Writing the Wicked Job — Guest Lori Rader-Day

I am delighted that Lori Rader-Day was able to join us today to talk about jobs, writing, and her latest book Little Pretty Things. I met Lori on a panel at Left Coast Crime in March of 2014 a few months before her first book, The Black Hour, was published. Lori is smart, funny, and always interesting. Take it away, Lori.

Writing my second novel, Little Pretty Things, I had a lot of time to think about work. Not writing—work work.

In the book, Juliet Townsend works at a “roadside dive” of a motel, cleaning up after people who have no compunction about not keeping the rooms neat.

LittlePrettyTHingsAs Juliet puts it, “I’d encountered bloody towels left behind the door, sheets covered in terrible things. I’d had to clean up spilled beer, used condoms, dirty diapers, and more. People came to motels like the Mid-Night to be someone else for a night, and their new identities rarely wanted to pick up after themselves. Sometimes their new selves wanted to smear things on the walls.”

I’ve worked in nice, clean offices for twenty years, but the reason I started writing about Juliet was because I wanted to write about the kinds of jobs I might have had to live with, if I’d chosen a different path.

My first bad job was as a busboy in a family-owned restaurant in my hometown. I was too young to drive, so my patient parents dropped me off and then picked me up a few hours later. In the mean time I would have picked up a … scent. I was 14. I hardly made any money at all, but I managed to get a lot of baked potato under my fingernails.

Jobs were hard to get. My family lived far out in the country and until I could drive myself, I couldn’t get the kinds of jobs my friends in town did. The half-hour commute into town was a long commute for someone with a brand new license and three hours of homework every night. At the same time I was highly involved in school activities like the yearbook staff, which dragged into the summer and took crucial time away from work.

In the ensuing high school-to-college years, I worked a series of crappy jobs. At the family fun park where all my friends worked midway games or rollercoasters, I sat alone in a hot little camper shilling all things deep-fat fried. Because I learned to use a cash register there, I was saddled with cashier jobs for a while. At Wal-Mart the next summer, I stayed on into the fall before I realized I couldn’t seem to get my homework done anymore. I had to quit. I felt as though I’d worked a lifetime there. It was four months.

metallic_purple_tinsel_garland_1One summer I worked in a factory that made shiny tree garland. I ran a special machine that turned rolls of thin, glossy plastic into ropes of shiny, fluffy tree décor. In the history of garland-making, no one was ever worse at it. I worked at another factory later, where I was asked to break apart giant wooden wire spools with a sledgehammer. I started out tentative but by the end of the day picked up a real Paul Bunyan’s ax mentality.

The summer before I went to college, I wore a tight, brown polyester uniform dress, like a punishment, at the cash register of a Ponderosa franchise. Once in a while, I was asked to dump a bag of powder into the top of the ice cream machine. Voilà, ice cream. I couldn’t wait to go to college.

popmovieAnd then in college, I worked at a movie theatre, slinging popcorn. One time, a kid stumbled out of a theatre into the deserted lobby, made a beeline for my counter, and puked all over it.


So I’ve been in the trenches, is what I’m saying.

I’ve never worked in a motel—or la-di-da, a hotel—but I found that I could finally put some of this life experience to good use, giving Juliet the right mix of shame and pride in her work.

Black_Hour_cover_webThat’s the amazing thing about writing, isn’t it? You’re not writing about yourself exactly, but when you dig for the right detail or the right emotion, you find that you are inserting a little bit of the real you—the you who remembers and stores away information—into these fictional characters.

And readers who feel you’ve nailed something just right want to know: How? Unless you’re writing directly from experience, “getting it right” can seem like a little bit of magic. The conjuring of sense memory, of emotion, of anything transferable to the themes of your project, of feeling the words start to lift off the page and take flight beyond your own abilities, when the work work of writing fades away and the joy of creating takes over.

It’s not always like that, I think we can all agree. But having someone with chronic pain tell me the pain my protagonist describes is exactly right, or having a friend who’s a runner tell me I got Juliet’s former track team life right, that I “must have been a runner in a past life”—that’s the real payday for this job we love to do.

Readers: What was your worst job?

Rader_Day_Lori_2Lori Rader-Day’s debut mystery, The Black Hour (Seventh Street Books, 2014), received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, Booklist, and Library Journal and was a finalist for the Mary Higgins Clark Award. Her second mystery, Little Pretty Things, is out in July. Her short stories have appeared in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Time Out Chicago, Good Housekeeping, and others. She lives in Chicago with her husband and spoiled dog and is active in the Mystery Writers of America Midwest Chapter and a member of Sisters in Crime and International Thriller Writers.

