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A literary son gives voice to Central Coast

After limited success as a screenwriter, Thomas Steinbeck is attracting readers' attention with his colorful Big Sur tales.

October 21, 2002|Fred Alvarez | Times Staff Writer

Cracking open his new book, Thomas Steinbeck nervously clears his throat and apologizes in advance to the small audience for any sentences he might mangle. "The only person who was a worse reader than me was my father," Steinbeck explains in his gravelly baritone, preparing to read his work in public for the first time.

The 58-year-old Oxnard resident then launches into a tale reminiscent of those told by his novelist father, a story drawn from the colorful characters who settled California's Central Coast, a hand-spun yarn passed around the Steinbeck family dinner table like so many home-cooked meals.

Thomas Steinbeck was nurtured by such narratives, born into a family in which storytelling was king, and where the king of all storytellers was the man who would write "Of Mice and Men" and "The Grapes of Wrath" and go on to win the Pulitzer and Nobel prizes for his depictions of fall-down drunks and broken-down crop pickers.

But on this evening, people have gathered at a Santa Barbara bookstore to hear the words of the son, not the father. And while Steinbeck expects the comparisons to come, he assures his audience that he is not trying to emulate his father, nor ride the man's coattails.

"Let me answer the question everyone asks: No, it wasn't a problem growing up in my father's shadow," says Steinbeck, who was 24 when his father died. "There was no shadow. He was all light."

Perhaps it is only fitting that in a year when Californians are celebrating the 100th anniversary of John Steinbeck's birth with photo essays, book discussions and film screenings, a new Steinbeck voice should emerge.

After years of slugging it out as a Hollywood screenwriter with limited success, Thomas Steinbeck is now on a national book tour to promote "Down to a Soundless Sea," a collection of short stories based on the stalwart souls who once populated the rugged Big Sur coastline. The seven stories take place near the turn of the last century, tracing the adventures of an eccentric cast of characters, from sailors and ranchers to doctors and immigrants.

The idea was born nearly a decade ago, on a day when Steinbeck was tossing back tequila and swapping stories with Michael Freed, developer of Big Sur's Post Ranch Inn. Freed suggested that Steinbeck incorporate the stories into a book that could grace the rooms of the cliff-top resort.

Years later, as it neared completion, Steinbeck said his father's agents caught wind of the project and asked to take a look. They shopped it to New York-based Ballantine Books, which promptly signed Steinbeck to a two-book deal. The initial run of 30,000 volumes hit bookstores earlier this month, riding a wave of critical praise.

Publishers Weekly said the family's literary legacy was in good hands. Author Pat Conroy and playwright Terrence McNally applauded Steinbeck's inherited love of a good story, suggesting that the collection would have made his father proud.

Hundreds of readers have packed book signings from San Francisco to Santa Barbara, including one event before an overflow crowd at the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas.

"I am as mystified as you are, believe me," Steinbeck said of the response. "My writing most of my life has been dedicated toward making a living, and I haven't had the luxury of saying, 'Oh, I think I'll write the great American novel.' The fact is, somebody in my family has already pulled it off, and I've got no desire to compete with that."

But he has earned praise in his own right. "Thom is a brave writer, and not just because of the legacy he's tackling," said Steinbeck's editor, Dan Smetanka, an Orange County native who is pleased to see a return to stories chronicling California's rich and colorful past. "He's got the family name, and that's kind of like the big opening presence in the room. But ultimately, the book will stand on its own."

Shaped by his father

Born in New York but raised on both coasts, Thomas Steinbeck said his father taught him and his brother, John, much about writing. Shaped by the Depression, the elder Steinbeck thought it a blessing to have work of any kind, his son recalled. And he believed that writing was a craft, no more or less noble than the work practiced by mechanics or shoemakers.

He was not one to read his stories aloud to family and friends. But stories around the dinner table were a different matter, and the Steinbeck boys grew up surrounded by fanciful tales polished and practiced by aunts and uncles and, of course, their father, who reveled in stories that served as entertainment and oral history.

"My father was addicted to raconteurs and liars," Steinbeck said. "And as children, we were always encouraged to have good stories to tell, and we were judged on how well we told them."

Steinbeck honed those tales over the years, through his time at the Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles and UCLA's film school, through the years he served in Vietnam.

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