Ethan Canin May Not Be An M.D. Yet, but His Prose Is Already a Tonic

updated 03/21/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/21/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

When Ethan Canin gets a day off from his studies at Harvard Medical School, he lazes around his apartment for a bit, just like an ordinary person. But before he goes out to shoot some hoops or catch a movie, Canin, 27, does something far out of the ordinary for a harried med student. He sits down at his computer and writes a page or so of beautifully crafted fiction. "I can't figure out how he does it all," marvels his girlfriend, free-lance writer Barbara Schuler, 27. "He seems to have very good luck. An idea churns around in his head, and when he puts it on paper, he doesn't have to do much revising."

Most people spend a lifetime trying to do one job well, but Canin has already become an established writer of fiction, is in his senior year in medical school and has managed his two careers with deceptive ease. His short story collection, Emperor of the Air, is in its third U.S. printing since publication in February, and it will soon be translated into seven languages. The book won the Houghton Mifflin Fellowship, a $2,500 grant for first-time authors, whose past winners include Philip Roth and Robert Penn Warren. Critics have almost unanimously lauded Canin's plain, evocative style and his mature understanding of people, including old people. In one story, an elderly man rediscovers love for his wife while peering at fish in an aquarium. Says Canin: "I like to write about the moment of light in the hour of darkness."

Far from feeling torn between his two professions, Canin actually credits much of his writing success to medicine. Many of the authors he most admires—Rabelais, Chekhov, Walker Percy, William Carlos Williams—have also doubled as doctors. "Medicine involves dealing with people who are going through changes and cycles, often people trapped in bodies that are going out from under them," he says. "Spending time with them lets you think their way, gives you insights as a writer." Canin says he never bases a character on a patient, but he does use fiction to express the poetic sides of science he finds on his rounds at Harvard-associated teaching hospitals and in textbooks. "What it is to study life!" a science teacher exclaims in the title story, Emperor of the Air. "Anybody who had seen a cell divide could have invented religion."

The younger of two boys, Canin showed no early signs of writing talent. His father, Stuart, a violinist, played with classical orchestras and the family moved from city to city; in most, his mother, Virginia, would land a job teaching elementary and secondary school art. Ethan dabbled in writing but never took it seriously until his junior year at Stanford University, where he did so well in writing courses that two teachers secretly submitted his stories to Redbook and a San Francisco literary magazine. Both were accepted.

After graduation, Canin won a two-year scholarship to the Iowa Writers' Workshop, where he first heard about the ordeals of writing. "I left there with my tail between my legs," says Ethan, who decided to take a more established route by enrolling at Harvard in 1984. "Ethan is a prize," says Dr. Lee Chartock, his clinical supervisor at Mass. General. "In writing and medicine, he has the same sensitivity, a genuine high regard and liking for people."

Canin, who has published in the Atlantic, Esquire and Best American Short Stories while in med school, doesn't worry that he has written only five stories since 1984. He dislikes writing on days when he is on hospital duty and sometimes puts a story aside for months. Even on free days, he usually writes less than two hours. To complete his first novel, he will drop his studies this spring and take an open-ended trip, financed by several grants, to Latin America with Schuler.

When they return, Canin will finish med school and work in an emergency room, where the comparatively flexible hours, he has found, give him freedom enough to keep writing. "I really enjoy the immediacy of the 'knife and gun clubs,' as they're so callously called," he says. "Emergency is a great place to learn about people. There has always been a tension in my life between the romantic and the practical. I can't hole myself up in a cabin and write down ideas for the rest of my life. I also need to be able to clean out a dog bite."

—By Michael Small with William Sonzski in Boston

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