I connected with Hilary Leichter earlier this year, when she made an exciting offer on Twitter: if followers were to DM her a receipt of a debut book purchased from an indie bookstore, she would write them a song about the craziest job they’d ever had. And so, I sent Hilary a receipt from Book Culture, and she performed this excellent song about signing autographs “as Sting, for Sting”, set to the tune of “Every Little Thing She Does is Magic” by the Police. Yet, somehow, this wasn’t one of the most absurd things to have happened this year.
Hilary’s debut novel Temporary (Emily Books/ Coffee House Press), an incredibly moving and absurdist take on the transient state of our economy, was released on March 3, 2020, only weeks before the state of New York went on pause. Below, I talk to Hilary about her writing, the personal and impersonal nature of work, and engaging with the online literary community in the midst of the pandemic.
Gauraa Shekhar: I absolutely loved your new short “Terrace Story” in Harper’s. The emphasis on transience and lack of space felt extremely relatable—like it was written for the times. Did you write it recently, or was it written “Before”?
Hilary Leichter: I wrote it in 2017, so, not at all. It’s really just a story about living in a very, very small apartment and wishing I had more outdoor space! It’s very relevant now in a new way.
GS: The same goes for Temporary—it feels very relevant now, but you started writing it in 2012?
HL: Yeah, I wrote it as a short story in 2012, and picked it up again, I guess, in 2015, 2016, when Obama was president and everything was different. It really feels like another lifetime ago.
GS: Did the book change at all, considering the election? Did you workshop it during your MFA?
HL: You know, I never actually workshopped it—it was something I wrote for my thesis project. I submitted a “collection” of short stories, and it was the only one of maybe two or three that I’d never workshopped, and were written after coursework. I think my writing group read it at some point, but I never workshopped it at Columbia. It was just, like, a meditation on how I felt leaving graduate school and coming back to the workforce, and having so many jobs, and some of the jobs were even to support my teaching jobs through Columbia—because the teaching jobs paid so little that you needed other jobs to supplement them. So, that’s when I wrote it.
But yeah, it changed so many times in such small ways. I think it’s still that short story in a lot of ways, but when it turned into a novel, it became so much more about finding an origin story and a mythology behind work, and building out the entire world of this person’s life and not just her discrete experiences. And then it changed again after the election, and that was after I had secured an agent for the manuscript—we were going to start sending it out to the editors. And I started editing it again, and thinking about “well, what is this book about now?” and “why would anyone read this? Why does anybody care about this anymore?” And I remember even saying to my agent on November 10th, like, “I have to throw this in the trash because…”, and she very wisely said, “wait a hot minute and read it again.” And I saw there were all these notes in there that hadn’t been at the front of my mind when I was writing it, but suddenly became what the book was about—not just temporary work, but how we treat our environment, as if its replaceable. Or how we treat each other like we’re replaceable, how we treat property as being replaceable—just, like, everything that’s supposed to be important and cherished is treated as something that you can just throw in the trash, and that’s really how the book changed a lot in the few months after Trump was elected.
And now, it’s just out of my hands, but it means something different again!
GS: I think this book is going to be relevant, both fortunately and unfortunately, for a long time. It feels uncanny reading it right now—it’s kind of terrifying.
HL: That’s great to hear, and also terrible to hear! And nothing would make me happier than if it became the most irrelevant novel of all time!
GS: The multiple unnamed temporary boyfriends in Temporary were hilarious. And I loved her mother’s reaction to them—as they’re sitting around shuffling selfies and headshots, she asks “Do you approve?” and the mother says “What do I look like? A matchmaker?” Her mother disapproves of constancy. That gesture, in itself, gives us such an insight into this world. Was the mother always a part of the book for you?
