NEW YORK – Thomas Steinbeck grew up in a home wallpapered with bookcases and inhabited by a father who was one of the most prolific writers of the 20th century.
By the time Thomas Steinbeck was 20, John Steinbeck had received the Pulitzer Prize and Nobel Prize for writing classics such as “The Grapes of Wrath” and “Of Mice and Men.”
But it took the younger Steinbeck, now 61, a lifetime to find his own voice as an author and to carry on the family tradition without feeling that he’s constantly judged by his father’s legacy.
“You didn’t grow up in the shadow of John Steinbeck. He put you on his shoulders and gave you all the light you wanted,” the son said in a recent interview from his home in Santa Barbara, Calif., where he is working on his first novel after the 2002 release of “Down to a Soundless Sea,” a book of short stories.
Steinbeck resisted temptations to write for publication until the past few years. He said he put together the short stories as a favor to a friend who wanted to give it to guests at his hotel. A New York literary agent showed it to European publishers and he was invited to publish.
As Thomas Steinbeck worked on his own writing, lawyers were battling over his father’s legacy – whether John Steinbeck’s blood heirs, Thomas and his late-brother’s daughter, Blake Smyle, were entitled to certain copyrights of classics rather than the heirs of the author’s widow, Elaine, who died in April 2003. John Steinbeck died in 1968.
Thomas Steinbeck said he was advised not to discuss the copyright dispute; U.S. District Judge Richard Owen ruled in June that the publishing rights to 10 of his father’s early works belong to Thomas Steinbeck and Smyle.
But Steinbeck had plenty to say about his father and how writing came to dominate his life even though he tried to heed his father’s warning to avoid it as a profession.
A love of literature came naturally growing up in a Steinbeck household, but the rebellious son, who refers to boarding schools he attended as prison camps, concedes he embraced the written word slowly.
He submitted articles anonymously to magazines as a youth, an exercise that kept his ego in check. None was published. “I became very used to rejection at a very early age, but I was pleased to see it didn’t stop my enthusiasm,” he said.
In the 1960s, Thomas Steinbeck was an Army helicopter gunner before working as an idealistic combat photographer in Vietnam, where he recalled, “We had a fantasy that somehow we could take the photograph that could stop the war.”
In his 20s, Steinbeck tried his hand as a graphic artist because he loved sculpture and painting. He even thought he would enjoy doing animation drawings until it occurred to him that the pay was bad and he couldn’t “smoke that many cigarettes or drink that much coffee.”
He studied film, but a stint with a movie studio convinced him that a movie company was not his place. Always, the desire to write tugged at him.
“The biggest impact my father had on my life was teaching the importance of literacy,” Steinbeck said, noting that his father’s technique of encouraging interest was unusual. “He said, ‘You’re not allowed to read.’”
He said it was like being told as a child that there was a secret he was not allowed to hear.
The encouragement has caught up to him decades later. “I like writing but I write for self-improvement more than I do for money. I guarantee I’m not getting rich at this job. I’m working harder now at 61 than I did 30 years ago, for less money.”
Steinbeck’s first novel is currently at 1,059 pages and rising. The novel is about two Irish cousins who are closer than brothers. The book, still untitled, chronicles their adventures in the 1880s as they separately move from Ireland to San Francisco and Monterey, Calif. Ballantine Books, an imprint of Random House, expects to publish it in the fall of 2007.
“Since I can’t write the greatest American novel, I’m going to write the longest American novel,” Steinbeck said.
His next project, he said, will be a memoir about his father to counter the more serious biographies that border on hero worship.
“He was a very funny fellow, very boyish, very bright and interesting,” said Steinbeck, who wants to write “about the really wild and funny stuff, the bizarre things he would pull. I had a lot of fun growing up with him.”