“What kind of matter will we become, when we are no longer here, and will that new matter feel a grief for us that it cannot name? I think the temp in my book is made from this apocryphal matter. She is a product of cell-level grief.”
Jobs Hilary Leichter Finds Odd:
Itemizing stray receipts
Being a “business person”
“We work to become, not to acquire,” Elbert Hubbard once said, which is, admittedly, exactly the kind of pithy idealism one might expect from a traveling salesman. Hubbard was a writer, a philosopher, and a man selling artisan soaps door-to-door. He was also a 19th century craftsman who was one of many who helped shape our national identity as workers—work is the American symbol of dignity, after all, industry our character. More than a hundred years after Hubbard, our national obsession with labor has yet to show any signs of slowing down. What do you want to be when you grow up? is still among the first questions we get asked as children—and the same question we ask ourselves well after we’ve said to have decided. Likewise, the intrepid young narrator of Hilary Leichter’s novel Temporary believes “there’s nothing more personal than doing your job,”—and her job is filling in. She’s a temporary, descended from a long line of other accomplished, industrious temps. Yet unlike those who came before her, she longs to find a permanent placement—a purpose, even, a calling. Leichter’s narrator, like so many of us, finds herself clinging to the American Dream, despite all modern evidence that we may be out of its reach. Whether it’s the immutability of this quest or our enduring national history that makes this story feel timeless, it’s Leichter’s nimble, singular prose that makes Temporary come alive in our own.
Temporary asks us to consider how we’ve been taught to organize our lives and ourselves, and how willing we might be to embrace new change. It’s hard not to feel as if there’s something especially poignant about the arrival of this book in this new decade, an election year—if there might still be another chance to decide who we are, and want to be, all over again.
In an exchange of emails over several weeks, I spoke with Hilary about how she came to focus on work as the engine of her first novel, and how her narrator’s search for purpose emerged amid a modern world seemingly so full of caprice.
THE BELIEVER: I imagine that you, like many writers, have worked your fair share of odd jobs as you established your writing career. Temporary takes a common, relatable predicament and spins it on its head. Where did you find the inspiration to build the incredible world of Temporary, which feels similar to ours in some ways, and in other ways, seems to borrow from the tradition of fairy tale, or fable?
HILARY LEICHTER: I have worked quite a few odd jobs, but that’s such a great phrase: “odd job.” It has really nice assonance, and the assonance immediately keys me in to its strangeness. I think, in writing this book, I was trying to ask the question, “Aren’t all jobs odd?” Isn’t it redundant to describe them that way? We tend to think of an odd job as a scrap. The bits and bobs of jobs. I’ve had a lot of bits and bob-jobs. Scanning stray documents, itemizing stray receipts, dealing with the stray possessions that linger after someone has died. But I think being an attorney or a doctor or a “business person” (what is that, please?) must have equal moments of oddness, equally worth exploration. Our society’s scaffolding is odd to the bone. I guess I started with those odd bones in the hopes of landing somewhere fleshy and vibrant and new. And yes, that is what people do in fairy tales: taking an eye of newt or a snip of hair or a rib of Adam, the weirdest and most mundane underbellies of ourselves, and submitting them for metamorphosis.
BLVR: Your writing is both playful and purposeful; it seem to create its own rules, toying with absurdism and surrealism. How would you describe your own work, and how invested are you in terms like these, the boundaries within which language lives? Do you think they can they ever be helpful?
HL: I like those terms a lot, and I use them often to describe my work. Though I couldn’t tell you if Temporary merits the label of a capitalized Absurdism or Surrealism—my English degree is too rusty for that question! Fabulist, fantastic, uncanny. “Off-kilter” is another phrase that gets a lot of play, and I see people using it to describe the work of writers I greatly admire. I like that one, too, because it suggests that the worlds in my stories are not the thing that is bizarre, rather the bizarreness lies in the kilter of the teller. Wacky, antic, zany—I can get behind any word that sounds like it’s from Looney Tunes. But words are helpful only as far as you can throw them, and some words fly farther than others. As soon as I can see where they’ve landed and name the territory, it’s probably time to look for more syllables. One word that I’m not fond of is “whimsical,” but I’ll let it back into my vernacular as soon as I see someone use it to describe a man’s writing.
BLVR: I’d like to talk a bit about the structure of the novel, which is divided into different categories of work: Water Work, First Work, Blood Work, etc. Was this structure intrinsic to the conception of the novel, or did this organization come about later, from some pattern the work was forming itself?
HL: The structure came much later. The first draft of the novel felt like it was being flung forward, sentence by sentence, toward some uncertain future. That’s because the sentences were very much flinging me along, and I abided any which way they went. As soon as I figured out where we were headed, and what the ending looked like, I realized that the book was something of a quest, and it made sense to lean into that style, to map the journey the way one would in the retelling of a long voyage. I wanted to write an Odyssean narrative, where the heroism comes from employability. What if Gulliver or Pinocchio had to punch time cards while they were adventuring?