HL: She was always in there. In writing it as a novel, I think that it’s important to have some sort of question that you’re writing toward. And that question can change, it can evolve; you can throw it in the trash at a certain point—it’s really helpful for me to have some sort of question I’m trying to answer, you know. It’s even better if it’s an unanswerable question. And so the question for The Temp became “What’s my purpose?”, and more than that, “where do I belong?”, and more than that, “where do any of us belong? Where do we come from?” And so having her family in the book became pretty important. And the mother, especially, because it was a way of, through shorthand, signalling their values as family, and the values of other temps, and how they’re not based in a moral structure that we can recognize necessarily. I didn’t want them to be encouraging things that we hear from our parents. Like, if that phone call was happening in 2020 in our world, it might sound something like, “Why don’t you settle down and give me a grandchild?”, and I wanted to actively fight against that.
I wanted to actively fight against the narrative that temping is for something—like if you’re temping, you’re temping towards something? Because it made the possibility for where the character could go so limited. I liked the idea that in this world, that’s just what you do. And I think sometimes, in writing, if you stop thinking about things in terms of understandable motivations—if you stop saying, “well, this character would never do this” or “this character is doing this and that doesn’t make sense,” and instead lean into the thing that doesn’t make sense—I think you find yourself actually circling back around to something that’s very true.
GS: This book is all about super interesting temp jobs. In an early chapter of the book, there’s that line on a granola wrapper: “there’s nothing more personal than doing your job.” How personal do your jobs feel to you?
HL: This is a good question—but a difficult question to answer. The jobs that I have mean everything to me, and they’ve also meant nothing to me, and sometimes simultaneously. It’s impossible to go somewhere every day—for me, at least—and not care about anything that you do for that eight-hour window of time. Because if that’s your attitude, then nothing matters, and you don’t matter, and the whole thing becomes an exercise in futility. So, you find yourself starting to care, but then you realize that there’s no place for you there—there’s no place for your emotions, either. So, it’s a complicated question. I don’t know what the answer is, except to say that I think work is one of the most personal things that we do, and one of the least, and recognizing that makes you a better employer sometimes. You know, like recognizing that people have ambitions and goals and feelings and entire worlds outside of the work that they do for you. And, at the same time, the work that they do for you is an entire world of emotion, and love, you know—and care. So, recognizing the impersonal and personal nature of it, and the duality of that, feels important in how we treat people.
GS: How do you think the work of writing a novel, or a short story, is different for you?
HL: I’ve heard it compared to sprinting vs. marathoning, which—I don’t love sports metaphors, but it does feel apt in terms of the endorphins and catharsis involved. Like, writing a short story for me—most of my short stories are very, very short, except for the one that was in Harper’s recently—and so often, it’s over after just a couple of sittings. And I’m thinking about it and marinating on it for a really long time, and then I sit down and do it. And then that feeling when it’s finished—it’s like you’ve just sprinted around the block, like “Ugh, I did it! I got to the end! Done!”
And then the feeling of finishing a novel, when you’ve been with these people and this world that just exists inside your head for days and days and days, and then you get to the end of that world and it’s so much more emotional. I thought that I’d always be a short story writer, but after writing Temporary, I’m kind of addicted to novel writing. My next book is a novel as well.
GS: Are you working on the novel right now?
HL: I’m trying to, but—you know.
GS: Whenever I talked to writers, you know, “Before”, everyone was always complaining about not having enough time at home, alone, to write. And, now, it just feels almost impossible.
HL: And it feels cruel, almost, to focus on anything. And it’s not; I don’t think it is cruel to take time away for yourself—but there’s something about it that feels cruel. Focusing on anything except the world unraveling.
GS: I totally agree. And, let’s not forget we’re still very much in the middle of a pandemic!
Speaking of, your book came out on March 3rd, a week before the pandemic hit, and New York City shut down—which, of course, is not the ideal situation. But you’ve still managed to engage with the community, and to be part of all sorts of book/publishing events online. How’s the switch been for you? Do you find that it’s comparable to IRL events? Could this be sustainable?
