An Interview With Thom Steinbeck
by Alexandra Jaffe
Thomas Steinbeck got a whole lot of advice from his dad. John Steinbeck would send his son letters — sometimes 18-page-long ones, when he didn’t have time to edit — ranting, raving, and generally trying to be helpful. That’s more than my dad did for me; his best (read: only) relationship advice has been to “always have an extra bottle of ketchup on the shelf, for when you run out.”
So when I read the beautiful relationship advice John wrote in a letter to then-14-year-old Thom, I wanted to hear from Thom what it was like to receive such weighty letters. I should be so lucky.
Nope. Turns out John Steinbeck was just like every dad: He had his brilliant moments, but he had his crotchety old where’s-the-remote-pass-me-my-beer-sorry-I-forgot-your-dance-recital moments too. And just like me, Thom often dismissed his advice. The best advice John gave his son? Don’t become a writer. And Thom dismissed that nugget, going on to write three novels — Down to a Soundless Sea, In the Shadow of the Cypress, and, most recently, The Silver Lotus.
Thom told me all about the girl in the letter, being a hormonal teenager, and how damn hard it was to decipher his dad’s tiny handwriting.
A: How about we start with the letter. Do you know the one that I’m talking about?
T: Yeah, I do.
Give me the context of the letter. What had you sent your father that prompted the response?
Can I be very honest with you? I am now 68 years old. I don’t know. I mean, the girl disappeared — they all do — I barely remember what she looked like. It was in desperation of youthful love and passion. Most of that driven, like all young boys, by an instinct to get away from his own family into the arms of someone else besides people they’re related to. And um, quite frankly, I remember very little about it.
I mean, my father’s letters were incredible letters. They were very long and very detailed. And I’m sure that was just his observations on what he believed the subject matter to be.
I mean, I was born in 1944 so I was all of, what, 10, 11, 12…
14, I think.
To tell you the truth, I’m not sure what happened to anybody in all of that. It was one of those things that was there, and like most children, I was enthusiastic about, and then, when it was no longer happening, it was gone.
So this wasn’t a girl that left an indelible mark on your memory, then?
Few people I’ve ever met have left an indelible mark on my memory. But, very frankly, it’s sort of like –
I was traveling, I was going away to prep school. It’s very difficult to maintain a romance, as you know, at any kind of distance. And this was a girl that I had met at summer school, co-educational summer school.
It was there, and then I wrote to my father, and it was gone. Other women have certainly taken precedent over that.
Do you think you actually loved her? Do you think it was your first love?
Young boys fall in and out of love like the coming and going of the rain. It’s just one of those things that happens at that age. You’re in love with the next thing that comes down the pike. You know, boys are incredibly fickle.
So you were a fickle 14-year-old, then.
Every 14-year-old is fickle. They feel, of course, that their life is on the edge, you know, and, oh god, how will I survive all of this? They go through all that melodrama … But on the other hand, boys of 14 have got the attention span of a sparrow.
She was very pretty, and the most important thing — all my life — was the fact that she was very smart. What T&A do for most men, brains do for me. I’m addicted to intelligent women, I married intelligent women.
That’s all, really, I remember. I think she was very smart, very sensitive, and funny. I also enjoy a sense of humor in women. But she was primarily very intelligent, very smart, very sensitive, and that was really unique among all the girls that I knew.
I wouldn’t say she was a raging beauty, but she had a brain that was just most charming and insightful. And I fell in love with her. What’s a 14-year-old boy to do?
Bu that’s interesting, because the letter your dad sent back to you is very serious, it takes it very seriously. And I can’t imagine a dad taking his 14-year-old son’s crush as seriously as this letter does.
Right. Well, I think he took his son seriously. And there’s certain questions that if answered incorrectly at the very beginning are rarely corrected in adulthood. If a child wants some advice, you give them serious advice. You don’t really expect them to take it!
Right! I mean, that’s a good question, did you take your dad’s advice? Because, at 14, most people don’t want to listen to their dads.
If I didn’t want his advice, I wouldn’t have written about it in the first place. My father was serious. I mean you ask him a serious question, you’ll get a serious answer. But don’t ask him if you didn’t really want to know.
One of the things my father had going for himself is he talked to children like he talked to adults. Kids loved my father, because he didn’t talk down to them. They asked him a question, he gave a serious answer, he treated them as serious human beings.
