The Days of Yore Team has spent a month enjoying the summer and charging our batteries and now we are ready to bring you more in-depth interviews with inspiring artists! We also spent the vacation going over our archive. Did you know that we have published sixty interviews since the project started in May 2010? Yeah, we were pretty taken aback by that number ourselves.
Re-reading interviews from several months ago was a lot of fun, and we wanted to share some of the highlights with you. As we all head back to work, we thought it would be timely to make a compilation of some of the best words gathered on the topic of work; specifically the type of work our interviewees did to keep themselves afloat while they were struggling to publish their first book or sell their first painting.
We hope you enjoy these snippets and we encourage you to go explore the DoY archive— there is a lot of funny, inspiring, and moving material waiting to be re-discovered!
Astri, Evan and Lucas, The Days of Yore Team
CRAZY FUNNY BOSSES
Tom McCarthy, writer/artist
I was working with this chef who was totally psychotic. He was like something out of William Burroughs. You know, he’d hold the cleaver in his hand, scream, and throw it at the wall just after the waiters had walked out, missing them by inches. He’d read Nietzsche, but he’d read Nietzsche in the same way that Hitler had read Nietzsche, misread Nietzsche. He’d say, “Nietzsche says there are Übermenschen and there are scum. We must be the Übermenschen! The waiters, they are scum! They are nothing!”
How did you fit into this? You weren’t a waiter?
No, I was working with him. I was an Übermensch prospect. I was a sous- Übermensch. I hated the waiters as well because they were withholding tips from us. Also, this album by Prince had come out. You know that song, “Pussy Control”? It was the first track of the album that came out in ’95. [Sings: “Oh, pussy contro-o-l…."] Anyhow, he played it really loud, on a loop. The waiters were the pussies, and we had to control them… Then there was a cat, a restaurant cat, and when the waiters withheld the tips, we started feeding the waiters the cat food. They didn’t know we were feeding them the cat food…
How did you mask it?!
We just mixed it into the food. Hamburgers, stews… [Laughs.]
So you were complicit?
Oh, yeah. I think it was my idea actually. [Chuckles.] I was really pissed off. They were really odious… I guess I really had that Übermensch potential in me.
Oh man. And this is before any fancy organic cat food. This is the lowest of the low…
Oh yeah, this is when it was addictive! Basically, cats are getting heroin and they don’t even know it. Once you start feeding a cat brand cat food, that’s all they’ll eat because they’re addicts. The waiters liked it. They kept coming back for more. [Laughs.]
[Laughing] Because they were addicted!
Jo Ann Beard, writer
I worked once for a woman who was younger than me; she had me doing things like bringing her bagels and guarding her car when it was illegally parked. I liked her quite a lot and liked the job too, mainly because I could smoke while I guarded the car. Then she ran across a piece I had published in The New Yorker and almost had a coronary. She couldn’t adjust her idea of who this person she saw every day was. It’s like a box of paperclips had started talking to her. She just kept staring at me all day, and her friends kept coming by and laughing at her. To them this was high hilarity, that their colleague had underestimated her box of paperclips. At the end of the day she called me into her office and said: “You don’t know it, but The New Yorker is a big deal.”
I might be making it sound bad, but it was actually pretty great, all of it. The cigarettes, sitting on a fire hydrant in the sunshine, this woman’s genuine desire to let me in on my good fortune.
Daniel Mendelsohn, writer/critic
There was a nutty opera impresario named Joe Scuro, who had a one-man office operating out of the Economist building—the Steinway building, on 57th and 7th. 111 West 57th, I still remember the address—who was a friend of someone I knew, and he needed a guy Friday, so I interviewed with him and got the job. I worked for him for three and a half years. (…) He was brilliant, mercurial, the most foul-mouthed person I have ever met in my life. But I learned a tremendous amount from him. We went to the Met every night. We had house passes, we saw every performance. I got a real education from him. He was always giving me LPs, stacks and stacks, telling me I had to listen and learn these things over the weekend. And I did, because I was twenty-two and had no life, and why not?
But he was also a nut. (…) He was this tiny guy with this blond hair, smoking the cigar, and would sit there shrieking at recalcitrant sopranos in Switzerland while jabbing his cigar into the air. I mean, the things he said over the phone…I would be sitting at my typewriter— this was all pre-computer— in the outer office weeping, literally weeping with terror.
No, for the world!
