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At 61, Steinbeck's son finds own voice as author

For years, Thomas tried to heed advice of famous father not to be a writer
/ Source: The Associated Press

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.

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 over 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 the publishing rights to 10 of his father's early works belong to Thomas Steinbeck and Smyle.

Tried to heed father's warningBut he 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. "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 importance of literacy’
"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.

His next project, he said, will be a biography about his father to set the record straight.

"Most people don't know how hysterically funny this man was," he said. He said his father once schemed with a pharmacist to put witches-brew labels on medicine bottles so that any snooping guests would see such things as "Eye of Noot," "Toe of Dog" and "Hummingbird Tongue" in his medicine cabinet.