This was the first of many anecdotes and insights we would hear that day. We were even joined at one point by Thom and Gail’s nephew, touring musician Johnny Irion and his wife Sarah Lee Guthrie, whose family tree has creative roots as deep as any.
Thom recalled the first time his father met Sarah Lee’s grandfather, Woody Guthrie. “I wish I’d have heard ‘Do Re Mi’ three years sooner, you’d have saved me a novel,” the elder Steinbeck told the American folk hero. “It took me 400 pages to do what you did in two and a half minutes.”
Johnny then asked Thom “Did you ever hear the story about when Woody met Einstein? On a train…” Yes, it was that kind of day.
We asked Thom about the legend that his father used as many as 60 pencils in a single day. Thom answered with an emphatic “No.” After a short pause, his eyes lit up with a mischievous twinkle. “Sometimes is was 100. Sometimes even more.”
“My father’s handwriting was painfully small,” Thom continued. It was so small and difficult to decipher that for a large part of his career, there was only one editor in the world who could accurately translate his manuscripts. In order to write on such a small scale while maintaining some semblance of legibility, Steinbeck’s pencils needed to be extremely sharp. “Surgically sharp,” said Thom. “Sharp enough to kill an elk at 300 yards.”
The elder Steinbeck also believed sharpening a pencil was a terrible distraction that interrupted the flow of his writing. He developed a ritual to eliminate this distraction, and build confidence.
Each morning his father would sit down at his writing desk in front of two boxes. After reaching for his yellow legal pad, Steinbeck would gather 24 pencils and begin sharpening them, one at a time, in his prodigious electric pencil sharpener. “It weighed as much as a Chevy. And was just as loud,” remembered Thom.