Thomas Steinbeck grew up skipping school to hit the library and sneaking books out of his father’s locked chest. Still, he maintains that he could’ve easily followed a different career path. In this Zola interview, Steinbeck shares memories of growing up as the son of American legend John Steinbeck, his favorite indie bookstores, and the inspiration behind his two new novellas: Cabbages and Kings and Doctor Greenlaw and the Zulu Princess.
Zola: Cabbages and Kings comes from a Lewis Carroll poem called The Walrus and the Carpenter:
“The time has come,” the Walrus said,
“To talk of many things:
Of shoes–and ships–and sealing wax–
Of cabbages–and kings–
And why the sea is boiling hot–
And whether pigs have wings.”
The poem is referenced in the story by name and one of the characters even owns a cast iron winged pig. What drew you to using that poem as inspiration?
Thomas Steinbeck: Well, it’s sort of embarrassing. My father, at one point many years ago, brought it up because we were having a family discussion on what we were to put on our family shields because we come from a peasant background and he was an Arthurian scholar. He decided on the flying pig—this was years before people were using the idiom. If you go to the Steinbeck Center it’s there.
Our family motto in Latin was…oh how did it go? It just went, “To the stars on the wings of a pig.” That was a bad Greek motto.
At any rate, my father practically raised me on Lewis Carroll and it’s called Cabbages and Kings because ultimately the punchline of the novella is the gold in the winged pig.
If you look at my father’s titles, we Steinbecks always steal ours from other pieces of literature. The Grapes of Wrath is from The Battle Hymn of the Republic by Julia Ward Howe. East of Eden is from Genesis. I chose Lewis Carroll for this one.
Zola: In Cabbages and Kings, the narrator twice refers to other stories he’d tell if he had the time. Do you have any intention of writing them?
TS: I don’t know. If it strikes me, but I think it’s more fun to let the public speculate. It’s another tradition in the family: give the audience work to do. We have a tendency to write down to our public. They’re not stupid. I have great faith in the reading audience.
There’s a whole scene in The Grapes of Wrath about the turtle crossing the road. It had no purpose but he put it in there anyway. Everything has mystery to it; all stories should have mysteries in them. They don’t have to be big mysteries, just interesting mysteries.
Zola: The novella’s ending is a mystery within itself—the reader not knowing what would happen to the two boys.
TS: They’re two imaginative kids, who knows what they could’ve done or decided. That’s the fun.
Zola: The boys mentor and neighbor, Titus, trusts them and the boys believe “to be trusted was the highest honor one human being could bestow upon another.” Do you believe that’s true?
TS: Yes, of course I do. Of course I do. With so little in the world that we can depend upon, even in terms of each other, when you think you can depend on someone and they turn on you..they become different. To be trusted by another human being is a great honor. No matter what happens this person is going to be looking out for my best interests and there aren’t many people we can say that about in our lives.
Zola: Titus’ past is a mystery to the boys. Did you know his history before you began writing or did you learn as you went along?
TS: I knew, well I sort of knew, who Titus was. I knew he was big and black and handsome and everyone would wonder where he came from. People assume he was a bandito, it was very common in California, and if they knew nothing else they could call him that. But he was just, for all intents and purposes. He rented land from the primary characters, raised goats and pigs, was the finest leather maker in the valley—and that’s all anybody cared about. He played games with their kids, told them there was treasure down by the road and got them to dig these holes. Then he tells them he’ll find something to do with the holes and that’s when they planted the apple trees.
The story is about the transformation of Salinas Valley from a cattle based culture to an agricultural based culture. Now it’s grapes, for miles and miles and miles it’s just grapes.
Zola: That sounds really lovely.
TS: Oh it’s gorgeous to drive through. If you’re ever in the area I’ll take you, it’s absolutely beautiful.
Zola: I’ll hold you to it!
TS: That’s our plan then! Anyway, the point is that you don’t know his history, not until the very very end when the narrator opens the pig and finds the piece of paper inside telling the truth. I made a point of the bully in school making fun of Titus and Lobosito, the wolf-eyed boy, climbing all over the bully and beating him up for it. Titus tells Lobosito not to do that on his behalf, but the paper says the truth that he was indeed, at one point in his life, a bandit. In it he refers to the Mexican-American War, and we forget that California was part of Mexico and it was stolen in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. There was a lot of violence at the time.
