These mini-interviews were conducted for The Paris Review in 2011.
I’ve always been a fan of the quirky author bio, though dust jackets are now more likely to rattle off a list of the writer’s literary accomplishments rather than the odd jobs they once held. Given only a very small percentage of writers are able to live exclusively off their literary output, such omissions are incongruous and, as far as I’m concerned, sorely missed. Where are all the gutsy factory and bar jobs, worn as badges of honor? Whatever happened to working on your masterpiece in the wee small hours whilst slugging it out in deadening employment? Curiosity regarding these unacknowledged rites of passage finally got the better of me, so I broke out the Rolodex and asked some of my favourite writers to describe one such instance from their employment history.
Anthony Doerr: In my early 20s I worked for one summer in a fish processing plant in Ketchikan, Alaska where I stood on a catwalk high above four big salmon canning lines. All day long, sometimes as much as 16 hours a day, seven days a week, I watched dead salmon come past me on a conveyor belt. My job was to open doors in the belt to fill giant steel bins with the fish. All I had to do was keep the four, or however many canning lines were running, bins full of dead fish, so that the canning line didn’t run out. Empty cans whizzed past me from the can loft down metal chutes, so the job was both stupefyingly loud and stupefyingly boring. I used to smuggle pages torn out of magazines up there with me and set them in the slime and read. I’d tear pages out of books, Sports Illustrated, anything I could find and stuff into my bibs so the supervisor didn’t see. Who knows how many dead pink salmon I saw go past my eyeballs - eight million? Twenty million?
Michael Moorcock: I got into publishing at the age of 16, writing features and stories for a national weekly juvenile magazine, which I then edited, but before that I had sold my collection of toy soldiers in order to buy my first guitar. I left the magazine job to travel to Paris where I busked outside George Whitman’s shop, then called Le Mistral and now Shakespeare and Co. George didn’t mind since I spent pretty much every cent I earned in his shop. Later I got a gig in Montmartre singing familiar songs for tourists in a little cabaret and when I went back to England and Soho I continued to take whatever work I could get playing guitar. My best job was working for a madam called Mrs Fox, who paid me to perform at ‘parties’ she organised for groups of men. She supplied the ladies and the drink. I supplied the music. I performed for Icelandic sailors, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and a couple of football teams, among others, and became very friendly with Mrs F’s ladies who were all very sweet and kind to me, perhaps because I was far too shy to make a pass at anyone. They told me some wonderful, sometimes frightening, stories. It was great experience, which stood me in good stead when I came to write my first adult fiction at the age of 17.
Jonathan Lethem: I once had the job as the assistant of a family friend - a very talented artist and theatrical designer who’d, in the parlance of the time, ‘gone mad’. My tasks included helping him move a discarded chrome car bumper from the street into his tiny Upper West Side studio apartment bedroom, helping him weld it to a metallic sculpture-in-progress that also included sardine tins not-quite-empty of oil and shreds of fish, and walking his poodle to the liquor store to buy him a bottle of gin - the problems being that the unfortunate, blinking-in-confusion dog had a giant clot of bright red paint covering approximately 1/3 of its white curls, so that it appeared to have been attacked by an axe murderer, and that I was only thirteen years old. Even in 1977 a liquor store on the Upper West Side wouldn’t sell a tall bottle of gin to a barely-teenager leashed to a zombie poodle.
T C Boyle: I worked one college summer at a factory near my hometown of Peekskill. I was a college kid, the others were lifers. I was never quite clear on the function of the cast-metal things we made there - muffins and aximaxes is what they were called - 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 big elephant-sized pots of molten metal, steam rising - or maybe it wasn’t steam, maybe it was some sort of carcinogenic gas - and I see the one-armed guy of my own age, Vinnie, a lifer, to whom I sold my Renault for the same amount I’d paid for it at the beginning of the summer - $50. My final recollection of him, that time, that place? Waving goodbye.
