Steinbeck's Son Wins Rights to Dad's Work

The Associated Press
Monday, July 10, 2006; 6:06 AM

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 the younger Steinbeck has followed a winding journey to the point where he can carry on the family tradition without feeling he's constantly judged by his father's legacy. At 61, he is just now finding his own voice as an author.

"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 telephone 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 critically acclaimed book of short stories.

The younger Steinbeck submitted articles anonymously to magazines as a youth, an exercise that kept his ego in check. "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 a stint as an idealistic combat photographer in Vietnam, where he recalls "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 "I cannot smoke that many cigarettes or drink that much coffee."

He studied film, but a stint with a movie studio convinced him 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."

Newly tapped, Steinbeck's writing prowess is like a flood. Steinbeck's first novel is currently at 1,059 pages and rising.

"Since I can't write the greatest American novel, I'm going to write the longest American novel," he said.


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