Excerpted from Down to a Soundless Sea by Thomas Steinbeck. Copyright © 2002 by Thomas Steinbeck. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Down to a
A Reader’s Guide
An Interview with Thomas Steinbeck
Q: An aura of performance, as suggested by the author’s note, permeates Down to a Soundless Sea. As a devout raconteur, do you see these stories as attempts to translate the experience of storytelling? Does the act of fixing them on the page complicate or simplify the stories?
A: In my humble opinion, all storytelling, and in turn writing, by virtue of its human origin, entails profound elements of performance. Authors either perform on their own account, such as historians, journalists, and essayists; or, like novelists and playwrights, they fashion characters to perform specific roles at the author’s behest. One way or the other, the puppeteer remains the same. It is specifically because I’m a carrier of raconteur’s disease, in its most virulent form, that I have come to realize that one can never really cross-pollinate the act of live storytelling with its literary reflection. But I can think of any number of great authors who have come within a hairsbreadth of convincing me they could. I’ve never known a story, whether true or false, to remain fixed to any page for long. If it has legs at all, it will self-propagate through numerous generations and variations, ntil not even the author would recognize his own child. On the other hand, if a story’s basic structure should prove totally paraplegic, the moral hopelessly pathetic, and the general presentation tragically pointless, it will probably find great success as a television movie of the week. Which goes to prove, you can’t keep a dead man down.
Q:These stories are animated by an attention to history and the shared import of the oral tradition. Is writing, in this sense, a collaborative venture?
A: All reasonable stories are basically collaborative affairs insofar as they are, in the main, salvaged from an oral tradition and therefore rewoven from previously milled strands. Some are reborn from the ashes of ancient myths, some are rooted in our personal or national histories, while still others, like Robin Hood or Frankenstein’s Monster, are inextricably bound to “popular culture,” and therefore recycled and repackaged continuously as demand requires. It is true that I indulge an energetic interest in histories of every category, such as they are, but the one all-encompassing fact I have learned through my years of reading is that there are as many colorfully different versions of history as there are colorful authors writing about it. It then should follow that as simple weavers of entertaining stories, most writers should have plenty of room in which to maneuver their narratives. It remains a mystery that so many plots keep colliding into each other in such an open channel. “Damn the hyperbolae! Topsails set ahead!”
Q:We don’t use phrases like “to put the tail on the dog” or “kissing feathers”much anymore.What kind of research went into the colorful vocabulary of these stories?
A: To unearth accurate tints of dialect, phrasing, and language long since out of common usage, I find it helpful to read letters and articles written during the era I’m exploring. I’ve discovered it interesting that many phrases in present usage have parallels in past dictums that use different key phrases meaning very much the same thing as they do today. For instance, “To put the tail on the dog” means the same as inserting a “drag-line” into a yarn with an appropriate hook to fit the moral of the story, a spontaneous “punchline” in modern terms. And the phrase “kissing feathers” means the same as pressing one’s face into the pillows of exhausted repose.
Q:Are any of the characters, such as the faux-crazed scholar Clarke in “An Unbecoming Grace,” based on real people from the Monterey Peninsula?
A: Almost all the characters in the book are based on real people and their life experiences. In some cases, as in the story “The Night Guide,” the key incident was related to me by Bill Post, the grandson of the boy described in the narrative. All the stories came down to me through a long oral tradition, and of course the best stories are always about real people. As a writer, one is hard-pressed to invent material that is as entertaining and informative as reality.
Q:You seem attracted to youthful and wayward protagonists. Is this simply a consequence of genre or is it evidence of a more personal inclination?
A: I’m not principally attracted to any one character for any particular reason. I always attempt to portray people as I find them, warts, halos, and all. I studiously avoid prejudice for artistic reasons only. Bias clouds vision, and chauvinism hobbles creativity. Since I have never come across anyone who stands without blame in one realm or another, it would appear senseless to portray them in any but the most realistic contours and hues. Pure objectivity may be impossible in a subjective world, but like Diogenes and his search for an honest man, impartiality is hardly an unrewarding lamp to follow. The process has its own tar pits, of course, but if I’d been looking for a sure thing, I wouldn’t have become a writer.
