Hilary Leichter’s Temporary first got on my radar because it was announced as the last book to release on Emily Books, the independent publisher founded by Emily Gould and Ruth Curry, mostly known for championing unconventional stories by women. Though I’m sad to see Emily Books go, it should be known that it went out with a real banger.
Temporary is about an unnamed narrator who makes money as a temp for the wildest of work scenarios, though her greatest mission in life is to find the “steadiness” of a permanent job. I loved this story for its humor, absurdity, and sweet characters. I loved the narrator for always trying her best, even though her hard work rarely pays off the way she wants it to. I even loved all the men in her life, this funny gaggle of Very Good Boyfriends whom she dates all at once. I laughed out loud while reading this book.
To list the contents of this book has probably got to sound like a Stefon SNL bit: there are pirates, ghosts, assassins, unattended children, a dead man’s ashes, a hardball-playing temp agent, lots of fine boyfs (as mentioned), and more. As Stefon would say, “It’s got everything.” And yes, this book did have everything I could have ever wanted, especially during quarantine times. I am a lucky gal for getting to speak with Hilary.
I saw that you had celebrated a birthday.
I forgot that it was my birthday until the day before, because time doesn’t exist anymore.
No, it doesn’t. It’s funny because I celebrated a birthday the day before you. Are in your mid-thirties now?
Yes, I’m fully in my mid-thirties. I’m 35.
Same! I’m a full day older than you. So if you’re 35, that means that you graduated from undergrad in 2007. I’m wondering what was that experience like for you in 2007 as a new graduate unknowingly about to step into the recession?
The recession fully hit in 2008, but when I graduated, I moved to New York. I wanted to be an actress on Broadway. I had been a theater kid for most of my life leading up to that point and also a writer, but the writing was more personal and it wasn’t how I publicly identified. So I graduated and went to the Big City and then slowly fell into the writing life from there. But because I was pursuing this path of an artist, I was prepared to kind of scrounge from the beginning. So I was applying to jobs on Idealist and Monster.com, whatever existed at that point. But I wasn’t expecting that to work. And on some level, I don’t think it ever does work.
I ended up finding jobs through people I knew, and a lot of them were personal assistant jobs.Then I got a job working at a nonprofit theater company and cobbled together this motley crew of strange positions. It felt normal to me because I wasn’t expecting something stable, because I knew that what I was trying to do was like beckoning instability. Then the banks collapsed.
If anything, I felt lucky to not have a “real job” because my jobs were sort of outside of that spectrum of disaster. They were protected because they were already unstable. That’s a complicated answer to your question, but I kind of went into things expecting nothing to work out.
So when things didn’t work out, you were like, “Well, I’m already here.”
I was like, “Of course it didn’t work out.” But it is interesting thinking about that time now. I teach undergraduates, so a lot of my students just graduated into this mess and I don’t even know what to tell them. You know, it’s a very different kind of mess at this moment in time. It’s like pressing pause on our emotional lives as best we can.
The thing that I’m mourning for, for these recent graduates, is when in those final weeks you feel like you kind of own the school. You get to spend time with your professors who are proud of you and your peers who are all going off to do interesting things. That was cut off for them. But I think they’ll be okay. They started school when Trump was elected, so.
Temporary is special to me because it’s the first book that I finished during quarantine. I let weeks go by without reading anything. And then I lost my job and picked up your book thinking, “Is this going to make me feel better?” And it did, actually.
Wow, I’m really glad. I’m sorry about your job.
Oh, that’s okay. Thank you.
I’m really glad to hear that it was your ally during that time.
It was! Something about it felt familiar and comforting, especially now that I’ve entered into the gig economy. Plus, your book is so funny. I cannot tell you how much I loved your writing.
I’m so glad that it was comforting because I feel like it’s either the best thing to read right now or the absolute worst possible thing right now, depending on where you are emotionally.
I kept thinking, “Oh my God, get this woman on a TV show, she’s so funny.” Are you influenced by comedy and humor writing? Or is that just something that’s in you and it came out in this novel?
I think I am. I don’t know if I could write a book that wasn’t smirking or punning or joking in some way. I think it’s innately a part of who I am as a person. When I wrote this book, I knew it was absurd. I knew that it was surreal. I was cracking myself up writing it. I don’t know that I knew I was writing a comic novel, which is how a lot of people have come to identify it in the past few months. I find that there’s so much pathos when you’re laughing first and then suddenly your heart is broken.
I’m very influenced by Jewish humor. I grew up watching Mel Brooks. And I come from theater, so everything is like an aside for me. So subconsciously I was thinking about those things when I was writing.
This is your first novel, but you had written a ton of short stories before this. Which came first for you: writing short stories or the idea for Temporary? And how has writing short stories helped you get your novel finished?
Well, I started out writing poetry like most writers. And then realized that I was too dumb to be a poet. I started writing short fiction mostly because I didn’t know how to write a novel and I didn’t have a novel to write. Short stories felt more approachable, so it was an ideal place to start. It’s not to say that writing short stories somehow leads to writing novels because I don’t know if that’s true, but I did start craving a bigger project. For a while I thought it was going to be a story collection, but I went back to the short story version of Temporary that I wrote in 2000 and said, “I think there’s a whole world in here that I can expand and play around in for a while.”
