Most authors I know also have part-time jobs on the side as well as other means of making money. None of them are criminals or slum landlords. Not yet, anyway. But writing has never been the most reliable way of earning a living, which means we need to get out and find work in the real world. Royalties and advances aside, writers in Scotland are paid around two hundred quid per session, which is an hour’s work in front of an audience, live or virtual. A few of those a week, multiple sessions per day, is a good wage for a writer/storyteller if they can get it. When the lockdown of 2020 happened, all of those events were immediately erased and this led to a deadly effect on the finances of everyone. The virus weaponised the one thing that any storyteller needs: an audience. Without an audience, we’re just weirdos talking to ourselves in public. Since every venue shut for the duration of the lockdown, that meant no-one was hiring us. Fortunately, I was luckier than most of my friends in the industry, because I have a job outside of writing. Honestly, I was so grateful that I could still earn a wage, which wasn’t something everyone had the opportunity to do during those months.
My other job kept me solvent while writing books. It put me in contact with the public, giving me a chance to see real people, talk to them and in return be a small part of their lives. For over fifteen years, I’ve worked in a public library, helping people find books, guiding them around the building, saving them from the overwhelming superabundance of the non-fiction shelves. In this job, you need to be uniquely qualified, more than any CV can possibly do justice. Working in a library means knowing about books, general culture, and current events. It also means being a computer technician, a Job Centre coach, a psychiatrist, a social worker, and making really good mugs of tea for the knitting group. First aid skills, photoshop, photocopying, and the ability to withstand people having a moan about Nicola Sturgeon or Jeremy Corbyn. Oh yes, libraries are for everyone – even people who want your funding to be cut. The worst sort of borrowers are the ones who use the library constantly yet seem to resent it deeply. I’ve seen the poorest people pay fines yet the wealthiest borrowers take exception to paying the fifty pence required to replace a library membership card they’ve lost again and again.
You think we just stand at a counter stamping books? A common misconception. When the great lockdown happened, I assumed libraries would all stay open, after all…aren’t we an essential service? But it didn’t happen. Somehow, this shook me, taking apart a deeply held belief that a library is a key part of any community. People were very grateful when we opened again, but not as grateful as I was to see how much they wanted us again. Sometimes, you need to be reminded of your importance. Not because of your own ego, but to keep you aware of how relevant the idea of a library is in this decade. Imagine inventing the concept of a library now? You’d be laughed out of the bank’s business loan office. Lending books…for free? What? Ha, bitch. No.
That’s not to say it’s always easy. As with any cornerstone of the community, you’re at the mercy of madness. I’ll never forget the time a man in a long trench crept over towards me, waiting until I was ready to take his books. Except he didn’t have books. Instead, he had something to ask. “Do you want to see a magic trick?” Before I could politely tell him no, hell no, never…he opened his coat. Of course I’d heard all about the Abronhill Flasher so I replied with a scream, giving him a good view of my fillings. His trick became a vanishing act. Then there was the time a pensioner claimed to be possessed by an evil force that threw him out of bed. Sympathetically, I listened, waiting to persuade him that he should go to the doctor and get his arm fixed, which seemed to hang limply from a homemade sling. But the demonic force struck again and he backed away, seeing monsters in the Mills & Boon section. Maybe he’d read Pregnancy of Revenge and was having a flashback?
Less enjoyable was the borrower who refused to wear a mask or use sanitiser at the height of the pandemic, because Covid was ‘fake news’. “When you turn off the news, that’s the virus cured,” he said. Then he photocopied anti-vaxxer posters, using our photocopier, and the loophole that a library is a safe space for everyone, including Covid denialists. I didn’t serve him, thankfully.
A library is an ideal job for a writer, but plenty of other jobs are available. I know (and know of) authors who work at schools, some who sit behind the checkout of your local supermarket, even one who works in construction. All jobs that put them in contact with people and ideas. Both make stories, of course.
Sometimes I wonder what I’d do if I could write full-time, but in all honesty…I’m not sure I’d like it, or I’d enjoy it too much, refusing to leave the house and see people. For me, a wee job on the side is something to keeps me mobile, not just upwardly, but physically, actually forcing me to interact with people, all sorts of people. And that’s worth more than money, trust me.