Lots of people don’t realise that although you may see work by a certain author on the bookshelves in your favourite shop, many writers still hold down a day job in addition to penning their next novel. In this series, we talk to writers about how their current – or previous – day jobs have inspired and informed their writing.
Today, James A Tucker – writer of ‘Space Expectations‘ and member of Elementary Writers – is with us today to talk about his rich and varied career and how they have enabled him to imagine worlds far, far away.
Some authors seem to collect weird jobs.
Well, I haven’t been an unarmed combat intructor or anything. I volunteered in a homeless shelter but they sensibly never put me on night shift, so I didn’t see much of the trouble. I delivered telephone directories around the lanes of Somerset, where the houses were numbered in the order they were built. I think that has helped writing about isolated and odd almost inaccessible places, but it wasn’t much of a money maker. To buy a bass amp I spent a while getting up at two thirty am to work in a sandwich factory, doing things like putting four slices of tomato on every bread slice passing by on a conveyor belt, standing inside a giant refridgerator. I sneezed over one sandwich, but it was gone before I could do anything about it. I don’t learn, because I still eat ready-made sandwiches.
Had a holiday job at an oceanographic lab. The most writerly things about that were the isolated setting, the abandoned civil service estate in the forest with its empty houses, the sailor’s tales of worse things happening at sea. But it also gave me a glimpse into the lost world of employment inhabited by my father: where bosses could be bumbling, relaxed and kindly.
The rest of my employment hasn’t been much like that at all. But I should probably mention the training. I am a strange person who was always good at science, physics especially. So I did a physics degree. Then, being the contrary person with depression that I am, I decided not to do it for a living.
I like to think that my sci-fi scenarios and hardware are distinctly above par. On the other, realism and plausibility are not necessarily what people look for in their genre fiction! It might be a lot better not to spot laughably bad science and plot holes. But I’m a pedant who reckons that without a working world to stand on, you can’t have a serious story.
Then I worked for ten years as an Occupational Therapist. The first benefit for a writer was figuring out how to explain what an OT is and what we do; and to realise that the answer depends on the context and the audience.
In a kind of shock therapy, I was plunged into a world of intense human drama, life, death, suffering, resilience, hope and despair. In the first draft I started writing and couldn’t stop until it was way too long for a column. So what are the most important things to say? That if many of the things I saw or experienced were written in anything but a black farce, people would say they were too extreme or unbelievable. Fiction differs from life in that it has to make sense, and villains have to show depth and complexity. There might be a redeeming reason why a nurse is covering up patient neglect by smearing other people, but in reality, you’re unlikely to ever find out.
One interesting thing was that I went from a 90% male profession to one that was 90% female. There I experienced both positive and negative discrimination for being a minority. Gives you perspective… the sexes really aren’t that much different.
In the end, I burned out from stress and management bullying, and am now unemployed. Is there a fresh career as an author awaiting? Let’s find out…