Hilary Leichter on ‘Temporary’ jobs and literary friendships

Hilary Leichter has worked a lot of odd jobs, but those jobs aren’t what her debut novel Temporary is about. The book, recently reviewed in The New York Times, is more about the feelings of that lifestyle and how we are shaped by our jobs.

In the book, an unnamed character navigates the absurdity of temporary job placements in a series of brief sections. Leichter’s ability to propel the character’s thoughts off the page and turn a cheeky phrase made this novel utterly enjoyable.

In addition to talking about the inspirations behind her debut, we discussed the literary community at large ranging from being on an indie press to how isolating writing can be.

Note: we discussed Debut-Palooza, an off-site AWP event that has since been canceled. Leichter organized the event to help unify and signal boost other debut authors. A list of the authors and links to their Twitter accounts can be found here.

I wanted to start with the idea of friendship and comradery in the writing community. Writing is very isolated and lonely. How doe these friendships you’ve formed help in this line of work?

It’s very lonely and I would say one of the most unexpected and delightful parts of this past year is meeting other people who have books coming out, especially debut authors, and discovering how kind everyone is. Everyone is so lovely. I feel there are so few moments in adulthood where you have that feeling you have when you’re a kid and meet someone on the playground who likes the same thing as you and they become your best friend. It feels like that. The older you get, it’s a much harder feeling to manufacture. With having a book coming out, a first book, you see someone else who is going through the same thing and you automatically have all of these stuff to talk about.

When I first moved to New York City, I felt so alone. I would go to readings and never felt apart of anything. This was around 2007 or 2008 and Twitter wasn’t a thing. There wasn’t this community I could just find online. I had no way of finding my people. When I got into an MFA I had a cohort and had people trying to do the same thing I was trying to do.

Are most of the people at Debut-Palooza people you’ve known since your MFA program?

Not at all. The only person that I know from my Columbia is Mary South. Emma Copley Eisenberg went to college together and have known each other a very long time. Sara Sliger and I met through Emma. Everyone else [reading at Debut-Palooza] I met through introducing myself saying I really can’t wait to read their book. I wanted a way to bring people together and signal boost each other. If one of us succeeds, we all succeed.

That’s what Debutiful is all about. I love contributing to the outlets I contribute to but sometimes editors would pass on an interview because that’s how life works and I didn’t have a way to signal boost authors whose books I loved. Sometimes I’m just one of many outlets to interview an author and sometimes I might be one of the only ones. Then there is your book which was just featured in the New York Times and they beat me to introducing the world to Temporary!

I never expected that. That’s the thing, you can’t expect these things.

Did you get any advance heads up that the Times would be reviewing your book?

No! I had no idea. Going into my marketing meetings, I had said that getting a review in the Times would make me happy, but I said that knowing it would probably wouldn’t happen. I didn’t expect it at all, let alone a week in advance. I was teaching an undergrad course at Columbia and I turned my phone over to check the time and I saw hundreds of messages. I thought someone had died. It never occurred to me what actually happened could happen.

 Your book is on an indie press and I feel like a lot of aspiring writers don’t think about a smaller press at first but some of the best work is coming out from places like Coffee House or Counterpoint. What has your experience been like?

It’s been wonderful. I get a two-for-one deal because I have all of the amazing people at Coffee House but also Emily Books. They’re all phenomenal. The thing about the two of them is that there was never a moment in the process of this where they tried to make my book more palatable or “commercial.” They never tried to put it into a mold of something that already existed. They always tried to amplify what it already was.

I like that on the about Emily Books section at the back of the book their slogan is “Literature is not equal to publishing.” I like that because publishing is a business and literature is an artform.

And I get it. Publishing is important because we all have to pay rent. The people who work in the industry are important and are extremely underpaid. Their job is basically to get attention for someone else’s work. It’s such a noble thing to do with your time.

I used to be a performer and worked in the theatre so everything for me is let’s put on a show and I wanted to know how everything worked. I wanted to be the performer but wanted to know what the prop manager did and have an understanding of how the whole process worked. So I took that as it could never heard to lend a helping hand to your publicist. This whole experience interests me and I wanted to be apart of it. If these people are devoting all of their time to something I made, it wouldn’t hurt if I devoted some time to what they do.

You mentioned you have a theatre background and like to have your hand in a lot of different jobs. This book is about jobs and the workforce. Where did Temporary come from?

It was a short story I wrote for my graduate thesis. It came from exactly where you’d expect. At that point in my life I had so many jobs and all of them were bizarre and absurd. I had started putting the emotions toward those jobs into text. I don’t think my experience in the workforce is anything special. I think it’s pretty typical for our generation.

I was less interested in documenting my career path and more interested in who you become if what you do for a living is scattered, diverse, and undefinable. I remember going to parties and being asked what I did. I would pause to figure out what story I should tell. I think that’s a problem unique to people our age in the workforce.

It does seem like older generations would have one job and stay in it forever as opposed to myself and a lot of people my age have to explain what their current job is right then and there.

I do want to say that I feel a lot of the talk around the book has been about the economy and our new relation to work. I don’t think it’s a new relationship. On a certain level, if you are living in a capitalist society you’re relationship to work is going to be fraught. I think temporary work is different, but I don’t think the things that we feel about our jobs are new feelings.

What made you return to the short story?

I wrote the original short story and n+1 was kind enough to publish it in 2012. Since it was published I thought, okay this is done. I didn’t really think about it for awhile and continued working all of my crazy jobs, working on a different novel, and publishing short stories. I was trying to really understand all of the different ways I could be apart of the writing community. At some point I gave up writing the novel and now it’s sitting in a drawer. I went back to the short story and it felt more like what I was feeling on a day to day basis. It felt like what I would be working on. Regardless if it turned into anything, it felt like what was on the tip of my tongue. I feel if something is on the tip of your tongue, it makes it easier to write about than something you don’t know how to talk about.

So that’s what I did. It was 2016.

You had a lot of these temporary jobs and this book is more about the emotions of that lifestyle. What I loved about the book was the brevity of it as a whole and the length of each chapter. Was that a reflection of the brevity of the jobs?

It just took on this pace when I was writing it. When writing it, I wrote it almost in one sitting. Not literally, but it felt like a fever state of creating it. I didn’t spend a lot of time writing it, but I did spend a lot of time editing it. I think the brevity of the individual sections was because of that fever state. I was interested in the weird language around work. Every time a word took a weird turn, I just followed it. I think what you’re reading is me being pulled along by the language of the work and going wherever it took me.

Please subscribe to Debutiful’s podcast, which releases once a month with an in-depth interview with one debut author.

Adam Vitcavage is the founder of Debutiful. His interviews and criticism have also appeared in Electric Literature, The Millions, Paste Magazine, and more.

Visit Hilary Leichter at her website and follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

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