I remember discovering John Steinbeck’s work as a teenager. He redefined what I expect from a novel, evoking the lives of ordinary people in a way no film version ever can. Deserved winner of the Pulitzer Prize for The Grapes of Wrath and the Nobel Prize for Literature, he will always be one of my favourite writers.
Steinbeck used a large notebook to write his first drafts and each morning would ‘warm up’ by writing a note to his editor at Viking Press, Pascal ‘Pat’ Covici, on the left-hand page, before starting to write his novel on the right-hand side. He explained he felt the need to ‘have to dawdle a certain amount before I go to work.’
His original choice of pencil was a Mongol 2 3/8 F which he described as ‘quite black and holds its point well.’ Steinbeck would keep dozens of them in his pencil tray and sharpen them all with his electric pencil sharpener while he waited for inspiration to come. He insisted that his pencils must be round, as a hexagonal pencil hurt his fingers after holding it for up to six hours a day. He later progressed to a special type of pencil, the ‘Blackwing 602’. Now discontinued, it was advertised as the best pencil ever made and had wax added to the lead, so it required less effort to write with.
When ideas did come to him, Steinbeck would write as rapidly as possible and had a rule never to revise or rewrite it until the whole ideas was captured on paper. He once said ‘Rewriting as a process is usually found to be an excuse for not going on.’ He firmly believed that writing a page a day was good progress, even if he took all day.
When he was writing dialogue, Steinbeck liked to say it aloud as he wrote, arguing that it was the only way to have the sound of real speech. Interviewed by Nathaniel Benchley for The Paris Review, he said ‘I always smoke a pipe when I work, and now I have taken the black off my desk again, clear down to the wood, and have put a green blotter down. I am never satisfied with my writing surface.’
Steinbeck liked to type up his manuscripts with an olive green ‘Hermes Baby’, one of the first portable typewriters. Less than 40cm high and 10cm wide, the Hermes Baby was way ahead of its time. Steinbeck bought it in Geneva when he was on an assignment for Colliers Magazine and couldn’t find a typist. He carried it with him on his travels and scratched the words ‘The Beast Within’ on its cover. Steinbeck’s ‘Baby’ was eventually donated by his son to the San Jose University Steinbeck Centre, where it can be seen today.
Interestingly, Steinbeck's breakthrough novel, Tortilla Flat, was rejected numerous times before being accepted by New York publisher Pascal Covici and going on to win the Gold Medal of the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco as the year's best novel by a Californian. Sadly Steinbeck's father died just before his critical success and never knew his son would become one of America’s best known and most successful writers.