The Surprising Day Jobs of 20 Famous Writers (Infographic)

by Brendan Brown | April 10, 2021, 8:59 am

Making a full time living as a writer is no easy task, even for the most prolific and talented scribblers. Many a Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winning author slogged away at a miserable day or night job for years to make ends meet before the world got wind of their genius.

Some authors spent their entire lives working in unglamorous professions using their off hours toiling away at literary masterpieces that no one would read until after their death.

So aspiring bestselling authors pumping petrol and washing dishes take heart. Everybody has to start somewhere and many famous writers found inspiration for some of their most revered pieces of writing from jobs that seemed like dead ends.

1. Kurt Vonnegut Worked at a SAAB Dealership
The weird and wonderful worlds described in Kurt Vonnegut’s novels may never have existed if he’d only been a better car salesman. Before his writing career took off, Vonnegut opened up the first Saab dealership in the United States on Cape Cod in 1957 in an effort to try to support his family.

Vonnegut admitted later in life that he was a lousy salesman and an even worse mechanic, but said the lack of customers gave him time to pen his novel “Sirens of Titan” and also helped shape the character Dwayne Hoover in his classic novel “Breakfast of Champions.”

2. Stephen King: high school janitor
Before becoming one of the most prolific and widely read authors of his time, Stephen King made his living as a high school janitor. We imagine King must have mopped up a lot of horrific messes that could have inspired some pretty great scenes, but we know for sure that the first novel he sold, “Carrie,” was inspired by time he spent cleaning up in the girls’ locker room. Is there any scarier place in the world?

3. Jack London was an Oyster Pirate
Before the renowned author of classics like “Call of the Wild” and “White Fang” got his break as a novelist, he made his living as a San Francisco area “oyster pirate” —a more poetic term for fish burglar. London would raid the oyster beds of large companies at night and resell his haul in the fish markets in the daytime. His early career in seafood looting is referenced several times in his novels.

4. William Faulkner was a Mailman
Imagine getting your electric bill handed to you by a Nobel Prize winning novelist. William Faulkner worked as a Mississippi mailman before his novels about the American South were recognized as something special. Faulkner reportedly lost a great deal of the mail he was charged with delivering, discarding pieces of correspondence he considered to be “insignificant.”

His powerful writing voice was apparent even in his resignation letter from his post office job where he stated “I will be damned if I propose to be at the beck and call of every itinerant scoundrel who has two cents to invest in a postage stamp.”

5. Harper Lee was an Airline Reservation Clerk
Before Harper Lee wrote “To Kill a Mockingbird,” she just wanted to know if you were a “window person” or more of an “aisle type.” The Pulitzer Prize winner worked as an airline reservation agent in New York City in 1949 while she was seeking a literary agent and writing the book many consider to be the greatest American novel of the 20th century. Pick up a copy the next time you get stuck in the middle seat. It makes the trip almost bearable.

6. John Grisham was a Plumber
The crime fiction author who has sold more than 275 million books worldwide has always been willing to delve deep into the dark and dirty underworld of the legal system. Before he made it big as a novelist, though, he explored another dark and dirty underworld in one of his first jobs as a plumber’s assistant.
At some point when he was digging for pipes under a customer’s house, he decided that an office job would be a dream come true. He was on the pipeline to becoming a lawyer and the world was about to have some very compelling reading material which, incidentally, has likely been read in bathrooms around the globe.

7. Charles Dickens worked at a Shoe Polish Factory
If you’re wondering where Charles Dickens developed his uniquely bleak point of view, it may have something to do with one of his early jobs working in a shoe polish factory. Dickens was sent to work at the factory at the tender age of 12 to help earn for his family when his father was sent to debtors’ prison.

His own familial struggle and the brutal working conditions faced by him and other children during the industrial revolution in Britain informed such classic works as “Oliver Twist” and “Hard Times.”

8. JD Salinger was a Cruise Line Activities Director
Those who hopped aboard the luxury Swedish American cruise liner the MS Kungsholm back in 1941 got a special treat along with their all you can eat buffet. Their activities director was a 22-year-old J.D. Salinger. The future bestselling author of the epic teen angst novel “The Catcher in the Rye” worked one of his first jobs keeping the patrons on the luxury liner entertained. We wondered if he called shuffleboard enthusiasts a bunch of “phonies” to their faces.

9. Nicholas Sparks was an Over-The-Phone Dental Product Salesman
Who says there’s nothing romantic about getting your gums scraped? Before bestselling author Nicholas Sparks was discovered for writing the wildly popular romance novel “The Notebook,” he made his living by selling dental products over the phone. A literary agent discovered “The Notebook” in a slush pile and turned it into a New York Times bestseller, giving Sparks more to smile about than any dental floss sale he’d ever made.

10. T.S. Eliot was a Banker
Ever wonder what inspired T.S. Eliot to write a poem as grim as “The Waste Land”? Apparently, working as a banker can be pretty depressing. Before Eliot became a celebrated poet, he worked in the foreign accounts department at Lloyd’s Bank in London. Even after “The Waste Land” was published, Eliot continued to work in a basement office at Lloyd’s. His business experience may have helped inform his later work as director of Faber & Faber publishing house.

