I loved writing this feature for Spectator Life! The surprising day jobs of famous authors.
Writing, or being a writer, often follows years of work in other fields. Many famous writers have had colourful employment histories which show through their work. It won’t be a surprise to a reader of Joseph Conrad to learn that he was a sea captain who worked his way up the ranks. If you didn’t already know about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s background in medicine (he was a doctor and a surgeon) then it is certainly apparent in the Sherlock Holmes stories. ‘The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier’, for instance, features various skin conditions. We read that: ‘bleaching of the skin a common result [of leprosy]’, and ‘ichthyosis a scale-like affection of the skin, unsightly, obstinate, but possibly curable.’
Conan Doyle was not the only one influenced by his experience in medicine. Agatha Christie worked with the Voluntary Aid Detachment in a Red Cross Hospital in Torquay during the First World War. After that, she passed the examination of the Society of Apothecaries and worked in the dispensary at the hospital. Her knowledge of potions and poisons lent itself well to crime writing. Christie was praised in the Pharmaceutical Journal for her portrayal of the use of strychnine in one of her stories.
Similarly, the years that Walt Whitman volunteered as a nurse during the American Civil War had an important influence on the focus of his writing. His poem ‘The Wound-Dresser’ tells of his role, ‘To sit by the wounded and soothe them, or silently watch the dead’. In 1918 Ernest Hemingway signed up with the Red Cross to become an ambulance driver in Italy, before finding himself at the Italian Front months later. His novel ‘A Farewell to Arms’ tells the story of an American serving in the ambulance corps of the Italian Army. Tolstoy’s ‘Sevastopol Sketches’ relate his experiences in the Siege of Sevastopol in 1854.
Kurt Vonnegut was enlisted in the US Army and was captured by the Germans during the Battle of Bulge. When he returned home, he opened up a Saab car dealership in Massachusetts but it failed to prosper. In an article published in 2004, he wrote: “The Saab then as now was a Swedish car, and I now believe my failure as a dealer so long ago explains what would otherwise remain a deep mystery: Why the Swedes have never given me a Nobel Prize for Literature.” Although his time as a car dealer may have helped to inspire the character of Dwayne Hoover (a wealthy car dealer) in his novel ‘Breakfast of Champions.’
Initially, Franz Kafka worked as a clerk in an insurance company in Prague and wrote in his spare time. He became a partner in an Asbestos Factory but later resented his time there as he thought he should have been writing instead.
When he was 12 years old Charles Dickens worked in a shoe polish factory. He may have drawn on his observations in the factory for his descriptions of the factory owners in ‘Hard Times’ and ‘Little Dorrit.’ He was well known for his later journalism work: he was a reporter for many years at different newspapers, including The Mirror of Parliament and The Morning Chronicle.
Bram Stoker enjoyed his time as a theatre critic for the Dublin Evening Mail while working for the Irish Civil Service simultaneously. His critique of Henry Irving as Hamlet led to a friendship with the actor and he later became Irving’s Personal Assistant and manager of the Lyceum Theatre in London, which Irving owned.
At first John Steinbeck had difficulty getting published. After leaving Stanford University (without graduating) he had several jobs, including working on farms and building sites (which may have fuelled observations in ‘Of Mice and Men’) before becoming a writer for the New York American. He moved from New York back to California, got married and started his novel-writing career.
In order to pay his tuition fees at university, Stephen King had several jobs, including working as a janitor in a school. He later set several of his books in schools, including ‘Carrie’ and the now banned book ‘Rage’, about a school shooting.
After graduating from Oxford, Philip Larkin became a librarian at Hull University and worked there for thirty years, writing much of his poetry there. Vladimir Nabokov also worked at a university, as a lecturer in comparative literature at Wellesley College. At the same time, he was a curator of lepidoptery (the study of butterflies) at Harvard University’s Museum of Comparative Zoology. He wrote Lolita while on a butterfly hunting trip around America, where the book was ‘energetically resumed in the evenings or on cloudy days,’ while at their different stops.
Frank O’Hara often brought his day job into his poems. A curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, he frequently scattered references to art across his poetry. In ‘Having a Coke With You’ he refers to works by Rembrandt and Duchamp, and in ‘Why I am Not a Painter’ a painting by Michael Goldberg is the main focus. We can get similarly caught up in the beauty of details in Thomas Hardy’s work. Hardy trained as an architect and won many prestigious prizes for his work as an assistant architect. His building expertise enlivens descriptions in ‘Jude the Obscure’: ‘the dwindling spire rose more and more remotely, till its apex was quite lost in the mist drifting across it.’
Many contemporary writers had different jobs too: Sarah Perry was a civil servant, an office temp and a legal administrator; Kit de Waal was a magistrate; Hilary Mantel used to be a social worker. For a writer, it’s not where you started but where you end up.