Early Jobs of Famous Authors: John Green, Hilary Mantel and More
Until the day writing becomes a 9-to-5 gig that one can apply for, like you'd apply for a job in a retail or accounting, most writers will have to squeeze in a bills-paying occupation between the nights and weekends they spend honing their masterpieces. Some of our favorite writers, from Harper Lee to Sebastian Junger, resorted to truly odd jobs to keep a roof over their heads and food in their bellies while they walked the uneven path to literary stardom. With job-seeking college graduates pounding the pavement this season en masse, we're taking a look at the thrilling, mundane, illuminating and embarrassing early jobs of nine famous writers, and how we think they might have informed their books.
Hilary Mantel: Social worker
Two-time Booker Prize-winning novelist Hilary Mantel worked as a social work assistant at a geriatric clinic after graduating from the University of Sheffield in the early 1970s. In a London Review of Books essay on the experience, she recounts how she "visited the streets and towns around, to report on the home conditions of families desperate for admission [to the clinic] or respite care for a demented relative." One can imagine that this early front-row view of family dysfunction found its way into her novels, "Wolf Hall" and "Bring Up the Bodies," which are rife with catastrophe-prone clans.
Harper Lee: Airline ticket agent
After a promising academic career at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa, 23-year-old Harper Lee moved to New York City in 1949 to pursue her dream of becoming a writer. For a number of years, she supported herself by working as an airline ticket agent, until a generous couple that she'd befriended—the Broadway composer Michael Martin Brown and his wife—offered to bankroll her for a year so that she could devote herself to writing. The end result of that year was her first and only novel, "To Kill a Mockingbird."
Langston Hughes: Assistant to prominent academic
Through he was already a published poet and essayist, 23-year-old Langston Hughes moved to Washington D. C. in 1925 to work as a personal assistant to Carter G. Woodson, a trailblazing African-American scholar who founded both the Association for the Study of African American Life and History and Black History Week, an early iteration of Black History Month. Hughes soon left the post, though, to return to New York, where the Harlem Renaissance was in full swing.
Anne Rice: Insurance claims examiner
After graduating from San Francisco State College, Rice remained in the Bay Area, supporting herself with a string of odd jobs, including a stint as an insurance claims examiner. If the intimate financial details she likely uncovered at the gig didn't inspire her first novel, "Interview for a Vampire," the sheer boredom could have.
Jeanette Walls: Gossip columnist
Jeanette Walls began her writing career as New York magazine's "Intelligencer" columnist. In a recent interview with Bookish, Walls describes how going after "rich, beautiful people who thought they were above reproach" brought out her "inner yard dog." Eventually, she'd turn the ruthless eye she initially trained on celebrities on herself in her bestselling memoir, "The Glass Castle."
John Green: Children's hospital chaplain
After YA sensation John Green graduated from Kenyon College in 2000, he worked as a chaplain at a children's hospital. While he suggests, in an essay on his personal website, that he "wasn't a very good hospital chaplain," it's not a stretch to imagine that his proximity to childhood illness informed his bestselling novel, "The Fault in Our Stars," which tells the story of a romance between two teenage cancer survivors.
Shel Silverstein: Army cartoonist
In 1950, poet and illustrator Shel Silverstein enlisted in the Army at the age of 20, and soon began working as a cartoonist for the military publication Stars and Stripes. Eventually, he'd put his talents to much more whimsical use, illustrating his beloved poetry collections, "Where the Sidewalk Ends," "A Light in the Attic" and "Falling Up" among them.
Sebastian Junger: Tree removal expert
Sebastian Junger, ever the adventure-seeker, worked for a few years as a high-climber for tree removal companies after graduating from Wesleyan. After an accident involving a chainsaw, he turned his focus to journalism, but the thrills by no means stopped there: Junger's books and reportage on topics ranging from historic storms to international combat have won him prizes and critical acclaim en masse.
Bethenny Frankel: Event planner
If "Real Housewives of New York" star-turned-margarita magnate Bethenny Frankel seems adept at turning the twists and turns of her personal life into public festivities, it's probably because one of her first jobs out of college was in events planning. After graduating from NYU, Frankel moved to Los Angeles to try her hand at acting, but was forced to take day jobs to pay the bills. "I was broke," she told Forbes. "I was eating cartons of takeout rice two meals a day." Frankel recounts her long struggle from poverty to privilege—and dispenses advice on doing the same—in "A Place of Yes: 10 Rules for Getting Everything You Want Out of Life."