So, you’re a famous author now…
You’ve published several books and they sold more than a dozen copies each. In fact, a few have been translated and are in second printings. You’ve received some recognition and awards and a bazillion nominations. You’ve landed some speaking engagements with writing and reader groups and a movie producer is soliciting a treatment from you. You have a following…Fans who “stalk” you at the writer conventions you participate in. Fans who want to co-write the sequel to your current bestseller with you, because they understand your universe—and your characters—so well. You discover that some fans have gone ahead and written fan-fic about your main character and universe on the Internet—a sign of adoration. Really.
But you weren’t always famous…
Neither was John Steinbeck, Ursula Le Guin, J.D. Salinger, Harper Lee or J.K. Rowling…
When did the transition occur for them? It’s not that easy to peg and it isn’t that obvious. This is partly because, it depends on each writer’s own criteria for success and fame. Particularly given that many writers aren’t, in fact, seeking fame, per se.
However, what every career writer wants, which often comes alongside fame is this: autonomy and the ability to write for a living without having to sneak it in at midnight after you’re finished your “real” job.
No one is “born” a writer; most of us start out doing something else to make a living. In the meantime, we work hard on what we love and what feeds our souls and our passion for storytelling. We assiduously write on stolen time and submit queries and letters. We do research and marketing. We write drafts, do revisions, attend classes and read books. All hoping to eventually write full time.
Let’s look at the humble roots of some famed writers and what key moment signified their move into the light of career novelist:
J.K. Rowling was an unemployed single mother on public assistance when she wrote the first book. The book was rejected by over a dozen publishers before a small British publisher, Bloomsbury, said yes.
John Steinbeck worked through many odd jobs before earning enough to work as a full time writer. His day jobs included: apprentice painter, fruit picker, estate caretaker and Madison Square Garden construction worker. He also ran a fish hatchery in Lake Tahoe and did guided tours there.
Margaret Atwood worked in a coffee shop. She says her first job experience was NOT ideal: She had to deal with a difficult cash register, a rude ex-boyfriend who would come by just to stare at her and barely tip, and fellow employees who were definitely not friendship material.
Before his writing career blossomed, William Faulkner worked for the postal service, as postmaster at the University of Mississippi. In his resignation note, he summarized the struggle of art and commerce faced by most authors: “As long as I live under the capitalist system I expect to have my life influenced by the demands of moneyed people. But I will be damned if I propose to be at the beck and call of every itinerant scoundrel who has two cents to invest in a postage stamp. This, sir, is my resignation.”
In a 1953 interview, J.D. Salinger shared that he had served as entertainment director on the HMS Kungsholm, a Swedish luxury liner. He drew on the experience for his short story “Teddy”, which takes place on a liner.
Ursula Le Guin struggled initially to be published in the mainstream fiction world, but her first three novels, Rocannon’s World, Planet of Exile and City of Illusions, put her on the sci-fi map.
An accomplished tenor, James Joyce made money singing for his supper before his work was published.
Harper Lee worked as a reservation clerk for Eastern Air Lines for several years, writing stories in her spare time. A windfall came when a friend offered her a Chirsmas gift of one year’s wages and one year off to write whatever she pleased; she wrote the first draft of “To Kill a Mockingbird”.
Stephen King was a janitor for a high school as he struggled to get his fiction published. His time wheeling the cart through the halls inspired him to write the opening girl’s locker room scene in “Carrie”, his breakout novel.
Kurt Vonnegut managed Americas first Saab dealership in Cape Cod during the late 1950s, a job he joked about in a 2004 essay, “I now believe my failure as a dealer … explains what would otherwise remain a deep mystery: why the Swedes have never given me a Nobel prize for literature.”
When Virginia Woolf’s brilliant novels failed to find a publisher, she and her husband Leonard bought a printing press and set up their own publishing compay Hogarth Press in their living room. They published Woolf’s masterful novels, such as Orlando and To The Lighthouse, as well as T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, among other classics of the era.
T.S. Eliot worked as a clerk for Lloyds Bank of London. During that time, he composed “The Waste Land”.
Franz Kafka served as the Chief Legal Secretary of the Workmen’s Accident Insurance Institute. Obviously.
Douglas Adams was a bodyguard. Even published authors often have to work other jobs to make ends meet, and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy author Douglas Adams was no exception: At one point, he served as a bodyguard for a wealthy Arabian family while he wrote for radio shows and Monty Python. Good writers are good multitaskers!
James A. Michener was a teacher before writing only at age 40. He Michener is notable more for his output than his age. The Tales of the South Pacific author (whose Pulitzer Prize-winning book would later be adapted into a Broadway musical) wrote a staggering 40 books after the age of 40—nearly a book a year—after spending much of his life as a teacher.
Before he wrote 1984, George Orwell served as an officer of the Indian Imperial Police in Burma, where he was known for his “sense of utter fairness.”
Nina Munteanu is an ecologist, limnologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.