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How I got here in the end: part one

I'm still grappling with "The Fuller Memorandum" — or not, right now, because I'm recovering from the previously-mentioned head cold and in my experience, editing with a cold results in dumb mistakes — and the dilemma of what to write in this blog. I mean, I could draw your attention to the fact that I've just received my author copies of the hardcover edition(s) of "Wireless" and the UK paperback of "Saturn's Children", which means both of 'em are on their way from the publisher's warehouse to the bookstores, but that's just infomercial padding; I want to do something more in my copious spare time.

On the other hand, this isn't a political blog (at least, not primarily), a book review blog (if I say anything negative about someone else's books in public, conspiracy theorists will be lining up six deep for the cage-match: sorry folks, but I don't do feuds), or a travel blog (hey! Want to see my photographs of aviation museums and pubs?). And over the past nine years of blogging I've talked about a lot of the stuff that interests me, and I don't like repeating myself ...

But it occured to me a couple of days ago that I've been a full-time self-employed writer for over eight years now; and with a couple of exceptions, every company I ever worked for before then has gone bust (and as far as those exceptions go, I believe a statute of limitations probably applies by now). If you've looked at the potted biography on the back flap of most of my books, you'll have noticed weird references to my previous occupations — pharmacist, freelance journalist, dot-com startup monkey — none of which seem to have much in common with novelist. So over the next few days and weeks I'm going to try and describe how I ended up in this freelance writing job, and the weird and winding path I took to get there.

Back when I was a wee thing, the English educational system required schoolkids to make serious decisions about their future career structure waaay too early. Up to age 16 and the "O" level exams, you studied a range of about 7-10 subjects. Then, on the basis of your "O" levels (or the less rigorous CSE exams) you either left school at 16 and got a job, or you stayed on for two years to study 3-4 subjects in depth at "A" (advanced) level. "A" levels were the gateway to university admission; your choice of graduate degree determined which "A" levels you needed to study for admission. (They generally covered a subject to about as much depth as you'd reach in the second year of a contemporary American university course.) You didn't get to mix subjects; you were either going into the arts or the sciences or the professions. So at age 15 you needed to make your mind up what you'd be studying at university, and what kind of career you intended to go into.

I already knew (from an early age — 12 or so) that I wanted to be an SF writer. But there was a fly in the ointment — a fly called Margaret Thatcher. I turned 15 in 1979, the year the conservatives won an election and the Thatcherite revolution swung into action. Unemployment soared from around one million to over three million in twelve months as the UK experienced the worst industrial recession since the end of the second world war (largely caused by Thatcher's dramatic decision to cut most of the state-owned industries off at their knees, on the assumption that the workers would find new and more productive jobs sooner rather than later — a misplaced assumption, as it turned out). I come from a middle-class background; I could expect to go to university, but not to rely indefinitely on parental hand-outs. "You'll need some kind of way to earn a living while you're trying to write," the careers guidance teachers told me. And, not being sufficiently cynical back then — let alone sufficiently experienced to realize that the then-prevalent economic doom'n'gloom would eventually pass — I took the warnings at face value.

Given my grades, I should have studied English Literature. If you've got the head of your school's English department describing your failure to go for an "A" level in the subject as a "grave loss" to the department, that's probably a hint you should listen to. But I was doing okay in the sciences, and the whole "get a steady career" talk had spooked me. Not to mention that Making Plans for Nigel was all over the radio back then.

You're probably wondering why I didn't head into computing. It's one of those historical accidents; my school didn't acquire a computer lab until 1981, and didn't begin offering even "O" level computer science until the year I left. I wasn't quite good enough at mathematics to get the encouragement that would have made me go for a maths "A" level; that year the school maths department was picking and choosing. And without either mathematics or CS, studying CS for an undergraduate degree was out of the question.

So: what to do? Given my aptitudes and abilities, medicine was out; I happen to be cursed by a poor memory and a lazy disposition, and back then the entrance requirements for med school were at least as high as those for Oxbridge entrance. So I aimed at a second tier profession: dropped English at "A" level and by and by packed my bags and headed for London in 1983, to study pharmacy.

