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 ” In the ensuing years, that hesitation has been replaced by confidence.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.
During the Vietnam War, Steinbeck trained to serve with Armed Forces Radio and Television, but found himself in combat instead at the height of the Tet offensive. He was reassigned as a helicopter door-gunner before eventually returning to his original posting as a television production specialist. After his discharge Steinbeck returned to Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos as a civilian journalist and photographer with the aim of changing America’s position on the war in Southeast Asia. Steinbeck’s life was profoundly affected by his experiences in Vietnam, and he still suffers from PTSD and nightmares.
In response to this, many years later he aligned himself with the Wounded Warrior Project, which promotes public awareness for the needs of injured veterans. “What I do now is try to raise money for their programs,” says Steinbeck. “I got involved in veteran’s affairs, but not from a governmental point of view. I’ve been in VA hospitals, and they’re the kiss of death, like holding tanks for the dying. The Wounded Warrior Project is independently funded and focuses on rehabilitation. There are 57,000 homeless vets of the Iraqi and Afghanistan wars. They come back after two or three tours and there’s nowhere they fit in.” When asked which has had a more profound effect on his life, being John Steinbeck’s son or his experience in Vietnam, he answers thoughtfully. “Both elements have been a pain in the ass, but experiencing warfare in all its sanguine manifestations takes precedence over family credentials every time. In my youth my father was my biggest influence, and I did everything I could to please him, but the tragedy of the Vietnam War and its aftermath reamed me of all such consideration.”
Steinbeck is the only life member on the board of the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas. “The center was built because Monterey and Salinas... were fighting over my father like the body of Oedipus. They both wanted tourist dollars. Unless you like to watch lettuce grow, there’s not a hell of a lot to do in Salinas,” Steinbeck says. “So they put up the Steinbeck Center that, if my father were alive, he would have burned down. To him the idea of building a museum to an author wouldn’t make sense. He would have found it insulting. They finally opened a general interest bookstore there that I’ve wanted for years. But I don’t do that much for them anymore. Considering how much money I’ve spent trying to protect my interest, I’m not out there to try to sell my father’s work. I’ve got myself and my books to think about. If my father can’t look after his own work now, it’s not my problem. I’m done.”
If this is a veiled reference to the bitter lawsuit Steinbeck fought against his stepmother’s estate over his father’s copyrights, perhaps the decade-long battle that Steinbeck and his niece ultimately lost earlier this year has left him determined to stand on his own as a writer. “There’s no ceiling for me,” he says. “No one can stop me from writing.”