Work as Life: Hilary Leichter Interviewed by Diane Cook

The writer on when the short story becomes a novel, writing about the gig economy, and claiming new meanings for words.

Temporary

I first met Hilary Leichter in a graduate seminar where lots of smart people had lots of smart things to say about great and obscure books. It was a large class in a large program, but Leichter stood out to me because she would beam this infectious smile, her eyes gleamed from all this talk about literature. Years have passed, and now it’s Leichter writing that is infectious and dazzling to me. In her debut novel, Temporary (Coffee House Press), her prose is effervescent and the story bubbles up from its pages like a wellspring. But don’t let the brilliance of her ideas obscure how thoughtful, careful, and detail-oriented Leichter is as a writer. 

The story in Temporary—an absurd, wild, emotional take on women’s work in a dystopic version of the gig economy—is built of exquisite, striking writing. As the reader, you find yourself sitting happily in the sidecar, your ears flapping in the wind of her vibrant world, not realizing her sentences are driving the fucking thing. Reading it reminded me that in those classes, her insights about the books we read are what really bowled me over—to me, Leichter drove the class. This is someone for whom ideas and language are both fuel and match.

—Diane Cook


Diane CookI’ve read a few different versions of your new book, Temporary, starting with the short story version that published in n+1 a few years back, then an early draft and now this one. I find it interesting to wonder about the choices you made across the drafts over the years. What was it about the short story “Temporary” that invited you back in to work on it again? 

Hilary LeichterWhen I published it with n+1, I thought it was done. I was happy with it and I didn’t think about it for a long time. I was working on this other novel, and for whatever reason, either I wasn’t ready to write it, or I was writing it at the wrong time—I couldn’t finish it. I went back and I looked at “Temporary” and I realized that there was a whole world there that was alluded to but didn’t really have any space on the page. It also matched what I cared about in the moment better than the novel I had been working on. I was very frustrated at work. I was overwhelmed and I felt like, This is the thing I want to be writing about. 

DCWere there questions people were asking you about the story’s world across these different drafts? Between the versions that I read, the expansion of the world of the book was also a big emotional expansion. 

HLIt actually all came from a question that someone had about the short story, which was part of my MFA thesis in 2012. At the thesis meeting one of the readers said, “Well, people temp for a reason, so help me understand—did the narrator want to be a writer? A dancer? Knowing why she was temping would make the story better … ” And that question, while well-intentioned, really bothered me to my core because I’m not interested in that! There are so many good books and movies about people striving for something specific and the work they have to do along the way to get there. That was not what I was interested in writing. 

So I thought, Well, why don’t I just lean into the opposite, and say, “No. She’s not temping for any reason. She’s temping because she has to and that’s the reason and that’s it. She’s temping because she’s a temp.” And that informed the whole world of the book. I owe that editor a bit of gratitude because she hit on something that was unhelpful to me, but then it caused me to ask a helpful question that created this whole mythology. It became a book about the origin stories of work, and a mythology of work and why we work in the larger context of living. Not in terms of ambition, or in terms of what we want to be, but in terms of life. Work as life.

DCWhat were you thinking about when you first wrote it?

HLIt was 2016 and I was very sick and I wrote it in a feverish sprint while watching the Republican National Convention.

DCOh, I did not expect that!

HLThen the election happened, and I immediately emailed my agent and said, “I have to rewrite this. No one is going to care about this book anymore.” Then I reread it and I realized that rage was already in the prose unintentionally. I think I was trying to articulate an anger that I had about our country, about the world, that I didn’t have language for yet.

DCIt’s so interesting because you’re using the word “rage,” and I totally understand what you’re saying, but there’s also this thing about the book—and, this is going to be weird because no one can see me but I’m trying to make a face that encapsulates it … The book itself puts forth this fake pleasant, cocked head and willing face—a small smile masking fear and frowns. This is the face the temp presents to the world, as she says things like, “Okay, sure, boyfriends, go ahead and rearrange my furniture.” “Okay, Farren, of course I can do that (very difficult and undesirable) assignment.” She’s a bit of an automaton, who just below the surface has all this desire and want and a thwarted life.

Someone who says, “yes, ma’am” and “yes, sir.” But it’s actually rage, and what’s brilliant is that that word isn’t even in the book anywhere.

HLI don’t think it is.

Hilary Leichter Credit Sylvie Roso

Photo of Hilary Leichter by Sylvie Rosokoff.

DCThere’s no place for the word except in this simmer happening just below the façade of people who are just doing the work they have to do. 

HLYou’re not allowed to bring rage or desire or want into the workplace (sometimes for good reasons) but mostly it’s a space where certain emotions aren’t allowed. I don’t know if there are other places like that in life. At home, unless someone is telling you how to feel all the time, you can feel whatever emotion you want. And walking through the world, you can feel whatever emotion you want, but at work, emotions are managed.