And thus I sealed my fate for the next seven years. (Give me a time machine and let me go back to 1980 and I'll make sure my younger self doesn't make that particular mistake again even if I have to kneecap him. But that's another matter.)

What followed is ... irrelevant. I figured out pretty early on that I was a square peg being trained for a round hole. Pharmacy isn't a profession that fits my strengths: you need an excellent memory, focussed attentiveness to detail, and little enough imagination that the prospect of accidentally poisoning or killing people doesn't keep you awake at night. I passed the degree (not well), got through a year's pre-registration work in a smallish regional hospital, then shifted to a job in a large regional teaching hospital in Yorkshire. The pay, not to put too fine a point on it, sucked mercilessly at that time; retail offered better money, at a price, so around early 1987 I began looking for a new job ....

The price became clear six months into staffing a decrepit hole-in-the-wall in Halifax, when the local detectives got a hot tip-off and staked out my workplace for an armed robbery twice in one month. It was a piss-poor excuse for a shop, but it was round the corner from a local GP's practice in a poor part of town, and the passing trade was good for a prescription workload that would keep one pharmacist and one shop assistant busy for most of the day. What I knew and the detectives didn't was that my boss — the guy who owned that, and nine other, pharmacies — was a junkie; while he was building his business his marriage had disintegrated, and he'd begun hitting the stock. (At that particular time he was occupying a cell in Armley prison, having been caught speeding while stationary as it were.) Frankly, the Sweeny scared me a lot more than the robbers: the latter had hit ten pharmacies already that year without beating up, shooting, or injuring anyone. In contrast, the plainclothes firearms guys were taking lots of polaroids of the inside of my shop for reference if they had to storm the place in a hail of bullets.

What can I say? I was 22, callow, had wasted the valuable socializing space you get at university by studying a hard technical subject I had little aptitude for for sixty hours a week; and all I'd managed to do that really counted in my own head was to sell a couple of short stories to Interzone and have a (first) serious relationship disintegrate messily. I was too naive to pull a long-term sickie; instead I took almost six weeks to get a new job, this time at a pharmacy chain with a slightly less demented management structure and clientelle.

But I had, finally, figured out that the whole idea of using a career as a state-licensed drug dealer to support the writing habit was a horrible mistake. And that's when I began to get serious about looking for a new career ...

(Which process I shall describe in my next posting on the subject of "how I became a successful science fiction writer, the long way round".)




"every company I ever worked for before then has gone bust"

A friend of mine worked for Lehman Brothers (bankrupt), Merril Lynch (collapsed; sold to Bank of America), UBS (megabillions lost; CEO stepped down) as well as other small (defunct) companies.

How now works for the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. I _hope_ he doesn't kill that as well!


Thanks for this Charlie; it's fascinating. Although given the tenor of the regulars here, I don't think pictures of pubs and aviation museums would go down at all badly...


Good stuff Charlie. Here's hoping my former workplace, where you were a web/Perl consultant for us for a short while back around 1995 (Hampshire CC) will get a walk-on part in episode 2.


My big mistake? Not majoring in History in College.

Possible second big mistake: Not applying for U.S. Army officer candidate school in '81. Of course, I could be half the man I am now.

Third big mistake: Spending too much time screwing around with GOP organizational politics. Though working for Newt Gingrich convinced me that I wasn't a Republican.

Fourth big mistake: The M.S. in Conflict Resolution; it seemed like a good idea at the time.

Fifth big mistake: Not putting the full-court press on this one particular gal when I was an undergrad.

I suspect that most of us have made the last one.


@4: nope, didn't. There's this girl I saw at the Goth Club back in the day .. she was hot.

We're now 3 years married with one kid already here and a second on the way. So no, didn't make that mistake.

