Strange Day Jobs of Authors Before They Were Famous


All you struggling artists and writers out there, take heart. It may seem like you’re just spinning your wheels at that random job you got walking dogs/painting fences/selling umbrellas on the corner, but you could find your inspiration for the Next Great American Novel at any moment. Or, think of it this way: one day you’ll get to talk about whatever you’re doing now as a charming aside in interviews with the New York Times. After all, from pirating to condom sales to modeling, many of the most famous authors in American history had a few pretty weird day jobs to pay the bills before they hit the big time, and we don’t know about you, but we find that to be a comforting thought. Click through to see some of the strangest day jobs of beloved authors before they were famous, and then get back to work.

J.D. Salinger once served as the entertainment director on the H.M.S Kungsholm, a Swedish luxury liner. We wonder if he was any good at that.

Between graduating from the Colorado School of Mines and starting his MFA at Syracuse, George Saunders worked in a slaughterhouse, in a convenience store, as a doorman in Beverly Hills, as a groundsman, as a roofer, and as a geophysicist.

Franz Kafka was the Chief Legal Secretary of the Workmen’s Accident Insurance Institute, obviously.

The international Tom McCarthy was a nude model at an art school in Prague, tended bar at an Irish pub in Berlin, and fed waiters cat food as a sous-chef in a restaurant in Amsterdam.

John Steinbeck ran a fish hatchery in Lake Tahoe. He also led guided tours of the place, during one of which he met his first wife, Carol Henning.

While still young and virginal, John D’Agata worked in a condom shop (to be clear: “Not a sex shop, just a condom shop that also sold a few cheesy sex-gags and maybe some nonthreatening “toys” down near the back of the store that no one ever bought”), delivered balloons as a clown, barbacked, and served bagels.

After dropping out of Ole Miss after three semesters, William Faulkner served as the university’s postmaster for three years.

T.S. Eliot worked at the Colonial and Foreign Accounts desk for Lloyd’s Bank of London for 8 years, drawing inspiration for The Waste Land from the sights he passed on his way to the office.

After leaving Dartmouth (after only two months), Robert Frost returned to Massachusetts, where he worked as a newspaper boy, and did some time in a factory changing light bulb filaments.

Ever the rebel, Jack London was an ‘oyster pirate,’ stealing oysters from the beds of large farmers and selling them at the Oakland markets. He also did a little gold prospecting, and may or may not have spent time as a hobo.

Obviously, Ken Kesey picked up some cash in the late 1950s by submitting himself to CIA-sponsored psych experiments at Stanford University. The ensuing hallucinations — Chief Broom, to be exact — found their way into One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.

Langston Hughes worked as the personal assistant to the historian Carter G. Woodson at the Association for the Study of African American Life and History until he decided that the job didn’t leave enough time for his writing. He quit to work as a busboy at the Wardman Park Hotel, where he was “discovered” by poet Vachel Lindsay.

Throughout his life, William Carlos Williams managed to maintain a successful medical practice as well as a full literary career.

After graduating from college, Nicholas Sparks tried to get into publishing and into law school, but was rejected in both fields. Instead, he tried his hand at various gigs: real estate appraisal, selling dental products by phone, even starting his own manufacturing business.

Wells Tower worked in a Nike warehouse, and as a garbageman (for a total of one day).

Kurt Vonnegut managed a Saab dealership in Cape Cod after publishing his first novel, Player Piano.

Before she was hired at Queen’s College, Siri Hustvedt worked as a floor model at Bloomingdale’s, wearing a red parachute silk jumpsuit and handing out informational cards to customers.

Steven King was a janitor in a high school before his work was published — good thing too, because it’s where he got his inspiration for the opening scene of Carrie.

William S. Burroughs was an exterminator in Chicago.

An accomplished tenor, James Joyce made money singing for his supper before his work was published.

Ben Marcus worked as a door-to-door census taker in Providence.

Before he penned 1984, George Orwell served as an officer of the Indian Imperial Police in Burma, where he was noted for his “sense of utter fairness.”

Of his odd-job track record, David Shields recounts: “In high school I worked at McDonald’s. Got fired. I worked at a fabric store. Got fired. In college I worked as a custodian. Got fired. Wasn’t too good at the physical stuff. One person asked me if I was so bad on purpose or whether I was really that uncomprehending of the relation between soap and water.” Ouch.

Among other odd jobs, Joseph Heller worked as a blacksmith’s apprentice.

Harper Lee was a reservation clerk at Eastern Airlines for eight years, until a friend gave her a Christmas gift of a year’s wages with the condition that she would use it to write. She finished the first draft of To Kill A Mockingbird that year.