I’m writing a memoir on growing up with my father—what it was like to be three feet tall, to be a kid around my father. There was a situation where my brother and I were at my father’s house on 72nd street, a brownstone, and, in his house, there were books everywhere. It was a giant library—to the ceiling, around the fireplace. My brother and I weren’t reading any of them. We wanted to play and my father really began to worry about the fact that he could raise two sons who were totally illiterate.
One day he brought home this great wooden chest. I can’t describe it. It had heavy locks and it was this big massive piece of furniture with two chairs on either side and he put books inside of this thing. He loaded it down with all kinds of books, locked it, and put the key on top of the chest where we couldn’t reach it. Then he told us that we could read any book in the house but never read what was in the chest.
We’d ask why he didn’t want us to read them and he’d say, “There are secrets in there that only intelligent people should know.” Well, you tell a kid there’s a secret in there and it’s like telling a dog he couldn’t have a bone. So my brother and I would sneak downstairs at night and use a pillow to hide the sound of the key. It was massive! Like opening a vault in the Vatican. It made a lot of noise, but we’d get in there and pick out a book and sneak back upstairs. But, we had to get them back into the chest by morning because my father could tell a book was missing from a mile away. We didn’t get much sleep.
He’d just keep putting things in there he thought boys should read and I eventually found out the secret he warned us about—it was reading. The more you read the more you know, the more you know the more you write. Humanity doesn’t have many pleasures going for itself but to write is one of them. My father said, “Remember that writing is primarily a course of self-discovery.” No matter what you’re writing about you’re finding yourself. It’s a self-navigating tool. I’ve learned a lot about myself through my writing—my politics, what I like in people, what I don’t. It’s a matter of self-discovery.
There were secrets in that chest that I couldn’t live without; he was right. I didn’t become a book writer when he was alive. I did screenplays; I worked for advertising agencies. But with a name like Steinbeck people think you’re riding on your father’s coattails. So I waited and after he died I started and figured he wouldn’t be angry.”