My mom did the same thing, when I was young. She used to talk to me, even before I could talk, like I was an adult. I think that’s the right way to go about it.
I think so, too, especially if you expect your children to talk like adults. It’s really quite amazing what children will absorb if you give them the benefit of the doubt to understand that the intelligence is there. They may not be able to verbalize themselves completely, but comprehension is there.
And if you feel that someone is taking your question seriously, you’ll take the answer seriously, even if you don’t quite understand it all.
Do you think you didn’t quite understand that letter?
Of course I did. I understood it. But by the time any of it came to be very important, the season was over, and I was off to school and she was off to wherever she was going, and I never saw her again.
If I’m uncertain about anything, it’s that my affection for her was even remotely requited.
You don’t think she liked you back?!
I think she liked me … but I think she was a very serious girl with plans that went way beyond, you know, personal affections. I think that’s why I was attracted to her. She wasn’t a giggly girl. She had serious agendas and she had serious interests. And she liked Bach like I did, and she liked Dvorak; we had similar tastes in music and in poetry. I’ve just always been enthralled by intelligent women. That’s my weakness.
Would you say she was your first love?
No, no, no, no. God, at 14, I didn’t know. It’s like children, you know, you’re with the one you love, you love the one you’re with.
Yeah, that’s your teen years.
Come on, with puberty coming on, you’re terribly confused between what’s real affection and what’s sexual drive. They don’t know. But hormones are jumping through the skin like crazy.
But what I liked about her, which I’ve always liked about the women that I’ve been close to, was the fact that there was real affection and admiration for the person that I was talking to, regardless of what sex they were.
One thing I’ve had very little patience for all my life is stupidity. All the women I’ve ever known or had any affection for were in and of themselves truly bright human beings, with a great deal to offer.
So that’s been my personal addiction, and my father, I think, treated my interest knowing this. Cause he knew this about me. Because I grew up with intelligent women. I grew up with really brilliant women.
My mother was, you know, had a photographic mind, she could finish a 600-page book in a night. My grandmother was a brilliant woman. I grew up with brilliant women, I became addicted to them. I dated really intelligent women, I married two of them, actually.
I think my father treated the question seriously because I asked it seriously, or else I wouldn’t have asked it. I knew better than that with my father. You didn’t ask him spurious questions, you didn’t ask him silliness. You ask a stupid question, you’re gonna get a stupid answer.
So did you exchange letters with him frequently, then?
All the time, yeah.
I guess those were pretty weighty letters then — did he give you a lot of advice in those?
Well, yeah, either complaints or advice. You know, either, I haven’t applied myself in school, or … I remember one time, I was going away to prep school, and kids are always in trouble, one way or the other, and I remember once my father, I don’t know what I’d done, ’cause it was a long time ago — I don’t spend my time dwelling on memories. I’m always looking for the next thing around the corner. What’s past is past, for me. What’s past is prologue, too, you know?
Anyway, I’d done something off the wall, I can’t remember what it was, I’d gotten bad grades or something. It doesn’t really make a lot of difference. But my father sent me this very long letter, and he had very tiny handwriting — he wrote by hand — and it was like an 18-page letter. It took me a week to decipher this thing, because of his handwriting, primarily. And when I got to the very end of it, I noticed at the very bottom, he said, “Son, I want to apologize. I would’ve sent you a note but I didn’t have the time!”
Meaning, that ultimately, the greatest amount of time in all writing is spent editing. My father said there’s only one trick to writing, and that’s not writing, that’s writing and rewriting and rewriting and rewriting. Like sculpture. I mean, the first thing off the top of your head isn’t the most brilliant thing you ever thought of. And then when you’re writing about it, when you want others to understand what you’re still talking about, then it really requires that you edit yourself really, really well, so that other people can comprehend it.
But even he could get carried away. When he didn’t have time to edit it, I would get these 18-page letters. They were essays. And not as many always aimed at me. One and two makes three. Add four makes nine. It was sort of like, this is the process, and this is how it happens, and this is what you should observe in the process of it happening. He was very linear in his understanding of how these things went.
So it sounds like a lot of these letters were kind of him imparting his wisdom to you, I guess.
