Final Installment of Eric D. Goodman’s Travel Essay Series
Montecito, California, just outside Santa Barbara, is practically paradise. Today (and from what I am told, virtually every day) it is sunny and bright, not a cloud in the deep blue sky. Palm trees decorate the parking lot, and a cool breeze sweeps across the front of the bookstore where I am sitting in a high-back chair before a table of books. I’m about to begin the final book event of my west coast tour for Tracks: A Novel in Stories. Tecolote Books in Montecito was kind enough to host me.
Before the event begins, Mary introduces me to the local “entertainment and celebrity” beat reporter, Richard Mineards. He’s here to interview me for his weekly column in Montecito Journal. He once covered the Royal Family for Britain’s Daily Mirror and Daily Mail. Now he’s here in paradise to cover me—believe it or not.
After our chat, it’s time for the book event to begin.
Who is the first guest to arrive? Thomas Steinbeck!
It’s no surprise, really, since it was Mr. Steinbeck and his wife Gail Knight Steinbeck who helped me to set up this event and helped promote it. But as he walks up the sidewalk, it is a surprise just the same. His appearance is like a pinch on the arm, assuring me that I have not imagined or embellished what is happening here. I am meeting Thomas Steinbeck, and what’s more, he’s actually attending my book event.
“Eric Goodman,” he says as he walks toward me, extending his hand for a robust shake, “great to see you!” His energy speaks as loud as his words and he looks sincerely happy to be here.
“It’s an honor to meet you,” I say. And it is. Not only because his father, John Steinbeck, is my all-time favorite author. But because Thomas Steinbeck is an accomplished author in his own right, a writer who did not rest on his father’s laurels but found his own way to literary success.
“No, the honor is mine,” he says. “I love your book.”
“That means a lot, coming from you.”
Thomas Steinbeck looks a lot like his father; at 67, he has already outlived the senior Steinbeck and shows no signs of slowing down. He is full of energy now, which is good since he turns out to be an extremely entertaining conversationalist. He looks through blue-tinted glasses but seems to maintain a rose-tinted outlook with his laughter and good cheer, bringing smiles to the faces of those present. His brush mustache is parted in the middle and swooshes out to each side. “Someone gave me some mustache wax as a gift, so I’ve been trying it out.”
Anyone who has read his debut collection of fiction, Down to a Soundless Sea, or either of his subsequent novels, In the Shadow of the Cypress and The Silver Lotus, knows that Thomas Steinbeck has inherited his father’s talent as a storyteller. But Thom Steinbeck is that rare author whose talents translate orally. He tells wonderful vignettes stories about events in his life, but he politely brings the conversation back to me and my novel, talking about details from my book that I’m surprised he remembers. This event that he helped to set up is to promote my book, but there can be no question that he is the star of the show—and likely the star of any social he attends. He is “on,” and we are entertained.
“Growing up with my father, I had to become a good storyteller,” he explains. “When my brother and I came to the dinner table, my father expected us to come with stories. And 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.” Practice makes perfect.
I’ve been to a number of events with multiple authors involved, and it’s a common courtesy to plug the other guy’s book. But Mr. Steinbeck flatters me by continuing to praise Tracks as new guests arrive. His books are not on the table, since it’s not his event, but I continue to point out that his books are excellent, and available in the bookstore. But he replies with, “No, your book is the one to get. It’s nice to find someone who does what you do even better.”
That is not true, of course. But it’s just the kind of class act Thomas Steinbeck is. He enjoyed my book and wants to help it succeed.
You may think that I came to know Thomas Steinbeck’s work through his father’s work. Even I was thinking so as I prepared to meet him in person. But when I thought back and tried to remember the first time I heard about Thomas Steinbeck, I realized it was quite an accident, and through his literary agent.
Years ago, out of the blue, I received an email from a literary agent seeking new talent. Elizabeth Winick had read a short story of mine that had won an award, and she wanted to know whether I had a completed book for her to consider. At the time, I had a rough draft of Tracks, but I didn’t feel it was quite up to snuff. I told her I would have a polished draft to her within six months.
