David-Michael Harding talks Steinbeck, Genies, and Cats

Hello like-minded readers & writers of all ilks.  This is David-Michael Harding penning from the west coast of the peninsula of Florida.

I once heard someone say that everything said before the word BUT, is likely a lie.  Example – “I really like ________  (fill in the blank with a place, a person, or a thing), BUT, ________  (repeat same place, person or thing) needs to do thus and so.”  A horrific example might be, “I love you, but… change/stop/do/don’t blah blah blah…”  YIKES!  Or maybe something less profound like, “The NY Yankees are the best team in baseball, BUT their pitching is a little off, they lost 78 games this season, and missed the playoffs.”  You get the idea. So here goes regardless.  This guest post isn’t about me, BUT you do need some background for context.  How’d that go down?

I’ve written five novels and a short story collection.  There are two screenplays floating around LA with my name on them looking for homes.  Add to that, publications in collegiate journals (once a time honored passageway to publication prior to the electronic/digital revolution) and magazine articles, and I’ve managed to pay the figurative rent for quite a while.  I know how fortunate I am and also how much work has gone into my solitary career.  Here’s the thing and the REAL reason for this post.  Though we toil in comparative quiet (except Stephen King, who often writes to heavy metal music) even he labors alone.

Ours tends to be a solitary existence.  When you run across someone who can be constructively critical without ramming a pin in your bubble, literate enough to put a red circle around your use of ‘use to’ and ‘used to,’ and can recognize when the arc of a character stubs his toe, while still making you smile and get back in the chair for another 1,000 words, you’ve got a genie in a bottle.  Sometimes a few words of encouragement or a shared tale is all it takes.  I had a genie in a bottle and he passed away all but unnoticed a little more than a month ago.  His name was Thomas Steinbeck.

Yep, it was THAT Steinbeck.  Like millions of junior high school students I read John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and The Red Pony at some point in an education that always seemed on the brink of suspension.  In college, on academic probation, I launched into Cannery Row because it was the thinnest book in the stack of acceptable books to read and summarize.  When I finished, I found Sweet Thursday for extra credit.  The Grapes of Wrath and magna cum laude later, I was a ravenous reader of anything Steinbeckian.

That was over 30 years ago and I haven’t stopped.  But the sad fact is, there is a limit to John Steinbeck’s creations.  While I can still smile at Mac and the boys and their adventures on ‘the Row’ after countless readings, one can only plumb the depths so many times without the brain excusing itself from the current pass and wandering back to where you were when last you tasted this wine instead of relishing the wine itself.  Enter son Thom.

A few years ago I was compiling a collection of shorts on the heels of a semester of teaching writing at my local community college.  My pitch to young writers bent on being the next J.K. Rowling has always been to hone your craft by writing short stories.  They will still possess the necessary elements of grammar, character, conflict, and crucible.  I’m blatantly stealing from Steve Barry’s 6 Essential C’s of Story Structure .  I often tell students that you wouldn’t attempt a piano recital without practicing scales first.  Nor would you have much success running a marathon (a novel or feature length screenplay) without doing a bunch of two mile runs (the short story).  Once the writing muscle gets stronger THEN you take on the marathon.

At my students’ suggestion and consistent with their picks, I compiled what would become The Cats of Savone – 8 Short Novels for Busy People.  Being my first go at a collection, I looked at the competition.  That’s when I discovered Down to a Soundless Sea, a short story collection by Thomas Steinbeck.  I was skeptical.  Was this a son banking on his father’s name?   Drawn by my love of his father’s work, I picked up a copy.

Down to a Soundless Sea turned out to be an astonishing read.  The pieces are written in a tight style, not unlike the senior Steinbeck.  Humor runs pleasantly amok in the background and the scenery (Big Sur, Monterey & southern California – again, not unlike his father) is vivid.  Thom didn’t steal a word from his father, yet the years of sitting at THAT knee listening to JS spin yarns is apparent and delightful.  Thom went on to develop more of his own voice with the publishing of two subsequent novels (In the Shadow of the Cypress and The Silver Lotus) that don’t disappoint.  Still, I am drawn to the concise simplicity that is the story-telling-around-a-fire posture of Down to a Soundless Sea.

Several stanzas of Sea stuck with me.  So much so that I sent a brief email to Thom’s publisher commending the style and specifically asking if he had smiled, choked up, or patted himself on the back when a particular line trickled out his fingers.  Unashamedly, I have done all of the above.  Shock of shocks, my email eventually crossed his desk and he sent a hearty response.  That was the beginning of a correspondence – not a long drawn out affair, but simple notes on wording, sentences gifted from the muse in our lives, movies, and a joint love of sailing – me in Florida and Thom in California.

The truth is, we never met, though we would have eventually had illness not intervened.  We never even talked on the phone.  “We’re writers.  Writers write.”  Just emails – sometimes sent off in the middle of the night – “Look at this!  Now that’s a helluva sentence!”  It was nothing profound – no book of letters to be found here – just a gracious man who led a life at times horribly difficult.  I cannot fathom growing up in a shadow that cast such a reach.  It might have been alright if Thom wanted to be a welder, but a writer?  Oh, that was going to hurt.  And it did.  I even suggested once he write under a pseudonym and embrace the pains the rest of us feel.  It never quite came to that.

Thom had much more in him and was just hitting his stride after a life spent adapting his father’s work and carrying the mantle of blessing and curse that came with that name.  For me, when some day they pack up my things, Thom’s signed copy of Down to a Soundless Sea will still be found at the exposed end of my highest prized classics.  Somewhere in his office, someone will find my Cats of Savone I gave to him.  The discovery won’t mean the same thing to whoever is tasked with packing our books, but the books and the memory mean something to me and I know it did to him.

Look for Down to a Soundless Sea at Amazon.

Many thanks to Marcie for permitting me to step onto her platform for a few moments.

David-Michael Harding is a former PEN International winner whose novel, How Angels Die, continues to receive critical acclaim.  A former semi-professional football player, his writing is hard hitting and passionate.  He resides in Tampa, FL, which serves as the backdrop for The New Illuminati.

David-Michael Harding