As we work on the 2016 Year in Review, we have uncovered a couple of pieces which have been lost for a number of years due to the vagaries of the computer medium and the lack of organization on the part of the editor. This piece was once one of the most popular on our website. We are happy to publish it again, as we have located the original submission by the author.
The Steinbeck Interview
October 29, 1948 interview by Bob Sparks,
(Student reporter for El Yanqui, Monterey Peninsula College newspaper, October 29, 1948)
Foreword by Jon Guthrie
In 1948, with John Steinbeck returned to Pacific Grove following the writer’s involvement in World War II, a brash journalism student from Monterey Peninsula College boldly decided to undergo a hefty, class project. Never mind the accolades, the praise (sometimes criticism), the garlands heaped upon the Salinas-born writer John Steinbeck, the student would try for a personal interview.
By then, Steinbeck had authored numerous books including Cup of Gold, Tortilla Flat, The Moon is Down, Grapes of Wrath (awarded the Pulitzer prize in 1940). Sparks reported in his writing being nervous—why would such a famous man agree to spend time with such a fledgling scribbler?—but he picked up a phone, gave Steinbeck’s number to an operator, asked to be connected.
The year 2009 marks the 40th anniversary of the April 14, 1939 publication of John Steinbeck’s famed novel, Grapes of Wrath. A year later, in 1940, Steinbeck was awarded a Pulitzer Prize.
Waiting on the ringing phone, Sparks sized up the task he had undertaken. These were mercurial times. Prohibition had only just ended. On December 5, 1933, the Los Angeles Times announced: “National prohibition ended this afternoon at 3:32 o’clock (mountain time, or 2:32 Pacific Coast time.) when a convention in Utah formally ratified the Twenty-first Amendment to the United States Constitution, and thus repealed the Eighteenth Amendment. World War II had ended in Europe on May 8, 1945, in Europe and on September 2, 1945, in the Pacific. President Truman urged American citizens to co-operate with the government in its endeavor to restore greater respect for law and order.”
This was not to say that times were more tumultuous than in 1939, when Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath found its way to the presses, or in 1940, when the Pulitzer Prize board presented its award to Steinbeck for that work. A new genre had emerged during the twenty or thirty years prior to 1940, the fictionalization of stories about true-life, social injustice. Authors William Falkner, Sinclair Lewis, and Ernest Hemingway had stood squarely at the forefront of this movement. However, upon receiving the Pulitzer Prize, Steinbeck—riding on the shoulders of the Joad family after authoring a series of articles for a San Francisco publication—assumed his position alongside the famed threesome.
After several rings, the telephone was answered. Sparks almost choked. He was speaking directly to the great man himself.
“Sir … I’d like to interview you for the Monterey Peninsula College newspaper. Do you think that would be all right?”
Steinbeck paused scarcely at all before replying: “I’d like that, son.”
Later, Bob Sparks wrote about his interview: “If one wants to be an author, one must put words on paper,” John Steinbeck told me.
The writer (Steinbeck) smiled.
Different people learn to write in different ways. Some go to a school, others just start writing, but the end result is always words on paper.”
This is the observation of the author of Grapes of Wrath, Cannery Row, and Of Mice and Men.
Concerning his own writing career, Mr. Steinbeck said, “I began writing about 1915. Since that time I have written millions of words, crossed many of them out, and re-written others. I was first published in the 1930s … 1930 something or another. I forget exactly. I write today the way I have always written. Only thirty percent of the work I do is usable. The other seventy percent has to be tossed out or worked over.”
Mr. Steinbeck, author of many best sellers and stories about Monterey County, has returned to his home in Pacific Grove, California. He lives in a small, single-story, brown house on the intersection of two quiet streets, just two blocks from beautiful Monterey Bay and less than a mile from the street he made famous in his book Cannery Row.
To enter his Pacific Grove home, one opens a brown picket gate and enters a rock garden. A knock brings Neil, the handyman, to the door.
