Literary Festival opens with novelist at ‘Nova

Erin Reback

The 11th Annual Literary Festival kicked off with novelist and short story writer Ethan Canin reading passages from his most recent novel, “America America,” on Feb. 5 in the Connelly Center.

The festival runs from February to April and features five different authors. During the spring term, a class is offered that is dedicated to the works of these writers. Two students from the class introduced Canin.

Canin is the author of two collections of stories, “Emperor of the Air” and “The Palace Thief” and four novels, “Blue River,” “For Kings and Planets,” “Carry Me Across the Water” and “America America.”

Late author John Updike praised “America America,” in an article in The New Yorker.

He earned his undergraduate degree in English from Stanford University.

After graduating from Stanford, Canin attended Harvard Medical School, not thinking a career as an author was possible, and earned his degree in 1991.

While practicing medicine, Canin found himself missing writing and began publishing short stories and working on his first novel.

Canin left medicine after only seven years because he found it to be very restrictive.

“Nothing is made up in medicine,” Canin said. “I found it very hard to bear.”

After leaving medicine, Canin joined the faculty of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he continues to work. He is also a co-founder of the Writers’ Grotto in San Francisco.

Canin said his time as a doctor adds something to his writing.

“Working in an ER showed me the depth of the human imagination,” Canin said. “I got to know humanity.”

He began his professional writing career as a short story writer. He eventually moved to novels.

“I used to only be able to write 10 or so pages,” Canin said. “Now I can’t write less than a few hundred.”

Canin began writing “America America” in 2001 but stopped for three years after 9/11. The novel was published by Random House in 2008.

Canin said he had always been interested in history, so it is no wonder that “America America” centers on the presidential aspirations of a fictitious senator during the early 1970s.

“I am most inspired by Lyndon B. Johnson and liberals like FDR and Kennedy,” Canin said.

The story is narrated by Corey Sifter, the son of middle-class parents who works for the wealthy Metarey family. The family pays for Sifter’s education, allowing him to become an aide for fictitious N.Y. senator Henry Bonwiller.

As Sifter matures, he finds himself straying from the world of his upbringing. As Bonwiller’s campaign gains energy, Sifter finds himself in a world where fidelity, politics and sex conflict with decency, love and fact.

Canin read two passages aloud, during which three main characters were introduced. When reading, he changed his voice ever so slightly to bring the characters to life.

Canin was blunt about his experiences with writing.

“I hate it 90 percent of the time,” he said. “There is something about it which brings me back, though.”

The Literary Festival continues until the end of April and includes short story writers, novelists and poets.

Poet Natasha Trethewey is scheduled to visit on Feb. 17.