Before these authors could make a successful living as writers, they made do with surprising occupations ranging from streetcar conductor to acid tester and everything in between. Hey, that nine-to-five gig of yours might just be the ticket to literary fame and fortune!
1. Douglas Adams: Bodyguard for Arab Royals
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After graduating from Cambridge in 1974, the author of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy cycled through a series of day jobs. Most amusing of the bunch? A stint as the bodyguard for the royal family of Qatar during their travels in London, where Adams described his responsibilities as “opening and shutting doors and running away if anyone turned up with a hand grenade.”
2. Maya Angelou: Pioneering Streetcar Conductor
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In 1944, sixteen-year-old Maya Angelou was living in San Francisco when she decided she wanted to be a streetcar conductor. As she later told Oprah Winfrey, “I loved the uniforms, So I said ‘that’s the job I want!'” The city rarely hired black male conductors, let alone young black female ones, but the future author of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was undeterred. she waited in the streetcar office every day for two weeks before finally being hired, becoming San Francisco’s first black female streetcar conductor.
3. Nicholas Sparks: Dental Product Salesman
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Sparks was famously plucked from obscurity when his novel The Notebook became a New York Times bestseller. But before he made it big, Sparks made his living by appraising real estate, waiting tables, and selling dental products over the phone. Sparks hated the job, but felt he had no choice: “I was two years out of college and I had bills to pay,” he said .
4. Ken Kesey: CIA Guinea Pig
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Kesey’s 1962 work One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the grim story of a group of men locked up in a psychiatric hospital, helped transform psychiatric practices and inspired an Oscar-winning film adaptation. Less known is the fact that Kesey himself underwent intense psychological experiences as a voluntary experimental subject in the CIA’s notorious “Project MKUltra,” which aimed to test the possible mind control properties of LSD. Kesey developed a lifelong fascination with the drug and was inspired to form the psychedelic collective known as “the Merry Pranksters” in the mid-1960’s.
5. Hilary Mantel: Social Worker for the Forgotten Old
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Today, Hilary Mantel is the critically acclaimed author of a trilogy based on the life of Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s trusted advisor. But in 1974, Mantel was being paid “a very small sum” to look after the needs of patients at a geriatric hospital in the north of England. To call it a depressing gig would be an understatement: “There weren’t nearly enough beds for the people who needed nursing, and the hospital offered no more than a vault, a pre-tomb or dying room, in which patients sometimes loitered for months.”
6. Kurt Vonnegut: Dealer of Swedish Automobiles
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The beloved author of Cat’s Cradle and Slaughterhouse-Five shifted careers multiple times after his World War II Army service, trying his hand at multiple careers, from newspaper reporter to public relations employee for General Electric. One of Vonnegut’s more eccentric jobs was owning and managing a car dealership for Saab, a Swedish automotive company. Vonnegut’s enthusiasm for the car soon fizzled out; “I came to speak ill of Swedish engineering, and so diddled myself out of a Nobel Prize” he later quipped.
7. Ayn Rand: Unpaid Architecture Intern
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Unpaid interns of the world, take heart: even Ayn Rand, author, philosopher, and noted advocate for earning and keeping money, worked for free as an assistant for the architecture firm of Ely Jacques Kahn, famed designer of many notable Art Deco buildings. Kahn’s mentorship and other aspects of her work inspired a great deal of her 1943 novel The Fountainhead, Rand’s first major success as a writer and an essential work in Rand’s Objectivist philosophy.
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