Detail from Jean-François Millet, Peasant Spreading Manure, 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.
Darin Strauss: I worked freelance at The Aspen Times as a nightlife correspondent: seven hundred words for fifty bucks, an article a month. Then I thought, Hey dummy, you published with The Aspen Times, you should go to New York and write for their Times! It didn’t work out. I lived with my parents on Long Island and delivered Chinese food. To avoid the embarrassment of being seen doing this, I took a gig at a restaurant two towns over. My first day, a girl opens her door to me, and it’s someone I went to summer camp with. “Darin,” she says, somehow unsurprised to find me on her doorstep. “Good timing. Come in, I just ordered Chinese food.” I told her I knew, I knew.
I finally got a job at a financial technology newsletter, where I wrote stories with openings like: “Morgan Stanley is reported to be buying the Telerate trading platform to replace its Thomson real-time, turning from Unix to tcb/ip servers, with four hundred real-time end users.” I never bothered to learn what any of that meant; I wanted to keep my mind free for fiction. I was going to write, write, write. I thought I’d be fired instantly. When my boss said, “Telerate’s TIB is in trouble with its real-time market data platform—find out if data delivery is … ,” I didn’t know whom to call, what to ask, even what I was supposed to do if I found out. Some kind woman gave me a list of questions to ask, and some numbers to call. Three years I worked there, interviewing people without a clue what I was asking.
Deb Olin Unferth: In Birmingham, Alabama, I taught “self-esteem” in the Department of Family Services waiting room, where four or five hundred people showed up at seven in the morning and waited for hours—sometimes six, seven hours—for their appointments to get food stamps, or to sign up for welfare, or to meet with their caseworker about the children who had been removed from their homes and placed in foster care. My main activity was to get them to play self-esteem bingo. I handed out blank cards, and people were supposed to write adjectives that described them in the spaces. I provided a sample list: “beautiful,” “smart,” “funny.” I’d call out the words and when someone said, “Bingo,” I’d read their card aloud and say, “Now does she have a good self-esteem or a bad self-esteem?” and whoever didn’t completely hate me by that time would chirp, “Good self-esteem!” And I’d give the winner a tiny cheap notebook and say, “Here’s a place for you to write your hopes and dreams.”
Chris Flynn is the books editor at The Big Issue and the fiction editor at Australian Book Review.