Lisa Unger and John Lescroart on Steinbeck
I don’t usually list John Steinbeck as one of my favorite authors or early influences, though he is unarguably one of our finest writers. Steinbeck was a clear-eyed chronicler of American life in a certain place, at a certain time, for a certain person who might not otherwise be seen in works of literature. He turned his attention to the down-trodden, to the invisible, to big themes of fate and justice as they played out in the lives of ordinary folks. Though his work is not crime fiction, those elements are certainly shared by the genre.
It’s possible that certain books and stories are so ingrained in a writer’s education and memory that one almost takes them for granted; that might be true for me of Steinbeck. Because THE GRAPES OF WRATH, for which Steinbeck won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize, and EAST OF EDEN, were some of the earliest works of literature I attempted as a young reader. And the novella OF MICE AND MEN comes up again and again in my memory —the story of two migrant workers George Milton and Lennie Small during the Great Depression.
The layered and nuanced portrait of Lennie, and of the friendship he shared with George has stayed with me. Lennie, mentally disabled but physical large and frighteningly strong, is loved and protected by the quick-witted George as they make their way from job to job, harboring big dreams of one day owning their own land and working for themselves. Lennie — so innocent and yet lethally dangerous, terrifying in his strength and yet emotionally vulnerable —captivated me as a young reader. And it is characters like Lennie that I find most fascinating in my own work. He’s a tragic figure, a child in a man’s body, creating terrible harm without meaning to. And the fateful decision George makes at the end of the novella is likewise nuanced — cruel as well as loving, serving as a kind of justice and a mercy.
I have read widely across genre throughout my life and education, always most entranced by big stories that asked more questions than offered answers, stories that grappled with big themes, layered, complicated characters, and ideas. I could (and do) cite a wild (nearly schizophrenic!) range of authors that have influenced me in some way — Nathaniel Hawthorne, Jane Austen, Charlotte and Emily Bronte, Truman Capote, Patricia Highsmith, as well as modern popular writers like Stephen King, Daphne DuMaurier, Sidney Sheldon, V.C. Andrews — and many more. Steinbeck, too, has had an influence on my imagination and ideas about characters that are bad when they mean to be good, and the slippery, unsatisfying concept justice served.
And my bio:
Lisa Unger is the New York Times and internationally bestselling novels. With millions of readers worldwide and novels published in twenty-six languages, Lisa Unger is widely regarded as a master of suspense. In 2019, she received two Edgar Award nominations, an honor held by only a few writers including Ruth Rendell and Agatha Christie. The Edgar-nominated UNDER MY SKIN is also a finalist for the prestigious Hammett Prize, and the Macavity Award for Best Novel. And the original short story THE SLEEP TIGHT MOTEL is a #1 bestselling single.
Unger‘s critically acclaimed books have been voted “Best of the Year” or top picks by the Today show, Good Morning America, Entertainment Weekly, Amazon, IndieBound and many others. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, NPR, and Travel+Leisure. She lives on the west coast of Florida with her family.
As to Steinbeck, how about the following: John Steinbeck is on the very short list of authors who, once encountered, dominated my reading list to the exclusion of all others. I started with one of the supposedly lightweight novels — CANNERY ROW — and was taken by the unexpected humor and humanity of the characters, rare stuff indeed in a “literary” writer. But it was, above all, the distinctive poetic yet accessible narrative voice that truly set the hook. I immediately went for another of the short novels — OF MICE AND MEN — and was devastated by the tragic power of that story. And it led me inexorably to EAST OF EDEN, which seemed at the time to encapsulate the entire human condition in a prose so mellifluous and precisely right that I literally had to stop reading several times to go back and re-read just for the pure enjoyment of the words. And meanwhile, Steinbeck’s social conscience seemed to find its way into these books — THE GRAPES OF WRATH, TRAVELS WITH CHARLEY — in a way that was never didactic and always entertaining, in the best possible sense. I have written many of my own stories to incorporate social issues at their core, and each of those books is in silent tribute to Steinbeck, who pointed the way.