SO LONG, DAY JOB
It’s a good time to be Cullen Bunn.
Nominations for the Harvey Awards were released this week and Cullen is featured prominently among them. His series “The Sixth Gun” for Oni Press is nominated for Best New Series and Cullen himself is nominated for Best Writer. His graphic novel, “The Tooth,” was just released by Oni and he’s also keeping busy at Marvel, writing “Fear Itself: The Deep,” “Fear Itself: FF” and loads of upcoming projects.
Thanks to his success in comics, Cullen was recently able to take that big step that all writers dream of: he quit his day job to focus on writing.
So I thought I’d check in to see how it’s going.
Jason Aaron: You’ve been writing comics for a while now, but I know you just recently quit your day job. What was your day job and how did you know it was the right time to dive into writing full time?
Cullen Bunn: For roughly fifteen years, I worked with a job search assistance company. I started with them as a resume writer (which, when I think about it, was not unlike making up stories). From there, I worked my way up the ladder, from job search consultant (coaching people on how to interview and network, even though I hate doing those things), to operations manager to IT manager (even though I know very little about IT), to Vice President of Marketing.Â I never really intended to stay there as long as I did, but the lure of a steady paycheck and a relatively easy job was like a siren’s call for me. All the while, I kept working on my goal of being a writer, but I didn’t work at it very hard.
A few years ago, after the publication of my graphic novel “The Damned”, I started taking writing a little more seriously. It was tough. I worked a full-time day job, then came home and worked 4 to 6 hours a night writing (and usually a lot more on the weekend). Once upon a time, I made wild proclamations like,Â “If I haven’t made it as a writer by the time I’m 25, I’m not writing anymore!”Â But that was almost the same thing as justÂ “wishing really hard.”Â It wasn’t until I started treating my writing like another job that I started to get some real traction.
As I started to get more and more paying work in comics, I started planning for an eventual transition to writing full-time. I started setting aside money as a cushion for possible lean months. I started trying to line up more and more work. But even though there came a time when I was writing while I was at the day job because I had so much work coming in, I was hesitant to quit. I was good at the day job. I figured that even if they were only getting 25% of my best, they were still getting a better performance than anyone else at the office. Finally, though, it just became too stressful trying to balance to two jobs and one of them had to go. I didn’t have nearly as much money saved as I wanted, but I knew that if I didn’t go ahead and cut that cord and take a risk, I never would.
You just mentioned something I’ve talked about here before. If you want to write for a living, you’ve got to treat it like what it is: a job. What did that change mean to you? If you were already working nights and weekends, how were you able to take things further and commit even more to making it work as a writer?
I definitely had to make some sacrifices and trade-offs. I had already cut out most of my television watching, but this meant cutting it back even further. I think it’s kind of funny when I hear people say they have no time to write, but they also talk endlessly about the syndicated re-run they watched just last night for the umpteenth time. I also had to (painfully) say no to hanging out with friends, playing video games and going out to the movies. A couple of weeks ago I went to see a matinee movie and it was the first thing I’ve watched at the theater in years. Basically, I cut out almost every non-essential activity. I worked late into the night and I got up early before heading to work. At lunch, I skipped going out with co-workers and locked myself in my office and wrote. Did it get old? Oh, yeah. But I knew I was working toward something and I kept telling myself I could see the light at the end of the tunnel (even on — especially on — days that I couldn’t).
Were you married at this time? Have any kids? If so, how were you able to balance a personal life with basically working two jobs?
Yes, I was married and I’m very thankful for a wife who is both supportive and understanding. Without her support, I’d still be dancing like a monkey for the organ grinder at the day job. When I finally made the decision to put in my notice, I called my wife and said, “I know this is sooner than we planned, but I can’t work here any more.” She didn’t even hesitate in saying, “Start packing your office.”
But the situation with my kid was a complicating factor. My wife and I had been in the middle of a really long adoption process when I decided to really make a go of writing. Of course, right around this time was when we received the referral for my son. Preparing to bring him home, getting our final paperwork in order (the final documents came to us while we were in San Diego for Comic Con), flying to China and getting him settled in — that took a lot of adjustment. It was a little speed bump, but I just did my best to write whenever I had time. Nap times were great because that was an hour of writing time! Speaking of, I’ve heard you mention that you used daily walks as times to brainstorm and work out plot points. I did the same thing. Going on those walks certainly helped!
My son should probably get a co-writer credit on a lot of my books for all the comics I wrote while pushing him around in his stroller.
So now that you’ve moved into being a full-time writer, has it been a smooth transition?
I like the new job, but I wouldn’t say it’s been smooth. The biggest problem for me has been that I got used to a regular paycheck, automatically deposited every two weeks. As a freelancer, that’s not always the case. Even though I was working pretty steadily, I was doing a lot of outlines and plans that had to be approved before I could get to scripting (where I actually make some money). Thank goodness I had that cushion (small though it may be) set up, because there were a couple of lean months. Now I’m actually scripting books and I know that if I finish a project on this day, I get paid on this one. As long as I’m putting in the work, I can forecast when I’m going to get paid. I can breathe a little easier.
I know what you mean about the pay schedule. Coming from a regular nine-to-five job it’s definitely something you have to adjust to. There are no paid vacation days when you’re writing for a living. Basically, if you don’t write, you don’t get paid. What about your work schedule? Do you work from home? What’s it been like to go from having to write at nights or weekends, just whenever you can, to having a full work day dedicated just to writing?
The first week was really strange. I had to force myself to sit in front of the computer and actually write. But the lure of a check keeps me on a pretty aggressive schedule now. Nowadays, my son goes to the day care while I work during the day. I have an office in the basement, although sometimes I go a little stir crazy and I need to go to the library, Starbucks, or even a bar for a change of pace. My wife and my son get home around the same time and I try to spend as much of that time with them as possible. Once he goes to bed, I usually write for a couple of hours. It’s what I’ve grown accustomed to. These days, though, I do give myself a couple of nights a week off. I also no longer really write during the day on the weekend. I still do some stuff at night, but the days are for my family if I can help it.
And now my son’s naptime is also my naptime.
So what are you working on these days that you can tell us about?
I have several projects in the works, but I can’tÂ talk about most of them just yet.Â The twelfth issue of “The Sixth Gun,” my supernatural western from Oni Press, was just released. I’m currently working on the script to issue 18. I’ve also got a couple of “Fear Itself” tie-ins coming out shortly — “The Deep” and “Fear Itself: FF.”
Actually, I know about some of those projects you can’t talk about yet, so let me just tell everybody, expect very big things from Cullen Bunn in the coming months.
Just don’t expect to see him back at his day job anytime soon.
Jason Aaron is an Eisner and Harvey Award nominated comic book writer whose current work includes the critically-acclaimed crime series “Scalped” for DC/Vertigo and “Wolverine,” “Astonishing Spider-Man & Wolverine” and “PunisherMAX” for Marvel. He was born in Alabama but currently resides in Kansas City. You can follow him on Twitter (@jasonaaron) or his blog. His beard is bigger than yours.