A Clandestine Visit to Steinbeck’s Writing Studio



Here I am at 2 a.m. writing this article sitting in a chair at the desk inside John Steinbeck’s waterfront writing studio, a six-sided structure that this famous author built with his own hands shortly after moving from California to Sag Harbor in 1955.

I supposedly have no right to be here. But it’s the middle of the night, and Oliver Peterson, the editor of Dan’sPapers.com, has quietly rowed me across the bay to Steinbeck’s old property. The big man is long gone, of course. But his wharf, his house and, across the lawn, his workshop, built to look like a lighthouse, remain. Peterson, seated in the boat, waits. If I need to get away quickly, he’s ready.

I’m here because I’m trying to write a story about the upcoming Hamptons International Film Festival for Dan’s papers and I have writer’s block. Peterson suggested that I might be inspired if I tried to write it from the great man’s workshop, so here I am.

At this hour, the house and the workshop are in the dark. The property is for sale. And I don’t turn on any lights. I hope I will think of something.

Inside the studio there are many things that Steinbeck would have used to write his great novels. The desk is covered with an old, worn blotter. His Remington typewriter sits on it. Ready to go. There is an old torn oriental rug on the floor. The chair, which swivels, squeaks. There is a shelf along one wall. A clock on another wall. And pinned to yet another wall are some notes he wrote, I guess. I placed my laptop next to Steinbeck’s Remington. The view out the window overlooks the bay.

Steinbeck was here in 1962 when he won the Nobel Prize for Literature. He wrote The The winter of our discontent here. He wrote Travel with Charley, a work of non-fiction about a road trip he took from Sag Harbor to places across the country accompanied by his dog Charley, here. His most famous book, Grapes of Wrath, was not written here. He wrote it during the Great Depression, about the terribly hard life lived by farmers and fishermen in and around Salinas and Monterey, California.

As he often said later, he moved to the fishing town of Sag Harbor with his wife Elaine because it reminded him of Monterey. He died in 1968 at the age of 66.

John Steinbeck, Photo: McFadden Publications, 1939

Well, here’s what I wrote before I got here:

“This weekend is the thirtieth annual Hamptons International Film Festival, where hundreds of producers, writers, distributors, producers, directors, actors and composers come together to meet everyone to mingle, do business, find new scenarios and watch films, some of which, after the 10 days of the festival, will be awarded.

And that’s all I understood. The word “run” sounds too much like a horse race. And the word “deal” also sounds under the table. There must be more than that.

Outside, I hear the chirping of crickets. I can see fireflies and stars. The night is clear. And when the wind stirs the bay, shimmering ripples glide across its surface. From time to time, there is a slap on the quay. Peterson put an oar in the water.

Ah! It hit me. I start typing.

If the people from the film industry who are here for the festival are wondering if what they are doing is important in the scheme of things, all they have to do is look up into the sky one night here and d imagine, or even see, far off in space, an explosion in the skies that is now the result of an idea first conceived by a screenwriter.

Screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin had been hired to write the screenplay for a 1998 film titled deep impact. In the film, a meteor is heading towards Earth. If he strikes, everyone will die. But perhaps its course could be deflected if the United States fired a rocket at it. The rocket would hit the meteor, explode, and the meteor could deflect and miss. At least it was worth a try.

Steven Spielberg, who lives in East Hampton, was the executive producer of this film. And in the film’s climactic scene, the effort would fail and a great 300ft tidal wave would leap off a beach in Amagansett and flood the entire Earth, with the film’s two main stars, Robert Duvall and Tea Leoni, playing father. and daughter separated, would forgive each other just before the disaster.

A casting call for extras was posted on the wall of the Amagansett Fire Hall, advertisements in Dan’s papers appeared, and a crowd came to the fire station on the appointed day to apply. I applied. Who wouldn’t want to be in a movie? But I was not chosen.

The final scene was indeed filmed on the beach, but much of it took place on the editing room floor as computer-generated imagery (CGI) effects produced a better disaster. But there you are.

The following month, the film Armageddon came out with essentially the same plot. He did better than deep impact. But that didn’t change the fact that the originator of the Earth-headed meteor story idea was still Bruce Joel Rubin, the screenwriter of deep impact.

Well guess what? On September 26, in real life, NASA scientists fired a rocket at a distant meteor heading our way to see if the resulting explosion might send it off in another direction. Even though the meteor posed no danger to us, American taxpayers still paid over $300 million to make it happen. The explosion, I believe, took place during the festival.

Well, there you are. Filmmakers make things happen. And filmmakers matter.

Whoops. A light has just come on in the main house. I’m in front of the door and in the boat. Peterson, get us out of here.

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