his character piecemeal — he discovers his own aggression, courage and brute strength in a series of encounters with other men. But Kleinman‘s character also includes a whopping portion of self-determination. Obeying his mother’s edict — accept the advice of no one — Kleinman has renounced his own Jewishness, married an Italian Catholic and made millions in a decidedly non-Jewish business: a brewery. Now widowed, retired, distanced from his children and facing his own death, Kleinman is navigating grief, reflecting on his life and trying to connect with his most difficult son. Alone in his unstructured days, Kleinman stumbles across still more pieces of himself: a generosity, an increasing tenderness, a small fund of regret. He also has some unfinished business — a letter he intercepted during World War II needs to be delivered to its rightful recipient. Canin weaves the various strands of Kleinman‘s life into a hypnotic, intricately structured, elegiac novel. He spoke to the Weekly via e-mail from his home in Iowa City, where he teaches at the Iowa Writers Workshop.
L.A. WEEKLY: What was the kernel for this new book?
ETHAN CANIN: It’s difficult to remember, of course, but I think the first force was a memory from high school of going down into an Indian cave somewhere in California. We descended into a tiny hole, so narrow that I had to choose either to have my hands in front of me — which widened my shoulders and made passage even more difficult but calmed my fears a bit — or at my sides, which made my profile sleeker but did nothing to quell the sense of terror at wriggling straight down. It was my first experience with real claustrophobia (since matched by an MRI of my head a few years ago) and got me thinking about what it might have been like to do a similar descent but with an enemy soldier at the other end. This was the genesis of Kleinman‘s descent into the cave on Aguni Jima. As I began writing the book, it turned into a meditation on the handful of incidents of violence in a man’s life: the football tackle, the cave, CPR on his wife, dropping his child, knocking the goon into the water. This was something of an organizing principle for me as I wrote.
Your main character is a 78-year-old Jewish immigrant approaching the end of his life. How did you come to write about such a person?
Kleinman came in from a group of scenes: the old guy refusing to put up his airplane-seat back; the tycoon working as a bagger; the capitalist buying art because, strangely, almost across generations, it moved him. The voice is an amalgam of the voices of my childhood, old Jewish men who knew the rules of the world — rag salesmen reincarnated in postwar America — but men who still stopped on the street to listen to a violin sonata coming from an open window: the sacred and profane of New World Jewry. Recently, my wife asked me what was in my head in putting the Japanese soldier‘s cave letter up on Kleinman’s wall, and I told her that Kleinman has a gentle soul hidden in fear behind the fierce one. He‘s betrayed another gentle, aesthetic soul — the Japanese solder’s — who had hoped that the GI to discover him would be like-minded. Well, he was; but fear — and thus fierceness — triumphed. And as Kleinman grows older, he grows less afraid — there‘s less to lose: Thus, near death, the gentleness can re-emerge from behind the fierceness.
The title is haunting and rather mysterious: Where is it from?
My feeling about titles is that they should add to the mystery, deepen it, if you will, rather than answer anything. If a book or a story is solved by its title, it’s too simple a work. That said, the title came to me while I was playing a spiritual on the piano for my kids — I think it‘s called “Shenandoah.” It’s a heartbreaking song, and my guess is that it‘s a slave’s song about deliverance. Kleinman doesn‘t need a deliverance, exactly, but perhaps he needs something to ease his passage to the other side.
How do you view and create characters in general, and how did you go about writing Kleinman in particular?
Writing is an exercise in empathy. As I always tell my students: Don’t write about a character; instead, become a character and then write your own story. It was easy enough for me to become Kleinman. I prefer what some writers call a close point of view. Diction that is the diction of the character. Observation that is the thought of the character. This kind of writing allows the leap of imagination — the becoming of the character. In grad programs, point of view is discussed at great length, and finding POV switches is a ritual hunt. But I don‘t care about POV breaks or switches in any sense other than that they are often symptoms of a writer who is not deeply enough imagining character. The issue of how to create character on a page is one I can and do discuss all the time in class, but it’s still enigmatic to me. One truth that I always teach is that when a narrator observes another character, it is the narrator who is most deeply characterized. But all this is the trivia of the mechanics of writing. The key, I think, is to love your characters, the bad ones too.
