CBS/Landov
CBS/Landov

The Early Jobs of 24 Famous Writers

CBS/Landov
CBS/Landov

Everyone knows that Stephen King was a janitor and Ransom Riggs shared creepy old photos on mentalfloss.com. What did some other famous writers do before their big breaks?

1. Robert Frost was a newspaper boy, his mother’s teaching assistant, and a light-bulb-filament replacer in a factory.

2. William S. Burroughs was an exterminator. He really liked that job. He liked the word, too, and published a collection of short stories called Exterminator! not to be confused with a collaborative collection of stories with Brion Gysin called The Exterminator.

3. James Joyce sang and played piano while struggling to publish Dubliners. (It was rejected 22 times, so he sang a lot.)

4. Nabokov was an entomologist of underappreciated greatness. His theory of butterfly evolution was proven to be true in early 2011 using DNA analysis.

5. Margaret Atwood first worked as a counter girl in a coffeeshop in Toronto, serving coffee and operating a cash register, which was a source of serious frustration for her. She details the experience in her essay, “Ka-Ching!”

6. When Douglas Adams’ comedy-writing career stalled in the mid-70s, he worked as a hospital porter, barn builder, chicken shed cleaner, a hotel security guard and a bodyguard for an entire family of oil tycoons from Qatar.

7. Ken Kesey was a voluntary participant in CIA psych tests. Mostly these involved being unwittingly dosed with LSD. The one element of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest based on his experiences in the lab (a.k.a., hallucinations): Dr. Broom.

8. J.D. Salinger was the entertainment director on a Swedish luxury liner.

9. Harlan Ellison claims that by the age of 18, he’d been a "tuna fisherman off the coast of Galveston, itinerant crop-picker down in New Orleans, hired gun for a wealthy neurotic, nitroglycerine truck driver in North Carolina, short order cook, cab driver, lithographer, book salesman, floorwalker in a department store, door-to-door brush salesman, and as a youngster, an actor in several productions at the Cleveland Play House." It should be noted that he's a guy who makes stuff up for a living, too.

10. Zane Grey was a dentist. He really, really hated it. When he married his wife Dolly, he closed the practice he'd been running for nine years to focus on his literary career. The couple (and his mother-in-law and sister-in-law) lived off of Dolly’s inheritance.

11. Raymond Carver worked with his father at a sawmill after graduating from Yakima High School. Later, he would work as a janitor, delivery man and again at the sawmill to support his family while building his career as a short storyist.

12. Don DeLillo took a job as a parking attendant when he was a teenager. It was so boring that he became an avid reader, which led him to pursue a career in writing.

13. Haruki Murakami (whose most recent title is 1Q84) worked in a record store during college. Just before graduation, he and his wife opened a coffeehouse and jazz bar in Tokyo called the Peter Cat.

14. As a teen, John Grisham worked at a nursery, watering bushes for a dollar an hour. That is, until he was promoted to a fence crew, where he got a 50-cent raise. But Grisham decided “there was no future in it,” and took a job with a plumbing contractor.

15. Before writing 1984, George Orwell (born Eric Arthur Blair) was an officer of the Indian Imperial Police in Burma. He shouldered the heavy burden of protecting the safety of some 200,000 people, and was noted for his “sense of utter fairness.”

16. Though one might expect the author of Moby-Dick to have some experience at sea, it’s interesting to note that Herman Melville was employed as a cabin boy on a cruise liner after his attempts to secure a job as a surveyor for the Erie Canal were thwarted. He made a single voyage from New York to Liverpool.

17. Kurt Vonnegut was the manager of a Saab dealership in West Barnstable, Massachusetts—one of the first Saab dealerships in the United States. He also worked in public relations for General Electric, and was a volunteer firefighter for the Alplaus Volunteer Fire Department.

18. While everyone knows about Jack London’s experiences in the Klondike Gold Rush, a time that heavily influenced his writing, it’s not-so-common knowledge that as a very young man, Jack London worked at a cannery, then became an oyster pirate. And his sloop was named Razzle-Dazzle.

19. A strange job, perhaps, but working as a tour guide at a fish hatchery led John Steinbeck to his first wife, Carol Henning. Later, he would work long hours at a grueling warehouse job until his father began supplying him with writing materials and lodging to focus on his literary career.

