This is an updated, slightly edited rerun of a book piece I wrote back in 2012:
It’s not a big shock when novelists work as journalists or professors before, during, or after their book-producing years. But some famous writers have held rather unusual non-literary jobs.
On the positive side, stints of atypical-for-authors employment can inspire future books and/or give writers firsthand knowledge of the way non-writers live. On the negative side, need-the-money jobs can take away from precious prose-producing time.
My job is to now give examples of this multi-profession phenomenon, and I’ll start in the 19th century with the career arcs of a famous American literary trio: Mark Twain (born Samuel Clemens), Herman Melville, and Nathaniel Hawthorne.
Twain, from 1857 to 1861, worked as a riverboat pilot — a stint that inspired his pen name as well as the nonfiction book Life on the Mississippi and (to some extent) the novel Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The Civil War halted riverboat traffic, and one wonders what Twain’s career trajectory might have been if his piloting job hadn’t gotten sunk.
Melville, whose book sales sank as his writing became richer and more complex, made ends meet during the latter part of his life by reluctantly working as a customs inspector in New York City from the mid-1860s to the mid-1880s.
Hawthorne fared much better with atypical-for-authors employment. After penning a puffy campaign biography of his college pal Franklin Pierce, The Scarlet Letter writer was appointed U.S. consul in Liverpool by President Pierce. Hawthorne put his fiction work on hold during that time in government, but being in England made it easier for him to make a post-consulship move to Italy — where The Marble Faun novel took shape.
Also in the 19th century, it’s well known that British author Anthony Trollope did postal-service work for many years while writing books and that Anton Chekhov (who lived a bit into the 20th century) was a physician.
Moving to the 1900s, we have Booth Tarkington (The Magnificent Ambersons) serving a term in the Indiana legislature, French author Colette performing in music halls (which inspired her 1910 novel The Vagabond), Zora Neale Hurston (Their Eyes Were Watching God) doing anthropology work with Margaret Mead and on her own, Kurt Vonnegut (Slaughterhouse-Five) owning/managing a Saab dealership on Cape Cod, Khaled Hosseini (The Kite Runner) working as a physician, and Fannie Flagg (Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café) and Thomas Tryon (The Other) doing acting.
A variation on the multi-job life is when an established author gets “undercover” employment for the purpose of writing a book. One famous nonfiction example of that was Barbara Ehrenreich toiling in low-paid menial jobs to show how the working poor can barely survive in America — leading to her powerful exposé Nickel and Dimed.
Meanwhile, here are some authors who hold or held less-surprising positions. Professors: Junot Diaz, Jeffrey Eugenides, Diana Gabaldon, Alison Lurie, Toni Morrison, Joyce Carol Oates, J.R.R. Tolkien, etc. Journalists: Geraldine Brooks, Willa Cather, Charles Dickens, Nora Ephron, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Ernest Hemingway, Carl Hiaasen, George Orwell, Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Portis, Anna Quindlen, Emile Zola, etc.
Any authors you’d like to mention who held surprising non-literary jobs? And do you think authors are helped or hindered by having non-literary jobs sometime during their adult lives?
Today, August 15, 2021, is the 75th birthday of Jimmy Webb — who wrote memorable hit songs such as “MacArthur Park,” “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” “Worst That Could Happen,” “Wichita Lineman,” “Galveston,” “All I Know,” “The Moon’s a Harsh Mistress,” “Highwayman,” and “Up, Up, and Away.” Here’s the original 1968 version of “MacArthur Park” (grafted onto a 1972 live performance) sung by Richard Harris — who, among his many other acting roles, would shortly before his death play Dumbledore in the first two Harry Potter movies based on J.K. Rowling’s novels. (Also, “MacArthur Park” was covered by Donna Summer and various others.)
My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.
In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” local topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — about COVID and my school district as the 2021-22 academic year nears — is here.