Like Father, Somewhat Like Son
Thomas Steinbeck's first book tells marvelous tales of the old days in Monterey.
Thursday, October 3, 2002
Illustration by Marion Ettlinger--Write Stuff: Thomas Steinbeck, son of the famous father, hit the road on a book tour this week.
In 1929, John Steinbeck wrote an indignant letter to Grove Day, a former Stanford classmate, defending a bit of sloppy writing. Steinbeck rails against Day''s criticism of his spelling and punctuation, arguing that these conventions are important only for the printed word.
"But I have no interest in the printed word," wrote the 27-year-old Steinbeck. "I would continue to write if there were no writing and no print. I put my words down for a matter of memory. They are more made to be spoken than to be read. I have the instincts of a minstrel rather than those of a scrivener."
If John''s son, Thomas Steinbeck, were to write a similar letter, he''d likely take on a more apologetic tone and come to the opposite conclusion. The 58-year-old Thom, whose first book, Down to a Soundless Sea, was released on October 1, has also spent his life as a writer but he describes himself as being in a completely different class.
"I consider myself a craftsman, not an artist," says Thom. "I work for whoever pays me. I don''t put myself in my father''s position as a writer. I like writing but I''m not driven like my father."
Be that as it may, the six short stories and one novella in Soundless Sea are as rich as any minstrel''s art.
The tales told in the book, commissioned by Michael Freed, creator of the posh Post Ranch Inn in Big Sur, are set along the Monterey coastline during the early years of the 20th century. Based on local lore, the stories are richly detailed, and aficionados of local history will revel in appearances by historical figures including the eccentric Big Sur anthropologist Jaime de Angulo and early Seaside-area physician Doc Roberts (after whom Roberts Lake, across from Kmart, is named). And in "The Wool Gatherer," Thom tells the story of one summer his father spent working on old Joe Post''s Big Sur cattle ranch.
Comparison between the works of father and son are inevitable. And in these stories a reader can find both differences and similarities.
Of the similarities, perhaps the animistic aspects of the stories are the most striking; the landscapes in which the stories are set are as alive as any of the characters. The ocean that beckons to hard-luck sailor Chapel Lodge in Thom''s "Blind Luck" is as impassively seductive as the earth that calls to pioneer Joseph Wayne in John''s To a God Unknown. The Big Sur forests and hills that menace the academic Solomon Gill in Thom''s "Dark Watcher" were just as menacing to the young killer Pepe in John''s "Flight."
Perhaps such root similarities stem from the stories'' source: the storytelling sessions that Thom recalls from his youth.
These storytelling sessions could spring up at anytime and could involve anyone, family or friends, so long as they put some effort into the telling.
"It was just one of those things you did," says Thom. "My aunts, sisters, cousins, Ed [Ricketts] told stories. My mother did it, my grandmother did it. And it was the skill in the telling that counted. It was an art."
For Thom, these storytelling sessions blossomed into a career as a cinematographer/photojournalist in Vietnam during the ''60s and has continued through his work as a writer of documentaries. He has also done several dramatic adaptations of his father''s works, including a recently completed (for the third time) version of Travels With Charley. Until now, however, he had always avoided writing fiction, knowing that the hoopla surrounding publication would be as inevitable as the comparisons.
All his life, Thom has been deviled by the fame/notoriety of his family name. He recalls that when he lived in Carmel Highlands, there was a steady stream of pilgrims coming to his door--despite the fact that it was up an unmarked, unpaved driveway. And it rankles to see the Steinbeck name used to sell everything from real estate to T-shirts.
"But I get my revenge: I tell everybody that I own all of it," Thom laughs (sort of). "My problem with it was I drew too much attention. I got tired of being the dancing bear."
The publication of this book means adding another movement to the ursine ballet, including the 18-stop, cross-country book-signing schedule that began on Oct. 2 and goes through Dec. 6.
For all of the reasons above, Thom says the publication of this book was almost unintentional.
"It was an accident. I didn''t mean for this to happen. It was just an idea Michael [Freed] and I had. Then this bad man from Ballantine came from around the corner and..."
And Thom walked away with a two-book deal.
The self-described craftsman is now at work on the second book, which will be set primarily in Big Sur during the waning years of the 19th century. He says the story will focus on the singular characters that were drawn to California during the "last days of California elegance."
Thomas Steinbeck lectures and signs copies of Down To A Restless Sea Sunday at 2pm at the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas.