Between the Lines: Janice Steinberg and “The Tin Horse”

| December 4, 2013 | 0 Comments


Steinberg was a long-time award-winning arts journalist for the UT. Photo courtesy of Monique Feil of Mission Hills.

Steinberg was a long-time, award-winning arts journalist for the UT. Photo courtesy of Monique Feil of Mission Hills.

It was a lovely interlude on a recent Sunday afternoon, sipping wine and nibbling cheese among a group of book lovers at Mission Hills Books & Collectibles for a reading and discussion with another of our local literary treasures, Janice Steinberg.

You may have heard the name. Steinberg was a long-time, award-winning arts journalist for the UT; she also taught novel writing at UCSD and dance criticism at SDSU. In the ‘90s, Steinberg wrote five mystery novels featuring a feminist sleuth, fictional San Diego public radio reporter Margo Simon.

Her new novel, “The Tin Horse,” was published in January by Random House after many years of research and writing (and re-writing and editing). This multi-generational family saga is a departure from the mystery genre, yet it was inspired by it. A fan of the noir fiction of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, Steinberg tells of reading a passage in “The Big Sleep” in which Philip Marlowe has an exchange with a woman in a Los Angeles bookstore whom he encounters reading a law book. Janice was fascinated with this character, who appears only in the one scene. A woman, a Jewish woman as Chandler notes, reading law books in the ‘30s seemed enough out of the ordinary to stir Steinberg’s curiosity about such a person.

The passage in “The Big Sleep” becomes the epigraph, and that nameless woman is now Elaine Greenstein, the protagonist of “The Tin Horse.” She’s 85, retired from a successful law career when the book opens. Going through some old papers, she comes across information about the disappearance of her twin sister when they were teenagers. The book alternates between Elaine’s childhood in 1920s and ‘30s Boyle Heights, then a predominantly Jewish immigrant neighborhood in L.A., and her present-day quest to uncover the family mystery. Woven throughout these two narratives are contemplations on family ties and the stories that solidify our roots and help us develop our identities.

Steinberg’s extensive research included frequent visits to Boyle Heights, where she talked to residents and listening to oral histories of people who grew up there. She says she had to “imagine herself into twinship” to be able to convey that key relationship in Elaine’s life. She didn’t plot the novel in advance as she did with her earlier mysteries; rather she conceived her story a chapter at a time.

Asked why she has Elaine in her 80s instead of, say, her 60s, Steinberg —who has written elsewhere about images of aging women—emphasizes that Elaine had a demanding professional life and was too busy when she was younger to go off in search of the family’s lost sheep. She’s still physically and mentally able—what better time to take on a new challenge?!

“The Tin Horse” has received excellent reviews. The San Francisco Book Review said that its elements “work together seamlessly to create a heart wrenching family drama, an enlightening perspective on historical events, and a story of an immigrant generation’s American experience.” In April San Diego Magazine named it one of five books to read that month.

Starting with a launch party at Warwick’s in January, Steinberg and “The Tin Horse” have made appearances at book clubs, book stores, and conferences around the country. Events scheduled through next spring include the Lawrence Family Jewish Community Center in February and the Pasadena Festival of Woman Authors in March. Thanks to Steve Schultz at Mission Hills Books & Collectibles for bringing Steinberg to the neighborhood—I’ll be looking forward to more readings there.

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