Mr. Steinbeck looks as earthy as the people he writes about. He was comfortably dressed in a brown sweater and khaki pants, yesterday’s stubble on his face. He has black, thinning hair, wide-awake eyes, a bulbous nose, a Clark Gable mustache. His face is the ruddy complexion of an outdoors man—a salt-water sailor, a rancher. Mr. Steinbeck is a large man, over six feet. He has a bay window, but wears his belt high.
Perhaps the most distinguishing feature of this man of letters is his right eyebrow. It is peaked like a pixie’s ear and is in a constant state of agitation. His right eyebrow is his accentuater. If the eyebrow goes high, an emphatic word is being said. His manner of talking is fascinating, but would be less so if the listener could not see the eyebrow.
The living room, where we sat, is large compared to the rest of the house. It is about fifteen feet wide and twenty feet in length. In one corner is a glass-enclosed entrance. Diagonally across from the entrance is a studio bed. In the corner directly behind the bed stands a table with the pictures of a small boy and girl. Diagonally across from the table, between the front wall and the doorway, is Mr. Steinbeck’s writing desk, a card table. A straight-backed chair and a deep wicker chair are on either side of the card table. The former is for the author’s use, the latter for visitors.
The room, when I arrived, was in a state of ‘moving-in’ disorder. The bed was unmade; packing boxes were scattered about, partly opened; a great pile of books, three feet square and two feet high, lay on the floor. Papers and notes lay about here and there. Mr. Steinbeck explained that he was making repairs on the house and as yet hadn’t had much chance to straighten things out.
Only an unimaginative person could fail to see the charm of the room. The front wall is solid, windowless, and lined with shelves. Two windows with diamond-shaped panes balance the front wall on either side. The door and entrance are of square glass. Mr. Steinbeck said, “I tried to get diamond-shaped panes for the door when I added it, but diamond panes are hard to find. I’m not much of a handyman or I would have made them myself.”
A door leads to the kitchen and living quarters in the rear. The ceiling of the living room is plastered and the floor is six-inch ship lap. Pointing to a sharp division in the floor and ceiling, John Steinbeck said, “When my father built this house in 1898, the living room was small and we had a front sleeping porch. “There,” he said, pointing to a spot halfway between the side walls, “is where the front door was. These joists you see on the front wall originally were on the sleeping porch, but I decided the living room was too small. So, one night I threw a party and invited all my friends to help incorporate the front porch into the living room.”
Mr. Steinbeck explained he has been away from Pacific Grove and the Monterey Peninsula for nearly twelve years. During this time he traveled over much of the world, with the exception of the Orient. He plans to stay at his Pacific Grove home for a number of years now to work on some of his forthcoming books.
He talked about the people of France and England, people that he thinks well of. Speaking of Englishmen, he said, “In England, a man is never an Englishman. He is a Scotsman, a Welshman, one of five different Cockneys, or one of many other groups. Only when an Englishman leaves England does he become an Englishman. In England, he belongs to a different class.”
Asked how he like the fame he has won with his writings, Mr. Steinbeck said, “Fame is a privacy invader. Privacy is a fort, and fame is a battering ram. My last defense is public speaking. I have never spoken before a group of people, and I’m too old to learn how. If I spoke even before a small meeting, the last barrier to my privacy would be down.”
Speaking of book reviewers, Mr. Steinbeck said: “Some critics are all right. They are totally different from the author, though. Critics have their own language, like the word ‘style’ for instance. Style is how critics describe a writer’s work when they can’t think of anything else. Of course, critics have a rotten apple in every barrel. Some critics are thwarted novelists who take their failure out on the novelists who succeed. They don’t bother me, though.”
