On the patio of a restaurant in Malibu, Thomas Steinbeck, Nobel laureate John Steinbeck’s eldest son, is in his favored environment, along the California coastline, which, like his father, he has gravitated to for many years.
Steinbeck, whose second novel, The Silver Lotus, will be published by Counterpoint Press, is also the author of the short story collection Down to a Soundless Sea (Ballantine, 2002) and In the Shadow of the Cypress (Gallery, 2010), his first novel. “I started writing serious books so late because I knew I’d be accused of riding on my father’s coattails,” says Steinbeck, 67. He had written documentaries and screenplays, including one for his father’s book The Pearl that never made it to the big screen. “I even wrote text for some comic books!” he says, laughing.
When Steinbeck was first asked to write a novel, it gave him pause. “I told [the publisher], ‘You misunderstand. You’ve got the wrong Steinbeck. I’m the short story writer, and the other Steinbeck wrote novels. And unfortunately he’s dead.’ ” In the ensuing years, that hesitation has been replaced by confidence. A move to Santa Barbara’s Montecito community with his wife, Gail, 10 years ago, landed him in an ideal environment for writing.
The Silver Lotus is a multilayered work of historical fiction vast in scope and characterization, following the courtship and marriage of Captain Hammond, a leading American shipping merchant, and Lady Yee, the beautiful and brilliant daughter of a wealthy businessman in Canton, China. The couple’s tumultuous journey by ship around the Pacific Rim in the 1880s brings them to the Northern California coast and the first settlements of Chinese in America. “I invented Lady Yee as an ancillary character in my previous book, The Shadow of the Cypress, and enjoyed her potential so much that I decided to explore doing a book just about her,” Steinbeck says. “It was easier than I first presumed. All I had to do was surrender to my knowledge of Chinese history and customs, and then let Lady Yee dictate the course of events as she pleased. She’s an enigmatic figure who has power. She owns banks. But she’s also aware of racism and knows how to sidestep it—you don’t push it in people’s faces.”
Because Steinbeck writes about the Chinese with such accuracy, it’s surprising to learn that he’s never visited China. “I’ve always been fascinated by the Chinese,” he says. “This goes a long way back to my childhood. The Chinese invented money, movable type, clocks, and built the largest ships in the history of the world. They also produced more poetry and art than almost any other culture. I have 50 or 60 volumes in my library about China.” Like his father’s, Steinbeck’s stories have a broad moral foundation that examines what’s right and wrong and hark back to when he was a boy and living with his father. “I thought my dad was out of work,” he says, “because my friends had fathers with briefcases who’d go off somewhere with bow ties on. But my father would finish breakfast and go back to his room. One day I asked him, ‘What’s the job of a writer?’ and he said, ‘To reconnect humans to their own humanity.’ That’s it—the bottom line. My only job is to write in such a way that the reader gets a new handle on humanity.” In The Silver Lotus, one of the novel’s themes is racism. “I find that [it] is still the most inexplicably dangerous aspect of the human condition.”
Steinbeck was born in New York, but became bicoastal after his parents divorced. “My mother was difficult, to put it lightly. She was a drinker. And the only way my father could save me from her was to put me into boarding schools on the East Coast from the time I was in third grade.” He and his younger brother, John IV, who died in 1991, spent holidays with their father. “We had a tradition where we’d read to each other when we were on long trips; I’ll read a chapter, you’ll read a chapter. My father’s real legacy to me was his library. It was outrageous; it had everything,” Steinbeck says.
Steinbeck’s maternal grandmother owned ranches in California and Arizona, and he spent most of his summers with her out west. “I remember crossing the country by train with my mother in sleeping cars, which was the greatest fun in the world.” He and his brother worked on his grandmother’s land. “Of course, grandchildren are unpaid labor,” he jokes.components/article_pagination.html not found (No such file or directory)