The Greatest John Steinbeck Story Never Heard and How I Gave Up on It.
Five years ago today, Steinbeck: Citizen Spy was published. The book chronicles my discovery of a letter by John Steinbeck requesting service with the CIA in 1952 and the CIA accepting. Yes, that’s right. John Steinbeck was a CIA asset. Here are the sets of letters I obtained from the Agency via the Freedom of Information Act:
You thought you knew everything about John Steinbeck, but never heard of this? Don’t worry, you’re not the only one. Even though the book was published five years ago, I wasn’t ready for the story to be told until now.
My theory was that previous to 1952, and certainly after, John Steinbeck was an active CIA asset. The book picks apart Steinbeck’s life from World War II to his 1963 trip to Russia with playwright Edward Albee looking for means, motive, and opportunity for Steinbeck to spy for the CIA. Even though A Russian Journal reads like an intelligence estimate and was on the Langley spooks’ summer reading list, my book was largely dismissed. The academics poo-pooed on an outsider finding anything “new” about John Steinbeck. I spoke with one muckity-muck in the Steinbeck academic community who was more concerned about my motives and the book’s margins than what I had discovered. That phone call left me wounded and confused. What did either matter when I had exposed a Nobel Prize-winning author as having a connection to the American intelligence community?
It turns out that motive and margins do matter.
I told the academic that my motive was to “let the world know the truth about one of America’s greatest authors.” That answer was partial bullshit. I did want the world to know that John Steinbeck was a hero. What I really wanted was to turn my discovery into a cottage industry that generated fame and fortune. That wasn’t what happened. I’ve sold fewer than 100 copies a year of the book and seldom does the name John Steinbeck enter the same sentence with the CIA.
It turns out my motive was off.
As an author, I should have been more interested in telling a great Cold War espionage story than fame. Of course, the writing was paramount to me, but I was daydreaming of appearances on the Today Show instead of focusing on putting out a fantastic book. How could I miss with this one? The world would knock my door down because I was the smartest kid in the class. Nope. That didn’t happen. The universe gave me humility via bitterness instead of morning show appearances.
It turns out my margins were off.
The book was written well enough that Thom Steinbeck, John’s only surviving child, wrote part of the introduction. I got top-tier editor, and now ghostwriter extraordinaire, Alice Sullivan to scrub the hell out of the book. I tried to do a cover that was horrid enough a friend, Barry Edwards took pity on me and fixed my hot mess. The one thing I did not let anyone touch was the interior layout. Five years ago, I thought I knew how to design a book. I didn’t. The margins being off wasn’t the only thing that stank about the layout. The text was cramped, and the pages screamed, “you self-published… didn’t you?” I’ve since fixed those problems, but the damage was done. My message was partially discounted because my text looked like crap.
Bitter, table for one.
Steinbeck: Citizen Spy never sold, and a bitterness crept into my heart with a self-fulfilling prophecy. I never honestly believed any of my dreams would come true. When I received pushback, I slinked down. When I received criticism, I blushed instead of taking honest stock of my work. When I sent an email or made a phone call that wasn’t returned, I didn’t follow up because I didn’t believe in myself enough. I wasn’t going to be successful had a boatload of success fallen from the sky and landed at my feet. The hole in my soul couldn’t have been filled with interviews or piles of cash. My motives and margins were out of whack. I should have focused on the story and all the amazing things the process of publishing Steinbeck: Citizen Spy gave me.
I befriended Thomas Steinbeck who frequently called me drunker than Cooter Brown just to chat. I think I was able to help Thom understand his father a little better. Parental angst dissipates in the face of, “oh… my Dad worked for the CIA.”
The premise of the book was interesting enough, I got one of the few interviews with Edward Albee in the years leading up to his death. Albee wouldn’t give out interviews about his works, but no one in years had called him up about the 1963 Russian goodwill tour he did with Steinbeck. Albee felt that trip was one of the most significant accomplishments of his life and hated no one acknowledged him for that.
The ex-CIA intelligence officer I refer to as TC in the book became another friend. He was a great old man with colorful, yet redacted, stories. His children didn’t care about his Cold War stories. They were kids who grew up mostly without a father because the Agency had TC in the far-flung corners of the globe. I listened. I hope that gave TC some validation a younger generation acknowledged his efforts to keep our republic safe.
I appeared on the Coast to Coast AM radio show. During high school and college, I loved staying up late listening to the alien abductees and conspiracy theorists. The fringe sometimes spouts a bit of truth and that’s why I tuned in. I dropped some truth in my two-hour appearance with George Noory. I even discussed how foreign intelligence services could use social media as a propaganda tool to influence Americans.
The point of all this is not to reinvigorate sales or interest in Steinbeck: Citizen Spy. No fucks are given about that now. Email me, and I’ll send you a PDF or ePub of the book. I do care that the story enters into the recognized record of his life. Perhaps that will happen one day. My main concern today is me. Have I gotten to a place in my life I can “give up” John Steinbeck and the CIA? Absolutely I can, but not in the way you think.
I spent $88 on a long shot for Steinbeck: Citizen Spy this morning. My previous expense would have questioned the margin on an $88 cost. What was my return on investment? How long would it take me to realize a profit? Meh. Spending that $88 made me realize I’d changed and I’m at peace with the “failure” of my book because it’s not a failure.
I’ve recently reminded myself that the mission statement for my life is, “to be able to tell the best stories around a dinner table.” Thom Steinbeck frequently drunk dialed me. An old spook thought I was cool enough to chat with. I warned the world of foreign intelligence services using social media. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?… the guy that wrote that… yea, I interviewed him. Steinbeck: Citizen Spy is a New York Times bestseller in terms of dinnertime stories. I just hate it took me five years to understand that. Today, I let all that shit go, Elsa. That’s the point of this article. Whatever bad juju you’re holding on to like it was gold bricks–give it up. Focus on the good, move on from the bad, and don’t expect the ugly on the horizon. Trust me, you’ll grow as a human and thank me tomorrow.
Now, let me tell you about John Steinbeck and the CIA…