What I do with my writing is I find something interesting in history and then I set down my characters within the stream of the history. I’m more interested in characters than action. So I take something like the great earthquake and my characters will have something to do with it and they’ll be affected or there’s a drought. I interpret the world through my character’s eyes but I use real history.
Zola: In both novellas many characters are well-read but also extremely skilled in craftsmanship—the creation of leather goods, carpentry. Is writing your main creative outlet or do you too have a gift for crafting?
TS: I’ve always been very good with my hands. I write about, and we’ve sort of forgotten this now, farmers used to be able to do everything. They’d weld and drill and there was nothing they couldn’t do. They had to do it because no one could do it for them. I don’t know anyone today who can change the oil in their own car.
It was a very different age and my favorite era to write about is the turn of the century, roughly 1890 to 1930. I write about my home in Northern California because it’s a beautiful and fascinating place. I grew up in a very cultural area and I’ve always been fascinated by the interaction between different cultural groups.
It was a very different kind of life in Monterey. I don’t live there now but I write about a time when people really knew how to do things. They weren’t helpless. My father used to complain, he’d say they wouldn’t know how to pour water out of a boot if the instructions were printed on the sole. My characters reflect the skills of an older generation. Even the Doctor, he goes to professionals to rebuild the schooner so he can do it himself.
I work with my hands more than most people and that’s because they don’t have the time or don’t want to. But I also come from an era when everybody did those things. I watched my father build a dock with his own hands. It was very common place. Now you buy it and have someone else install it.
Zola: Speaking of docks and the schooner, if you could take a sailing trip with any fictional character – what character and where would you two go?
TS: Oh, let me think, a fictional character. I don’t read a lot of fiction.
Zola: Perhaps a historical character?
TS: Captain Cook. I’d rather go to sea as a matter of discovery. Or basically…well, have you read The Innocents Abroad?
Zola: Isn’t that Mark Twain? I haven’t.
TS: It’s about a tour he took to Europe. I would’ve loved to do that. Mark Twain on a boat tour, it’s just hysterical. I’d love to travel with either of them. Captain Cook was brilliant at what he did. For fiction I’d have to invent a character myself.
Zola: Have you sailed much?
TS: I’ve sailed a lot in my life. It’s a sacrifice. It’s all very hard work; it looks really great. As Dr Johnson once said, “being in a ship is being in a jail, with the chance of being drowned.” It’s the joy of where you’re going not the journey.
Zola: A character in your second novella, Dr. Greenlaw and the Zulu Princess, disagrees. He says it’s the journey not the destination.
TS: My father always told me that no matter what you write it’s autobiographical because you write it. So even if I write something I disagree with, it’s saying something about me as well. My character is right and I’m wrong and I don’t mind that. That’s quite all right.
Zola: What brought about using ‘The Zulu Princess’ as the name of the boat?
TS: Ah, the Zulu Princess I knew of. It was a boat that was beached, up on stilts, in Monterey when I was a kid. I don’t know what happened to it but I was fascinated by the name and the carving of the two Zulu warriors. One day it was there and one day it was not. I never knew what happened and I kept on fantasizing, wondering where did it go and what did it do? All I knew was that this college professor found her, bought her, and fixed her.
See, I write fiction but I don’t read fiction. I read history so I can have my fiction in rational parts of history. All of my characters in my first book, Down to a Soundless Sea, are all real people in the Big Sur. But no one ever wrote about them. No one ever told their story, so I did. Most of my characters are in part like people I’ve met in Monterey or stories I’ve heard of people in Monterey.
Zola: In Doctor Greenlaw and the Zulu Princess, Mr. Ferguson (who, by the way, was my favorite character in this story) says, “Every soul is an artist if he but knew it.” Do you believe that?
TS: You know, I knew him. He worked down at Frank Sena’s Boat Works. He was a funny old Irish man.
But yes, I totally believe that’s true. I’ve watched people say ‘I don’t have any talent at anything.’ They just don’t think they can do it.
I do a lot of public speaking. I get talked into doing these book conferences where people come and listen to successful authors talk about how they got to where they are—which I think is silly. People always ask how to become a competent writer and the answer is to become a competent reader! At some point you’re going to assimilate the best of language if you read the best you can get your hands on.