Well not, really imparting his wisdom. He didn’t see it as wisdom, he saw it as experience. Whether it’s wisdom or not is to be delineated, is to be judged by others. The point is that this is my experience, this is what I know to be in my life. He’d always end it with: Good luck. Find out on your own.
People can give you the directions to the market. It doesn’t mean you’ve actually heard the directions clearly, or know what the hell the people are talking about. You do the best you can to impart whatever knowledge you’ve got, and then, you move on.
So did he give you other advice? What would you say is the best advice he’s given you?
I wouldn’t know what to tell you about that. The best advice my father ever gave me?
Was there too much?
Yeah, I didn’t take it. He said don’t become a writer. But I didn’t take it.
Why didn’t you take it?
’Cause I love doing it.
Why do you think he gave you that advice?
’Cause he said, if you want to make a living, do something else. And he was right. No one makes — my father said, even in his life, the fact that he became successful was a matter of luck, it was a matter of timing. You know, the Depression was on, he’d written Grapes of Wrath, everyone said he was lying, Eleanor Roosevelt said he wasn’t. Suddenly the whole world’s paying attention.
You know, who knows. In many cases, it’s a matter of luck. Who could see Harry Potter coming?
My father’s advice could also be timed to whatever his personal life experience was then. You gotta remember, this was a man who was under political attack for a good part of his life. People thought he was a commie, which was ridiculous because my father was the least Communist man I ever met in my life. But he wrote about the proletariat, so people said, okay, he must be a commie.
I don’t know what to tell you about it. It was very, very difficult to … I didn’t realize who my father was. So it didn’t make a whole lot of difference. I wasn’t there believing that I was receiving genius from on high. My father was my father.
Well when you got some of these letters, did you ever dismiss them? Were you ever like, ‘Ugh, another 18-page letter from Dad’?
Of course I did. Sometimes, you know, I knew he was pissed off about something else altogether and just taking it out on everybody. If I were to ask him, I would’ve gotten a foul answer.
It’s like everybody else. If you’re in a good mood, feeling creative, you come up with good stuff. If you’re in a bad mood, hate the world, you’re gonna come up with something else altogether. Nobody’s perfect in that realm.
You know, my mother and father were divorced. My mother got custody, so my father only had so much time in which to impart what he knew. He was always great fun and I enjoyed him more than you can imagine. He had a fantastic sense of humor, and was very boyish himself in his own right. And you know, that was it, he was what he was.
But my father had many failings of his own, which people don’t discuss or know a great deal about.
I mean, people don’t discuss the failings of public figures much in general.
Unless they’re political.
I mean, any advice my father might’ve given me about women, in later years I would’ve taken with a grain of salt, because my father had terrible taste in women. Horrible taste in women. Every one of his three wives turned against him in one way or the other.
But did you take the advice he gave you in this letter?
Yeah, I did. I did take the advice. But the point was, there was no time to act upon it cause I never saw her again. You know? And letter writing, that lasted about 20 minutes.
Kids just move on, it’s like instant gratification. If they’re not getting what they want, where they want, when they want it, they move on to something else.
Well what do you think it is about this letter that resonated with so many people, though? I mean, it was all across the internet, everyone was passing it along.
You can’t trust the internet for that, they’d pass along a car accident if they thought it was amusing!
But this is no car accident, though!
If people like it, then something he said resonates with everyone. A truth isn’t a truth because one person says it; a truth is a truth because everyone recognizes it to be the truth. Instinctually, you know? Ergo, it’s not just one person’s truth.
When you say, “mhm, that’s right,” it’s because you already know it. You only agree with things you already know to be true. If somebody comes along and says, “so-and-so is the devil incarnate,” are you just gonna jump in and say, “oh, that must be true”? What kind of broad statements can you think of that you’d take as possible the first time you hear them, unless you instinctively know in your heart of hearts that sounds truthful?
The reason you agree with it is because you’ve always agreed with it.
So, you think that this letter just had some sort of truth to it?
Everything my father wrote had truth to it. That’s what he was addicted to. He was addicted to the truth. And the truth as he saw it, and the truth in a way that other people saw it. If people agree and love Steinbeck, it’s because they would’ve morally and emotionally agreed anyway. He just gave it voice. But a lot of people don’t know how to give what they know a voice.
Alexandra Jaffe usually writes about politics and once sent her dad a very nice hand-written letter asking for money to buy groceries. He sent her back $20. You can find her on Twitter here.