My seminal literary influence was not a native Irish writer but he was of my heritage. Scots-Irish on his mother’s side, the Hamilton’s. John Steinbeck used them as prototypes in one of his most ambitious novels, East of Eden. I had cause to think about Steinbeck’s influence on me recently for two reasons. One was an appreciation of him by Melvin Bragg shown on BBC 4 two nights ago. The other was a radio interview I recorded, which may or may not be aired in the new year. I was asked which writer I most admired and which had influenced me most. I unhesitatingly named Steinbeck. He was the first serious author I read as a fourteen year old. Not because he was on the school reading list, he wasn’t. But because I picked up one of his first editions in a favoured haunt, the second-hand book shop in Belfast’s Smithfield market. The book was The Pastures of Heaven and it is still a cherished part of my library along with every other book he published. I also have his biography and other appreciations of the man and his work.
I was trying to distil what it is that attracted me to Steinbeck’s writing and really struggled to do that concisely. There is so much. The big books like Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden do not really feature in my thoughts. Cannery Row, Sweet Thursday, Tortilla Flat, Travels with Charlie, Sea of Cortez, were all much more influential for me. When forced to speak briefly during the interview, I found I was making a list: Warmth, humanity, colour, sense of place, reality, humor, poetry, ecology, humanism, compassion and bravery. This last being hugely important. Steinbeck displayed enormous courage in describing things in thirties America that brought him the outrage of the right, communist labels, and actual death threats. He was no communist but he did take a stand for the rights of the working man and the downtrodden. He gave Monterey bums humanity and the bottom layer of society dignity. He spoke unpalatable truths and still he is reviled by certain folks in the US.
All these things appeal to the rebel in me. I have emulated Steinbeck in my own writing. Not consciously – I was unaware of the similarities until a reviewer pointed them out to me. I now see that I do champion unpopular causes and have a certain indignation against injustice, lies and establishment cover ups. I also write characters who are not mainstream, who live by their own rules and who are bawdy, raw and real. When this was pointed out to me I was surprised but delighted. So I gave thanks to the man I consider Americas greatest writer, John Steinbeck.