ADDRESSES: Agent—c/o Author Mail, Random House, 1745 Broadway, New York, NY 10019.
CAREER: Writer. Worked as a cinematographer, photojournalist, and educator. Taught college-level courses in American literature, communication arts, and creative writing. National Steinbeck Center, board of trustees. Military service: U.S. Army; served one tour of duty as a soldier in Vietnam and another to cover that war as a photojournalist.
Down to a Soundless Sea (stories), Ballantine Books (New York, NY), 2002.
WORK IN PROGRESS: A novel.
SIDELIGHTS: Thomas Steinbeck is the son of novelist John Steinbeck, and John's second wife, Gwyn. He spent much of his life writing screenplays, articles, and documentaries and was a journalist in Vietnam. Steinbeck intended to publish his first volume privately, and copies were to be given as gifts to guests at a friend's inn. But when a draft of Down to a Soundless Sea, a collection of five short and two long stories, was circulated by his father's agents, Steinbeck was offered a two-book deal, the second to be a novel about a ranching family.
A Kirkus Reviews contributor called Down to a Soundless Sea "stories of subtle fantasy, with an open-ended feel." A Publishers Weekly reviewer remarked that "Steinbeck's naturalism and his accomplished voice make it clear that the family's literary legacy is in very good hands."
The stories of Down to a Soundless Sea "have a rhythm and tone apart from most contemporary writing," commented Regis Behe in a review for PittsburghLIVE.com. "Similar to the folk tales about Pecos Bill, Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox, and other mythic heroes of the era, Steinbeck's writing has a plain, simple, but specific voice."
The stories are set at the beginning of the twentieth century and take place on the Monterey Peninsula of California. They are stories that were told in the Steinbeck household, not only by Fa, their name for the senior Steinbeck, but by their aunts and uncles and others close to the family. Steinbeck did a great deal of research to find the authentic voices of that period.
His father's characters were the downtrodden, like the Joad family in The Grapes of Wrath, and John Steinbeck counted among his friends the farmers and boat captains of the region. The stories in this collection are sometimes set at sea, as in "The Blighted Cargo" and "Blind Luck." Others are stories of adventures across land, such as the longest, "Sing Fat and the Imperial Duchess of Woo," based on the adventures of an actual Chinese immigrant who slaved in the California gold mines before leaving to find his true destiny. Joe Hartlaub wrote in aBookreporter.comreview that this "tale of romance and traditional Chinese engagement between a young widow and a student apothecary is practically worth the price of admission in and of itself....Itis unfortunate that stories like this are so rarely written in these politically correct, supposedly liberated days; it makes the beauty of this one resonate all the more strongly."
Among the other stories is "The Wool Gatherer," in which the character of young John Steinbeck spots the mythical Big Sur bear. Hartlaub wrote that "The Night Guide" "is, perhaps, a tale of the supernatural, but more so it is the story of a quiet, but indestructible bond between mother and child, a fable and a history."
Sacramento Bee writer Will Evans interviewed Steinbeck, who said that his father was actually two people and that one "belongs as much to you as he does to me." Steinbeck said his father was "hysterically funny, very creative, very entertaining," a man who "could start a conversation with a parking meter." Steinberg noted that the best storyteller in the family was actually his mother. "But my father was very funny. He was very Dickensian. He would do all the parts—go into a falsetto for the women's voices and that kind of stuff. We were little and we just loved hearing stories, and some of them we'd call for again and again." Steinbeck was twenty-four when his famous father died.
Los Angeles Times writer Fred Alvarez was in a Santa Barbara bookstore for an appearance by Steinbeck. Alvarez noted Steinbeck's response to his newfound popularity at the age of fifty-eight. Steinbeck said, "I am as mystified as you are, believe me. My writing most of my life has been dedicated toward making a living, and I haven't had the luxury of saying, 'Oh, I think I'll write the great American novel.' The fact is, somebody in my family has already pulled it off, and I've got no desire to compete with that."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Book, November-December, 2002, Paul Evans, review of Down to a Soundless Sea, p. 82.
Bookseller, January 3, 2003, Benedicte Page, review of Down to a Soundless Sea, p. S26.
Kirkus Reviews, July 15, 2002, review of Down to a Soundless Sea, p. 991.
Los Angeles Times, October 21, 2002, Fred Alvarez, review of Down to a Soundless Sea, p. E11.
New York Times, November 7, 2002, Martin Arnold, review of Down to a Soundless Sea, p. E3.
Publishers Weekly, August 12, 2002, review of Down to a Soundless Sea, p. 273.
Bookreporter.com,http://www.bookreporter.com/ December 12, 2002), Joe Hartlaub, review of Down to a Soundless Sea.
PittsburghLIVE.com,http://www.pittsburghlive.com/ October 20, 2002) Regis Behe, review of Down to a Soundless Sea,
Sacramento Bee Online,http://www.sacbee.com/ (October 10, 2002), Will Evans, interview with Steinbeck.*