November 7, 2002
Another Writer in the Family
hat if writing is the family business? How difficult then must it be for a writer to stand upon the literary platform constructed by a parent? It would appear that the most obvious challenge of being a writer's writing child is that readers may expect the parent when they open a book, and get the child.
So perhaps the big surprise is that second-generation writers seldom feel this competitive pressure; whatever their sentiment about the head of the firm, many have fond memories of storytelling around the dinner table. The most prominent namesake published lately is Thomas Steinbeck, son of John Steinbeck, the 1962 Nobel laureate. An awesome burden for a son. Especially one who is 58 and whose recent first book is a collection of short stories set in Big Sur. Familiar Steinbeck geography.
Despite his father, or because of his father, or neither, Thomas Steinbeck wrote an acclaimed collection, "Down to a Soundless Sea" (Ballantine), some of it cobbled together from local oral tradition. "My father loved tall tales," Mr. Steinbeck recalled. "He didn't lie, exactly. I just remember real big stories told at the dinner table. Storytelling didn't seem strange to me as a kid." He said his father was a man whose "friends were fishing boat captains, farmers, the owner of the hardware store."
Thomas Steinbeck served two tours in Vietnam, one as a soldier, a second as a photojournalist, but the seven short stories are about sailors and ranchers and immigrants living in Monterey County from the turn of the century through the 1930's.
The assumption is always that the parent's name gets the offspring a quick read from publishers, and of course that's largely true. But fiction is not purchased because of the writer's pedigree. Even a movie star's daughter can flop at an audition.
Mr. Steinbeck originally planned to self-publish his book as a gift for guests at a friend's inn. But because he is his father's literary trustee, John Steinbeck's agent showed some of the stories at the Frankfurt book fair last year, and a sale was made. Thomas Steinbeck has a contract for a novel about a ranching family at the start of the 20th century. He said: "Through this, I want to examine race relations. Early on, everyone got along in California, and then Yankee racism came. My best friends were all Japanese and Chinese and Mexican kids, and suddenly a week later I wasn't supposed to like them." That's the stuff of a Steinbeck novel, son or father.
The list of families in which writing is the family business is considerable, the art seemingly holding a furious grip on the next generation. Among them: The Cheevers. The McPhees. The Clarks. The Buckleys, William F. and his son, Christopher. The Shaaras, Michael and his son, Jeff. The Collins sisters.
If you're a Cheever, there's a father, John Cheever, with a National Book Award, a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Critics Award. Susan Cheever, the author of 10 books, said he was competitive, not with her or her brother, Benjamin Cheever, a novelist, but with other writing families. "Father would keep score: the Cheevers, 2; the Thoreaus, 3. He'd say things like that."
Did being a Cheever help her get entry? "I vowed I'd never be a writer, and I didn't become one until I was 35 years old," she said. "By then I had been a journalist for five years, and I knew enough people."
Did her father coach her? She said: "He never tried to teach me, but watching him make a career was a help. I learned if I got a bad review, that was part of the deal. Father got beaten up a lot and lived with it. I learned that was all part of the deal. That was a gift."
Benjamin Cheever said, "It's a help that people recognize your name, but it's a hindrance, too, because they have high expectations."
"There's an assumption that it was an enormous thing that my father spent time teaching me to write, but my household was not a school for writing; my sister was an unqualified help, not him," Mr. Cheever said. "He liked to project the image that we led a very glamorous lifestyle, which we didn't; he was drunk a lot of the time."
But here's what the siblings got, Mr. Cheever said: "He was a wonderful writer and very entertaining and made all other endeavors not worthwhile. We'd go visit a very successful businessman, and I might be impressed, and then my father would indicate that what the businessman was doing was all foolishness."
If John Cheever were still keeping score, the McPhees would be the New York Yankees of writing families. John McPhee, who made a career of asking questions but declined to answer any, had his 28th book, "The Founding Fish" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), published last month. Three of his daughters have books recently published or about to be, as do a son-in-law and a cousin.
Martha McPhee, a daughter, had her second novel, "Gorgeous Lies" (Harcourt), published in September and recalls that her father warned: "Never be a writer. The average income of a writer is $800 annually."'
"Probably people paid attention because of my last name, but I wouldn't get reviewed well or badly because of him," she said. "I wanted to achieve because I was McPhee's daughter, so I established goals before I became a writer and achieved them." She said her father would never ask an editor to look at a daughter's work, but "I would ask one for my daughter."
Is her father a help? She answered: "There's a lot of ups and downs and stretches of writing in a void. He can talk about the process, and I love it. I feel lucky."
Michael Shaara won the 1975 Pulitzer Prize for his Civil War novel "The Killer Angles" (Ballantine), which became the movie "Gettysburg." He died in 1988, and Jeff, then in the rare-coin and precious-metal business, decided to write and created a prequel and sequel. Last year he took on the Revolutionary War with "Rise to Rebellion" (Ballantine.)
"I'm a storyteller by nature," he said. "I grew up where he would talk his stories around the supper table; he would talk them and then go write them."
In a family business, what is a success? I suppose one definition is finding work for the next generation. But Mr. Steinbeck said his father's definition went like this: "If you can put a roof over your family and feed your family, you are a successful writer." Not many would settle for that today.