20. Perhaps most famous for being a self-proclaimed dharma bum, it’s no surprise that Jack Kerouac worked some odd jobs. These include but are not limited to: gas station attendant, cotton picker, night guard (detailed in On the Road), railroad brakeman, dishwasher, construction worker, and a deckhand.

21. Richard Wright, celebrated author of Native Son and “The Man Who Was Almost a Man,” fell on hard times during the Great Depression, like almost everyone else. He secured a job as a postal clerk, only to be laid off. It was then, living on federal assistance, that Wright began making literary contacts and having work published in journals.

22. Coiner of the phrase and lauded author of Catch-22, Joseph Heller grew up very poor and had to work at a young age to help support his family. Before going on to literary greatness, he was a blacksmith’s apprentice, messenger boy, and file clerk.

23. Though it’s apparent in reading Joseph Conrad’s work (especially Heart of Darkness) that he lived a large part of his life at sea, it’s maybe less obvious that he spent part of that time involved in gunrunning and political conspiracy.

24. Harper Lee, author of one of the great American novels and winner of the 1961 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, had worked as a reservation clerk at Eastern Airlines for years when she received a note from friends: “You have one year off from your job to write whatever you please. Merry Christmas.” By the next year, she’d penned To Kill a Mockingbird.

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Universal Pictures Home Entertainment
The 10 Wildest Movie Plot Twists
Laura Harring in Mulholland Drive (2001)
Laura Harring in Mulholland Drive (2001)
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

An ending often makes or breaks a movie. There’s nothing quite as satisfying as having the rug pulled out from under you, particularly in a thriller. But too many flicks that try to shock can’t stick the landing—they’re outlandish and illogical, or signal where the plot is headed. Not all of these films are entirely successful, but they have one important attribute in common: From the classic to the cultishly beloved, they involve hard-to-predict twists that really do blow viewers’ minds, then linger there for days, if not life. (Warning: Massive spoilers below.)

1. PSYCHO (1960)

Alfred Hitchcock often constructed his movies like neat games that manipulated the audience. The Master of Suspense delved headfirst into horror with Psycho, which follows a secretary (Janet Leigh) who sneaks off with $40,000 and hides in a motel. The ensuing jolt depends on Leigh’s fame at the time: No one expected the ostensible star and protagonist to die in a gory (for the time) shower butchering only a third of the way into the running time. Hitchcock outdid that feat with the last-act revelation that Anthony Perkins’s supremely creepy Norman Bates is embodying his dead mother.

2. PLANET OF THE APES (1968)

No, not the botched Tim Burton remake that tweaked the original movie’s famous reveal in a way that left everyone scratching their heads. The Charlton Heston-starring sci-fi gem continues to stupefy anyone who comes into its orbit. Heston, of course, plays an astronaut who travels to a strange land where advanced apes lord over human slaves. It becomes clear once he finds the decrepit remains of the Statue of Liberty that he’s in fact on a future Earth. The anti-violence message, especially during the political tumult of 1968, shook people up as much as the time warp.

3. DEEP RED (1975)

It’s not rare for a horror movie to flip the script when it comes to unmasking its killer, but it’s much rarer that such a film causes a viewer to question their own perception of the world around them. Such is the case for Deep Red, Italian director Dario Argento’s (Suspiria) slasher masterpiece. A pianist living in Rome (David Hemmings) comes upon the murder of a woman in her apartment and teams up with a female reporter to find the person responsible. Argento’s whodunit is filled to the brim with gorgeous photography, ghastly sights, and delirious twists. But best of all is the final sequence, in which the pianist retraces his steps to discover that the killer had been hiding in plain sight all along. Rewind to the beginning and you’ll discover that you caught an unknowing glimpse, too.

4. SLEEPAWAY CAMP (1983)

Sleepaway Camp is notorious among horror fans for a number of reasons: the bizarre, stilted acting and dialogue; hilariously amateurish special effects; and ‘80s-to-their-core fashions. But it’s best known for the mind-bending ending, which—full disclosure—reads as possibly transphobic today, though it’s really hard to say what writer-director Robert Hiltzik had in mind. Years after a boating accident that leaves one of two siblings dead, Angela is raised by her aunt and sent to a summer camp with her cousin, where a killer wreaks havoc. In the lurid climax, we see that moody Angela is not only the murderer—she’s actually a boy. Her aunt, who always wanted a daughter, raised her as if she were her late brother. The final animalistic shot prompts as many gasps as cackles.