Björn Yttling, musician/producer
When I was in high school, I went up to Norsjö [the small Swedish town where he is from] and had a summer job as a musician. I was a bandmaster there when I was like sixteen. I would put together different musical arrangements. I had to be there from 8-5 every day even though I’d done all this work ahead of time planning the arrangements. I didn’t think it was fair. So when I got an offer to do another gig for the hotel in town, Hotel Inlandia, I did it during my lunch hour. The guy who hired me for the first job was super pissed. He sent me a postcard later, I remember: “Good luck with life.” [Laughs]
James Franco, actor/writer/artist
I couldn’t find a job anywhere. I had very little work experience. Someone said, “Well, are you too good to work at McDonald’s?” And so I said, “I guess not. I’m doing this because it’s what I really want to do, so I’ll work at McDonald’s, if that’s what it takes.” I went and they hired me.
What did you do at McDonald’s?
They rotate, although I mostly worked the cashier window at the drive-through— I could do that well.
You didn’t flip any burgers?
No! They didn’t put me anywhere near the burgers. Then, when I had to do the food window, I just got too confused and everything got backed up.
David Shields, writer
In high school I worked at McDonald’s. Got fired. I worked at a fabric store. Got fired. In college I worked as a custodian. Got fired. Wasn’t too good at the physical stuff. One person asked me if I was so bad on purpose or whether I was really that uncomprehending of the relation between soap and water.
Jennifer Egan, writer
The Holy Grail for me was that I just wanted to be a waitress! But I could never get a job. In New York, you can’t get it unless you have experience in New York. How are you supposed to do it? Everyone says, “You lie, of course!” But I was afraid.
Jan Maxwell, actor
I certainly did my share of hostessing at restaurants because, honestly, they didn’t want me on the floor. I was a pretty awful waitress; I couldn’t figure out why people didn’t just go get things for themselves!
Michael Scammell, writer/translator
I had rented a room with a Russian émigré lady, Miss Anna Feigin, on West 104th Street, just off Broadway. She was very nice, but kept to herself, and I also kept to myself. (…) One day in the spring of 1960 Miss Feigin asked if I could have tea with her the following Saturday afternoon. So on Saturday I turned up for tea, and when I entered the room, a tall, balding, middle-aged gentleman stood up to greet me, along with his beautiful, elegant wife and an even taller younger man who was obviously his son. ‘I’d like you to meet Mr. Vladimir Nabokov, Mrs. Vera Nabokov, and their son Dmitri,’ said my landlady. So we all sat politely having tea and chatting amiably in a mixture of Russian and English. They asked me about my interest in translation and I told them about Cities and Years– which didn’t seem to impress Nabokov at all – and that seemed to be that. Nabokov was on his way to Utah to go butterfly hunting and then to Hollywood to write the screenplay for Lolita.
A couple of weeks later I had gotten a letter from Vera in Utah, saying, “My husband was very interested to know that you translate, would you send him a sample?” I sent him a Chekov story I had translated. Vera then asked me to translate three pages from Nabokov’s Russian novel, The Gift, and the next thing I knew, I got a letter from California saying, “My husband was very impressed with your translation, would you care to translate his novel?”
Molly Haskell, writer/critic
I wound up at UNIVAC, publicizing the new computers. They hired me as a Girl Friday—an assistant to a copywriting executive. I would do some typing, but it wasn’t heavy duty typing, and they promised I would get to write press releases… So that is what I did.
That job was right out of Mad Men. Honestly. It’s uncanny how close it was. I was Peggy, though a little less dowdy and with a little more sexual leverage. I started at something like $65 a week, typing letters, writing releases about the latest fabulous Univac on the market. I had a huge crush on my boss’s boss, who was a blond version of Jon Hamm: he was extremely good-looking, had a mysterious past, and a little bit of a chip on his shoulder. After a few months, I moved from my desk outside Harry’s office into my own cubicle! There were all these guys, copywriters a little older than me, with whom I enjoyed innocuous flirtations, basically we would signal each other through the windows of our cubicles, and go out for three martini lunches— which is just inconceivable now! And there was this voluptuous babe secretary who was just like Joan…It was just that early sixties world, a world that was right on the cusp of change.
John D’Agata, writer
I worked in a condom shop. Not a sex shop, just a condom shop that also sold a few cheesy sex-gags and maybe some nonthreatening ‘toys’ down near the back of the store that no one ever bought. This was also long before I’d ever had sex myself, so explaining the benefits of various kinds of condoms was kind of amusing for me. I also delivered balloons as a clown, barbacked, and for a brief summer I worked in a bagel shop. They wouldn’t let me actually make bagels, however, so I eventually quit that job because I didn’t like toasting and smearing things for other people. I don’t think I have a problem with serving people, but spreading stuff on toasted bread for another person is kind of humiliating.
Ellen Altfest, painter
I ended up getting a job at this crazy hand-painted pottery store on Madison Avenue. They had live chickens in a cage and elaborate ornamentation on every square inch of the store. I remember Mary Tyler Moore came in and complained about the chickens, that it was inhumane to have them in a cage.
