The 10 Weirdest Day Jobs That Famous Authors Had

by Charlotte Ahlin

The first job you have doesn't necessarily define your career. In fact, the second, third, and fourth jobs you have don't necessarily define your career — so don't panic, even if you're on your third job this month. You're in good company.

Anyone who's ever has a quarter-life crisis has probably done some serious googling to find out where their heroes were at their age. And yes, while lots of famous people were wunderkinds, many, many more were struggling their way through their 20s. It's a tough world out there for pre-famous writers. Quite a few renowned authors were working as janitors (Stephen King), or airline clerks (Harper Lee), and we all know that J. K. Rowling was barely scraping by back in the day.

There are plenty of talented authors who paid their dues as waiters, baristas, and salespeople before they made it big... and then there are the authors who worked as spies, LSD testers, and "oyster pirates." The jobs might not be always conventional, but they (presumably) paid the bills until these enterprising folks could find a publisher. So check out the weirdest jobs authors had before they became authors (and maybe you, too, can make the leap from oyster pirate to beloved novelist):

1. Vladimir Nabokov, Butterfly Hunter

When Nabokov wasn't writing about creepy older men preying on little girls, he was studying butterflies. He actually wrote Lolita while traveling on a butterfly hunt in the United States. Because he took a butterfly collecting trip through the United States every year. And I guess he wrote the book to have something to do in between exciting butterfly catches? The butterfly genus Nabokovia is named after him, and several other butterfly species were named for characters in his books.

2. Roald Dahl, Sexy Spy

Yes, the same Roald Dahl who wrote Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. And The BFG. And Matilda. He wasn't just a spy, he was, by all accounts, an extremely sexy spy , who slept with numerous women as an undercover agent for the British Embassy. He worked in Washington D.C., where we was supposedly drawing the Americans into World War II. How romancing heiresses was connected to spying is somewhat unclear but... everybody's got their thing, I guess?

3. J.D. Salinger, Luxury Cruise Entertainment Director

Because what says "fun cruise times" like a famously reclusive author? Salinger took a job directing activities on a Caribbean cruise after being dumped by Oona O'Neill (daughter of playwright Eugene O'Neill). Y'know, classic post-break up spiral of working on a cruise ship. We can only assume that he spent the whole cruise rolling his eyes at all the phonies.

4. Octavia Butler, Potato Chip Inspector

Look, someone has to inspect potato chips. And for a while, that's how famed science fiction writer Octavia Butler supported herself. She was a college student (and protegee of Harlan Ellison), and she worked as a potato chip inspector as well as a dishwasher and telemarketer just to survive. And after all that, she would still wake up at 2 a.m. to write. So when things get tough in your life, just summon the spirit of Octavia Butler and keep going for it.

5. Jack London, Oyster Pirate

Before he wrote about dogs finding themselves, Jack London was an oyster pirate. If you're wondering what, exactly, an oyster pirate is (and how to sign up), it really is just what it sounds like: a pirate who steals oysters. Oyster pirates were actually poaching oysters from private farms that had previously been considered public lands, so it was a bit of a moral grey area. London joined the oyster pirate game as a tender 15-year-old. And was his oyster pirate ship named the Razzle Dazzle? Yes. Yes it was.

6. Ken Kesey, Subject of CIA Mind Control Experiments

Ken Kesey is best known for his book, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, which was adapted into a play (pictured) and acclaimed film. But before all that, he was a test subject for CIA mind control experiments. He signed up for a vague psych "study" as a grad student, after his neighbor dropped out. In the study, Kesey and others were unwittingly given LSD, to see if it would make them susceptible to government mind control. Kesey found the experience life-changing, and actually ended up working at the facility (and, of course, becoming a real groovy dude).

7. Kurt Vonnegut, Sports Writer

When you think Kurt Vonnegut, you think sports and busty babes in swimsuits, right? Probably not... but Kurt Vonnegut did, in fact, write for Sports Illustrated for a time. At least, he worked there until he was assigned a story about a race horse jumping a rail and escaping from the race track. Vonnegut worked on the story for hours before storming out of the office with only one sentence written: "the horse jumped over the f**king fence."

8. Jack Kerouac, Fire Lookout

Original Dharma Bum Jack Kerouac had a number of odd jobs in his lifetime. But perhaps the most poetic dead-end job he ever took was a fire lookout on Desolation Peak in Washington state. The job was pretty straightforward: sit on top of a mountain and look for fires for one entire summer. But he must have found it pretty interesting, because he wrote the novel Desolation Angels all about his experience looking for fires on that mountaintop.

9. Louisa May Alcott, Utopian Farmer

OK, so Louisa May Alcott was only around 10 when her family moved to commune Utopian Fruitlands. But she still had to work: her family joined a community of intense vegans, who were dedicated to living off the land and cooperating, with no animal labor. Unfortunately, despite their impressive ideals, no one in the community had any farming experience. Living off the land wasn't as easy as anyone expected (and the women were still expected to do all the heavy lifting in this "equal" society). Fruitlands collapsed, and the Alcott family moved to a more conventional housing situation.

10. Charles Dickens, Ghost Buster

Well, this might not have been completely before he was a famous author... but either way, Charles Dickens was a card-carrying Ghost Buster. That is, he was a member of the Victorian Ghost Club, a real, not-silly society where notable men would hunt and talk about (but mostly just talk about) ghosts. Dickens was one of the earliest members of the club, and he was part of several investigations into ghostly activity (most turned out to be hoaxes). Whether or not they had a cool old-timey Ghost Busting theme song is lost to the ages.

Images: Tom Palumbo, Giuseppe Pino, Carl Van Vechten, Lotte Jacobi Collection, Nikolas Coukouma, L C Page and Company Boston 1903, Seven Arts, PBS, Tom Palumbo, Gutenburg, Jeremiah Gurney/Wikipedia Commons