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.
The woman invited me in and I sat on the new settee. I went on lying about the paintings. I said I’d been around Australia, hitchhiking, and had painted by the side of the road. It had taken me nearly a year. About a half-hour later, the woman’s husband came in from work, his suit jacket over his arm, his tie undone. I told him the same story from the beginning. He asked questions.
“How long have you been studying?”
“Who are your favorite artists?”
“How much do the materials cost?”
I thought I’d been caught, but crossed my legs and went on lying. When the woman asked me how much the painting of the windmill cost, I told her I had no fixed price in mind. It was a matter of how much they were prepared to spend. The husband said, “How about fifty. Would fifty dollars be enough?”
“That’d be fine,” I said.
The woman went to her handbag, which was on the table at the end of the settee. “How about eighty dollars,” she said, “that’s all I have in my purse.”
“That’s fine,” I said.
The company that ran the paintings scam was later exposed for fraud on a popular Australian TV show called The Hinch Show, in a segment called The Shame Files. When I was twenty-one, three years after I sold the fake paintings, I worked for that same TV show as an assistant director. That was the last job I did before I decided to study law, and the last job I was sacked from.
Marie Darrieussecq: I was a test consumer for perfumes in toilets. Advertising executives watched my reactions through a two-way mirror—not in the toilets.
Chris Flynn is the books editor at The Big Issue and the fiction editor at Australian Book Review.
Last / Next Article