The spiritual concerns of the book are also deeply embedded in the technique. At one point, Kleinman thinks, “Life was a mirror, the generations reflecting one upon the other.” The book itself is refractive, with many other mirrorings and shadowings — the multiple stepfathers and exogamous marriages, the repeated images (the O‘s of mouths, the scissorings of legs, dust or chaff in the wind); in all this, Kleinman is seeing himself as a piece of a vast, ongoing patterning — a spiritual understanding, wouldn’t you say?
“Spiritual” is a word that would make Kleinman cough. But there it is: He‘s a betting man, and the truth isn’t so clear. He is in my mind a skeptic — but skeptics are the ones who end up being the truly open-minded, the ones who reject common dictum for the little slivers of truth that can be found if fiercely hunted. As for the mirrorings, it‘s very gratifying that you noticed some of them. There are a few more hidden in the book, and I suppose it is my fond hope that someone one day will notice them. (My favorite occurs on pages 15 and 179.)In reading about August (Augie) Kleinman, I couldn’t help but think of Roth and Bellow and their novels evoking Jewish manhood in America. How do you sit in relation to these writers?
I sit in awe of both of them.
Carry Me Across the Water is an intricately structured book, nimbly going back and forth in time to several different periods in Kleinman‘s life, and yet it’s always very clear, the reader has no trouble staying with you. I doubt this was easy to do. How did you come to structure it as you have?
The structure was a real bear. It was a logical puzzle; but I love logical puzzles. Scene A needed to follow Scene B but couldn‘t precede Scene C without giving away a surprise. There were several plot lines. I made a storyboard and used different-color Post-it notes for each storyline, then sat there working a jigsaw puzzle. I was operating under my own theory of structure, the idea that a four-space break ought not just take you to the next morning: Instead, it should propel you across space and time. In using breaks like this, the white space in a structure can be turned from a weakness into a strength (or so I think).
You have written short stories and novels and very long short stories (in The Palace Thief) and now this somewhat short novel, which has a clean tautness (not a wasted word) most often found in short stories. Do you know from inception when you have a short story and when you have a novel on your hands? Do you have a preference for one form over the other?
I thought of this originally as a novella, but it grew. I’ve lost most of my interest in the short story. For me, stories can be carried by tricks of technique; I‘d rather write something that relies on content. I think my favorite form is the novella or short novel. It’s what I like to read, and now it‘s what I like to write. I suppose I can’t get rid of my early fears that I‘m boring a reader; that’s why I don‘t cotton to writing wordy novels. Don’t get me wrong: I prefer excess to paucity. But a novella seems to me to roughly approximate the weight and scope of a life, and I read to hear the story of a life.
How does teaching writing affect your own writing? Does it leave you enough time to write?
Teaching definitely impinges on my writing time, and I need to find a way to work them together so that I can still write. At the moment, with two little kids in the bargain, I am feeling overwhelmed. But the great thing about teaching at Iowa is that my students are so fabulously good. Fifteen times a semester I read a publishable story. Five times a semester I read something better than I could have written myself. Believe it or not, it‘s a tremendous inspiration.
When I was at Iowa (1976–78), so-called minimalism was just being formulated. What’s going on there now? Do you see any particular drifts or affinities in the writing of your students?
These days, the Zeitgeist seems to be moving back toward longer stories, moving away from Carver and Hemingway. My students have been writing wonderful novellas and long stories, unknotting the conventions of strict grad-student writing: multiple POVs, movements in time, broad scope, historical research. The current crop of writers coming out of this place is going to hit the street with a bang.