37 Thoughts

  1. So true, Lori. And thanks for joining us on the blog today! Just the other day I was channeling the feelings about something difficult I was experiencing in my life into a character’s reactions in 1888 going through a completely different experience. I think it worked. Loved your first book, and am off to order a copy of this one.

    The job I most hated was going door to door in high school with Fuller Brush catalogs and trying to get people to buy stuff. Uck. The rest of my jobs have been pretty good, with working as a mechanic and teaching conversational English in Japan among the most fun!

  2. I loved The Black Hour. Worst job? I’m having trouble with that, although there were a lot of mediocre ones. How about working in the windowless basement of a bank in North Carolina typing (yes, on a typewriter) strings of numbers on cards? Not disgusting, but definitely mind-numbing. Or the time I auditioned to be a summer babysitter and the toddler escaped? (No harm done!)

    But you’ve learned one important thing about being a writer: use everything. Even the crappy experiences can be recycled in a book.

  3. Motel maid at a motel on I-75, though I did learn how to shine up a bathroom in 5 minutes. Short order cook at a mall sandwich shop, where I made a huge caldron of chili each morning.

  4. Worst job: Office assistant for an insurance company, full of very old men in the very Deep South. Funny, I love old men and I love the Deep South, but not when they’re talking about insurance. However, no one ever puked on me!
    The tree garland factory sounds so odd. I guess everything is made someplace…. Best of luck with the new book, Lori!

  5. My first job was my worst job. When I was 16 I worked at Burger King and quit after 3 weeks. Directly after that I landed a job downtown NY on Wall Street (thanks to my friend Angie who recommended me for the job), working for a brokerage firm. That was soooo much better.

  6. I’ve had a couple of very bad bosses, so the work at those jobs was fine. It was the boss that was bad.

    I can’t think of a truly bad job I had. I started out doing yard work, and I spent a summer working at a water park, but the jobs weren’t bad. Which is why I am back to those very bad bosses. And yes, I could myself very lucky.

  7. Hmmmm… I never really had bad jobs per se. I worked in a grocery store and in college I worked for an opera company during the school year and then in the summer I worked at a shoe polish factory!

    And I also did inventories of car dealership’s auto parts departments- that was boring!

    Oh, and I worked at Claire’s piercing ears- I always turned away the babies- I HATED piercing a baby’s ears!

    Then I was an employment consultant- I liked the interviewing but I hated the cold calling.

    Then I spent 11 years working at a Waldenbooks- and for the most part, it was pretty awesome. Except Christmas- time- not very awesome.

    Then I worked for a women’s sporting goods company. Seeing as I am a reader and NOT an athlete, that may not have been the best job choice…

    Then public accounting (after an accounting degree….) and now I’m an auditor for a retailer!

    I agree with Mark- in my experience it was mainly the bosses that make a job bad. I mean I had some gross things happen in retail (entire container of liquid Tide exploded on my belt in the grocery store AND a little boy peed on my foot and let’s not even talk about the stuff that people leave behind in stores (very gross)). But if you have a good boss and good coworkers, must jobs are bearable.

    OK, now back to writing up my next audit…. 🙂

      1. It was fun! I worked for the education coordinator. The company did special matinees for school children in the Philadelphia school district. I even got to meet Pavarotti- who definitely had a very specific outlook on life, food, and the ladies! 😉

  8. Lori, thanks for visiting today! What a great post and great question!

    The summer I was 15, I worked for a cleaning company. Mostly my supervisor and I cleaned recently vacated apartments for a large complex. We were called in to swamp out the apartments where the renters left things so filthy they had forfeited their security deposit. The property management company refused to arrange for electricity in the apartments since the apartments were vacant and we could plug in the vacuum in the corridors. Unfortunately, all the apartments had windowless bathrooms so light was non-existent.

    The chemicals we had to use to remove every trace of the former occupants were so strong they made our eyes water and throats burn. The warning labels on the cleaning product bottles listed flammability as a risk. In order to check our work, my boss, who was a smoker, would flick her cigarette lighter and hold it aloft to make sure everything was clean. Every single time she did it I held my breath and prayed that we wouldn’t blow up. The next summer I got a job at the mall!

  9. I worked very briefly at a Hostess factory . . . couldn’t eat Twinkies or Snowballs for a long time after that. Most of my jobs have taught me valuable skills, even if they weren’t what I would have chosen. The education at that one was respect for the workers there, one of whom asked on the first day, “Why are you here if you have the skills for an office job?” Why indeed? Didn’t take long to figure out I didn’t need to be.
    Curious now, why would they have you, “break apart giant wooden wire spools with a sledgehammer”?

  10. Lori, thanks so mych for stopping by! And this is great – I worked as a ar back once for some, um, questionable people. I was chastised for not taking out the trash right. Needless to say that job didn’t last long!

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