It’s a matter of how you spend your time. I love to read. I go through three books a week. It’s my favorite thing to do. I like working with my hands, but I love to read. There’s never enough books, never enough time, and as a result I’ve got a lot of toys in my closet to play with when it comes to writing and characters. I write about characters. I don’t write about particular incidents so much as how characters react to them.
My fourth novella, for example, is Mrs. Pengali and the Pirate. It’s about a Chinese woman who’s also in my novel The Silver Lotus—which is the story of her life. I’ve never written a mystery story and wanted to so I chose Lady Ye as sort of a Chinese Miss Marple. She’s very wealthy and lives in Monterey on a compound. She never leaves, never goes anywhere but her best friend is the local sheriff and every time he runs into problems he brings them to her. So she never leaves the house but she solves murders.
It’s fun to imagine who these people were and how they led their lives, especially in an era when style meant a lot. I make a point of never using curse words. I never deal with religion, sex, or anything that might draw my audience to the left or right of what I’m trying to say. The reasons librarians love my works so much is because they can safely recommend them to anyone.
I love young readers, 15 to 25, because if you’re going to start reading that’s when you’ll start. That’s when literature has a great deal of influence in our lives. I like to write for that particular set of readers because they’re enthusiastic readers and when they don’t understand something they look it up, unlike other people who just keep on going.
One of the purposes of literature is to teach and one of the principals of learning is how to study. That’s what I do. I don’t try to over do it, but if there’s a word you don’t understand then look it up. Information that you acquire yourself, rather than information people throw at you, stays with you longer. Ten years ago I’d have to go to the library to dig up the encyclopedia and now I can sit at my computer and go diving into the world of information.
Zola: Can I assume this means you’re a fan of ebooks?
TS: Yes! It saves me having to own thousands of dollars worth of books and in many cases a lot of the books I read are very long, big, and complex. The last memoir of Mark Twain was over 1,000 pages. Try reading that in bed! I have an iPad and I have maybe 150 books on it, like Shelby Foote’s three volume history of the Civil War. You try taking that on a plane—they’ll charge you for it.
I love what’s happening with ebooks. We’re slowly creating a more literate society with iPads and iPhones. I see more people reading and younger people reading. A friend of mine brought his daughter over for lunch. She’s reading Life of Pi and shaking her head at her Kindle and she goes, “The pacing in this is terrible.” I told her the movie might be better and she said, “It can’t be worse than this!” But she was still reading it.
And it gives a lot more people access to literature. There are books that are free because the copyright is expired like Sherlock Holmes. People know the names of these stories but have never read them. Sure you’ve seen The Count of Monte Cristo on TV, but have you read it? The Three Musketeers, Moby-Dick—I think it’s great for that. You can finally read all those things.
I’m a big fan of Tolstoy, especially his earlier short stories and I have never read War and Peace! So I’ve got that on my iPad. Things like that I think the iPad is great for. Wind in the Willows I’ve always heard of and never read it. I’m for ebooks, but I’m always buying books. I’m a book junkie. There’s no where to sit in my house. I love books. I still read books, but in the cases of long, complex books I don’t have room for them and, frankly, to buy them would cost me two and three times as much money. Though it’s not bad, every book I buy is a tax write off as a writer. Every writer should know that—it’s research, it’s a business expense. Magazines and books are a tax write off. Those are the tools you work with. My father took advantage of it and he taught me that. Every time my father traveled someplace it was always research for a book so he’d write the trip off. You don’t make a great deal of money as a writer so you take advantage of the little goodies.
Zola: Your father gave you the advice of not becoming a writer and yet here you are! You’ve been a journalist and screenwriter; you’ve written short stories and novels. Growing up in such a literary environment, studying under playwrights like Terrence McNally, was there even a chance you wouldn’t end up a writer of sorts?
TS: Oh yeah, a very good chance. When I was a kid I wanted to be a bush pilot in Alaska. I loved airplanes. Here my father sent me to all these expensive prep schools and all I wanted to do was be a bush pilot. My father got angry and said, “I’ll be damned if I spend all this money on your education for you to be a flying truck driver!”
But being successful in the literary world is as much luck as everything else and when he wrote The Grapes of Wrath people said he was lying! He was called a communist, a socialist. People believed he exaggerated conditions.
