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. Here, in honor of Labor Day, T. C. Boyle and Jim Shepard present stories of factory work.
T. C. Boyle: I worked one summer at a factory near my hometown of Peekskill. I was a college kid, the other workers were lifers. I was never quite clear what the cast-metal things we made there were—they were called muffins and aximaxes—and I wasn’t much good at repetitive tasks. I was far better at after-work activities, like driving my spavined, oil-burning Renault to the local bars and the deep clear lakes. But when I think back on that time, I see elephant-size pots of molten metal, steam rising—or maybe it was some sort of carcinogenic gas—and I see the one-armed guy my own age, Vinnie, a lifer, to whom I eventually sold my Renault for the same amount I’d paid for it at the beginning of the summer: fifty dollars. My final recollection of him, of that time, that place? Waving good-bye.
Jim Shepard: For some weeks one summer when I was in high school I worked as something called a passivator for a company that manufactured cabinets for computers. The cabinets were the size of desks and dressers and made of stainless steel, and the solder marks discolored the steel in rainbow patterns. Those patterns had to be removed, but the steel couldn’t be sanded, so that’s where I came in. I stood in a large sink, like a small above-ground swimming pool made out of steel, in the basement of the building. There, I swabbed the discolorations with a wand covered with gauze soaked in hydrochloric acid. The wand had an electric current flowing through it. The combination of the current and the acid washed away the discolorations like magic. Alas, the fumes from the acid were also so strong that they made it hard for me to see straight. And the gauze had to be changed periodically. And the acid ate through my giant rubber gloves. How would I know when the acid had eaten through too much of the gloves? I would feel, I was told, a slippery sensation, before the burning began. And that was indeed the case. My father put a stop to my working there when he heard, with some disbelief, what I’d been doing.
Chris Flynn is the books editor at The Big Issue and the fiction editor at Australian Book Review.