When Ethan Canin was a second-year medical student at Harvard, a proctor took him aside to voice concern over his poor vocabulary and fuzzy writing. Secretly, Canin was thrilled. ''In medical school, you're taught to write in this convoluted, Latinate way. I knew the vocabulary as well as anyone, but I would write kidney instead of nephric. I insisted on using English.''
The way Canin uses English may not have pleased his professors, but readers feel differently. His first collection of short stories, Emperor of the Air, climbed onto the best-seller list in 1988. This month, Houghton Mifflin is publishing his first novel, Blue River, about two brothers who wrestle with betrayal, forgiveness, and possibly murder.
Medicine inspires his writing. ''Just by looking, I know something about everybody in this amazingly intimate, almost prophetic way,'' says Canin, 31. ''And that knowledge contributes to my writing in some magical way.'' The unmarried author now plans to teach creative writing at the University of Iowa this winter before returning to Harvard to finish up medical school. Trying to decide whether to specialize in emergency medicine, psychiatry, or neurology, he's a bit edgy about being a famous writer who lays hands on the public. But he has a solution in mind: ''I don't have a pen name, so I'm thinking of getting a doctor's name. What would you call that, a stethoscope name?''