Right now, again, wondering if studying Physics and staying on for a PhD was a mistake or not. PhD should probably come to a close this year. Hopefully it will take me long enough for the economy to make a bit of a recovery in the meantime ;)


I went to parochial school for twelve years, they didn't care, at all about a persons future, at all, in fact i don't think i ever saw a counselor till i was in the 12th grade!
catholics are the worst, nut gungarich has converted, they took away limbo, and it took them several hundred years to fess up and apoligize to galileo, these guys are sociopaths!!!!!
now do they want me to be an exploited member of society, or a contributing member of society? ahahaahaah.


Mmm, the republicans are always bragging about Thatcher? I certainly made some mistakes in the 70's-actually I don't remember them-I knew to many freelance pharmacists! My high school "guidance counselor"(and I use the Term loosely) would never have advised anyone to be a science fiction writer. Of course, hindsight is always 20/20, who knows how things could end up if we could change the past! Except this would be less rambling if I had all my brain cells :>


Most of the companies I worked for have been eaten up by bigger companies, but SAIC still exists and is still making a profit.

As to how my life would have been different? If I let the neighbors keep my younger brother and gone back to college instead of getting a job and becoming his guardian. But I'm not sure I could have done that.


It probably doesn't generalize well, but my experience has been that the most interesting people are the ones who didn't follow a set path through their lives. I originally went to college wanting to be a filmmaker and got sidetracked several times before ending up in software. I once worked in a software startup where one of my colleagues was originally a chemical engineer, another a music composer, still another an actor, and at least two had been hardware engineers originally. Best job I ever had, and overall, the best group I ever worked in.

Most of the people I've met who've done that sort of random walk through life didn't start off with a life goal that they were always working toward, though. So, Charlie, you're to be congratulated on knowing what you wanted to do, and finding a way (however torturous a path it was) to do it.


Told I would be a journalist. Wanted to be a scientist with ROBOTS AND SPACE AND COMPUTERS. Wanted to fly (Tac C-130 if you ask). And at some point change the world. Eventually became a journalist. Quit journalism to take part in the industry I was reporting on. COMPUTERS. Still no robots, space or C-130s. World remains unchanged.


Thanks for explaining O and A levels. I'd always wondered. But what's a Sweeny?


Sweeney = Her Majesty's Constabulary. The police. I think it's rhyming slang: "Police Squad" - "Sweeney Todd" - "Sweeney".

Yes, it is very funny, for particular values of "funny".


Coincidentally, most of the companies I've worked for in my career are out of business, too. Not my fault. Well, not entirely.

Strange part is that I knew exactly what I wanted to study in school. I was the brainy type, so I took an extra elective in high school, studying both computer science and Spanish. I loved the two subjects, so when I got to University that's what I studied. I have a BS in Computer Science, an BA in Spanish, and a minor in Business.

I became a game developer mostly by accident. I played games in the computer lab while waiting for my programs to compile. I didn't consider it as a career until a company came through to the career center trying to hire programmers. I didn't study graphics, so I wasn't a good candidate. But, it started me on the road.

All these years later, now I'm an entrepreneur. But, I enjoy writing as a hobby, still. :)


I guess I can blame Thatcher for my own career in some ways. I worked in the "music business" from 1973 to 1986 until marriage and 2 kids made the touring life umworkable. After that I was technically unemployed long enough for the government to step in and offer to pay for my "retraining". I signed up for an electronics diploma course only to find it had mutated into a computer course between sign-up and start. So now I'm a paid nerd with twenty more years of bad experience to draw on. I already know I can't write so I guess I'll just have to hang in there and hope for a continuing derth of armed robberies...


Oh, and by the way: Sweeney = Flying Squad = early somewhat anaemic version of SWAT...


@15: "The Sweeney" was a very popular TV cop drama in the UK -- if you've seen the show "Life on Mars" recently that's what the 1970s cops on the show behaved like, or worse.



Actually, I /would/ like to see what pubs you opt to visit on your trips. Pub recommendations are more than welcomed, at least amongst certain circles.


