The Surprising Non-Literary Jobs of Some Authors

It's no shock when novelists work as journalists or professors before, during, or after their book-producing years. But some famous writers have held rather unusual non-literary jobs.

On the positive side, these stints of atypical-for-authors employment might inspire future books and/or give writers firsthand knowledge of the way non-writers live. On the negative side, these need-the-money jobs can take away from precious prose-creating time.

My job is to now give examples of this multi-profession phenomenon, and I'll start in the 19th century with the career story lines of a famous American literary trio: Mark Twain, Herman Melville, and Nathaniel Hawthorne.

Twain, from 1857 to 1861, worked as a riverboat pilot -- a Mississippi life that not only inspired the factual Life on the Mississippi but also the fictional Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The Civil War halted riverboat traffic, and one wonders what Twain's career trajectory might have been if his piloting job hadn't gotten sunk.

Melville, whose book sales sank as his writing became richer and more complex, made ends meet during the latter part of his life by reluctantly working as a customs inspector in New York City from the mid-1860s to the mid-1880s.

Hawthorne fared much better with atypical-for-authors employment. After penning a puffy campaign biography of his pal-since-college Franklin Pierce, The Scarlet Letter writer was appointed U.S. consul in Liverpool by President Pierce. Hawthorne put his fiction work on hold during that time in government service, but being in England made it easier for him to make a post-consulship move to Italy -- where The Marble Faun novel took shape.

Also in the 19th century, it's well known that British author Anthony Trollope did postal-service work for many years while writing books.

Moving to the 20th century, we have Booth Tarkington serving a term in the Indiana legislature, French author Colette performing in music halls (which inspired her compelling 1910 novel The Vagabond), and Zora Neale Hurston doing anthropology work with Margaret Mead and on her own (which influenced Hurston books such as Their Eyes Were Watching God).

Then there was the author who inspired this post. A Facebook friend of mine enthusiastically recommended Thomas Tryon's 1974 book Lady -- which I found to be a lovely, poignant, elegiac story about the complicated pre-World War II friendship between a boy and his middle-aged-widow neighbor -- and I was surprised to learn that Tryon worked as a stage, movie, and TV actor before becoming an accomplished novelist.

Among the living novelists with two or more careers is Khaled Hosseini, a physician before The Kite Runner catapulted him to literary fame.

A variation on the multi-job life is when an established author gets "undercover" employment for the purpose of writing a book. Perhaps the most famous recent example of that was Barbara Ehrenreich toiling in low-paid menial jobs to show how the working poor can barely survive in America -- leading to her powerful 2001 expose Nickel and Dimed.

Here's a brief interlude listing some authors who hold or held unsurprising positions. Professors: Junot Diaz, Jeffrey Eugenides, Alison Lurie, Toni Morrison, Joyce Carol Oates, J.R.R. Tolkien, etc. Journalists: Willa Cather, Charles Dickens, Nora Ephron, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Ernest Hemingway, Carl Hiaasen, George Orwell, Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Portis, Anna Quindlen, Emile Zola, etc. I'm sure you know of many other fiction writers who've spent time working in academia or the media!

Getting back to the main theme of this post, can you name some authors I didn't mention who held surprising non-literary jobs? And do you think authors are helped or hindered by having another profession sometime during their careers?


Dave Astor has written a memoir titled Comic (and Column) Confessional (Xenos Press). Originally slated for June 2012 release, it is now scheduled to be published later this summer -- when the book can be purchased online. Signed copies will also be available; if you'd like information about that, contact Dave at at any time.

The part-humorous memoir is about Dave's 25 years at Editor & Publisher magazine covering, interviewing, and meeting notables such as Arianna Huffington, Heloise, Hillary Clinton, Walter Cronkite, Coretta Scott King, Martha Stewart, Paul Krugman, Ann Landers, and Abigail Van Buren ("Dear Abby"); and notable cartoonists such as Gary Larson ("The Far Side"), Lynn Johnston ("For Better or For Worse"), Mort Walker ("Beetle Bailey"), Charles Schulz ("Peanuts"), Stan Lee ("Spider-Man"), Bill Watterson ("Calvin and Hobbes"), Garry Trudeau ("Doonesbury"), Berkeley Breathed ("Bloom County"), Scott Adams ("Dilbert"), Jim Davis ("Garfield"), Milton Caniff ("Terry and the Pirates"/"Steve Canyon"), and Herblock. The book also chronicles changes in the media, discusses personal stuff, and more.