It’s a dream that a lot of aspiring writers hold dear – the time when they can give up the day job and concentrate on their literary career. Many writers had interesting jobs before they had success with their books – providing inspiration for some of their work. But some continued working another job, at the same time as writing – proving that you don’t always have to give up the day job!
1. William S. Burroughs: Exterminator
After being discharged from the army in 1942, William S Burroughs moved to Chicago and found work as a bug exterminator. The literary world’s nastiest job inspired a collection of short stories called Exterminator!
2. Agatha Christie: Apothecary’s Assistant
Agatha Christie joined the Voluntary Aid Detachment at the start of the first world war attending injured troops at a military hospital in Torquay for the next four years. She qualified as an apothecary’s assistant in 1917, later using her knowledge of pharmaceuticals in many of her crime novels.
3. Charles Dickens: Factory Worker
Later in life he was a freelance journalist and legal clerk in a London law office, but Charles Dickens’ first job was pasting labels onto pots of boot polish in a factory for 10 hours a day. One of the boys who had shown him around on his first day was called Bob Fagin – a name he later used in his book Oliver Twist.
4. Fyodor Dostoyevsky: Engineer
Enrolled against his wishes in a Military Engineering Institute at the age of 15, Dostoyevsky graduated and took a job as an engineer. His interest in the arts still endured, translating French literature in his spare time, publishing an early Russian translation of Balzac in 1843 before his own first work was published.
5. Arthur Conan Doyle: Surgeon
Conan Doyle studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh, and was ship’s doctor on board the Arctic whaler Hope of Peterhead in 1880, then surgeon on board the SS Mayumba during a voyage to West Africa in 1881. He started his own medical practice in Southsea, Hampshire, writing stories between appointments with patients.
6. James Joyce: Cinema Operator
Joyce started but didn’t finish a medical degree, worked as a singer and a pianist, and taught English in Croatia and Italy, In December 1909 James Joyce and his long-term partner (and eventual wife) Nora Barnacle opened Dublin’s first cinema, The Volta, although it closed after about a year, and he returned to teaching English abroad.
7. Franz Kafka: Legal Clerk
Franz Kafka graduated as a Doctor of Law in 1906, working as a legal clerk for a year. He then joined an insurance firm but left as the long hours left him little time to write. Remarkably he was credited by some with inventing the hard hat during his time in an industrial injury institute as a compensation assessor, and co-founded an asbestos factory.
8. Harper Lee: Ticket Agent
After dropping out of a law degree at the University of Alabama, Harper Lee moved to New York in 1949, working as a ticket agent for Eastern Airlines and BOAC. She wrote articles and short stories in her spare time. In 1956 the Broadway lyricist and composer Michael Brown, (met through her childhood friend Truman Capote) gave her one year’s wages as a Christmas present, with a note, “You have one year off to write whatever you please.” A year later, she had completed the first draft of To Kill A Mockingbird. If only all writers had benefactors like Michael Brown!
9. Arundhati Roy: Architect/Aerobics Instructor
Although originally a trained architect; Arundhati Roy made a career out of various odd jobs. She worked as an aerobics instructor, sold cakes, acted, and worked on films and TV scripts before writing her first, prize winning novel, The God of Small Things.
11. Vladimir Nabokov: Curator
Vladimir Nabokov had already published various novels in Russian before he and his family fled Europe for the United States in 1940. He joined Wellesley College, Massachusetts, and then Harvard, becoming curator of the butterfly collection at the Museum of Comparative Zoology. Nabokov wrote several authoritative works about butterflies and moths as well as his most famous novel, Lolita.
12: JD Salinger: Luxury Cruise Activities Director
After a relationship breakdown in 1941, JD Salinger worked for a year as activities director on board a luxury Caribbean cruise liner, the MS Kungsholm, before joining the army when the US joined the war after Pearl Harbour, and fighting in Normandy. He already had an interest in writing, but meeting Ernest Hemingway in Paris encouraged him to continue pursuing a career in writing. The Catcher in the Rye was published in 1951.
13. Kurt Vonnegut: Car Dealer
Vonnegut published his first novel, Player Piano in 1952, but maintained a variety of day jobs including opening a Saab dealership in Barnstable, Massachusetts in 1947.
14. T.S. Eliot: Bank Clerk
T.S. Eliot’s job as a banker is one of the most famous ‘day jobs’ of 20th century writers. Read more about how he resisted attempts to make him give up his work at Lloyds to concentrate on his writing here.-
We hope you’ve enjoyed reading about the day jobs of other writers. How has your working life inspired your own writing? Do let us know.