Wow, getting a strong sense of deja-vu from the school-to-college path, Charlie. My strongest subjects were O-Grade English, Art and History, back in 1985, but the pressure to select something useful with a slight chance of employment in Scotland in the mid-80s at the end of it was HUGE, so I opted for engineering and did Highers (and later CSYS) in Maths, Chemistry and Physics - oh, and kept the Higher English. I got the fourth-highest results in the school for English, by the by, but did I take the hint?

I empathise with your comments re memory and imagination, but fortunately I lack your staying-power, so after one year of Engineering hell at University I jumped ship to Arts and graduated four years later with a shiny History degree. By the time I graduated it was the early 90's, so of course I ended up working in a bookshop in Dublin for money that might best be described a charitable, but that's another baked potato entirely.

I suspect your experience (and mine) was a not uncommon one in '80s Britain - I certainly remember Boys from the Black Stuff and Threads as two vivid adolescent themes. At least the apocalyptic scenarios facing us were immediately apocalyptic, rather than the vague, fluffy doomsdays that modern kids have to worry about. [Yorkshire Accent]They don't know how good they have it, kids of today[/Yorkshire Accent]


Yabbutt, I worry rather more about this decade's nightmares, probably for the very good reason that I'm responsible for my children in way that I wasn't responsible for my parents.

My career has been far too boring to mention here, but it's very much in the same place as Charlie's. For more on this kind of thing, watch _The History Boys_ and read the 'elite' chapter of Spufford's _Backroom Boys_.


I actually find it kind of comforting to know that Charlie went through a bunch of other rigmarole before becoming the well loved author of today.

It gives me some hope that maybe the writing dream can still rise from beneath the other humdrum crap I deal with day to day.


From a recently-minted reader of your work. Thank the web and expect a less-virtual follow-up book buy for my next read. Interesting quote: "Pharmacy isn't a profession that fits my strengths". For many of us, "Pharmacy is a profession that compensates for our deficits in strength."

Manfred reminds me somehow of Toole's main character in "A Confederacy of Dunces". Another that comes to mind is the subject of "Fisher's Hornpipe", a sort of Cambridge-set re-imagining of Toole's work. Your prescient grasp of mainstream science, fiction or otherwise, puts a new point on this vector of ego-centric implosion.

Perhaps our current problems emanate from self-interest. From my perspective, this would be more acceptable if said self actually had an inking of what its interest really is. It's never about global forces in the end: it's about people making choices that have unforeseen as well as predicted consequences visited upon others and themselves.

Perhaps a cigar sometimes is just a cigar. But, is a pussy ever just a cat?


Looking forward to the back history!


Charlie, you said "Back when I was a wee thing, the English educational system required schoolkids to make serious decisions about their future career structure waaay too early." Nothing appears to have changed. As a non-Brit teaching in an English school, this has always struck me as quite silly. For university entry you need the right A-levels (same age range as N. Am. style grades 11-12). To choose the right A-levels, you've got to choose the right GCSEs (equivalent of grades 9-10). So, in some cases, you've got 14 year olds having to decide on their university courses. On the other hand, teaching A-level is quite nice because of the depth you can go into.


Vic @7 My high school "guidance counselor"(and I use the Term loosely) would never have advised anyone to be a science fiction writer.

Working with GCSE Maths students at the moment, and reading between the lines, I think they were sensibly trying to give Charlie another career when his unrealistic plans lead him inevitably to a life of poverty and disappointment :)

Some of the 14 and 15 year olds have sensible and achievable ideas on their future qualifications and careers. Some don't, and rather than tell them that their dream job requires skills they don't have and probably can't acquire/ doesn't actually exist I normally focus on the fact that a C grade in maths will prove they can do maths to anyone who wants to employ them so they won't actually have to do it again. Also, from the large number who want to be beauticians, I can only hope that in a couple of years there will be nail bars on every street corner. If there are and your manicurist can give you the correct change, you can thank me.


very nice post Charlie.

in case you're ever stuck for blog post topics in future, just wanted to remind you that you once promised to talk about writers' workshops...

(hope you finish up this autobiographical stuff first. I'm salivating for the dirty bits, i.e. the part where you write Perl)


"Hey! Want to see my photographs of aviation museums and pubs?"