DBC Pierre: I once worked in an advertising agency in Trinidad. My biggest triumph there was masterminding a soft-drink campaign with a live Amazon parrot for a mascot, which said the drink’s name. We scoured the island for a parrot that could sit still and look great and speak, and it took a while but I was determined; and eventually we found a gentle young man from the coastal provinces whose only friend in the world was an Amazon parrot. It spoke and sat on his shoulder and looked great. They were like a couple in love. The client was impressed and the campaign went ahead, money was invested, the bird was photographed. But in between the photo-shoot and the film shoot, we stopped the car to buy drinks at a service station and the bird fell out. A clattering old truck actually swerved to run it over. This is advertising.
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 a.m. 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 that had been removed from the home and placed into foster care. My main activity was that I had to get them to play self-esteem bingo. I handed out blank cards, and they were supposed to write in the spaces adjectives that described them. 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.”
Tobias Wolff: I made a living - a very good living - the summer of 1962 guessing ages and weights in the carnival section of the Seattle World’s Fair. One thing I learned: lowball the women’s stats. Sometimes it’s better to lose than to win.
Michael Cunningham: I worked in bars for years. Most prominently, a gay bar in Laguna beach, which featured bartenders who all looked more or less like Michelangelo’s David, and wore only slightly more by way of costumes. I, however, did not look anything like any sculpture I had ever seen. I learned early on that the bar manager always hired one odd man out – specifically, a boy who was more clever than he was beautiful, who functioned as comic relief, who was, as I gathered, meant not only to entertain the patrons but to assure them that the wall of air between them and the men behind the bar was at least semi-permeable; to be their animal familiar in a world of robust male camaraderie they were invited to observe but not, ever, to enter. My predecessor had been a sweet, Rubenesque boy they called Bubbles.
The bar sported a South Seas theme. Brown palm fronds strung with white Christmas lights curled down from the ceiling. Tiki heads scowled from the walls. The bartop was made of glass, and under it bug-eyed Japanese goldfish swam in listless confusion over a bed of blue gravel. Every now and then one of the fish expired, which would not be good for business in any establishment but was especially unfortunate there, where reminders of mortality did not play well to the generally elderly crowd. If one of the fish went belly up during a busy night, as they were mysteriously wont to do, we covered the corpse with a pile of napkins or a dish of peanuts, though throughout the night it was necessary to keep moving the napkins or peanuts, as unobtrusively as possible, because the deceased tended to float in unpredictable directions.
I loved working there. Every now and then I entertain a fantasy of going back and working for a night as a guest bartender, if they’d have me, though I suspect they’ve got their funny, less-than-godlike guy in place, and have no need of another, even for one night.
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 itself made out of steel, in the basement of the building, and 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 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 that was happening? 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, having heard, with some disbelief, what I’d been doing, he asked around at his own factory, and was assured in no uncertain terms that no human beings did such jobs anymore; that that sort of thing was always automated at this point.
Darin Strauss: I worked freelance at the Aspen Times. Nightlife correspondent; 700 words/50 bucks; an article a month. Then I thought: hey dummy, you published with the Aspen Times, 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 embarrassment, I took a gig at a restaurant two towns over. The first day, a girl opens her door to me, 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.
Glen David Gold: The summer I was 17, I delivered depositions for my uncle, who had an office in Midtown Manhattan. He was a lovely fellow, very kindly trying to find work for an unemployable nephew. I recall spending many long hours sitting quietly in front of his desk while he looked at piles of paper and then finally said, “go to Macy’s.” To summarize to the point of inaccuracy: some of his work came from writing ‘cease and desist’ letters when, say, a belt manufacturer had a dispute with a designer over unpaid invoices or copyright infringement. So I would bring a scary-looking document to a boutique that asked them to stop selling some kind of merchandise until the legal problems were cleared up.
