I never thought being a novelist was a particularly interesting occupation. The way I see it, I’m just an average person with a side career as a writer, a job just like any other. I may be writing about extraordinary or unique or unusual people doing extraordinary or unique or unusual things, but honestly, my job as novelist—the process itself--is kinda boring.
So imagine my surprise when a few people told me over the past couple of months, while discussing my debut novel The City of Lost Secrets, that they thought writing was a fascinating career. (It’s not, just ask my husband. But thanks for thinking so.) These same people went all Freud on me, wondering what motivated me to write about biblical archeology, asking how my husband felt about my long mental absences, and drawing conclusions about the autobiographical nature of the book.
It freaked me out at first. I don’t necessarily want people to know certain personal things about me, and I feared that I unknowingly revealed my innermost thoughts through my fiction. But whatever. What did I expect would happen after “putting myself out there” as a creator of fictional worlds and characters? It’s cool though, because these people are now fans of my work and just want to know more about me and the psychology behind it all, so of course I give them honest answers—and continue to let them think being a novelist is the shit.
So while I think “novelist” isn’t exactly the coolest gig in town, I believe there are plenty of truly interesting and unique jobs out there, occupations you just don’t hear about everyday. Like Industrial Hygienist. And Pet Therapist. And Rag Picker (more on that in a minute). And those people who travel around the country firing other people from their jobs, George Clooney “Up in the Air” style. I think the correct job title is Corporate Downsizer.
You don’t bump into people like that everyday who actually do those jobs for a living. Those are the types of people who show up in novels, right? Because let’s be honest: successful books (and movies and TV shows) are populated with interesting people doing interesting things. Lisbeth Salander, the damaged computer hacker goth girl from Stieg Larsson’s books? Yeah, interesting chic, and a character I would’ve given my left arm to have created. Willy Wonka. Harry Potter. Sherlock Holmes. Hannibal Lecter. Interesting characters with unusual jobs.
I mean, no one wants to read about a copier salesman. He’s boring, right? He’s your best buddy. The guy you play poker with on Friday nights. He may be an upstanding citizen and a great family man who makes an honest living but sorry, that’s boring. He’s just an average guy. Nobody wants to read about the average guy with a boring life.
Now, if your best buddy was a copier salesman who had a secret identity…lived a double life as, I don’t know, an undercover government agent who roughed up Russian gangs illegally importing photocopiers…now we’re talking. That’s an interesting guy with a cool story to tell! I’d want to write about him and you’d want to read a story about him (but not necessarily my story).
The show Dexter works on the same premise: A forensics experts who moonlights as a serial killer, hunting down criminals who’ve escaped justice. Interesting guy with an average job and an extraordinary, um, “side job.”
Now, remember earlier when I mentioned the occupation Rag Picker? I watched a show the other day about 19th century Parisian “rag pickers,” people who made a living rummaging through trash in the streets of Paris to collect it for salvage. Rag picking was a career most prevalent in the 19th and early 20th centuries before organized trash collection came about. Here’s a picture I found of what a “typical” Parisian rag picker looked like:
Looks like a guy with an interesting story to tell, right?
Rag pickers still exist, most notably in India and Cairo, Egypt. What instantly grabbed me was the fact that picking through garbage was and still is a noble and honest occupation in some areas of the world. Who knew? Theirs is a story yet to be told, the plight of the rag pickers, and damnit, I’m gonna tell it. I’m going to write an historical drama set in 19th century Paris about an extraordinary boy born into a filthy world who must overcome great odds in order to realize his true power. It’ll be Oliver Twist meets Benjamin Button. I’m jazzed about it and have already written the first chapter.
I’ll write the rest of that story later, right after I tackle the ones about the industrial hygienist, the pet therapist, and the copier salesman/government spy. Oh, and the eight other novel ideas that are floating around in my head. (But I’ll let the Corporate Downsizer story die—“Up in the Air” is perfect as is.)
So, if you know anyone who has a unique or unusual job, pick their brains. Talk to them. Engage them in conversation. I guarantee they’ve got some awesome stories to tell. And you just might learn a thing or two.
Once you’re done, you’ll sent them my way, won’t you?