Monday, April 12, 2010

Interview transcript: Thomas Steinbeck (Part 1)

I answer the phone and a distinct, deep-bottomed voice booms on the line — “This is Mr. Steinbeck. I believe you wanted to speak with me.”
It's the voice of Thomas Steinbeck, although had I not known better, it could very well have been that of his father, legendary author John Steinbeck.
As it stands, Thomas Steinbeck cuts such a similar figure as his father it's staggering. The fact that Thomas Steinbeck took up writing for a living only adds to the mystique.
You talk to Thomas Steinbeck for 30 minutes about his book, but then you want to spend another hour with him picking his brain about writing and anything he might share from his own perspective or that endowed from his famous father.
At any rate, Thomas Steinbeck was a very generous interview subject, sharing memories and quotables from his father, while also going in depth into his own writing technique and details of his new novel “In the Shadow of the Cypress.” Below is an interview transcript (part one of two).

Is this your first novel?
Not really. I've written other novels, they just haven't come to print yet with other publishers I had some confrontations with. It's like, this is coming out first and yet, there are books already written that aren't coming out right away. I did a book of short stories some years ago and I generally, I don't usually write books, I write other things. But I've sort of gotten used to this, I suppose. It's what I do now. The commute's easy. That's what I like about it.
I'm writing another book (now). That's what I do. In our economy, I'm really lucky to have a job, let's put it that way. And I'm grateful,
The thing is, unless you're a Clive Cussler or something like that, for the kind of books I write, you just don't make millions of dollars, you know what I mean? I remember asking my father once how do you know if you're a successful writer. He said “If you can pay your bills, that's it, and that's where it ends. If you can feed yourself and you don't' owe the IRS a million dollars, you're a successful writer. Fame is fine, but it's a job like any other.”
My father (also) said writing a novel is just another form of the press corps, only we admit that it's fiction (laughs).

How often do you get up here to Salinas/Monterey?
I used to come up a lot , but very frankly, I just don't like driving that much anymore. And I tell you, if my car had a memory, I wouldn't have to touch the wheel between Santa Barbara and Monterey. I know that road like the back of my hand. Now that's boring.
And in the meantime, as I say, I'm under the gun to produce work so I can pay my bills. I'm working harder now than I did 30 years ago, for less money, just like everybody else. But I have to work because I've got to overlap books. I've got to have something ready to go for the next buying season. So even though this book is going out, I've started three novellas and a novel since this book has been processed. And I'm just finishing another novel. And you don't always sell all of them. Maybe the publisher likes one, doesn't like another. You just got to keep on slugging at it. It's like turning in stories to the paper. They spike some and others times, (they say) we want more on this.
You pretty much work one way or the other. You can come up with an idea. You can put together a book and everything else, but whether it's going to sell and how it's going to sell and how much money they're going to invest in that, really depends on the publisher.
For instance, I hated the cover of the book and I hated the title because I had a better cover and I had a better title. But my publishers decided they liked that title better and they liked that cover better and guess what, I wasn't about to argue with them because I had rent due (laughs). And that's the life of a successful writer, by the way, according to my father's parameters.