5. THE USUAL SUSPECTS (1995)

The Usual Suspects has left everyone who watches it breathless by the time they get to the fakeout conclusion. Roger "Verbal" Kint (Kevin Spacey), a criminal with cerebral palsy, regales an interrogator in the stories of his exploits with a band of fellow crooks, seen in flashback. Hovering over this is the mysterious villainous figure Keyser Söze. It’s not until Verbal leaves and jumps into a car that customs agent David Kujan realizes that the man fabricated details, tricking the law and the viewer into his fake reality, and is in fact the fabled Söze.

6. PRIMAL FEAR (1996)

No courtroom movie can surpass Primal Fear’s discombobulating effect. Richard Gere’s defense attorney becomes strongly convinced that his altar boy client Aaron (Edward Norton) didn’t commit the murder of an archbishop with which he’s charged. The meek, stuttering Aaron has sudden violent outbursts in which he becomes "Roy" and is diagnosed with dissociative identity disorder, leading to a not guilty ruling. Gere’s lawyer visits Aaron about the news, and as he’s leaving, a wonderfully maniacal Norton reveals that he faked the multiple personalities.

7. FIGHT CLUB (1999)

Edward Norton is no stranger to taking on extremely disparate personalities in his roles, from Primal Fear to American History X. The unassuming actor can quickly turn vicious, which led to ideal casting for Fight Club, director David Fincher’s adaptation of the Chuck Palahniuk novel. Fincher cleverly keeps the audience in the dark about the connections between Norton’s timid, unnamed narrator and Brad Pitt’s hunky, aggressive Tyler Durden. After the two start the titular bruising group, the plot significantly increases the stakes, with the club turning into a sort of anarchist terrorist organization. The narrator eventually comes to grips with the fact that he is Tyler and has caused all the destruction around him.

8. THE SIXTH SENSE (1999)

Early in his career, M. Night Shyamalan was frequently (perhaps a little too frequently) compared to Hitchcock for his ability to ratchet up tension while misdirecting his audience. He hasn’t always earned stellar reviews since, but The Sixth Sense remains deservedly legendary for its final twist. At the end of the ghost story, in which little Haley Joel Osment can see dead people, it turns out that the psychologist (Bruce Willis) who’s been working with the boy is no longer living himself, the result of a gunshot wound witnessed in the opening sequence.

9. THE OTHERS (2001)

The Sixth Sense’s climax was spooky, but not nearly as unnerving as Nicole Kidman’s similarly themed ghost movie The Others, released just a couple years later. Kidman gives a superb performance in the elegantly styled film from the Spanish writer-director Alejandro Amenábar, playing a mother in a country house after World War II protecting her photosensitive children from light and, eventually, dead spirits occupying the place. Only by the end does it become clear that she’s in denial about the fact that she’s a ghost, having killed her children in a psychotic break before committing suicide. It’s a bleak capper to a genuinely haunting yarn.

10. MULHOLLAND DRIVE (2001)

David Lynch’s surrealist movies may follow dream logic, but that doesn’t mean their plots can’t be readily discerned. Mulholland Drive is his most striking work precisely because, in spite of its more wacko moments, it adds up to a coherent, tragic story. The mystery starts innocently enough with the dark-haired Rita (Laura Elena Harring) waking up with amnesia from a car accident in Los Angeles and piecing together her identity alongside the plucky aspiring actress Betty (Naomi Watts). It takes a blue box to unlock the secret that Betty is in fact Diane, who is in love with and envious of Camilla (also played by Harring) and has concocted a fantasy version of their lives. The real Diane arranges for Camilla to be killed, leading to her intense guilt and suicide. Only Lynch can go from Nancy Drew to nihilism so swiftly and deftly.

