Sign In Join Now
User Accessibility
  • Increase Font

  • Invert Colours

Search for a Book Browse Books Menu
Curious jobs authors had before they were famous writers

Curious jobs authors had before they were famous writers

April 4, 2016 0 Comments
Writers and authors often start off with different jobs or careers before writing pays the bills. And for many of the best authors out there, they didn't know for a while that novels would be their calling!

So to get to know your favourite writers better, we've put together a list of jobs authors had before they were famous. (And some which they kept after they were published!)


Agatha Christie was an Apothecaries' AssistantAgatha Christie 1925

In 1917, following two years of unpaid work for the Voluntary Aid Detachment, Christie qualified as an apothecaries’ assistant. She received an annual wage of £16 (equivalent to around £800 today) until the end of the War.

No doubt her knowledge of pharmaceuticals helped in any murders by poison that she would write into her books! Her first novel, Hercule Poirot’s Mysterious Affair At Styles, was published in America in 1920, and in the UK in 1921.


Charles Dickens was a Factory WorkerCharles Dickens

Long before his well-documented work as a freelance journalist and legal clerk in a London law office (a job which later inspired the unsolvable court case in Bleak House), 12-year-old Charles Dickens worked in a factory pasting labels onto pots of boot polish.

He later recalled the “two or three other boys who were kept at similar duty”, one of whom had shown him around on his first day in the job. “His name was Bob Fagin,” Dickens later told his friend and biographer John Forster, “and I took the liberty of using his name, long afterwards.”


James Joyce was a Cinema OperatorJames Joyce

After abandoning a medical degree, working as a singer and a pianist, and teaching English in Croatia and Italy, James Joyce and his long-term partner Nora Barnacle opened Dublin’s first cinema - The Volta.

His first major work, Dubliners, was finally published in 1914 after being rejected for publication 22 times!


Jack Kerouac was (among many other things) a DishwasherJack Kerouac by Palumbo

Jack Kerouac’s odd jobs include stints as a cotton picker, a dishwasher, a night guard (as mentioned in On The Road), gas station attendant, a fire lookout (as mentioned in Desolation Angels), a deckhand, a construction worker, and a railroad brakeman.


Harper Lee was an Airline Reservations Attendant

Harper LeeHaving dropped out of a law degree at the University of Alabama, a 23-year-old Harper Lee moved to New York in 1949 hoping to pursue a career as a writer. To pay her way, she worked as a ticket agent for Eastern Airlines and BOAC (the precursor to British Airways), writing various articles and short stories in her spare time.

In 1956, the Broadway lyricist and composer Michael Brown, whom Lee had met through her childhood friend Truman Capote, gave her one year’s wages as a Christmas present. The note alongside it read, “You have one year off to write whatever you please.” A year later, she handed her agent the first draft of To Kill A Mockingbird.


Jack London was an Oyster PirateJack London

As a teenager Jack London “worked” as a self-styled oyster-pirate, stealing oysters from oyster farms in San Francisco Bay and selling them at a marketplace in Oakland. When his boat became damaged beyond repair, London took a job with the California Fish Patrol. Then he joined the crew of a Pacific seal-hunting boat and worked in a jute mill before returning to high school in Oakland in 1896.

He published his first written work, an account of his time sailing the Pacific titled Typhoon off the Coast of Japan, in the school magazine when he was 17.


Vladimir Nabokov was a CuratorVladimir Nabokov 1973

Vladimir Nabokov had already published several Russian language novels by the time he fled Europe for the United States in 1940. Once there, he joined Wellesley College, Massachusetts, and later Harvard, where he became curator of the butterfly collection at the Museum of Comparative Zoology. Nabokov was an entomologist of under-appreciated greatness. He wrote several extensive and authoritative works about butterflies and moths, and his theory of butterfly evolution was proven to be true in early 2011 using DNA analysis

When he threatened to burn an unfinished draft of one of his novels, his wife Véra stopped him and compelled him to finish it: Lolita was published in 1955.


George Orwell was an Indian Imperial Police OfficerGeorge Orwell BBC

In 1922, at the age of 19, George Orwell (born Eric Arthur Blair) enlisted in the Indian Imperial Police and served as a policeman in Burma. The aim was to protect the safety of some 200,000 people, and Orwell was noted for his “sense of utter fairness.”

He was sent home to England to recuperate after he contracted dengue fever, where he resigned from the Imperial Police and moved to London to pursue a career as a writer. His experiences in Burma eventually inspired the novel Burmese Days and the essay “Shooting An Elephant”.