Through that I became addicted to writing novels. I’m working on another one now. It’s strange to me because there was a certain time in my 20s where I thought I would just be a short story writer. I didn’t have any interest in writing a novel. I loved to read them, but writing one wasn’t appealing to me. And now I’m craving getting lost in that world again.
Short stories, for me, provide a much different type of excitement and joy. I write a lot of the short stories that I write in one or two sittings. They’re very, very short. These are not like 20-page stories. I’ve heard it be compared to sprinting versus marathoning, and I think that’s pretty apt. There’s an immediate adrenaline rush and high from writing a short story, whereas [writing] a novel there are ups and downs and at the end, you’re breathless and crying because you made it to the finish line. It’s a bigger catharsis finishing a novel. But there is a sort of intoxicating power to writing this one unit of narrative that comes with a short story.
All the boyfriends in the book are so funny. You gave them all jobs and things that they’re good at. Where did the idea for the boyfriends come from? Are they temporary workers for the narrator?
They don’t have names but they have “job names” because I always saw them as being permanent people. They’re defined by their jobs, too—the real estate boyfriend works in real estate, so he’s not a temp, he has a real job. I don’t know where they came from but I love them. In a lot of narrative about work where you have a male protagonist, there are these window decoration female characters who pop in and out of the story and they don’t even seem to have jobs of their own. They’re just there for the narrator’s amusement. I think I was trying to invert that and have men there for this narrator’s amusement on the sidelines. And it was hard for me to treat them poorly because they’re so adorable. I feel very warmly toward them because the protagonist feels warmly toward them.
They grew on me over time and became this great source of comic relief. I describe them to other people as this kick line of boyfriends that appears on stage every now and then in the book. Who knows where they come from, except for the fact that dating is such a huge part of finding yourself too, when you first move to a city. You’re going on dates, you’re looking for work. I’ve heard more than one person in my life describe dating as a full-time job where you’re really trying to meet someone and you have a date every night of the week. It starts to feel like you’re forcing yourself to do something you don’t get paid for, I guess. It seemed a natural fit for a book about work, to have some sort of dating story in there too.
Pandemic aside, where are you in your life career-wise? You mentioned your teaching, but do you feel like you’re in a comfortable place, job-wise?
I think I have to go back a couple of years because that was when I first sent this book out on submission to editors. The first day that my agent sent it out, I was starting a new job and it was a semi full-time position with a salary, and I was really excited to have a little bit of stability. I get there on the first day of work, and the first thing my boss tells me is to go to a different floor to get situated with the internal temp agency.
I remember texting my husband and being like, “Oh my God, I’m still an effing temp. This is never going to end.” And that was the first day that my book was out in the world, so that felt very typical for the line of thinking of the novel to be.
I feel very lucky that I still have work with everything going on right now. I do a lot of teaching and I work full-time as a copy editor for an advertising website. That’s always been remote, so my day-to-day work life hasn’t changed too much, but it’s still a life of cobbling things together. I have less fear about day-to-day survival than I did even just a couple of years ago, which I’m so grateful for, but that’s a very recent thing. I’m also well aware that in this economy and in this world, your fate can change at the drop of a hat.
I would say I’m a temp on the rise. It’s a tiny bit more security than I’m used to, but I still go to my accountant every year and hand him 15 different documents. It’s not one clean W-2. I wish it were that simple, but I don’t know that it ever will be. I’m coming to terms with that and I think it’s okay.
What’s the class that you teach at Columbia?
I teach in their undergraduate program and I’ve done a handful of fiction workshops at this point. This spring was my first time teaching a new seminar I had developed called Time Moves Both Ways, about time and time travel and fiction. Then we moved it online [with the covid-19 quarantine] and I became weirdly disrupted. The seminar became more relevant than I had ever expected it to be. I hope I get to teach it again without a worldwide pandemic happening because it was a lot of fun.
What were some of your favorite pieces of work that you were excited to teach your students?
We did a wide range of stuff. We did some traditional time travel narratives. We talked about Life After Life by Kate Atkinson, which is one of my favorite recent contemporary works of fiction. We talked about Kindred by Octavia E. Butler, which they all loved and were so incredibly moved by.
We also read a lot of books that aren’t time travel per se, but they play with time in an interesting way. The last week of class we did My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh with Rip Van Winkle by Washington Irving. We talked about sleep and woke-ness and unconsciousness as a form of time travel. It was a little bit too real for all of us because of our current situation. We did The Mezzanine by Nicholson Baker, which I loved, but I’m not sure if my students loved it. I’m excited to keep adding new books to that syllabus because it’s a topic that interests me, and it interests me even more now that time has kind of compressed and deflated in this surreal way.
I’m [also] thinking about putting together a class about very short novels—I’ve been reading a lot of them and hoarding library books that are under 200 pages. I just read The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka, which is one of those books that I’ve been meaning to read for ages, and it was beautiful. And Desperate Characters by Paula Fox, which was also a very strange book to be reading right now. I continue to be fascinated by new ways of expressing time in fiction. The novel I’m working on now plays with time in what I hope is an interesting way.
I’m always asking myself “Where does the time go?” in quarantine. The days go by both fast and slow. It feels nuts.
And the things that happened in the Before Times… I found a movie ticket stub and it felt like I stepped out of a time machine. I felt dizzy. There’s a lot to think about there. I think the first great work of pandemic fiction will actually be a sort of time travel novel. I hope so, at least, because so much of what we’re experiencing right now is a forestalling and freezing of time.