'A Reader's Book of Days': Odd Jobs Of Famous Authors Before They Were Famous

11 Odd Jobs Of Famous Authors Before They Were Famous

The following is an excerpt from Tom Nissley's "A Reader's Book of Days" (out today). Each page is devoted to a single day of the year and features both original accounts of events in the lives of great writers and fictional events that took place within beloved books. Here are a gathering of the odd jobs that famous authors had before they became famous authors:

October 29, 1692 A tireless and ambitious businessman, Daniel Defoe invested in a variety of enterprises: wholesale hosiery, cargo shipping, trade in spirits and tobacco, a diving bell to recover sunken treasure, and most memorably, seventy civet cats from which he planned to manufacture perfume from the musk recovered, by spatula, from their anal glands. His losses accumulated, however, and with the cats already seized for nonpayment, his creditors had him committed to the Fleet Prison with £17,000 in debts. He negotiated with his creditors to secure his release, but for the rest of his life they hounded him for the debts, even after he left business behind for the new and more successful profession of authorship.
Library of Congress
January 25, 1836 Chasing promises of payment for writing he’d already done, Nathaniel Hawthorne moved to Boston at thirty-one to take the editorship of the American Magazine of Useful and Entertaining Knowledge, a hodgepodge periodical of mostly regurgitated fact and advice. Writing and editing nearly the entire magazine on his own, he enlisted his older sister, Elizabeth, to help. “Concoct, concoct, concoct,” he wrote her on this day. “I make nothing of writing a history or biography before dinner. Do you the same.” Promised $500 for a year’s work, he lasted half the year and only received $20. Giving up in exhaustion and dismay, he realized, as he wrote his younger sister, “this world is as full of rogues as Beelzebub”—his cat—“is of fleas.”
July 26, 1849 The industrious Anthony Trollope, employed by the post office in Ireland, set out to solve the mystery of currency vanishing in the local mails by scratching a sovereign with a knife, enclosing it in a letter, and tracking its course. When it disappeared after passing through the town of Tralee, a search was made and the coin found in the possession of a young postmistress. At her trial in July, Trollope was the principal witness for the prosecution, and the transcript of his witty exchanges on the stand with the defense counsel would have been quite at home in any of his Barchester Chronicles, punctuated as it is by notations of “(laughter),” “(loud laughter),” and “(tremendous laughter),” and ending with the paired salutations “Good morning, triumphant Post Office Inspector” and “Good morning, triumphant cross-examiner.”
January 9, 1873 Twenty years after he wrote “Bartleby, the Scrivener” and sixteen since he’d last published a novel, Herman Melville’s own position as a self-effacing clerk was given a poignant portrait in a letter from his brother- in-law to George Boutwell, the secretary of the treasury. Was there anything Boutwell could do to assure Melville “the undisturbed enjoyment of his modest, hard-earned salary” of $4 a day as a customs inspector? Making no mention of Melville’s forgotten fame as an author, the letter emphasized his principled ability to, like Bartleby, say no: “Surrounded by low venality, he puts it all quietly aside,—quietly declining offers of money for special services,—quietly returning money which has been thrust into his pockets behind his back.”
November 29, 1921 “I like being a detective, like the work,” Dashiell Hammett’s Continental Op once said. “I can’t imagine a pleasanter future than twenty-some years more of it.” Hammett himself only lasted about six years as a detective for the legendary Pinkerton agency—strike-breaking, snooping at roadhouses, nabbing pickpockets—until, too sick with TB to continue, he turned to writing stories. Hammett liked to say his career ended on this day with the cracking of the Sonoma gold-specie case, in which a quarter of a million dollars in gold coins disappeared from the strongroom of a Pacific freighter. Set for a cushy undercover job investigating the theft on the ship’s return trip to Hawaii and Australia, he cost himself a free trip across the Pacific when he discovered the coins hidden onboard just before they sailed.
January 14, 1928 Dr. Seuss’s first contribution to the common language was not “A person’s a person, no matter how small” but “Quick, Henry, the Flit!”—the tagline for his series of ads for Standard Oil’s insecticide, which became a ’30s catchphrase on radio and in song. (Seuss was hired after the wife of an ad exec saw his cartoon in this day’s issue of Judge, a satirical weekly, with the punch line “Darn it all, another Dragon. And just after I’d sprayed the whole castle with Flit!”) As Seuss often said, his work for the petroleum giant directed the course of his later career: “I would like to say I went into children’s book writing because of my great understanding of children. I went in because it wasn’t excluded by my Standard Oil contract.”
May 7, 1932 At the height of his most prodigiously creative period, with "The Sound and the Fury" and "As I Lay Dying" recently published and "Light in August" on its way, William Faulkner reported for work as a screenwriter at the Culver City offices of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Bleeding from a small head wound—he said he had been struck by a cab—he announced: “I’ve got an idea for Mickey Mouse” (not, as it happened, an MGM property). Or, he suggested, he could write for newsreels; “newsreels and Mickey Mouse, these are the only pictures I like.” And then he went missing. The studio assumed he’d gone home to Mississippi, but two days later he reappeared, claiming to have been wandering in Death Valley, and commenced with the work that would occupy him—and take time away from his fiction—for much of the next dozen years.
January 8, 1938 At the age of thirty-eight, with his father nearing death, Jorge Luis Borges began his first full-time job, as an assistant at a remote branch of the Buenos Aires Municipal Library. Told by his colleagues to slow his cataloguing of the library’s paltry holdings or else they’d all be out of a job, he limited his work to an hour a day and spent the remainder reading and writing while his co-workers talked about sports and women. Though he was despondent at the “menial and dismal existence” he’d made for himself from his aristocratic legacy, during these years he wrote his most distinctive works, the stories of "The Garden of Forking Paths," including “The Library of Babel,” the tale of an archive whose infinite contents drive its librarians to despair.
February 15, 1941 J. D. Salinger embarked as a member of the entertainment staff of the SS Kungsholm, a Swedish American Line cruise ship.
December 25, 1956 Kept from going home to Alabama for Christmas by her job as an airline ticket agent, Harper Lee spent the holiday in New York with Broadway songwriter Michael Brown and his wife, Joy, close friends she had met through Truman Capote. Because Lee didn’t have much money they had agreed to exchange inexpensive gifts, but when they woke on Christmas morning the Browns presented her with an envelope containing this note: “You have one year off from your job to write whatever you please. Merry Christmas.” Given the humbling gift of “paper, pen, and privacy,” Lee quit her job and set to work, and by the end of February she had written a couple of hundred pages of a manuscript that was first called "Go Set a Watchman," then "Atticus," and finally "To Kill a Mockingbird."
April 6, 1987 For a few years in the mid-’80s, Jonathan Franzen found an ideal job for a frugal young writer: working weekends reading data at a Harvard seismic lab, which sup- ported him and his wife while he wrote his first novel, "The Twenty-Seventh City," the rest of the week. It also gave him a subject for his rich and undercelebrated second novel, "Strong Motion," whose story hinges on clusters of small earthquakes in the Boston area that may or may not be caused by the pumping of industrial waste into deep underground wells. The first of the tremors, despite its mild 4.7 magnitude, claims on this day its only victim, the step-grandmother of his protagonist, Louis Holland, when it knocks her off a barstool.

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