They were burning his stuff in the streets; they still do. But it amused him because the book sales went up! It’s like burning 50 Shades of Grey, it only increases the interest. Not that you’re getting much for your money.
My father was right in saying, “Writing is not an advocation for anyone but bums,” which he considered himself one, by the way. If you want to make money on a consistent basis don’t depend on writing because the odds aren’t in your favor. Because you can hit it and still have people give bad reviews. His most popular book is Travels With Charlie. He said, “If I had known it would’ve taken a dog, I would’ve gotten a dog earlier.”
Or he used to say, “If you’re worried about your fortune, Tom, it won’t happen until you’re dead for 20 years.” It’s like when Oprah decided East of Eden was the best written book ever and boom this dead author exploded.
Zola: Your dad left behind a legacy and has inspired writers and readers alike. Is there anything, a book or piece of advice, that he gave to you that has helped you in your own journey of becoming a writer?
TS: Well, there is one. I’m writing a memoir on growing up with my father—what it was like to be three feet tall, to be a kid around my father. There was a situation where my brother and I were at my father’s house on 72nd street, a brownstone, and, in his house, there were books everywhere. It was a giant library—to the ceiling, around the fireplace. My brother and I weren’t reading any of them. We wanted to play and my father really began to worry about the fact that he could raise two sons who were totally illiterate.
One day he brought home this great wooden chest. I can’t describe it. It had heavy locks and it was this big massive piece of furniture with two chairs on either side and he put books inside of this thing. He loaded it down with all kinds of books, locked it, and put the key on top of the chest where we couldn’t reach it. Then he told us that we could read any book in the house but never read what was in the chest.
We’d ask why he didn’t want us to read them and he’d say, “There are secrets in there that only intelligent people should know.” Well, you tell a kid there’s a secret in there and it’s like telling a dog he couldn’t have a bone. So my brother and I would sneak downstairs at night and use a pillow to hide the sound of the key. It was massive! Like opening a vault in the Vatican. It made a lot of noise, but we’d get in there and pick out a book and sneak back upstairs. But, we had to get them back into the chest by morning because my father could tell a book was missing from a mile away. We didn’t get much sleep.
He’d just keep putting things in there he thought boys should read and I eventually found out the secret he warned us about—it was reading. The more you read the more you know, the more you know the more you write. Humanity doesn’t have many pleasures going for itself but to write is one of them. My father said, “Remember that writing is primarily a course of self-discovery.” No matter what you’re writing about you’re finding yourself. It’s a self-navigating tool. I’ve learned a lot about myself through my writing—my politics, what I like in people, what I don’t. It’s a matter of self-discovery.
There were secrets in that chest that I couldn’t live without; he was right. I didn’t become a book writer when he was alive. I did screenplays; I worked for advertising agencies. But with a name like Steinbeck people think you’re riding on your father’s coattails. So I waited and after he died I started and figured he wouldn’t be angry.
In the old days, I used to submit everything to The New Yorker because I loved their rejection letters. I cut off all the mastheads and papered my bathroom with them. It looked really fabulous. Being accepted as a writer takes a long time. But once you do…look at Dickens, once you’ve read Dickens and you like him you can’t get enough. It’s like making friends. Name any author you really like. You get upset when their books stop and when they’ve stopped writing.
But that’s how it started. When I lived in New York, I lived between the lions at the New York City library. When I cut school it was to go to the library.
Zola: At Zola we allow our members to pledge their favorite local bookstore. When they pledge a percentage of the money they spend goes to that store, so readers can have their ebooks but still support local stores.
TS: I think that’s a delightful idea. People should do that, they should support their local bookstores. If you go on my website I do lots of talking about writing, my books, and bookstores. I’m a big supporter of indie bookstores.
Zola: Do you have a favorite local store?
TS: We have two really great ones in Santa Barbara. The one closest to me is a place called Tecolote Book Shop, tecolote that means owl and I know the woman who runs it—she’s just delightful. All of us have our own little bookstores where they know you, it’s like Cheers.
The other is across town but it’s absolutely fabulous; it’s called Chaucer’s. They’re an old school bookstore. They have everything. It’s great. I can go and get lost for hours.
Don’t miss any of the New Year’s countdown! See all of the stories here.
This article originally appeared on Zola Books.