I think that because of that, the book had to manage emotions in a different way because even though the places that the narrator works are crazy, she’s not allowed to be crazy in the world of work. When she starts to break with that, that’s when her trajectory falls apart and she goes somewhere new.

DCIn the beginning, the “steadiness” she seeks seems like a regular job. One where you get healthcare and you don’t have to worry about signing that rent lease because you have something you can count on. But by the end, the steadiness feels like something very different. And that evolves throughout the book. How did that idea develop?

HLThat was one of the surprises of writing it, and those surprises are the best part, right? There’s a penultimate moment that happens before the end of the novel that was also a surprise, and as soon as I figured those things out, everything else fell into place. I forgot who said this, it’s a great quote that I’m about to mangle, but there’s this idea that a good book doesn’t answer questions, it asks new, better questions. I was thinking about that a lot as I was writing. Is the answer to all this just to get a permanent job? Or is it that she would be temporary … permanently? And then the question became, What does it actually mean to be permanent?

DCIt’s not just the opposite of temporary.

HLThat became much more interesting to me because it showed a path for humanity that’s scary and interesting, and maybe not what the narrator expected in the first place. It’s true of so many quests, narratives, or fairytales where you get three wishes and the thing that you’re granted is not what you anticipated. 

DCAnother thing that is interesting about the way the book builds on all this is that you never spend a lot of time insisting on any one thing or idea or definition to the reader. The book is fast and tight and you sort of just signal at the beginning, Okay this is the world, let’s go! We gotta get to the pirate ship!

HLRight.

DCSo, when she first starts talking about steadiness, I don’t have a question. I get it right away. But then by the end I realize that I didn’t quite get it, and neither did she. I was so with the narrator that I didn’t interrogate what this thing was, just like she didn’t. In her life, she gets presented with the information and then she just goes with it. That then becomes the experience of reading the book. I’m just with her, nodding my head, a small smile hiding my bewilderment, saying “okay,” “yes, ma’am,” “yes, sir” to everything.

HLYou know, in the original draft of the book, the steadiness didn’t have a name. I just kind of expected that people would know what I meant—which back then, was about getting a full-time job. But as soon as I named it in revision, I realized, Oh, no, this is something different from a full-time job because now it has this other name. And now it can include more than the reader initially expects. By naming it, it opened up.

DCThat’s so cool. It’s an argument for adding specificity when you want there to be less specificity. Language can be so creepy that it can be the exact thing and not that thing at all. 

HLRight. You presume that if a book is telling you what a word means, that’s what it means. And if it’s not a word that you know or that you associate with the meaning in the book, then you just kind of go with it, like you were saying. But if it’s a new use of a word, you also have an opportunity to add a corollary to that definition and add an obscure definition. You can make a whole OED entry for the thing you’ve created and take your time to reveal each part of it.

DCThen it becomes a different book than it was at the outset.

HLI didn’t know I was doing that when I did it, but it immediately made it so much easier to talk about “the steadiness” when it had a name.

DCIt makes me think about the time before my daughter had language. I mean, she had her own language or she had her expression. But it hadn’t intersected with our shared language or expression yet. My husband and I used to talk about how, whatever she’s saying right now or however she’s looking at and defining the world, because she doesn’t have the words yet, is possibly so much bigger than what she’s going to end up with. Learning language seems like this big gift and it is, but—

HLIt’s also a closing off.

DCYeah, we’re also enforcing rules and definitions and structures, and there’s going to be one definition for this and maybe the words will have wild things like homonyms or contronyms or other -nyms. But for the most part there will be rules and boundaries that come with using language in the world. I used to feel sad that this babble world that was hers alone, so rich to her, so emotive, was probably full of concepts that she’ll never have again.

HLBut I think that’s the ideal place to live when you’re writing—in a kind of pre-language world if you can get yourself back there. One of my favorite writing exercises to do with students is have them choose a word from the dictionary, it can be any word, and come up with a new definition for it. We usually do this alongside reading excerpts from books like The Age of Wire and String or A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing

It can be inspiring to take what we think we know and go back to a place where maybe we don’t know what it means. We then have to just define it based on how it looks on a page, or in terms of a word that it sounds like, or a story that it reminds us of, or something completely different from what we know it as. There’s no way to ever go back to pure pre-language, but if you can get yourself back to a place of not knowing anything and also knowing everything in your own way, then you can create something new. 

Temporary is available for purchase here.

Diane Cook is the author of the forthcoming novel, The New Wilderness, out in August 2020, and the story collection, Man v. Nature, which was a finalist for the Guardian First Book Award, the Believer Book Award, and the Los Angeles Times Award for First Fiction. Her writing has appeared in Harper’s, Tin House, Granta, and included in the anthologies Best American Short Stories and The O. Henry Prize Stories. She is a former producer for the radio program This American Life, and was the recipient of a 2016 fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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