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An Author's Path To Success: Quitting Your Day Job

Sonny Brewer sang in a honky-tonk band six nights a week before going on to write <em>The Widow and the Tree.</em>
Sonny Brewer sang in a honky-tonk band six nights a week before going on to write The Widow and the Tree.

Before he became a writer, Sonny Brewer held the position of chief chicken fryer at Woody’s Drive-In in Millport, Ala.

He followed that up with a stint in the Navy, then as singer in a honky-tonk band. Brewer has also worked as a car salesman, a construction worker and a coffee house manager -- but in his spare time, he was always writing.

One day, Brewer finally quit his day job. That was four novels ago. Brewer made it as a writer, but he never forgot his earlier jobs -- and he figured other successful writers didn’t either, which is how his latest project was born.

Don't Quit Your Day Job is an anthology of 23 southern writers reminiscing about former jobs. Brewer tells NPR's Mary Louise Kelly about how he recruited writers for the project.

"I said to William [Gay], 'Would you write about hanging sheet rock in the hills of Tennessee, before you were what Stephen King referred to as an American Treasure?'" Brewer recounts. "And he said, ‘No, I’ll write about working at the pinball factory, though.'"

Appalachian Writer of the Year Silas House agreed to write about his time as a mailman; author George Singleton shared his experience as a garbage truck driver; and Winston Groom, of Forrest Gump fame, wrote about being an Army officer in Vietnam.

Groom tells Kelly that the novelty of Brewer's project was what initially made him want to be a part of it.

"I [had never] thought about anything like that," he says. "But you are what you do. I think that … experience in life is informed by all the things that you do, and work is most of it."

Groom says he had never realized how many different jobs he had held -- and what he had gotten out of them -- until he started looking back. His first job as a newsboy taught him he wasn't an early riser; his work in construction taught him he didn't like hard, manual labor; and the Army gave him enough experience to write a book about -- his first novel, in fact, Better Times Than These.

"And that’s what got me out of the newspaper racket," says Groom, who had ended up a reporter at the now-defunct Washington Star. "That book launched my career. That was 30 years ago, and I haven’t worked a day since.”

Winston Groom served in Vietnam from 1966 to 1967 before writing <em>Forrest Gump.</em>
Winston Groom served in Vietnam from 1966 to 1967 before writing Forrest Gump.

Groom says that while the old adage "Write what you know" proved good advice for his literary debut, it shouldn't always be taken as a rule. After all, his book Only was written entirely from the point of view of an orphaned Old English sheepdog, and it's not like the sheepdog can correct him. (Though Groom insists the dog loved the book.)

Brewer offers some more advice for aspiring writers.

"Truman Capote just said, 'Write something true,'" Brewer says. "It doesn’t matter if it fits in the book or not, but if it’s true that the wind is blowing and that the sky is blue … write the truth for a minute."

"Then, start lying," Groom adds.  "A very convincing lie."

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