Mr. Steinbeck was working at his card table desk on his newest book, a history of Monterey County [East of Eden]. On the table in front of him lay a pack of cigarettes, a sea-shell ash tray, and a small cigarette lighter. Several unopened letters lay beside a pencil, a fountain pen, and the spiral notebook in which Mr. Steinbeck writes. A bread pan is used to cover the notebook when he is not in the room. Mr. Steinbeck composes with a fountain pen and later his manuscripts are typed for the publishers.
About his technique, he said: “I go back over my writings. Words are written for the human mind. They should have rhythm and syllabification. If words become monotonous, they fail to penetrate the mind.” He turned to a short story about a Mexican who saw an image of Mary, Mother of Jesus, and had a church erected on the spot where he had seen her. “This story,” he said, “has more grace and flow than a composition written for a sixty-piece symphony orchestra. It is an example of syllabification.” He laid on the desk a notebook filled with research he had done on Zapata, the Mexican revolutionary leader. Most of the material in the notebook had been gathered in Mexico from country people, many of whom had never talked to an outsider before. Bribes had been necessary to get some of the information, but Steinbeck succeeded at his task. His notes fill four other similar books and will be used in connection with a motion picture he is working on.
It was when asked what advice he would give to young writers that Mr. Steinbeck made his remark about “putting words on paper.”
“Writing is hard work,” Mr. Steinbeck said. “It is gathering ten times as much material as can ever be used. This information has to be gleaned to get the best possible use from it. The reader has to be convinced that the writer knows what he is writing about.”
When asked if he probed deep into the background of a character to study psychological reactions, Mr. Steinbeck said: “No. Nothing like that. I draw a character. Then I draw a situation and put the two of them together. If the character I draw does what a real and similar person would do, he is good and true. I use him. Otherwise, he is X’d out.”
Mr. Steinbeck recalled that when he went to high school in Salinas during the first World War, football was discontinued. Later, he said, when the game was resumed, it was called American Rugby. When I mentioned that the players on the Monterey College team have the best equipment money can buy, such as kidney pads and plastic helmets, Mr. Steinbeck said: “There is a law, ‘Over-ornamentation’ and ‘over-armament’ are the signs of extinction. I don’t mean that for football.” He laughed. “But those who stop advancing in order to guard what they have already gained, those who have nothing to fight for, lose their spirit and die. The fat fox can’t catch the chicken. The lean and hard fox can. This is the idea that I use in many of my books. The survival of the lean and the hard.”
“I like Pacific Grove very much,” Mr. Steinbeck continued. “And I like this [Eleventh Street] house.” He looked about at the walls. “My father built this house so we could have a place when we came over from Salinas. We spent our time between here and Salinas when I was young. They all remember my father as a grown man, but they still think of me as a boy; a mischievous little boy. The neighbors are all my friends, mainly because they do not read Time magazine.”
Mr. Steinbeck was helpful with ideas and only a few times was our conversation interrupted when he paused to give instructions about the repair work being done. He smoked almost continually while I was in the house. Together we drank two cups of coffee made for us by Neil.
Mr. Steinbeck insisted that I stay much longer than I had originally planned. A pleasant hour and a half passed and, as I was leaving, he ordered, “You come back in two weeks when the repairs are finished and the room is the way it should be.”
On the way out I saw a friend, who is working on the house, and I paused to chat. “Don’t talk with my hired help too long, Mr. Steinbeck yelled, winking at me. “Otherwise I’ll never get this house finished and my books written.”
Postscript: The author and the Cedar Street Times have joined in searching for Bob Sparks. The search has led to a Bob Sparks living in Pebble Beach and to numerous other Bob Sparks, one in Nevada, but none has confessed to being the interviewer in question. If still living, Bob should now be about 80 years of age. Do you know anything about Bob Sparks? If so, please contact the author, email@example.com. On behalf of the Cedar Street Times, I’d appreciate the opportunity to interview the interviewer.
This piece was published in our April 14, 2009 issue. Between then and a couple of years ago, we experienced a computer crash and also had our website rebuilt. the result was that this piece was lost for a number of years. We recently recovered the original submission and have placed it here.