11. Margaret Atwood Worked the Counter at a Coffee Shop
Always tip your waitress well. They could turn out to be one of the greatest speculative fiction writers of our time. Margaret Atwood, author of such popular novels as “The Handmaid’s Tale” worked as cashier and java slinger at a coffee shop counter before she got her big break as a writer.

Atwood said the service element of her job wasn’t so bad, but that the cash register she was charged with managing could only be described as “perverse”—opening on its own, jamming shut for no reason and making eerie noises when she was nowhere near it. Luckily, Atwood’s bestselling novels allowed her to move away from food service for good and focus on the perverse nature of modern society instead.

12. John Steinbeck was a Construction Worker
Before building a writer career that highlighted the plight of migrant workers, John Steinbeck made a living as a construction worker in New York City. He didn’t last long in the profession and soon headed back West to focus on constructing brilliant narratives including the Pulitzer Prize winning “The Grapes of Wrath.” Steinbeck eventually won the Nobel Prize, so thank goodness he stopped hammering nails and focused on hammering away at that typewriter.

13. George Orwell was an Indian Imperial Officer
The author of the dystopian masterpiece “Nineteen Eighty-Four” and the fractured fairy tale “Animal Farm” had inside insight on what it was like to be an agent of social control thanks to his position as an officer with the Indian Imperial Police in Burma. Born in British India, Orwell showed little academic promise in school and was encouraged to join the police force by his family who doubted he could get a scholarship to a university.

Luckily, the writing bug was too infectious for Orwell to shake and he eventually moved back to Europe where he worked for years as a journalist before become an international superstar with “Nineteen Eight-Four” in 1949.

14. Agatha Christie was an Apothecary’s Assistant
Before she was intoxicating audiences with her mystery novels, Agatha Christie worked as an apothecaries’ assistant, distributing drugs of a different kind. Christie got her start in the professional as a hospital volunteer during World War I, then eventually passed the exam to become an official “dispenser.” Christie’s pharmacological experience was essential in shaping her knowledge on the effects of the many poisons referenced in her murder mysteries.

15. Fyoder Dostoyevsky was an Engineer
The Russian novelist entered the Military Engineering-Technical University in St. Petersburg after the death of his mother when he was just 16 years old. Engineering provided Dostoyevsky with a stable income and job security, but he ditched the safe road to pursue a literary career against all odds.

It has been posited that the world of military engineering was so rigid and strict that it drove Dostoyevsky to swing to the other end of the career spectrum—that of a creative artist. He found success with his very first novel “Poor Folk” which was published when he was 25.

16. Franz Kafka was a Legal Clerk and Abestos Factory Co-Owner
Ever wonder how Franz Kafka gained his incomparable insight into the world of bureaucracy? It may have something to do with his early career in the legal profession. Kafka studied law at University and then clerked for a year in the civil and criminal courts after graduation.

He later went on to work for two different insurance companies dealing with personal injury and worker’s accident claims. And then, in a Kafkaesque twist,, he went on to be co-owner of an asbestos manufacturing factory. Kafka earned no fame for his iconic works until after his death from tuberculosis at age 40.

17. Arthur Conan was a Surgeon
Before creating the world’s most famous sleuth Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle was a physician and surgeon. Doyle began writing short stories during medical school, then spent time serving as a ship’s surgeon, then returned to writing when business got slow in his private practice. Holmes was reportedly based on one of Doyle’s university professors Joseph Bell who informed Doyle’s knowledge of “deduction and inference and observation.”

Of course Holmes’s partner Dr. Watson was a physician as well, so Doyle’s medical training helped to create two unforgettable characters.

18. Douglas Adams was a Bodyguard
Even though he had gotten a seemingly huge break by writing a sketch for “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” Adams still struggled to make a full time living as a writer before “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” became an international megahit. Adams took a position as a bodyguard to a Qatari family to make ends meet.

Adams later fell on hard times, suffered from depression and eventually moved back in with his mother. “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” eventually broke through as a BBC radio series so that Adams got to permanently close the book on his career in personal security.

19. William S. Burroughs was an Exterminator
Burroughs became a seminal figure in the 1950s “Beat Generation” with wonderfully bizarre ramblings in works like “Junkie” and “Naked Lunch,” but before he shared his writing with the world he held his share of odd jobs including a stint as an exterminator. He reportedly enjoyed the gig because he made his own hours and got to meet interesting characters on his house calls.

Although it wasn’t his most famous work, Burroughs wrote a collection of short stories called “Exterminator!” which featured a piece about a professional bug killer and later collaborated on a collection of short stories called “The Exterminator” with Brion Gysin.

20. Anne Rice was an Insurance Claims Examiner
Ever feel like your insurance company is bleeding you dry? Maybe that’s how popular vampire fiction writer Anne Rice got her inspiration. Rice worked as an insurance claims processor to make a living while she was in college. Her breakthrough novel “Interview with the Vampire” wasn’t published until almost fifteen years later after she spent years pursuing advanced degrees in literature.

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