I’m not superstitious, but a little bit of research led me to believe this agent and I had a relationship set in the stars. Winick’s agency, Macintosh and Otis, was the literary agency of John Steinbeck—and still represented his work. Even closer to home, Elizabeth Winick herself was the agent of Thomas Steinbeck. And he had written a collection of short stories. Out of this agent-author connection, an unexpected new reader-author relationship was born.
By the time I had a completed draft of Tracks ready to send to the agent, she was no longer interested in seeing it. I never got a reason why, and she did not read the manuscript. I assume she had a slot to fill with new talent and had already filled it. Or maybe she read something else I’d gotten published that turned her off. Whatever the reason, good things came of that exchange; I may not have gotten a book deal or an agent then and there, but I had a closer-to-complete draft of my own novel in stories, and I had become acquainted with the writings of Thomas Steinbeck. That was around 2007.
Five years later, I’m face to face with Mr. Steinbeck, telling him how much I like his work as he continues to talk about how much he likes mine.
“My father used to write novel-plays,” he explained. “Essentially, they could be read as novels, but they were more or less dialogue and tag-line ready to use as a script. The stories in your book are a lot like that. You have the same knack for dialogue. It’s great how you let people in to know your characters. It’s easy to understand them.”
Wait. Did Thomas Steinbeck just compare my work to his father’s? This comparison is not rooted in reality, of course. That’s just the kind of class act Thomas Steinbeck is, making the “guest of honor” feel a little more worthy of the designation. And I appreciate it.
As our wine consumption evolves from sip to drink to gulp, he continues. “Novels don’t usually translate well into scripts. You can only take part of a novel and fit that one part into a movie. Short stories make much better movies. Some of the stories in Tracks would translate well to screen.”
The same is true of his own debut work of fiction, Down to a Soundless Sea, a collection of stories that he wrote to fulfill an obligation to his friend, hotelier Michael Freed. The stories are set against the beautiful backdrop of Big Sur, California. Published by Random House to excellent reviews, it has been translated into seven languages, a large print edition, and an audiobook. Hopefully some of his stories will see their way to screen before long.
It isn’t just me and Thom Steinbeck here. Other people come and go. A local artist, Ben. Another local author and peace activist, Paul Chappelle. An old friend of mine Manisha—and her family—who just happen to be in Santa Barbara (from Boston) for a week. The fine people of Tecolote. And others. But throughout the event, Mr. Steinbeck continues to entertain with his anecdotes as he tells people about his life experiences, and my book.
“When Tracks came, Gail read it in one day.” Gail is Thom’s wife and booking agent. “She loved it, and she told me I had to read it. For weeks she kept telling me I needed to read it, that I was going to like it. I was busy and up against deadlines, so I kept putting it off. Until finally, she left it on my bedside table. She knew that would do the trick. One night, around 9 o’clock, I picked it up. Figured I’d read a little before bed. Around six in the morning, I was still reading. It was that good.”
We talk a lot about writing, and a bit about his father. Here’s a bit of advice I’ve never heard before. “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 say with some resistance.
“That’s the point,” he explains. “The details you forget is the shit you should leave out anyway. The good parts, the important parts … that, you remember.”
I think it over. “That makes sense.”
“And if you’ve dreamed your story over and over, you really know it. 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.”
Thomas Steinbeck didn’t only talk about writing. He is also an active proponent of authors’ and artists’ rights. And, a combat veteran himself, he is a supporter of the Wounded Warriors Project and encourages others to look after the interest and needs of those who have sacrificed so much on their country’s behalf. In fact, he and author Paul Chapelle are working together on a project for veterans.
When the subject of book reviews came up, Thomas Steinbeck related something his father said about book reviewers: “Unless the bastards have the courage to give you unqualified praise, I say ignore them.”
