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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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