Of the deliveries of subpoenas themselves, every one was an adventure. For instance, Bloomingdale’s. It turns out they’d had subpoenas delivered before and were prepared for me. I walked to the information desk and asked where the legal department was. Fifteenth floor. I went to the elevators. Which stopped at 12. After ten minutes of investigation, it turned out the employee elevators went to 15. When I got to the 15th floor, I pulled out my subpoena and the receptionist, without batting an eye, said “Room 1532.” Need I say that there was no Room 1532? I walked the rectangle of that floor for what felt like an hour, asking where Room 1532 was. It wasn’t. The legal department was now locked and no one answered the door. Finally, in defeat, I pushed the elevator button and either nothing happened or I just wanted to prolong my return to my uncle’s office. I opened the stairwell, and there it was - Room 1532, where they received subpoenas. I took mine from my pocket and extended it like it was a fucking sword. Ha! The guy behind the desk – that’s all it was, a converted maintenance closet with a desk in it - wiped the mustard from his chin and looked up in surprise. “Wow,” he said. I took that as a compliment.
John Brandon: I did my best for a while at a lumber mill that fashioned blunt-tipped wooden arrows. The only call for the product, as far as I know, is for use at schools teaching archery units as part of their PE program. Thus, this may have been the only wooden arrow producer in the country. I was the new man, as I always was in those days, so I got to drag the colossal hunks of raw cedar around to the head saw. Perilously awkward, perilously heavy lifting. If one were to design a task for the specific purpose of causing hernias, this would be that task. Another thing left to the new guy was rolling the arrows to see which were warped. You had to lean over a wide table for hours on end, knotting your shoulders and neck. Another thing was shoveling out the sawdust room. All the sawdust from the whole mill was sucked up and blown into this stifling shed that leaned against the building proper, and once a week I had to put on a mask and wedge myself in there and shovel it all into canvas bags. It took most of a whole day. Then I’d get to do something sort of fun, which was haul the bags to a cavernous barn with a tractor and then heave them up onto a huge pile. They weighed about as much as a bag of fertilizer and you got to fling them as far and high as you could. Once in awhile a circus would come and purchase all the sawdust. Not sure what for. Anyway, the place was in the middle of nowhere, so on breaks there was nothing to do but lean against the outside wall and pick sawdust out of your nose and ears.
This job was Monday to Thursday, ten hours a day, with a forty-five minute drive at each end. Thursday nights, my work week over, my girlfriend would drag me to a beach bonfire where I’d dull my aches with Alaskan Amber and eat hamburgers, tugboats belching in the distance. The wee hours of one of those nights was the only time, as an adult, I pissed the bed. Being thoroughly drunk and sort of tired had never caused this. Being thoroughly tired and sort of drunk did. Not to mention our studio apartment hung out over the sound, so we slumbered each night to the lapping of gentle waves.
Brian Evenson: In 1987 as a young college student I had the pleasure of working four abysmally bad jobs, all of them at hours where no human should have to be awake. First I worked the graveyard shift in a sweeper truck sweeping parking lots. I was the guy who would get out with a leaf blower in freezing cold weather and blow all the debris away from the curbs so the truck could get it. My partner’s job seemed to be sitting in the heated cab getting high. When that job collapsed, I moved on to working the graveyard shift at a 24-hour fast food Mexican restaurant. It was just me and a very fat manager with peroxided hair who spent the time from 1 a.m. to 2 a.m. smoking and from 2 a.m. to 4 a.m. sleeping, first assigning to me a list of class. When I finally couldn’t take that any more, I took a job as a part-time bread processor for the university, working from 3 a.m. to 7 a.m. putting dough in an automatic proofer and then into an oven. I quit this job because my hands broke out in a rash because of the floor and because I couldn’t keep up with the proofer. Simultaneously I was washing pans in the backroom of another bakery from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m., but was fired from that because I couldn’t make it over quickly enough from my bread processing job. There was, later, ditch-digging, working as a labor sub-foreman for a construction crew, working as an assistant manager at Hamburger World, and trying to program in a computer language that I didn’t know, but in 1987, I didn’t have a single bearable job.