Thomas Steinbeck writes scripts, articles, and is working on more than one new book, among other things. But in his spare time, he enjoys sailing and making miniatures for his nieces, nephews, and neighborhood kids.
His favorite pastime is reading. And his father was instrumental in this pursuit, as well.
“In his library, my father had locking bookshelves. That’s where he’d put books he wanted me and my brother to read. He’d make a show of locking them up and hiding the key where he knew we could find it. And he’d tell us that the books in that shelf were for adults only, not for boys. Naturally, that encouraged us to read them.”
That love of reading is still strong, even though it is no longer a forbidden fruit. And I’m grateful for that, because it was his love of reading that eventually put us together at Tecolote Books.
But all good things must come to an end, and so does this book event. Billed as an hour-long affair, we’ve been talking over wine and books for nearly three. And if he didn’t have another engagement scheduled, I’m sure we could talk hours more.
LA and Out
The next day, I’m back where my Californian adventure began, in Los Angeles. I only have a little time to kill—I have an evening flight out of LAX—so I look up my old friend Yuki. She, her husband Nathan, and their daughter Alice, invite me over for brunch. Nathan is cooking his Dutch Puff and Yuki is making her Japanese sticky rice balls.
Both are delicious. But even more savory is catching up with them. Yuki and I went to college together in Ohio. She is from Japan (where I once lived) and now lives with her husband, an actor, in LA.
I consider: almost all of my friends who live in California are people I met in other places and who were born in other countries. I was born in California, but I’m only a visitor here.
Yuki and I talk about Steinbeck and my readings, about her work and our families. It is a short visit, but a good one.
I’m sad to return my rental. I want to stay Focused, to have more time to drive across California. But I have a family and work waiting for me in Baltimore. And as much as I’ve enjoyed my time on the west coast, I miss my home and family. Even my work writing.
And it is now that I learn something for myself that others have said before but I’d paid no heed. Avoid LAX like the plague. The ease and convenience of LAX reminds me of my experience in Moscow’s international airport circa 1994, right after perestroika: enormous lines for foreigners, guards pointing us along with machine guns, cut-up USSR letterhead in the bathroom stalls for toilet paper and tissue, angry-faced passport guards blowing smoke in our faces while pounding massive stamps violently on our passports.
So LAX may not be so bad. But it was bad enough. Last time I flew in and out of LA, I used the Bob Hope airport in Burbank. By comparison, it was almost like a country airport: easy, empty, comfortable. Bob Hope in Burbank is an experience as enjoyable as the man was funny.
Next time I travel to the area, I’d be willing to pay a little extra to avoid this place. Note to self: LAX SUX!
But maybe they were just having a bad day. Because everything else about California has been Bob Hope in Burbank.
It’s been a few days and I’m back home in Baltimore’s 100 degree humidity. There has been a huge, unexpected storm and the power is out. I long for my two weeks in California as I look for a cool spot in the basement.
Not only have I left behind the comfort of 70 and 80 degree weather with sea breezes for humidity in the hundreds, but I’ve done so with no electric or air conditioning. It’s a lot to take and has me longing to reconnect with California.
The phone rings. “Hi Eric, it’s Thom. I just wanted to make sure you made it safely back home to your family.”
“Yes,” I say. I’m surprised to get this call. Who, even of my friends, calls when they can just type an email or chimp a text message? But again, that’s just the kind of class act Thomas Steinbeck is. “I kind of wish we were all there in Montecito,” I admit.
“Any time you’re in the area, just let me know.”
For an opportunity to visit the state of my birth, east of Eden, Steinbeck Country, paradise? For the chance to revisit the sights, drive along the coast, watch the sun set over the pacific with a possibility of catching a glimpse of the green flash? To feel the salty breeze on my face and see the brown and green and blue landscapes of mountain meeting valley and beach meeting sea? For the opportunity to chat some more with Thom Steinbeck?
I certainly will.