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Author Hilary Leichter on Embracing Impermanence

Author photo: Sylvie Rosokoff © 2019

Temporary is a debut novel that follows a young woman’s attempt to find a steady job in a world where being a temp is genetic, something people are born into, and an agency fills short-term gigs for window washers, mannequins, taxi hailers, characters in nursery rhymes, and other unusual jobs. The narrator’s resume includes arranging a closet of unworn shoes, filling in for a Chairman of the Board, a pirate named Darla, a ghost, an assassin. “The shoes I’m hired to fill are constantly switching in size,” she tells the reader. Finding a permanent placement is a dream — but she doesn’t know what her dream job might be. 

The day that author Hilary Leichter’s agent submitted the manuscript to editors, Leichter tells us, she started a new job. “I thought that it was a regular job, and on my first day I was escorted to the internal temp agency and realized that, alas, I was still a temp after all that time.” Leichter spoke with Squarespace about her own adventures as a temp in pursuit of success in a creative field, how COVID-19 is changing people’s relationship to work, and promoting a book as the pandemic began.

“I've always been a writer, but for a long time, I considered myself a performer,” Leichter tells us. She speaks of moving to New York City and began going on auditions and pounding the pavement, while writing her own material and piecing together part-time jobs as a personal assistant and contractor. She considered herself lucky when, a year after she graduated from college, the financial crisis of 2008 took hold, but those jobs didn’t go away. 

She also kept writing, and eventually pursued an MFA in fiction. “I think I have a big imagination that comes from being a performer, and I just didn't know what to do with it,” Leichter confesses. “I knew that I was quirky and I knew that I had a different kind of sensibility, but I didn't know where to channel that.” In graduate school, Leichter found “professors who could see what I was doing on the page and tell me what I was doing… Having someone tell you early on what you're capable of when you don't even know what you're putting on the page yet is so important and precious, and it really gave me the energy to keep going.”

When Leichter had a handful of short stories published and began to branch out into interviews and criticism, she realized she needed a website to organize and display all her work. “It turned out to be the best thing I ever did,” Leichter shares. I started getting emails from people asking me if I wanted to write something for X, Y, and Z. Asking me if I had representation, if I was working on a novel... it lit a fire under my ass to finish something... [Writing is] such a lonely process, and to know that a couple of people were paying attention made me feel like I should keep going.”

“I had a more definitive idea of what I wanted to be and what I wanted to do, and I was just working around the clock to make that a possibility, so I was tutoring, I was working as a temp at a property management company, I was teaching, and I would just take on any gig that anyone threw my way. Anything,” she says. The contrast between her piecemeal professional life and the apparently steadier existences of friends buying homes, adopting dogs, having children—and backyards for those children to play in—sparked the inspiration for the book. “I just sat down and wrote the book basically in a month... I just was so filled with hope and energy and rage.” She then spent a long time editing and arranging the scenes that form her narrator’s unique journey. None of her own temp jobs appear in Temporary, but she drew on the emotions behind them. She describes “working in someone’s home and feeling like you’re a part of their family but you’re not… working in an office where everyone tells you that you're family, but you're not. All the feelings of being slightly outside of something.” 

Temporary is a poignant, lyrical portrayal of the gig economy, and of the intertwined searches for employment and identity that face everyone as they enter adulthood. It is particularly resonant in a moment when the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the nature of work — and is dramatically redrawing the professional paths ahead. Leichter says, “I've seen a lot of social media posts from people saying, 'What am I now that I'm not going to work every day?’ "What am I now that I am just at home?’ You're still the same person, but [work is] so linked to identity that I think we're going to have a national identity crisis on top of all the more imminent crises that we're dealing with. I think when you have a country that defines itself by actions that are remunerated and then that remuneration stops completely, then who and what are the citizens of your country anymore? I think that we are so much more than that.” 

Even before the pandemic struck, Leichter was thinking creatively about how to get online readers excited about her book. She wanted to create something new to draw people into the narrative of Temporary, going beyond excerpts and reviews, so she came up with a Random Job Generator and wrote 50 new “placements” in the style of the agency in Temporary (plus a few favorites from the book, like “witch” — the last resort before the dreaded unemployment for her fictional temps). She reached out to a friend to help her with the code while she focused on the job titles and descriptions and the look and feel of the page, and together they found it easy to add to her site. “It’s one of the most fun things that has happened this year. And the fact that people were sharing it and taking screenshots of their job placements, was just so much fun to see, and I hadn't anticipated that. That was amazing. It was wonderful.”

The novel was published just as stay-at-home orders were put in place around the world, cancelling Leichter’s in-person book launch and disrupting the typical schedule of events fiction writers rely on to promote their books. “The day after my launch was supposed to happen, my friend and my husband put together a virtual launch, like a surprise launch, and it was so incredible. I went from being devastated to like completely elated.” The breakneck newscycle of mid-March quickly put things into perspective. “Every 24 hours it seems like the world shifts in a new direction. I'm just trying to keep up. That's my feeling right now, how do we keep up with this? And I think the answer is to just keep writing if you can. It [wasn’t] the most ideal time to have a book coming out, but books have a much longer life than their first week on the planet. As long as there are still people here to read, I think my book will still be okay, and so will everyone else's.”

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