Q: Often your characters struggle with the vast inequities of society.How has this struggle been updated since the time of these stories? Do you encounter similar characters in modern-day Monterey?
A: Social inequity (in some instances applied on a statutory basis), and the implied manipulation of inequality, has been one of the darker hallmarks of human society since our troglodyte ancestors decided who was going to get the dry part of the cave. The struggle of any one minority to liberate its momentum from the constraints so stringently applied by the rest of society appears to be a never-ending repetition of a primeval human dilemma. Class paranoia has always insisted on the necessity of maintaining the status quo, regardless of how socially counterproductive and morally bankrupt such instincts prove to be. In that regard, one can’t swing a broken promise without striking parallels in all directions. My characters are taken from life portraits, and therefore I assume they endure the same social spurs as the rest of us. In a nutshell, little has changed in human affairs since before written history. It’s no great challenge to find identical threads binding past to present, and present to future when it comes to the conduct of human affairs.
Q: In Down to a Soundless Sea, you’ve created a wellrounded world in a relatively limited geographical area. Were you intentionally seeking to showcase this microcosmic diversity?
A: The fact that all the stories in the book concern people who once lived in the Big Sur was no accident, but the location was by no means chosen as a literary device. Though I would not fault a reader for coming to that conclusion. In truth, the microcosmic aspect of the completed work didn’t occur to me until after I’d finished the manuscript. I had spent so much time immersed in the details of each individual story that the ultimate impact of the format never came to mind.
Q: In these stories, each sentence benefits from a lush architecture of language. Do you approach writing as an arduous craft that requires intricate planning and careful construction or is your method more organic and improvisational?
A: If I could truly understand, and calibrate for the edification of others, how I do what I do, I probably wouldn’t do it at all. Everything in life is relatively arduous, and most human endeavors require some degree of careful planning. I find this human concern admirable every time I drive my car or board an aircraft. But I must confess that writing for me is a means and an end in itself. I write to become a better writer. Like all great crafts, the more you do, the better you get. Many times this requires grasping for technical literary straws, which rarely serve the purpose, and other ventures seem to come into bloom with little or no assistance from me whatsoever. But if one can’t resist the search for labels, then I will plead no contest to “organic” and “improvisational” for lack of a better list of charges.
Q: Redemption, when and if it arrives in these stories, is marked by a quiet, simple, and lonely sort of dignity. What is it about this dignity that appeals to you as a writer? As a person? Does it strike you as a specifically small-town or California coast kind of dignity?
A: I rarely think in terms of downfall or redemption as a central theme, if only because spiritual journeys between those two well-defined extremes are literarily predictable as a plot vehicle. I really don’t concern myself with the moral ambiguities of society or individuals unless those insights might lead to a greater comprehension of instinct, motive, or conduct. Whether or not the struggles of individual characters are worthy to be labeled as ‘dignified’ is speculative. At the very least, it’s a decision I would rather leave to the reader.
Q: In congruence with the title, the strongest character in Down to a Soundless Sea is perhaps nature itself. Many of the stories are centered on man’s timeless struggle with nature and end with his eventual concession to it.What do you see as the proper, or necessary, approach that man must take in his relationship with the natural world?
A: It has been my general experience that mankind, though doomed to fiddle and fudge with everything within reach just for the hell of it, habitually ignores the subtle fluidity and changing pulse of the natural world, usually with horrific consequences. Gilgamesh, Osiris, and Noah could all testify to the challenging implications of rising water. The human lexicon of myths repeatedly chronicles mankind’s run-ins with the deadlier forces of nature. As always, the moral rests on the once and future premise that survival requires not just insight, but ever-vigilant flexibility. And it appears, according to most mythological and meteorological references, that only those creatures capable of swift adaptation, and prepared to take advantage of natural chaos, survive it. In other words, if the waves have already covered the temple, don’t bother building a damn boat. At that point you have better odds with prayer. For a writer with a terminal case of historic curiosity, I find the interplay among humans, their all-prevailing selfdelusion, and the dynamic forces of nature, an abundant source of intellectually nutritious material; manna from chaos, as it were. As an unbiased observer, I prefer not to take sides in the struggle between man’s nature and Nature itself. Suffice it to say that I never bet on long odds, and from my vantage point, the forces of nature have the deck stacked and the bones loaded against us. If it weren’t for mankind’s inflated image of self-importance, humans would have realized that they don’t own the world. The world owns them. Perhaps it’s this secret knowledge that fuels the contest between the savage and the coming of the night.
