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Last updated on Aug 01, 2022

14 Unexpected Day Jobs of Bestselling Authors

Bret Easton Ellis sold his manuscript for Less Than Zero at the age of 21. Unlike this wunderkind, most authors don’t land on the New York Times Best Sellers List straight after college: most of them had to find day jobs while they worked on their craft. In this week’s post, we look through the résumés of the world’s most beloved authors and uncover the skills that paid the bills.

1. JD Salinger – Cruise Ship Entertainment Director

Bestselling Authors Day Jobs: JD Salinger

It’s hard to imagine Salinger calling bingo numbers or organizing a limbo contest, but the late (and reclusive) author of Catcher in the Rye once served as the entertainment director on a Swedish-owned cruise ship. In 1953, The New Yorker published Teddy, his short story set, as it would happen, on a luxury liner.

2. William S Burroughs - Exterminator

Bestselling Authors Day Jobs: William S Burroughs

Author, satirist, painter, spoken word artist, Harvard graduate, heroin addict… pest controller? After his Army discharge in 1942, the Beat Generation’s future founding father drifted between jobs, one of which was to murder rats and roaches for money. Almost 20 years later, he published a short story based on his experience, called Exterminator!


3. Suzanne Collins – Kids TV Writer

Bestselling Authors Day Jobs: Suzanne Collins

You’ve heard of The Hunger Games, right? Before Suzanne Collins became a giant in the world of Sci-Fi YA, she was writing for a slightly younger audience with TV shows like Clarissa Explains It All and Clifford.

4. Bram Stoker – Theatre Manager

Bestselling Authors Day Jobs: Bram Stoker

Stoker worked as a personal assistant to Henry Irving, considered by many to be Victorian London's greatest thespian. Over 20 years, Stoker accompanied Irving on tour and served as acting manager of his Lyceum Theatre in London. How did he ever find the time to write one of the greatest horror novels of all time?!

5. Diana Gabaldon – University Professor

Bestselling Authors Day Jobs: Diana Gabaldon

Best known for her Outlander series of books, Gabaldon was a professor of environmental sciences at Arizona State University for years before she turned her hand to steamy historical fantasy. Fun fact: while her breakout book is set in the Highlands during the Jacobite rebellions, Gabaldon had never been to Scotland until after Outlander was published.

6. Kurt Vonnegut – SAAB dealer

Bestselling Authors Day Jobs: Kurt Vonnegut

“Sure, I’m the celebrated author of Slaughterhouse Five, but what will it take for you to leave here today with a brand new SAAB and a two-year extended warranty?” It's true: Vonnegut opened and managed a car dealership in Cape Cod back in 1951.

7. Harper Lee – Airline Ticket Clerk

Bestselling Authors Day Jobs: Harper Lee

We all know how Lee’s upbringing in the segregated South inspired her classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird and that childhood friend Truman Capote was the basis for the character of Dill. But did you know she was an airline reservation agent in New York City for almost five years before she quit to work full time on her novel(s).

8. Franz Kafka – Insurance Clerk

Bestselling Authors Day Jobs: Franz Kafka

Kafka was employed by the Prague Worker’s Accident Insurance Institute shortly after law school. The job required him to investigate industrial accidents, often involving severed limbs, and assess a worker’s compensation. You might describe this idea of an anonymous bureaucrat determining the value of man’s life and livelihood as somewhat 'Kafkaesque' — which would turn out to be great fodder for literary classics!

9. Anne Rice – Insurance Claims Examiner

Bestselling Authors Day Jobs: Anne Rice

Years before she became a bestselling author at age 35 with Interview with a Vampire, Rice had already spent years working alongside bloodsucking parasites in the insurance business! *rimshot*

10. Stephen King – Janitor (but only kind of...)

Bestselling Authors Day Jobs: Stephen King

New England’s King of Horror spent many of his early years in high schools: as a student, a part-time janitor, and eventually as a teacher. In fact, the idea for his breakout novel, Carrie, came from an observation he once made in the girls' changing room. Wait – that doesn't sound right...

11. Haruki Murakami – Jazz Club Manager

Bestselling Authors Day Jobs: Haruki Murakami

Many of Murakami’s characters are obsessed with kitties and old Jazz records, so it should come as no surprise that he had previously run a suburban Tokyo Jazz club called Peter Cat (pictured above), named after his beloved pet.

12. John Green – Hospital Chaplain

Bestselling Authors Day Jobs: John Green

The internet maven (and YA bestseller) was a student chaplain at a children’s hospital in Columbus, OH. While he didn’t pursue a career in the clergy, his experience inspired his most successful book to date: The Fault in Our Stars, chronicling a tragic romance in a hospital support group.

13. Charles Bukowski – Postman

Bestselling Authors Day Jobs: Charles Bukowski

One of American Literature’s most transparently autobiographical novelists, Bukowski spent almost 20 years as a postal worker. His debut novel was published in 1971, shortly after his 50th birthday. What was it called? Post Office, of course.

As a side note, have you that almost every pre-1975 author photograph shows them smoking?

14. William Faulkner – Postmaster

Bestselling Authors Day Jobs: William Faulkner

Speaking of postal workers, the future Nobel laureate was briefly a postmaster at the University of Mississippi. From all written accounts, he was terrible at this job and eventually handed in a resignation letter penned with sound and fury.

Who have we left off this list? If your favorite writer once held an interesting, strange, or unexpected job, please share it with us in the comments below.

– Originally published on Sep 07, 2016

2 responses

Esme Vos says:

09/09/2016 – 19:21

Wallace Stevens (American poet) was a senior executive at the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company, an insurance company based in Hartford, Connecticut.

Esme Vos says:

09/09/2016 – 19:23

William Carlos Williams (American poet) was a pediatrician.

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