Vonnegut Sold Saabs: 11 Author Day Jobs

Gabe Habash -- August 5th, 2011

We all have that same romanticized image of The Writer: sitting alone, hunched over his/her desk, pen in hand, thinking deeply about Writing before putting the pen to the page and Writing. But, unfortunately, doing this for long stretches of time doesn’t pay the bills, and that’s why things like Sylvia Plath working as a receptionist in the psychiatric unit at Massachusetts General Hospital happen. Writers are normal people, too. Just how normal? Here’s a few of our favorite writer day job finds:

1. John Steinbeck was a caretaker and tour guide at a fish hatchery in Lake Tahoe, where he worked on his first novel and also met his future first wife, Carol Henning. She was a tourist on one of his tours.

2. Douglas Adams first thought of the idea for A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy while moonlighting as a hotel security guard in London.

3. Jeanette Winterson, in addition to driving an ice cream truck, was a make-up artist at a funeral parlor.

4. Dashiell Hammett was hired by the Pinkerton Detective Agency as an “operative” at age 21. His job description included staking out houses and trailing suspects. He was thankful for the work; his previous job had been a nail machine operator.

5. Robert Frost changed light bulb filaments in a factory in Massachusetts shortly before he sold his first poem, “My Butterfly: An Elegy” in 1894 for $15.

6. Kurt Vonnegut was the manager of a Saab dealership in Cape Cod, after he’d already published his first novel, Player Piano. The dealership was supposedly Saab’s first in America.

7. Jack London was an “oyster pirate.” At night, he would raid the oyster beds of big-time oyster farmers and sell them in the Oakland markets.

8. Jean Rhys, a 23-year-old and in need of money, posed nude for a British artist.

9. James Ellroy led a life of petty crime and shoplifting as a wayward youth, most likely as a response to his confusion following his mother’s unsolved murder.

10. Harper Lee struggled when she first moved to New York at age 23, working as a ticket agent for Eastern Airlines before befriending Broadway composer Michael Martin Brown. In 1956, Brown gave Lee a Christmas present: a year’s wages so she could devote herself full-time to her craft. During this time, she began work on what would eventually become To Kill a Mockingbird.

11. Ken Kesey, in order to earn some extra cash, was a guinea pig for the psych department at Stanford in a CIA-sponsored drug experiment. As a result of the drugs, Kesey had hallucinations of an Indian sweeping the floors, which compelled him to write One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

Which mundane (or strange) day jobs for writers have we missed? Let us know in the comments below!





13 thoughts on “Vonnegut Sold Saabs: 11 Author Day Jobs

  1. April Henry

    I was also an artist’s model, one of many jobs I juggled to pay for college. It paid much better than my other jobs. I would take off my clothes and my contacts, because it was easier if everyone was slightly blurry.

  2. Jane Alexis

    R. M. Ryan was a stockbroker at a regional brokerage house in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

    Wallace Stevens worked for Hartford Life Insurance.

  3. jjray

    Hawthorne was “Surveyor for the District of Salem and Beverly and Inspector of the Revenue for the Port of Salem” and was mighty upset when he lost this job due to the change in power of the political parties of the day.

  4. Name Withheld

    Franz Kafka investigated personal injury claims for the Kingdom of Bohemia’s Worker’s Accident Insurance Institute.

    And Charles Bukowski worked at the Post Office and was unwilling to give up his job when his writing took off because he wanted to retire and collect his pension.

  5. Sam M-B

    IIRC, Brandon Sanderson worked a late night hotel desk. Also, quite famously I think, JK Rowling was a homemaker. There are a lot of professors (Joe Haldeman, John Kessel, James Enge, David Anthony Durham) but there’s another that comes to mind: Orson Scott Card was a copywriter for a software/tech mag when he wrote Ender’s Game. (This is from memory, potentially faulty.)

  6. Harmony Huskinson

    Not very mundane, but I read in MentalFloss that Roald Dahl spied for the US on the side and was a total woman charmer. ;) I’d provide a link, but the magazine didn’t post the article online because you have to be a subscriber.

    1. Cindy

      Carson McCullers was a typist and a waitress. “I was always fired,” she said. “My record is perfect on that. I never quit a job in my life.”

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