Thursday, May 10, 2012

Just In Time For Swimsuit Season

In the early part of 1951, while John Steinbeck was writing East of Eden, he warmed up for the day (and got rid of his "monkey mind" as Natalie Goldberg puts it) by writing letters to his editor, Pascal "Pat" Covici.*  Most of these letters are about the progress of the novel, but he also shared whatever was on his mind:   Douglas MacArthur ("that hunk of sacrosanct shit"); writing tool preference (perfectly round pencils with no hexagonal ridges and with perfectly sharp points which were discarded and given to his children when they were worn down to halfway); his "strong" sexual appetite (I have to admit that I blushed all the way up the top of my ears when I read that, because I've always thought Steinbeck was pretty hot--were he still alive, I would gladly overlook our fifty-nine years' age difference); going to see The King and I opening night on Broadway ("a very beautiful show about nearly nothing."); problems with his 6-year-old son acting up in school (there's also a lot of ellipses when he talks about his boys, which indicate that he's giving his former wife hell.  I read somewhere else that she was the model for Cathy Ames); what to call the novel (Salinas Valley and Cain's Mark were among his first choices.  I was so happy when he -- via Sam Hamilton, Lee and Adam Trask -- dug out the Bible and happened onto East of Eden); and his preferred smoking implement while novel-writing (a Meerschaum pipe).

I loved absolutely everything about Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters.  Anyone reading them that didn't know Steinbeck's background would be astounded to learn that he had been writing novels for 25 years or more and that he'd won a Pulitzer Prize.  His nervous attacks and fidgets about the way the story was progressing sound more like someone still in an MFA program.  I don't know if there's been a better, or even another book written on the process of birthing a novel.

Fun fact:  The dates and the days of the week match up to this year, which added to the immediate feeling of being right there at the birthing.

The following excerpt made me laugh out loud.  At the beginning of the project, Steinbeck had also determined that he would lose some weight.  I've read dozens of diet books and hundreds of weight-loss tips in magazines and online.  I don't think I've ever seen the process rendered so succinctly.  He makes himself sound like an action hero rather than a middle-aged guy who's decided to shed a few pounds.  He's got a job to do and it's kicking Weight's ass:

Now a new week opens.  And I am going to attack a weighty problem.  It is this way.  You establish a diet and you lose a certain amount of weight and then you stop.  You are on a plateau.  It requires violence to break through it.  And there is where I am now.  So I will smash it in about four days of very little food and then I can go down a few pounds again until I reach another plateau-- then violence again.  But I believe it is good to stay on the plateaus for a while to get the system strong for the new attack.  Now it is time to go to work again.

* Pascal Covici was also Shirley Jackson's editor.  Wouldn't it have been fun to be him and to go to work each day?


Care said...

I might like this book. And you are reminding me that I failed to write a letter yesterday and so must write two today. Happy Mother's Day!

Unknown said...

I never had read East of Eden though it's been on my TBR shelf for years. I enjoyed The Grapes of Wrath, though it was hard work at times, and love many of his shorter novels and stories.

You have me thinking that it might be fun to read East of Eden followed by this one. May be a good summer project.

Kathleen said...

This is such a brilliant book and the insight into Steinbeck's mind and his writing process had me gobsmacked! I took a semester all on Steinbeck in college and we read all of his work and this one too. I'm glad you enjoyed this one as much as I did!