Colum McCann: I was a ‘wilderness educator’ back in Texas in the mid-1980’s, after taking an 18-month bicycle trip across America. This meant working with kids who were at risk, or juvenile delinquents. We lived out in the woods for three months at a stretch, built pine-pole shelters, treehouses, an outdoor latrine, a gravity-fed shower. It was a magnificent interruption in my life: out under the stars. At night I used to read these tough, streetwise kids to sleep -- Catcher in the Rye, The Grapes of Wrath, and a fable called Fup by Jim Dodge. They loved Fup in particular, a fable about a duck, a sound-anagram for ‘Fucked Up.’ I still hear from these kids – they’re all over the country now and generally they’re out of trouble, except for the fact that they might be reading Fup to their kids.
Téa Obreht: One fiscally woeful summer, I decided to suspend my boycott of the studio system and actually get some cash teaching ballroom dance. The manager of the local studio, where I sometimes practiced, informed me that a new coaching position would open up within a few weeks, but in the meantime my assistance could be delegated to the equally important task of following up with past studio members and encouraging them to return. This entailed sitting in a subterranean office, going down a list of phone numbers in the student ledger, and saying things like, “good evening, we haven’t seen you recently, can we interest you in more lessons?” There were, of course, the obligatory no-thank-yous and go-to-hells, but every so often, someone would say something like, “unfortunately, my recent hip replacement makes that impossible,” or “as I explained to the young lady last week, my wife is still dead and we won’t be coming any more.” After about a week of this, I went to work in the stockroom of a furniture store.
Wells Tower: When I was nineteen, I worked briefly as a garbage man. My boss’s name was Puddn’. He was a vast, sunbaked person with such a pronounced southern accent that I couldn’t understand much of what he said. The job’s oppressions were what you’d expect: maggots, smells, made worse by the summer heat. By the end of each day, I hated everyone who owned a garbage can. I did not hate Puddn’, though, who made many kind gifts to me of wonders he found in the trash: penknives, silver cutlery, old watches, some of which I keep with me still.
Laura van den Berg: A friend and I once spent two summers running an equestrian summer camp. Our qualifications? We knew about horses, my parents lived on a small farm, and my friend’s job as an elementary school teacher provided us with an eager clientele. Yet we had not ever run a summer camp before, which might explain why we fed all our charges peanut butter sandwiches, saddled up a white pony as old as Gandalf who lived to stomp the toes of small children, failed to require release forms, offered cold hard cash to the camper who could go the longest without asking another question (an addendum: this one was all me and unfortunately our pupils were too young to find cold hard cash very motivating), and decided our time together should culminate with all the campers spray painting psychedelic designs on an edgy 1,300 pound Pinto aptly named “Art.” Miraculously no one ever got hurt, lawsuits were never filed, and no horses were harmed in the making of this summer camp.
Maile Meloy: After college, I had a summer job as a river ranger in Desolation Canyon on the Green River in Utah, working for my uncle, and no ideas beyond that. It wasn’t even really a job: it was a volunteer position that came with a stipend and a tiny trailer to live in, which looked like it was full of Hantavirus. The job usually attracted really crazy people, so I think my uncle was trying to use me as a buffer against the lunatics. Desolation Canyon is a five-day river trip, usually, and the put-in is in one of the most remote places in the country, at the end of a long, tire-eating dirt road through the desert. I’d brought a friend along, who wasn’t crazy, either. We had Bureau of Land Management baseball caps and a list of permits, and our job was to check the boaters onto the river early every morning, and to make sure they knew not to touch the pictographs on the canyon walls, and had their firepans and groovers. Firepans keep ash and cinders out of the sand. A groover is a rectangular ammunition can, repurposed as a toilet. Nothing decomposes in the desert, so everything has to be packed out. Some people say it’s called a groover because the ammo can left grooves on the backs of your thighs, before people started adding toilet seats. A couple of kayakers showed me an empty plastic mayonnaise jar and insisted that they were going to use that. There was an odd intimacy in having such conversations. People invited us down the river, and we declined, so some left us beer and all were gone by 9 AM. Then the day stretched out, empty and unimaginably hot, with no TV, no phone, no Internet, and a crackling CB radio for emergencies, and I wrote stories.