1. Reading Group Questions and
Topics for Discussion
1. Discuss the implications of “home” in Down to a Soundless Sea. The collection opens with Bill Post constructing a home for his new family, Chapel Lodge in “Blind Luck” never has a real home growing up, and Dean in “An Unbecoming Grace” makes his home by throwing its original settler over a cliff and renaming the homestead for himself. What does the concept of “home” imply specifically in these stories of the newly settled Monterey Coast?
2. “The Wool Gatherer” ends with the line, “John kept that receipt for years to remind him of his bear and the expense incurred by magic visions.” What might this reference to “expense” imply, especially in a family of storytellers like the Steinbecks, who hold the “magic visions” of fiction in such high esteem? In the end, was John Steinbeck’s pursuit of his Great Sur Bear worth the expense and trouble of tracking it that summer of 1920?
3. Many, if not all, of the characters in Down to a Soundless Sea are self-made. What are some pressures of the West after the turn of the century that force them to practice their personal industry? What are some freedoms that the Monterey County of that era allows them?
4. In his “Author’s Note,” Steinbeck notes how difficult it can be to “attempt duplication of language used by the original participants and make it ring true for the modern car.” Steinbeck does so in a number of ways: for example, the Portuguese captain seeks “a fitting dog’s body to take the axe when the cards turned sour,” the Partington brothers of “The Dark Watcher” were “not known for salting the mines of accuracy.” How do such phrases contribute to a tone of live storytelling? What other devices does Steinbeck use to emphasize these stories’ oral history?
5. Many of the characters in Down to a Soundless Sea are immigrants, from Chow Yong Fat to the dually surnamed Simon Gutierez O’Brian. Discuss the struggles that faced immigrants in the Monterey Coast area of this era. What support systems did it offer them? How does the liberation they found there compare to the hardships that confronted them?
6. Down to a Soundless Sea opens with the birth of Charles Post and closes with the death of Sue May Yee. Both events occur during great storms. Discuss this circularity. Do you see any other correlations in the way Steinbeck chooses to order the stories of this collection?
7. What does Down to a Soundless Sea have to say about the regard for learning in the early days of the Monterey Coast? Consider characters like Doc Roberts in “An Unbecoming Grace,” Sing Fat in “Sing Fat and the Imperial Duchess of Woo,” and Professor Gill in “The Dark Watcher.”
8. Many of the characters of the collection appear in more than one story: the Post family, introduced in “The Night Guide,” reappears in “The Dark Watcher”; the captain “smuggling Chinese ‘illegals’ ” in “Blighted Cargo” references Chow Yong Fat’s experience in “The Imperial Duchess of Woo”; Chapel Lodge chances across Captain Leland after many years in “Blind Luck.” How does this comment on the community of the Monterey Coast at the century’s beginning, especially in a time when travel and communication were more difficult?
9. The antagonists of Down to a Soundless Sea have all the deliciously vile characteristics of the good villains of oral storytelling. Are there any redeeming qualities to characters such as Simon Gutierez O’Brian in “Blighted Cargo” and the Stoat in “An Unbecoming Grace”?
10.Water is very significant in this collection set on the Monterey Coast. When is water a negative force in these stories? When is it positive? How is the sea “soundless” in all senses of the word “sound,” connoting stability, measurability, noise, or something free of flaws?
11. The intimate stories of Down to a Soundless Sea read like stories told by the fireside, stories told in person. Discuss the differences between oral storytelling and the writtentale. What are some advantages of the story on the page? What is gained by stories told in person?
12. A reader comes away from Down to a Soundless Sea feeling connected to its vibrant characters. Although the modern plight is markedly different from that of the newly settled Monterey Coast, how do you feel that your experience is similar to theirs? How are the hardships of modern life different from those of turn-of-the-century California?