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Jesse Grant, Getty Images for AMC
5 Bizarre Comic-Con News Stories from Years Past
Jesse Grant, Getty Images for AMC
Jesse Grant, Getty Images for AMC

At its best, San Diego Comic-Con is a friendly place where like-minded people can celebrate their pop culture obsessions, and each other. And no one can make fun of you, no matter how lazy your cosplaying might be. You might think that at its worst, it’s just a series of long lines of costumed fans and small stores crammed into a convention center. But sometimes, throwing together 100,000-plus people from around the world in what feels like a carnival-type atmosphere where anything goes can have less than stellar results. Here are some highlights from past Comic-Con-tastrophes.

1. MAN IN HARRY POTTER T-SHIRT STABS ANOTHER MAN IN THE FACE—WITH A PEN

In 2010, two men waiting for a Comic-Con screening of the Seth Rogen alien comedy Paul got into a very adult argument about whether one of them was sitting too close to the other. Unable to come to a satisfactory conclusion with words, one man stabbed the other in the face with a pen. According to CNN, the attacker was led away wearing handcuffs and a Harry Potter T-shirt. In the aftermath, some Comic-Con attendees dealt with the attack in an oddly fitting way: They cosplayed as the victim, with pens protruding from bloody eye sockets.

2. MEMORABILIA THIEVES INVADE NEW YORK

Since its founding in 2006, New York Comic Con has attracted a few sticky-fingered attendees. In 2010, a man stole several rare comics from vendor Matt Nelson, co-founder of Texas’s Worldwide Comics. Just one of those, Whiz Comics No. 1, was worth $11,000, according to the New York Post. A few years later, in 2014, someone stole a $2000 “Dunny” action figure, which artist Jon-Paul Kaiser had painted during the event for Clutter magazine. And those are just the incidents that involved police; lower-scale cases of toys and comics disappearing from booths are an increasingly frustrating epidemic, according to some. “Comic Con theft is an issue we all sort of ignore,” collector Tracy Isenhour wrote on the blog of his company, Needless Essentials, in 2015. “I am here to tell you no more. It’s time for this garbage to stop."

3. CATWOMAN SAVES THE DAY


John Sciulli/Getty Images for Xbox

Adrianne Curry, winner of the first cycle of America’s Next Top Model, has made a career of chasing viral fame. Ironically, it was at Comic-Con in 2014 that Curry did something truly worthy of attention—though there wasn’t a camera in sight. Dressed as Catwoman, she was posing with fans alongside her friend Alicia Marie, who was dressed as Tigra. According to a Facebook post Marie wrote at the time, a fan tried to shove his hands into her bikini bottoms. She screamed, the man ran off, and Curry jumped to action. She “literally took off after dude WITH her Catwoman whip and chased him down, beat his a**,” Marie wrote. “Punched him across the face with the butt of her whip—he had zombie blood on his face—got on her costume.”

4. MAN POSES AS FUGITIVE-SEEKING INVESTIGATOR TO GET INTO VIP ROOM

The lines at Comic-Con are legendary, so one Utah man came up with a novel way to try and skip them altogether. In 2015, Jonathon M. Wall tried to get into Salt Lake Comic Con’s exclusive VIP enclave (normally a $10,000 ticket) by claiming he was an agent with the Air Force Office of Special Investigations, and needed to get into the VIP room “to catch a fugitive,” according to The San Diego Union Tribune. Not only does that story not even come close to making sense, it also adds up to impersonating a federal agent, a crime to which Wall pleaded guilty in April of 2016 and which carried a sentence of up to three years in prison and a $250,000 fine. Just a few months later, prosecutors announced that they were planning to reduce his crime from a felony to a misdemeanor.

5. MAN WALKS 645 MILES TO COMIC-CON, DRESSED AS A STORMTROOPER, TO HONOR HIS LATE WIFE


Michael Buckner/Getty Images for Disney

In 2015, Kevin Doyle walked 645 miles along the California coast to honor his late wife, Eileen. Doyle had met Eileen relatively late in life, when he was in his 50s, and they bonded over their shared love of Star Wars (he even proposed to her while dressed as Darth Vader). However, she died of cancer barely a year after they were married. Adrift and lonely, Doyle decided to honor her memory and their love of Star Wars by walking to Comic-Con—from San Francisco. “I feel like I’m so much better in the healing process than if I’d stayed home,” he told The San Diego Union Tribune.

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