BLVR: Your narrator doesn’t have a name, but she has things—her apartment, her boots, her eye patch, her boyfriends. Some of her possessions are stolen or gifted, and all of them seem—in the narrative world you’ve managed to create—somehow both viscerally tangible and utterly vulnerable. How did you manifest such real poignancy within the arbitrary, changeable environment of this novel?
HL: I am glad that you found poignancy! I think the arbitrary and the changeable are the most poignant things of all. It’s interesting to me that you made note of the narrator’s possessions, her “things.” I can become unexpectedly moved, when opening the refrigerator, noticing that my husband has purchased an unfamiliar beverage or a random snack. Or finding a cute new pair of socks in his drawer. Or seeing a strange package of discounted napkins that my mother has placed on her countertop. For the longest time, I didn’t know why I felt those feelings about “products.” But I think it’s the randomness that’s heartbreaking to me, because that which is random is most precious and least explicable—it’s every tender second of every day. We can’t know what goes into the unimportant choices the people around us make, which means there’s a distancing that happens when you contemplate those mundane, arbitrary choices. Ultimately, it’s the realization that you are separate from other people, and separate from the world. We are all separate from each other. So things that are arbitrary are really about loneliness. Consumerism is maybe the most arbitrary thing of all, and therefore the most lonely. It’s also one of the things that makes our separateness from one another and from the earth so disastrous. Possessions are unbearably fraught with sadness. Their functionality, their disuse, their stasis, our attachment, our desire, our sense of status.
BLVR: Your narrator longs for permanence, what she refers to as steadiness—she wants to stop being a temporary and find her forever calling. Yet at the same time, she doesn’t seem to know what she wants to do. How do you conceptualize her desire, and how did you come to identify it?
HL: From the beginning, I was always more interested in writing about what it meant to be disposable, vulnerable, and unsafe. There are so many great books about ambition and work, working in an office toward a greater ambition, working with a dream of a different kind of work. I don’t know that I have anything exciting to add to that conversation that hasn’t already been written. It was interesting to me to divorce work from ambition, to ask what it meant to be “a temp without a cause.” The desire here is a desire for home, a wish to finish becoming, and to finally become.
BLVR: I have to ask about the boyfriends. They all possess the steadiness in their own lives that our narrator aspires to. They have so much steadiness and confidence that they start to mooch off our narrator’s. They talk over her, they take her for granted, they hijack her apartment. Are you suggesting there is something uniquely unstable about the female experience in the narrator’s world, or our own?
BLVR: At times Temporary feels like a meditation on grief. “There is nothing more personal than doing your job,” the book tells us early on, but later on the book seems to edit this idea to: “There’s nothing more personal than loneliness.” Our narrator loses several people close to her over the course of the novel, and she never stops thinking about them. What do you want us to know about grief?
HL: Living is an act of mourning. We are all made of the same stuff that the world was made of thousands of years ago, and so our physical bodies are a memorial to people we have never met, places we have never seen, a planet that no longer exists, but still exists through us. As we grow ever closer to our own impending doom (unless this election allows us to make progress toward a different type of future), I can’t help but wonder how we will exist if there is no one left to grieve us. The function of the temporary in this book is not only as a replacement, but as a place-holder. She is a seat-saver, even when the sitter will not and cannot ever return. What kind of matter will we become, when we are no longer here, and will that new matter feel a grief for us that it cannot name? I think the temp in my book is made from this apocryphal matter. She is a product of cell-level grief.
BLVR: Our narrator takes her career very seriously, yet at several pivotal moments in the novel, she finds herself faced with moral quandaries in the course of her work that give her pause—for example, love vs. duty. Do we live in a world of moral ambiguity?
HL: I think so. I think any question of right and wrong is also a question of survival, especially when it comes to work. We can’t know what we would do to survive, unless we have already had to do it. We can’t know the intersections of morality and work unless we have arrived at those intersections. I am no judge of these things, especially since we live in a world that asks people to do unspeakable things in the name of money, and I have never been asked to do something unspeakable. Duty and love are sometimes the same thing, which can be confusing and dangerous. Sometimes they are not the same thing, which is also confusing and dangerous. The fiction I particularly love is fiction that imagines how morality will and should and must and won’t evolve. I love a book that creates its own moral universe; it can be a helpful tool to examine the failings of our own universe, and the successes as well.
BLVR: One of the narrator’s jobs is to record history and the human experience, even as she lives it herself. She is both the person who asks the questions and the person who has to answer them. Is this what motivates you to write, or how do you conceive of the job of a novelist?
HL: This is a wonderfully hard question. I don’t know that I write to answer questions. I think I read to answer questions, and I write to find new questions, better ones, tougher ones. The job of a novelist is to record, but also to imagine. The imagining part is maybe what can prevent us from recording history, and then repeating it. Maybe that’s the job of a novelist: to record and to expand. But how would I know? I’ve only written one!