Sylvia Waters, dancer/director
My first [job] was working in what is now a trendy area in New York—the meatpacking district. Back then it was definitely a meat packing district! I was a bookkeeper’s assistant. I worked in this tiny little office. And I just watched the meat rolling by…they would go in as lambs and come out as chops.
Paul Elie, writer/editor
I got a summer job working a couple of days a week in the circulation research department at Time Magazine. For ten bucks an hour, they asked me to tell them where the magazine industry was going. A billion-dollar corporation, asking an underemployed graduate student for strategic direction!
One day I was told that I had to go see Reg Brack, who ran Time Inc. So I rode the elevator up to the executive suite in my tennis shirt and jeans, and Mr. Brack, who had on a suit with suspenders, as I recall, sat me down in a leather chair and asked me to tell him where the magazine business was going. (…)
I don’t remember how Mr. Brack reacted to my advice, but I do remember how strange it was to get out of that leather chair and go home to eat a tuna fish sandwich in my apartment.
Ted Conover, writer
I taught aerobics.
Yeah. Me and Richard Simmons…
The little shorts?
Well, they weren’t like his … and I never said, “Make it burn!” But I got in great shape, better than I’ve ever been.
Robert Cohen, writer
I got a part time job at this school in the Sunset District that used to be an anti-bussing school. It was a horrible institution. It was in a church; there were no walls, just blackboards used as room dividers. And the school’s roots were based in the fact that no parents wanted their kids bussed to schools with minorities, even though the school was 30% minorities anyway.
It was a really confused place. And I didn’t know anything, I just had this kind of gee-wiz tune running through my head. The first day I was there teaching 8th grade English. This kid comes up to me, bigger than I was, swastika tattoo on his arm, and he said, “No offense, we just really don’t want you here.”
He said, “No offense” first. That’s nice.
Yeah, I wanted to say, “I don’t want me here either.” That would be perfect, actually, if they paid me anyway. But I hung in there, made that kid my own special project. I got him to read the first book he’d ever read in his life: The Maltese Falcon. His mother came up to me at the end of the year and said he loved The Maltese Falcon so much and it was the first book he’d ever read. I should’ve given him Mein Kampf, that would’ve gotten a good reaction.
Kristen Schaal, comedian
It took me a long time to land a job, which was stressful. I tried the restaurant route and got rejected consistently. After a couple months I finally got hired at Planet Hollywood in Times Square because they will take any sucker. It was hard to make money there because you had to tip out of your food sales to your runner and busser and bartender, instead of tipping out of your tips. If you got stiffed by a table you might be paying the restaurant to let you work there that night. It was a nightmare.
Then I worked as a temp at a few law firms. That wasn’t so bad, except you could clock in over sixty hours a week and watch your life slip away in file boxes.
I was a character actor at F.A.O. Schwartz; that was the worst one. No one wants to pretend to be happy for an eight-hour shift. It’s mentally unhealthy.
George Saunders, writer
I worked as a geophysicist in Sumatra, then came home and roamed around for a few years. I worked in a slaughterhouse, as a doorman in Beverly Hills (very uplifting), as a roofer. I played in bands, worked in a convenience store, was a barback at a dance club, worked as a groundsman – a little bit of everything, really. While I was farting around in this Kerouac phase, the oil business went bust, and my credentials, such as they were, got a little dusty. So by the end of this period I had more or less dissipated my college degree.
Wells Tower, writer
I had a job working in a Nike warehouse. That was just a straight warehouse job, boxing up shoes and things like that. But I was so eager to write that I somehow let my boss know. My boss was a nineteen year-old kid who was probably making ten times what I was making as a warehouse guy. What a weird idea, really, that I sidled up to this nineteen year old dude, who’d probably dropped out of high school, and was like, “Hey man, I want to be a writer.” Anyway, somehow I let him know that I knew how to write. So he would pull me off the line and I would write his emails for him. I would pack all of my frustrated literary ambition into this kid’s emails.
What did the emails sound like?
It was like: “Hey Larry, we need more of the number 3 boxes on line 6.” And my version would be like: “Dear Larry, I have been contemplating the matter regarding those boxes on line six and my thoughts were as follows…”
Tim Davis, photographer
When I had this stock boy job in high school, I would go to the local library in Amherst, Mass, after school and read photography books. I had a vision that there were these books, that there was a place that these things I made might end up, and that they would be there forever. That was very powerful. (…) There was also something illicit about reading those photography books. I told the deli where I worked that I could only show up at 3 and school got out at 2.15. So I would go to the library in-between, and it was this secret, illicit time by myself when I was looking at photography books. It was almost this sexual, private thing.