What was the original title?
“The Jade Seal,” because it's about The Jade Seal.
The book is a supposition and I use it to voice a number of arguments about racism and about multiculturalism. The instance of the story, which I totally believe, which people like Linda Bentz view as being totally improbable, but my father was convinced, and I became convinced, and since then there's been a great deal of written material on this, that the Chinese by virtue of the scale of the ships that they built had to have visited the west coast of the United States and Australia and all the islands in between. They were building these massive ships, they called them The Treasure Fleet. These ships were 480 feet long, they had 12 masts, they could carry up to 2000 people.
And the Chinese invented the compass, the stern rudder, the batten sail. They were sailing into the wind 1000 years before The Battle of Trafalgar. And they're building these incredible ships. They were so big that they even kept live wells down in the holes to keep fish alive. They kept chicken farms on board. Some ships just carried horses. And they went out to trade and they found out that everything they had was better than anything anybody else had, so they stopped.
Anyways, the premise of the story is, it's the turn of the century. Chinese labor in California is basically slave labor. Salaried, but slave labor. And it's got all kinds of structures, all kinds of subtleties. In the meantime, it's the era of Hearst, the yellow laws have been imposed. They're called the exclusionary laws. There's a lot of racism going on.
In the meantime, after a storm, a stone, a plaque and a seal are discovered by a professor at Hopkins Marine Observatory. But he can't really take advantage, although he is taken advantage of later. But what is discovered are the marker stone and imperial seal of admiral Zhou Man, who is part of the imperial fleet. He was one of the admirals. You can get all of this information from “1421: How the Chinese Discovered America.” It's a big thing.
I used very probable cause to create a little mystery. These stones are found and then they disappear. But it has more to do with how the Chinese are operating with the Chinese in California. There's a whole secret strata of tongs and allegiances and celestial corporations and things most white people know nothing about. But literally, since the beginning, the Chinese people have been running their own government in the U.S. They pay their own community pittances to their own tongs. They have their own police force. But it's all so subtle that white people who look down on the Chinese in America never see any of this.
And it's all true. What I try to do is buttress my novels with as much historical reality as possible, so everything fits into historical fact. They did burn down the village at Point Alones. All of these things happened, only I sneak in my own take on it.
I love writing about Monterey. That's my favorite place in the world, but I remember Old Monterey. Old Monterey was a lot more romantic, and I was a lot younger, ergo it was a lot more romantic. And there weren't too many people. And in those days, it was a lot poorer and people were a lot friendlier. People took care of each other. I remember hitching down to Big Sur and back. No one hitches anymore, you know. It was very laid back. And the '60s in Monterey was something all together. That was wild.
Anyway, the story deals with the discovery of these treasures that prove that the Chinese came to California before the Spanish. What kind of problems would this arouse? Basically, what if the Mexicans of California said wait a second, this was ours before this was yours, we want it back, because the treaty of Hidalgo was illegal. And it is. The Treaty of Hidalgo is completely illegal. It would never pass muster with today's history. But we want it back. Well you can imagine the infighting over that.
Well, the Chinese were well aware that if the white people found that the Chinese were there first, they would hate them more. So its the Chinese who are trying to hide this treasure. They don't want white people to find out about it because it will just give them another excuse to screw with them. The kind of elitism, “We were here first, maybe they want to take it back.” That's another reason to hate each other.
One of the things I try to deal with in my work — it fascinates me, but I don't go out to lecture anybody, I just slip it into the text here and there — is that one of the things I've always loved about California is its cultural and racial diversity. No one in other parts of the country gets as much treasure from the world as we have for the last 300 years. Chinese, Hispanic, you name it. Name a Pacific culture that we don't get something from? Food, culture, music, Mexico, we have everything. I've seen that as wealth and other people see that as regional discomfitures.
In Monterey, my best friends were Chinese kids, and talk about elitism, their parents hated me because I wasn't Chinese. Talk about reverse racism. The Chinese can be that way. They don't think that white people are particularity attractive, whereas they know they are (laughs).
At any rate, that's what the book is about. It's about the subtleties of racism in California. Its' about history. It's also about a great mystery. It's about something I believe happened.
This is just a what if story. And rather than making it a gigantic global thing, one of the things my father taught me to do was how to take a big concept and miniaturize it and put it in a small town. And my father did this a lot and you could always tell by his titles — I'm not as grandiose as he is. But, the point being, you take a very big concept, Agathe Christie was really famous for doing this and she says of Miss Marple's home town, this little tiny English town, that virtually all the vices and virtues that could be found anywhere in the world can be found in that little village.
So I just expanded on that concept and used Monterey as a model because of its gigantic cultural diversity over the years. I mean Portuguese, Greek, Italian, Japanese, abalone fisherman, Chinese, name it. It's so rich with writing possibilities. You'd have to be crazy not to pay attention to it. I mean look at the poets, the writers. Just look at the characters that they had. I mean, my father, they made a big deal out of him, but there were a lot of other people there that had major literary impact. I don't know why they glommed on my father. He didn't either. He thought that was really dumb. He thought that preserving Cannery Row because of a book was the stupidest thing he'd ever heard of. (He's say) “This is decent real estate. Put some homes on it. Canneries are ugly. They kill people. They smell bad and they kill people and they want to preserve them?” He couldn't understand it. He just thought that was just stupid.
But after a while, and this is really true, his works were no longer his property. They became the property of his readers and people who believed that nonsense, that there was something romantic about all of this. As my father always said, you could always tell old time cannery workers because they were missing fingers. That was a rough business. It was a rough way to live down there. And being poor, though it may seem charming in the pages of Steinbeck, isn't fun.
I love the history of the area. I've always loved California. I love history anyway and I love the history of the area. And I loved Big Sur. That's my spiritual home. That's where I'm going, up there tomorrow. I'm an old friend of the Post family. He just died. Old Bill Post just died and I loved him.
So I have a tendency to write about Monterey. It's fun. And since I don't live there, I don't feel threatened. I figure they can't drive me out of town like my father if I don't live there (laughs).

No comments: