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Author Archive

Pulling Teeth; Cold Calling

October 18, 2011 | by

Detail from 'Peasant Spreading Manure,' Jean-Fracois Millet, 1855, oil.

Most dust jackets list only literary accomplishments, but I’ve always been a fan of offbeat author bios. So I asked some of my favorite writers to describe their early jobs.

Clancy Martin: I worked at the buy counter at the Forth Worth Gold and Silver Exchange in Texas in the eighties. The only object there was to cheat people out of their jewelry, old gold, and sterling-silver flatware. If we paid more than ten percent of what we could wholesale the item for, we were paying too much: that was the rule. We kept dental pliers behind the counter so that people could pull out their gold teeth if they wanted to. This happened quite regularly, with very poor and homeless people who came in. They did it in the bathroom. They had to remove the gold from their teeth and clean it before we could weigh it. So that was my job. I was sixteen and still believed that the universe had an important moral order so I was constantly sending people—depending upon how they looked to me, if they seemed poor and deserving—to other jewelry stores where I knew they would be paid better prices. Often these people nevertheless took the price we offered. We ran such large ads and they waited in line so long to sell their items that all the fight had gone out of them.

Téa Obreht: One fiscally woeful summer, I decided to get some cash by teaching ballroom dance. The manager of the local studio, where I sometimes practiced, informed me that a new coaching position would open up within a few weeks, but in the meantime I could perform the equally important task of following up with past studio members and encouraging them to return. This entailed sitting in a subterranean office, going down a list of phone numbers in the student ledger, and saying things like, “Good evening, we haven’t seen you recently, can we interest you in more lessons?” There were, of course, the obligatory no-thank-yous and go-to-hells, but every so often, someone would say something like, “Unfortunately, my recent hip replacement makes that impossible,” or “As I explained to the young lady last week, my wife is still dead and we won’t be coming any more.” After about a week of this, I went to work in the stockroom of a furniture store.

Chris Flynn is the books editor at The Big Issue and the fiction editor at Australian Book Review.

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Misspent Youth; Reading ‘Fup’

October 11, 2011 | by

Detail from 'Peasant Spreading Manure,' Jean-Fracois Millet, 1855, oil.

Most dust jackets list only literary accomplishments, but I’ve always been a fan of offbeat author bios. So I asked some of my favorite writers to describe their early jobs.

Nam Le: I ran through the usual money-makers of misspent youth: door-knocking in the outer ‘burbs, Christmas-carolling at the bottom of escalators, child-laboring in the family business, pyramid-selling to my parents, my friends, my parents’ friends, my friends’ parents. I did time in a call center, spent one year on my knees lacing up Doc Marten boots for feral teenagers, and another fending off feral twenty-somethings while editing the university student paper. Then I finished my law degree—and threw in my lot with the greatest ferals of all.

Colum McCann: I was a “wilderness educator” back in Texas in the mid-eighties, after taking an eighteen-month bicycle trip across America. This meant working with kids who were at risk, or juvenile delinquents. We lived out in the woods for three months at a stretch, built pine-pole shelters, treehouses, an outdoor latrine, a gravity-fed shower. It was a magnificent interruption in my life: out under the stars. At night I used to read these tough, streetwise kids to sleep—Catcher in the Rye, The Grapes of Wrath, and a fable called Fup by Jim Dodge. They loved Fup in particular, a fable about a duck, a sound-anagram for “Fucked Up.” I still hear from these kids—they’re all over the country now and generally they’re out of trouble, except for the fact that they might be reading Fup to their kids.

Chris Flynn is the books editor at The Big Issue and the fiction editor at Australian Book Review.

4 COMMENTS

Fake Paintings; Perfume Tester

October 4, 2011 | by

Jean-Francois Millet, Peasant Spreading Manure (detail), 1855, oil on canvas.

 

Most dust jackets list only literary accomplishments, but I’ve always been a fan of offbeat author bios. So I asked some of my favorite writers to describe their early jobs.

M. J. Hyland: From the age of eighteen to twenty-one, I worked any job I could get my hands on. One of these jobs was selling fake paintings door-to-door. There were four of us in the crew. We were taken out each night in the company car—a white minivan—and dropped on suburban street corners with black folio bags. I’d been instructed to pretend I was the artist.

My first night was the one I remember best. The suburb was a newly built estate, each house a mirror of its neighbor. The grass hadn’t grown on the front lawns yet, and there were cars in all the newly paved driveways—not flashy cars, but not beat-up Holdens either. I walked to the door of a house and knocked.

“Sorry to bother you at teatime,” I said, “but my name’s Marcia Bradshaw and I’m an art student at university. I’m going from door to door to see if I can sell some of my work.” I unzipped the bag and took out a painting. “I need to raise some money so I can finish my degree,” I said. “My parents have no money and my scholarship only lasted two years.”

Life is ruthless, and its bestowal of fortune arbitrary and capricious. I’d been born to morons and mine was a shabby life. I stood on this woman’s doorstep and told the lie about the paintings as easily as I did because, although it was a lie, it was also true. I believed my own lies and told them well. I wanted money, and, like my criminal father, I wanted it the easy way. Read More »

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Night Shifts; Manufacturing Arrows

September 27, 2011 | by

Jean-Francois Millet, Peasant Spreading Manure (detail), 1855, oil on canvas.

Most dust jackets list only literary accomplishments, but I’ve always been a fan of offbeat author bios. So I asked some of my favorite writers to describe their early jobs.

John Brandon: I did my best for a while at a lumber mill that fashioned blunt-tip wooden arrows. The only use for the product, as far as I know, is in schools that teach archery as part of their PE program. This may have been the only wooden-arrow producer in the country. I was the new man, as I always was in those days, so I had to drag the colossal hunks of raw cedar around to the head saw. If one were to design a task for the specific purpose of causing hernias, this would be that task. Perilously awkward, perilously heavy lifting. Another thing left to the new guy was rolling the arrows to see which were warped. You had to lean over a wide table for hours on end, knotting your shoulders and neck. I also shoveled out the sawdust room. All the sawdust from the mill was sucked up and blown into this stifling shed that leaned against the main building, and once a week I had to put on a mask and wedge myself in there and shovel it all into canvas bags. It took most of a day. Once in a while a circus would come and purchase all the sawdust—I’m not sure why. Anyway, the place was in the middle of nowhere, so on breaks there was nothing to do but lean against the outside wall and pick sawdust out of your nose and ears.

I worked Monday to Thursday, ten hours a day, with a forty-five-minute drive at each end. Thursday nights, my work week over, my girlfriend would drag me to a beach bonfire where I’d dull my aches with Alaskan Amber and eat hamburgers, tugboats belching in the distance. The wee hours of one of those nights was the only time, as an adult, that I pissed the bed. Being thoroughly drunk and sort of tired had never caused this. Being thoroughly tired and sort of drunk did. Not to mention our studio apartment hung out over the sound, so we slumbered each night to the lapping of gentle waves.

Brian Evenson: In 1987, as a young college student, I had the pleasure of working four abysmally bad jobs, all of them at hours when no human should be awake. First I worked the graveyard shift in a sweeper truck, sweeping parking lots. I was the guy who would get out with a leaf blower in freezing cold weather and blow all the debris away from the curbs so the truck could get it. My partner’s job seemed to involve sitting in the heated cab getting high. When that job collapsed, I moved on to working the graveyard shift at a twenty-four-hour fast-food Mexican restaurant. It was just me and a very fat manager with peroxide hair who spent the time from one A.M. to two A.M. smoking, and two A.M. to four A.M. sleeping. When I finally couldn’t take that any more, I took a job as a part-time bread processor for the university, working from three A.M. to seven A.M. putting dough in an automatic proofer and then into an oven. I quit this job because my hands broke out in a rash. Simultaneously, I was washing pans in the backroom of another bakery from seven A.M. to nine A.M. I was fired from that because I couldn’t make it over quickly enough from my bread-processing job. There was, later, ditch-digging, working as a labor subforeman for a construction crew, working as an assistant manager at Hamburger World, and a job trying to program in a computer language that I didn’t know. But, in 1987, I didn’t have a single bearable job.

Chris Flynn is the books editor at The Big Issue and the fiction editor at Australian Book Review.

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Equestrian Summer Camp; Desolation Canyon Ranger

September 20, 2011 | by

Jean-Francois Millet, Peasant Spreading Manure (detail), 1855, oil on canvas.

Most dust jackets list only literary accomplishments, but I’ve always been a fan of offbeat author bios. So I asked some of my favorite writers to describe their early jobs.

Laura van den Berg: A friend and I once spent two summers running an equestrian summer camp. Our qualifications? We knew about horses, my parents lived on a small farm, and my friend’s job as an elementary school teacher provided us with an eager clientele. But we had never run a summer camp before, which might explain why we fed all our charges peanut butter sandwiches; saddled up a white pony as old as Gandalf who lived to stomp the toes of small children; failed to require release forms; offered cold, hard cash to the camper who could go the longest without asking another question; and decided our time together should culminate in all the campers spray-painting psychedelic designs on an edgy 1,300-pound Pinto aptly named Art. Miraculously, no one ever got hurt, lawsuits were never filed, and no horses were harmed in the making of this summer camp.

Maile Meloy: After college, I had a summer job in Utah as a river ranger in Desolation Canyon, on the Green River, working for my uncle. It wasn’t even really a job—it was a volunteer position that came with a stipend and a tiny trailer to live in, which looked like it was full of hantavirus. The job usually attracted very crazy people, so I think my uncle was using me as a buffer against the lunatics. The river trip down Desolation Canyon takes five days, and the launch is in one of the most remote places in the country, at the end of a long, tire-eating dirt road through the desert. I’d brought a friend along, who also wasn’t crazy. We had Bureau of Land Management baseball caps and a list of permits, and our job was to check the boaters onto the river early every morning. We told them not to touch the pictographs on the canyon walls and made sure they had firepans and groovers. Firepans keep ash and cinders out of the sand. A groover is a rectangular ammunition can, repurposed as a toilet. Nothing decomposes in the desert, so everything has to be packed out. Some people say it’s called a groover because the steel can left grooves on the backs of your thighs before people started adding toilet seats. A couple of kayakers showed me an empty plastic mayonnaise jar and insisted that they were going to use that. There was an odd intimacy in having such conversations. People invited us down the river, and we declined, so some left us beer and all were gone by 9 A.M. Then the day stretched out, empty and unimaginably hot, with no TV, no phone, no Internet, and a crackling CB radio for emergencies, and I wrote stories. 

Chris Flynn is the books editor at The Big Issue and the fiction editor at Australian Book Review.

1 COMMENT

Busker; Deposition Delivery

September 13, 2011 | by

Jean-Francois Millet, Peasant Spreading Manure (detail), 1855, oil on canvas.

Most dust jackets list only literary accomplishments, but I’ve always been a fan of offbeat author bios. So I asked some of my favorite writers to describe their early jobs.

Glen David Gold: The summer I was seventeen, I delivered depositions for my uncle, who had an office in midtown Manhattan. My uncle was a lovely fellow and was very kindly trying to find work for an unemployable nephew. I recall spending many long hours sitting quietly in front of his desk while he looked at piles of paper and then finally said, “Go to Macy’s.” To summarize, perhaps to the point of inaccuracy: some of his work came from writing “cease and desist” letters when, say, a belt manufacturer had a dispute with a designer over unpaid invoices or copyright infringement. So I would bring a scary-looking document to a boutique asking them to stop selling some kind of merchandise until the legal problems were cleared up.

Delivering the subpoenas themselves was an adventure every time. For instance, Bloomingdale’s—it turns out they’d had subpoenas delivered before and were prepared for me. I walked to the information desk and asked where the legal department was. Fifteenth floor. I went to the elevators. Which stopped at twelve. After ten minutes of investigation, it turned out that the employee elevators went to fifteen. When I got to the fifteenth floor, I pulled out my subpoena and the receptionist, without batting an eye, said, “Room 1532.” Need I say that there was no room 1532? I walked the rectangle of that floor for what felt like an hour, asking where room 1532 was. It wasn’t. The legal department was now locked and no one answered the door. Finally, in defeat, and wanting to prolong my return to my uncle’s office, I went to take the stairs down. I opened the stairwell, and there it was: Room 1532, where they received subpoenas. I took mine from my pocket and extended it like it was a fucking sword. Ha! The guy behind the desk—that’s all it was, a converted maintenance closet with a desk in it—wiped the mustard from his chin and looked up in surprise. “Wow,” he said. I took that as a compliment.

Michael Moorcock: I got into publishing at the age of sixteen, writing features and stories for a national weekly juvenile magazine. I later edited the magazine, but before that I sold my collection of toy soldiers to buy my first guitar. I left the magazine job to travel to Paris, where I busked outside George Whitman’s shop, then called Le Mistral and now called Shakespeare & Company. George didn’t mind, since I spent pretty much every cent I earned in his shop. Later I got a gig in Montmartre singing familiar songs for tourists in a little cabaret, and, when I went back to England, I continued to take whatever work I could get playing guitar. My best job was working for a madam called Mrs. Fox, who paid me to perform at parties she organized for groups of men. She supplied the ladies and the drink. I supplied the music. I performed for Icelandic sailors, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and a couple of soccer teams, among others, and became very friendly with Mrs. Fox’s ladies, who were all very sweet and kind to me, perhaps because I was far too shy to make a pass at anyone. They told me some wonderful, sometimes frightening, stories. It was great experience, and stood me in good stead when I came to write my first adult fiction at the age of seventeen.

Chris Flynn is the books editor at The Big Issue and the fiction editor at Australian Book Review.

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