William Finnegan, writer
I was a railroad brakeman in California for a few years after college. That was a dream job. The pay was great. I worked the coast route, between San Francisco and L.A., mainly agricultural freight. People in that world used to say, ‘The big iron gets in your blood,’ and I sometimes thought I’d never leave. The tracks tend to run through an old rural and industrial California that few people ever see, and railroaders speak a strange, rich, American language that I loved. I filled a lot of notebooks with railroad language and lore. The seasonal rhythm of the job suited me. I had no seniority, so I’d get furloughed in the winters, when traffic slowed down, which gave me half the year to write. I’d go hole up somewhere—Mexico, Europe, Montana. My third novel was set on the railroad.
Gary Shteyngart, writer
You want to work 9-5, so that when the day is over it’s over and the weekends are yours. And the best thing, which I had at a couple of jobs, is when you can lock yourself in your office and write. People would say, “Oh Shteyngart is not a team player, he is always locked in his office, God knows what he is doing in there!”
I used to work at this non-profit that dealt with immigrant resettlement and I would help write directions for new Russian immigrants, like how to not get drunk, how to avoid AIDS, stuff like that. That took max a couple of days a month, really. And the rest of the time I would lock myself in my office and work on the draft of my first novel. Half of it was finished by my senior year in college and the other half was finished working that job. It wasn’t the kind of service job where I would come home exhausted. I would come home ready to write or would have accomplished the writing at the office. It was brilliant.
Noah Hawley, screenwriter
I got this corporate paralegal job and – classic scenario – I’d just go home and write at night and on weekends. During workdays [I'd say]: “How quickly can I do this task so I can focus on my own stuff?” There’s this weird sub-culture in offices where the large percentage of people are trying to be something else, but they’re all keeping it secret. I went out with a couple work friends one night and finally revealed that I was a writer and I’d sold a book and one of them was like, “That’s what I’m doing.”
You really have to commit to spending your nights and weekends writing – you have to choose that over going out drinking and being 26 and going out with your friends. But the alternative is you’re 40 and you’re still the paralegal. I just didn’t want to be in that place.
AND FINALLY…NO EXCUSES
Thomas Roma, photographer
I worked as an assistant at Pratt and I worked in wedding photography studio, mounting photos onto driftwood. Two jobs. But I would get up every morning before the Pratt job and take the prints I had made the night before. On my way to work I would photograph. I would develop the film during my lunch hour, because there was a darkroom there. I would go to my night job. Then get back from my night job at midnight and print more photos. The next day, I would do it all again. Not because I was a superhero. It is what I wanted to do.
No one is going to prevent you from doing what you want to do. But so many people buy into various systems. There is an art school system, an internship system, all that. They want to be explorers and individuals, but they want instructions for how to be their own person. Does that make any sense? “Tell me where to go to go off the beaten path!” I mean, come on.
I am not going to give one inch to the “you need to support yourself” argument. I had a student at the School of Visual Arts once. He came to class one week and didn’t have any work because his camera was stolen. I understood that. But the next week he came back and still didn’t have any work because he said he didn’t have enough money to buy a camera. I said, “I’m going to throw you out of the class.” I made him come up to the front of the class and I asked him to stick out his arm. He did. I grabbed his hand and said, “What is that?” He had a Tag Heuer watch. I said, “Sell that watch and buy a camera.” He said, “I can’t sell that watch, my grandmother gave it to me.” So I said, “Sell your grandmother into slavery and buy a camera.” I threw him out of the class.
People who are concerned about money are the ones brushing their teeth three times a day. Maybe you have to live in a way where you don’t even brush your teeth. Maybe you can’t bathe too regularly. Everyone says “I have passion…but I have to go to the movies…or eat at a restaurant…live in a nice place!” People say they need to support themselves, but what that means is that they have to have a certain standard of living. You make it work. There is always a way to make it work.
If you don’t treat your work as if it’s important, and necessary, there is no point. Every creature on earth has the need for food, shelter, and to reproduce. Humans, we are exactly the same way. But we also have this one other drive and that is to express ourselves. That is why poets lock themselves in a garret, even though they get nothing else out of it, even if they never find recognition. But if that drive is not as powerful as those other three, or if you are only using that drive to get at one of the other three—the house in the Hamptons, food, or sex—then what have you done? You’re a mammal, or something! It’s not a luxury what I do. It is a necessity.
The political prisoner who was tortured can say, “I paid in blood for my beliefs.” Why should the artist expect any less of herself than to pay in blood? There is a great expression: “shoe leather,” as in something took a lot of work, a lot of walking around. Well, the shoe leather is the every day. You have to put yourself in a position where you are going to be affected by the world. And it’s not a luxury to say you’re not going to chase every dollar. You need to give yourself time to be in the rain. Robert Frost wrote, “I have walked out in rain — and back in rain.” I read that and wondered what he meant. He means that you have to be rained on. You have to do things that other people consider mistakes and then hang on to those mistakes. We have to acknowledge that failure isn’t only an option, it is your companion.