HL: It’s been okay. I’m really grateful for the ways in which everyone’s come together and supported one another during this time, and it feels very collaborative. It’s my first book, so I can’t speak to whether it’s always like this, but it does feel like “the class of 2020” for debut authors who really got stuck with it. So I feel an intense camaraderie with everyone else who has a book coming out right now.
At the same time, I really miss that in-person connection that you can have with readers and booksellers at events, so I look forward to doing that in the future—I think it’s really important. And, in the same way, these events have been important in making literature more accessible for people who can’t necessarily get to events for whatever reason, or, who don’t live in New York and want to be a part of this community. For me, that’s been the biggest reward of this. The fact that it just makes it so available to everyone.
GS: I feel like I know how this question is going to go, but I feel obligated to ask: have you been reading anything lately?
HL: I have actually! I wasn’t for a really long time, and then, I’ve also been teaching, so most of the reading that I would force myself to do would be books for class. So, I have been reading and I just got on a kick and I’m trying desperately not to lose momentum because I couldn’t concentrate on books for months. I just finished The Man Who Saw Everythingby Deborah Levy and that was excellent—it was amazing. Now I’m reading The Hearing Trumpet by Leonora Carrington and it’s so good, so wonderful—it’s such a beautiful book, so strange, so odd, and such a gorgeous meditation on the way that we dismiss the elderly. Which is particularly powerful right now while those generations are just being ravaged by the coronavirus.
What am I going to read next? I think I might read Hurricane Season, which just came out. And Sharks in the Time of Saviors.
GS: What’s a favorite book store that you’d recommend readers?
HL: It’s been so much fun getting to know all of the bookstore owners, and the people who work there, through all this.
GS: They’ve been doing such a great job!
HL: They have! And that’s the thing I was most disappointed about—that I wouldn’t get to travel and meet everyone. And I’ve still been able to, and they’re so amazing. Let me first recommend Loyalty Bookstores in D.C.—I did an event with them and Amber Sparks in May, and it was so much fun. And Hannah, who is the owner of the store, is just a delight, and brilliant. They are doing these packages—like, these gift packages—and you fill out a survey about the books that you like, and they put together a package of books and gifts. I ordered one and I’m desperately waiting to see what’s in mine—it’s such a great way to support them. If you’re not sure what you’d like to read, they select books for you.
I also want to recommend Brazos Bookstore in Houston. They do such a great job of promoting works in translation, and the people who work there have the best taste. Like, I will read anything that they tell me to read.
GS: I’ve obviously heard your beautiful voice on Twitter, and I read that you used to be a singer! Could you tell me a little bit about that?
HL: For the first half of my life, that was who I was—I was a performer, and a singer and an actress, and I was going to move to New York and be on Broadway, and that was the plan! And that’s why I moved here initially—and I was coming from a liberal arts school, not a conservatory program, so I didn’t really know what I was doing. I would just go to auditions without an agent, and, you know, just go for it? It was very unguided. Like, I didn’t know what to do, and so I ended up putting together some cabaret shows? Like, one-woman shows? So, I did that for a little.
HL: It used to be on YouTube, but thankfully, that’s gone.
GS: That feels very deliberate!
HL: Yeah! Actually, when I started at Columbia, I had a class with Sam Lipsyte, and a couple of the guys in the class had found my videos on YouTube, and they brought it up in workshop. I was, like, twenty-four, and in awe of everything still, and just trying to make an impression. And they brought it up in class and Sam was just, like, “Oh, I know all about those”? And so, that night, I took them down. I was like, if I’m going to be a writer, I have to just have a clean Google slate and not have confusing information. In retrospect, it’s so silly, but it felt very important at the time.
Yeah, so, for now, I only sing for myself, but I would like to write something with music at some point. I haven’t totally given up on that.
GS: You really shouldn’t—all the songs you wrote were so good. Really, thanks so much for sharing those with us.
HL: I’m a very average ukulele player, and self-taught—like, the combination of the singing and the ukulele, is still very difficult for me. Hopefully, I’ll be able to just sing something and get someone to accompany me at some point.
Temporary is available for purchase here.