When Thomas Steinbeck, son of John Steinbeck, died on August 11, 2016, in his home in Santa Barbara, California, the world lost a compassionate person and an impressive writer. I lost a mentor and a friend.
I became aware of Thomas Steinbeck through his literary agent. I received an out-of-the-blue request from an agent with McIntosh and Otis. She’d read one of my stories in a journal, was seeking new talent, and wanted to know whether I had a book to submit. A little research revealed that the agency represented the works of John Steinbeck and she personally handled Thomas Steinbeck’s fiction. I let her know that I was polishing a draft of Tracks: A Novel in Stories and promised to submit it as soon as it was ready.
Although She did not become my agent, she did introduce me to the work of Thomas Steinbeck, who later read Tracks and offered me more than just a blurb—he offered to setup a reading at one of his favorite bookstores, where we chatted about writing in person.
When I met Thom face-to-face, I had to do a double take—he looked that much like his father. Many years after Nobel Laureate John Steinbeck made is way to Eden, Thom was still his father’s son. His appearance, his mannerisms, the way he talked and what he talked about all seemed to be under the influence of the elder Steinbeck.
Born in Manhattan on August 2, 1944, Thom grew up in the shadow of the literary great—under the care of the person I regard as my all-time favorite author.
Although Thom was raised in a home full of books, his father used reverse psychology to instill an early devotion to reading. As Thom explained, his father would lock up the doors to the bookshelves in his study, “hide” the key in an obvious place, and tell his son that these books were for adults only—not for boys—and that he was not allowed to read them.
“That’s where he put the books he wanted me and my brother to read,” Thom said. Naturally, as the senior Steinbeck well knew, that was all the encouragement Thom needed to break the rules and become an avid reader.
Thom became a writer, too. In Vietnam, he was an Armed Forces radio and television reporter before being reassigned as a helicopter gunman, sealing his position as a strong advocate for Veterans’ rights.
Back home, Thom wrote screenplays, adapting some of his father’s works, and wrote fiction. His first book, a collection of short stories called Down to a Soundless Sea, was published when he was in his late fifties, followed by his novels, The Silver Lotus and In the Shadow of the Cypress.
But Thom made clear that he didn’t feel he was in the shadows. He said in an interview with the Associated Press, “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.”
As I wrote in “Meeting Steinbeck,” published in Writers Weekly in 2013, “Thom Steinbeck is that rare author whose talents translate orally.” When he came to my book event in Santa Barbara in 2012, which he and his wife Gail Steinbeck helped to set up, he filled our time together with colorful vignettes about events in his life, but always brought the conversation back to me, as though to make sure we were on the same page.
“Growing up with my father,” he said as we socialized during my book signing, “I had to become a good storyteller. When my brother and I came to the dinner table, my father expected us to come up with stories. We had to do our research, because if we got a detail wrong or made something up that didn’t work, he’d be sure to let us know. We wanted to please him with good stories, so we learned to become good storytellers.”
Thom was generous in sharing advice from his father that he found valuable in his own work.
“My father used to tell me that you should never sit down to create a story. You sit down to write a story, but the creation of it comes before you ever begin to write. You don’t create at the desk. You need to dream the entire story first, from beginning to end.”
“I’d be afraid to forget some of the details,” I said.
“That’s the point,” he explained. “The details you forget is what you should leave out anyway. The good parts, the important parts … that, you remember.”
It made sense.
“If you’ve dreamed your story over and over, you really know it,” Thom said. “You know it frontwards and backwards, know the characters, could answer any questions about any detail. If you really know the story, you’ll be better at telling it. At writing it.”
It was conversations like that, filled with advice from both him and his father, that made me dream of a collaboration one day—basically an excuse to make spending time talking with Thom a productive venture for us both, hopefully resulting in a series of articles or a book a’la Steinbeck on Steinbeck.
Thom was an active proponent of rights for authors, artists, and veterans. He continued to enjoy reading long after it became a forbidden fruit dangled before him by his father. And he spread goodwill and kindness through his writing and his personality.
I’ll miss Thom Steinbeck and all the conversations we could have had. But I’m grateful, as I look to my bookshelf at the novels by Steinbeck and son, to know that—thanks to all the words they left behind—the conversation can continue.
Mr. Steinbeck was 72. He’s survived by his wife, Gail Steinbeck.
Eric D. Goodman is author of Womb: a novel in utero (Merge Publishing, Spring 2017), Tracks: A Novel in Stories (Atticus Books, 2011), and Flightless Goose (Writer’s Lair, 2008) as well as the forthcoming Setting the Family Free and The Color of Jadeite.