Writers need good stories to stoke their fiction. What better way to get material than a crazy first job?
For Reuters’ “First Jobs” series, we talked to a few successful American authors about the jobs that got them started on the path to literary stardom.
Author: Along Came a Spider, 1st To Die, Kiss the Girls
First job: Hospital psych aide
“I had grown up in a small town with not a lot of exposure to the world, and then I got a job as a psych aide at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts. It was a real chance to grow up and meet different kinds of people. All sorts of windows and doors started opening up for me.
“My job was basically to talk to people. At first I worked maximum security, where sometimes the patients could get violent, and you had to take them to the ‘Quiet Room’. Then I started working the adolescent floors, where I met a lot of kids with drug issues or parent problems. I was like their big brother.
“The only place I didn’t like working was the one ward filled with people who had lobotomies. I found that very difficult.
“That hospital was also where I started reading like crazy. Often I had the 11 pm to 7 am shift, and I would just read, read, read – I got up to a novel a day, that I bought from used bookstores in Cambridge. Soon after that I started scribbling stories.
“The poet Robert Lowell was a patient there once in a while. A few of the other aides were English majors, so we would just sit in his room for hours and he would talk about his poetry. Some nights I would come home from work and feel like I was flying, because I was so exhilarated from moments like that.”
Jonathan Safran Foer
Author: Here I Am, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Everything Is Illuminated
First job: Jewelry store
“I worked behind the counter at my dad’s jewelry store in a Maryland mall. I also replaced watch batteries, which sounds mundane but is a actually bizarrely complicated thing to do. I remember I had a big crush on a girl at the time, and I used to etch her initials into everybody’s watches.
“I also sold jewelry, and I had a whole sales pitch worked out. If a customer wondered if they really needed something, I would say, ‘The real question is: Do you want a family heirloom for your children or grandchildren?’ I was too young to realize what a jerk I was.
“That place was a real Petri dish of humanity, a very rich psychological environment. There is a certain kind of person who can sell things, and the people who had been there for decades enjoyed teaching me everything they knew.
“We even had a code word if we ever felt threatened behind the counter: ‘Mercury.’ Thankfully I never had to use it.”
Author: The Harder They Come, When the Killing’s Done, World’s End
First job: Clothing stockboy
“My first paying job was when I was 16, as a senior in high school. A friend of mine had been working at a men’s clothing store, and they needed extra people for the holiday season. This was in a shopping center in my hometown of Peekskill, New York.
“I had many problems in those days, one of which was: How could I possibly get any girl in my life? Thankfully I made enough salary at this nice clothing store to buy some cool stuff for myself, like pointy-toed shoes and skinny pants and big sweaters.
“Down in the stockroom, my friend used to draw comic faces and write messages for me, and I would respond. In that graffiti we would make fun of the boss, and his wife, and his children. So soon after I was called in by the boss and fired — which of course I richly deserved. I had no interest in actually working.”