If not…well…I love John Steinbeck. Not in a I-want-to-marry-him way. I mean, have you seen my husband**? Ahem. Sorry. Anyway, when I say I love John Steinbeck, I mean that I greatly (GREATLY) admire his writing.
I first read Steinbeck in high school. Bypassing all the typical first reads like The Red Pony or The Pearl or Of Mice and Men (wait a second…I just need a moment…because I love OM&M…the book and the band…okay, I’m better), I went straight for the big daddy. The Grapes of Wrath.
I need another moment. Sorry.
Ahem. When I read Grapes, I was too young to fully appreciate it. I do believe that some pieces of literature are meant to be enjoyed by more mature readers. My contention is that, when folks tell me they hate Steinbeck (or a vast array of solid, classic-writing authors) and they only read him in high school, they weren’t ready for him.
At 15, I wasn’t ready for Steinbeck. Nobody made me read him. I just did it on my own. And I didn’t understand.
At 18, I gave him another chance. Amazing what 3 years can do. I was in love (not literally) instantly. I gobbled up everything I could find that he’d written. In college, I did a special study of Steinbeck, reading most of his novels in one semester (that was the semester when I slept, like, not at all). I’ve led discussions on Steinbeck, dreamt about writing a screenplay of Grapes (I mean, can you imagine seeing a dust storm on the big screen in HD?)
Now, not everybody loves Steinbeck. That’s okay. We can still be friends. Truly. I won’t debate anyone about literature. I’d rather just read.
I will, however, tell you why I read him. Because reading Steinbeck makes me a better writer. And reading Steinbeck gives me the itch to get to work, weaving vivid tales that are important. All of his novels were important. I want mine to be as well.
Last September, I was talking to an editor about an idea I had for a novel I hadn’t written yet. It was to be about a little girl and set in Oklahoma during the Dust Bowl/Great Depression. The editor asked me why a Michigan girl would want to write a novel set in Oklahoma. I answered, “I have this obsession with John Steinbeck.” The editor smiled and said, “If you’re going to have an obsession, that’s a good one.”
I wrote A Cup of Dust (releasing in October of this year with Kregel Publications) is a novel that has been stirring in my head since I was 15 and read my first Steinbeck novel. That’s 22 years (ouch…could that be right?).
Reading Steinbeck is good for me. It doesn’t particularly matter what book it is or article or essay. It’s good for me. Like spinach. Steinbeck helps me be the writer I want to be.
Oh, and Travels With Charley made me laugh and cry and smirk and cheer. It had been awhile since I read it. It meant more to me this read through than before. I suspect the same will be true when I read it in ten years.