At 11 years old, without telling his family, Jules Verne obtained work as a cabin boy. He boarded a ship headed towards the West Indies partially to run away. In addition, like many of us, he also had a simple desire for a job offering exciting experiences.
His dad? Well, he forced the boy off the ship and told him to travel in his mind. Travel in his mind did he ever.
Video conferencing. The hologram. The helicopter. Mass biological extinction. And of course - the submarine. With his knowledge of physics, he wrote numerous novels such as Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Journey to the Center of the Earth, and Around the World in 80 Days, often predicting future inventions and their consequences.
Trading in Dysfunction for the Unknown
Verne’s written works consistently focus on protagonists leaving dysfunctional societies behind to conduct their own unknown journies. Meticulous in his research, his foresight regarding the capacity of technology to shrink the world was uncanny.
Removing the barriers of space and time when it came to travel and communication was his game. He took it seriously. Also excellent at conducting critiques on imperialism and criticizing the hierarchies inherent in European social structure, he appealed to the masses.
With money from his success, he eventually bought 3 yachts and traveled widely - from Egypt to Holland to New York.
So… how did he afford 3 yachts?
Jule’s Verne’s First Creative Dollar
“What you do for money you do badly.”- Jules Verne
The Amount: $0 (pretty unsatisfying answer), worth $0 in today’s money
The Project: The First Ships of the Mexican Navy (1851). Although a formally published work, he received zero payment.
The Back Story
Jules Verne was 23 when The First Ships of the Mexican Navy was published. It was based on a true story involving ships (not a big surprise).
Altering true events a bit, it centered on a plot of mutiny conducted by a crew of tired, poorly paid, hungry Spanish sailors.
Even before this pleasant depiction of mutiny, he wrote an unfinished novel in his teens called A Priest in 1839. This work showed him on the edge of great talent. (He made a story about a priest exciting!) At 19, without aiming for it, Jules Verne showed he was wired to be the first great surrealist.
But before indulging in his imagination, he had to navigate... his dad.
The Lawyer/Stockbroker Days
Jule’s mother was a poet with a family history of navigators. His father was a lawyer that expected him to study law and take over the family business. (His mother’s influence won out eventually.)
But before that, Verne moved to Paris to become a lawyer. This was at the same time the French Revolution swept the city in 1848. Hence his interest in dysfunctional societies.
After finishing his law degree, he got a job at a theater experimenting with writing several plays. He couldn’t make enough money writing to support himself, however, so he still depended on his father.
Jules Verne quit his theater job when he became married. Aiming high for responsibility, he became a stockbroker. (“Jules Verne the stockbroker” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it, but it’s an interesting and unexpected fact about him.)
Juggling a family and a career, he wrote in the early mornings, averaging 5 hours a day!
Verne welcomed his first successful novel at the ripe age of 35 with Five Weeks in a Balloon. He was happy to hang up his stockbroker cap and never look back.
“When one has taken root, one puts out branches.” - Jules Verne
Career Relationships: Who Made Who?
Verne developed an intense relationship with his publisher Pierre-Jules Hetzel. (You read that correctly. Jules is a rare name but they both shared it.)
Starting in 1863, Jules raked it in by agreeing to churn out two high-quality books a year for Hetzel, who was at first like a mentor and then like a father figure. Verne finally had a steady income for something he enjoyed (unlike in his theatre days where he enjoyed it but was financially dependent on his real dad).
Then, power shifted from the publisher to Verne as Verne became more and more popular. Over the years, it was difficult to say who made who. Their relationship became enormously strained by a stressful decision about how to portray Captain Nemo in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.
“Everything great in science and art is simple.” - Jules Verne
There’s a lot to be learned from the timely roll-outs and machine-like marketing plan of the Pierre/Verne empire.
Every time Verne came out with a novel, it was published in three different predictable formats. From appearances in a biweekly education magazine to an unillustrated edition to a deluxe edition with an elaborate cover coinciding not coincidentally with Christmas. Cha-ching!
“Science, my lad, is made up of mistakes, but they are mistakes which it is useful to make because they lead little by little to the truth.” - Jules Verne, A Journey to the Center of the Earth
- Neil Armstrong said Jules Verne worked out how the coast of Florida would be the best location to launch rockets to the moon.
- Although he was French, Jules was captivated by the entrepreneurial spirit of America. He believed the culture of America made it a hub to watch for future inventions involving technology.
- Being French, we only experience the work of Jules Verne via translation. After Agatha Christie, he is the most translated author.
- He thought of himself as a writer of what was possible - not of what was fiction - in regards to science.
- Throughout his 20s, he spent a lot of time in the libraries of Paris. Engineering, geology, geography, astrophysics - all of this nonfiction information infused his traveling imagination and wound up in his novels.
By the time the 1860s set in, Jules was a very wealthy and successful novelist. As with many authors, it’s interesting to note how he was willing to do it for free at first.
Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea is one of the first movies my husband picked out when quarantine started in March. Our son proceeded to sing the song Whale of a Tale all summer long on our walks. In true toddler style, he demanded to hear all of the verses.
“Got a whale of a tale to tell ya, lads
A whale of a tale or two
'Bout the flappin' fish and the girls I've loved
On nights like this with the moon above
A whale of a tale and it's all true
I swear by my tattoo….”
You can read Verne's first work, The First Ships of the Mexican Navy, here.