Actually I do.

Bruce T.


I think... you're the second person I've met or heard of to be near 40 and who is actually brilliant and funny.
Congrats. Lol.


I went into graduate school in anthropology because I wanted to understand the *big picture*. Humans. What they are. How do they work. (Perhaps because I might be a bit of an Aspie.)

What I didn't realize was that I ended up at a graduate school that was an early adopter of THEORY. I had thought I wanted to study social science, but what I got was pretentious Continental philosophy. Ack thbbbt!

Many years later, I realize that I would have been much happier doing history and/or archaeology. The new discipline of Big History -- wow! As for $$$, I seem to be a good cookbook ghostwriter/editor. Funny how that turned out.


Ian: noted. Writers workshops will come up eventually -- I probably need to do a bio dump on the subject of my writing history! This is just the non-writing bio.


>>>I went into graduate school in anthropology because I wanted to understand the *big picture*.

You too, huh? Well, we learnt our lesson the hard way, didn't we. . .


I was explaining, in a phone interview for my old job at Sun, about how a number of former employers were gone in one way or another (Van Dusen Air, DEC, Network Systems, MultiLogic). And learned that Sun had just that summer acquired Storage Tek, which had acquired Network Systems. I had enough presence of mind to ask if I got my seniority back, but no dice :-). And now Sun seems to be going to Oracle. (Carleton College, however, is still extant.)

I've been working in software steadily since I was 15, and it's still a hobby as well as my job, so that's working out well for me. But most people are nowhere near ready to make career decisions at that point, no. (And I knew I wanted to do software because I'd taught myself Fortran and then IBM 1620 assembler over the previous year, on my own.)

Oh, and about those aviation museums -- I'd be interested, both in the photos, and in what aspects of aviation and its history interest you.


David Dyer-Bennet:

More proof that it's a small industry. I interviewed at Sun back in the early '90s for the advanced OS group and was accepted, but decided not to take the job because I couldn't afford to sell my house in Oregon and move to Silicon Valley and pay 4 times as much in monthly rent as I had in house payments. But then the company I did go to work for, GemStone, was selling software to Storage Tek, and I spent several days in Boulder walking the engineers there through how they'd be affected by the feature set and upgrade requirements for a new version.


I went into Science (and Research) because I didn't want to deal with all that office politics rubbish...


Hi Charlie,

This is great stuff, thank you!

I wanted to mention that I only accidentally read the full text, because your RSS feed publishes only the first little bit, with no clear indication that there was more. May I ask you to put a ... or (more on the full website) or ideally, even publish the full text to RSS for those of us who fly too much and catch up on planes?


Agreed, great piece! Lots of writers tell their "origin" stories, but the messiness of the money/practical life side pre-"fame and fortune" is all too rarely a part of it.

As for myself: I also decided to be a writer at the same age. I did go the English Lit route-and after reading your bio off the dust jacket, often wondered if going into pharmacy wouldn't have been a better idea.

Looking forward to the next installment.


English education hasn't changed since you experienced it. It still requires you to know by age 14 what you want to do with the rest of your life.


...and the intelligent man's response is not to decide, ever.


"using a career as a state-licensed drug dealer to support the writing habit was a horrible mistake" -- imagine young Stephen King being side-tracked 7 years as a State of Maine Certified Eldrich Ichor Dispensor's Assistant.

Or Isaac Asimov getting out of his Navy job and full-time running his father's Brooklyn Candy/cigarette/newspaper store.

Or little Arthur Clarke sticking with the Radar Engineer business after World War II ended.

Or Robert Heinlein NOT getting the Navy medical disharged, and rising to Admiral, as did his brother...


First, science. Then Space. Then Chemistry.
Then Robots. Then electronics. Then control systems. Then software. Then networks. Then the internet. Then management. Then I can't tell you.

But I can say this: That orwell fellow, he simply had no idea. none whatsoever. Let's just say that if technology exists, it gets used, regardless of price.