JD Salinger was a Luxury Cruise Activities DirectorPortrait JD Salinger

In late 1941, JD Salinger took a job as activities director on board a luxury Caribbean cruise liner, the MS Kungsholm. That same year, he wrote a short story for The New Yorker called “Slight Rebellion Off Madison,” but its publication was postponed due to the attack on Pearl Harbour and Salinger was drafted into the US Army and posted to Normandy. A chance meeting with Ernest Hemingway in Paris encouraged him to continue pursuing a career in writing, and after military service in the counter-intelligence division, he returned to America in 1946.

His short story “Slight Rebellion Off Madison” was finally printed later that year, and Salinger quickly began working on a novel featuring the story’s main character, a disaffected teenager named Holden Cauldfield — The Catcher in the Rye was published in 1951.


John Steinbeck was a Mannequin ManufacturerJohn Steinbeck 1962

John Steinbeck was working as a tour guide and caretaker at a fish hatchery in Lake Tahoe when he met his first wife, Carol Henning, in 1928. The couple were soon married and started a business manufacturing plaster mannequins.

When the business failed, Steinbeck’s parents supported him financially as best they could while he tried to establish himself as a writer. Of Mice And Men, his sixth novel, was published in 1937.


Kurt Vonnegut was a Car DealerKurt Vonnegut 1972

Following an eventful Second World War military service — in which he was captured and imprisoned in an underground meat locker, and survived the Allied firebombing of Dresden in 1945 — Kurt Vonnegut worked as a journalist at Sports Illustrated magazine. When asked to write an article about a racehorse that jumped over a fence and tried to escape, he typed, “The horse jumped over the fucking fence” on a piece of paper and walked out. He then took a job in the PR department of General Electric, but left that in 1951 and published his first novel, Player Piano the following year.

Despite his burgeoning writing career, Vonnegut maintained a string of day jobs in the years that followed, including a stint as an advertising agent and, in 1957, he opened a Saab dealership. He was working as an English teacher in the University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop when his novel Cat’s Cradle became a bestseller in 1963.


Octavia Butler was a Potato Chip InspectorOctavia Butler

She was a talented science-fiction writer and awarded the MacArthur Fellowship — but before her success as a writer, Octavia Butler worked as a potato chip inspector. She also worked as a dishwasher and a telemarketer, using these day jobs to support her writing. She’d get up at 2 a.m. to write before going into work!


John Green was a Chaplain at a Children's HospitalJohn Green

Before writing young adult novels, John Green was studying to become a miister. He worked as a chaplain at a children's hospital as part of the discernment process, and the stories of the people he met there eventually inspired his book The Fault in Our Stars.


Douglas Adams was a BodyguardDouglas Adams

Even published authors often have to work other jobs to make ends meet, and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy author Douglas Adams was no exception. At one point, he was a bodyguard for a wealthy Arabian family, while he simultaneously wrote for radio shows and Monty Python.


Margaret Atwood worked in a Coffee ShopMargaret Atwood 2015

Margaret Atwood says her first job experience was not ideal: she had to deal with a difficult cash register, a rude ex-boyfriend who would come by just to stare at her and barely tip, and fellow employees who were definitely not friendship material. She details the experience in her essay, “Ka-Ching!”


Stephen King was a Caretaker

Stephen King
He may be a renowned author of over 50 novels, but Stephen King wasn't always a full-time writer — his time as a high school caretaker helped inspire the novel Carrie. King originally threw the first draft of the story in the bin, but his wife Tabitha fished it out and told him to keep going because she wanted to know how it ended.




So if you're thinking of writing - it doesn't matter what you do now - authors have all sorts of jobs! And sometimes a job can be just the thing to inspire a book. The setting, the job knowledge, the personalities... who knows what your current job or career could offer!
And Jack Kerouac offers us all a life lesson: it's okay if you don't pick the right job first time!


This post was written by Holly Newson

Picture credit: nieznanyKerouac by Tom PalumboNikolas CoukoumaGage Skidmoremichael hughesFrankie Fouganthinbunkosquad - FlickrAllen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs - Marcelo Noahderivative work

Leave a Reply
Instagram Post

This Loneliness Awareness Week is all about empowering and helping people to feel less lonely 💜

In the words of a Listening Books member, audiobooks can prevent you feeling cut off and part of the wider world 📚

Join us for £20 a year or free if our membership fee would be a barrier to joining 🎧

Click our link in bio to find out more 🌟

ID: Purple text on a white background reads: Quite literally a lifeline. I live in a remote, rural village, and as mobility has become more and more difficult, audiobooks are now the most central part of life. Even surpassing BBC Radio 4. It has prevented me from feeling cut off and part of the wider world. - Listening Books Member. Purple and pink gradient background.

Hashtags: #Audiobooks #LonelinessAwarenessWeek #LonelinessSupport #Bookstagram

Follow on Instagram