A Novel About the Absurdity of the Gig Economy
Hilary Leichter's "Temporary" satirizes the real-life challenges of finding gainful employment
If you enjoy reading Electric Literature, join our mailing list! We’ll send you the best of EL each week, and you’ll be the first to know about upcoming submissions periods and virtual events.
It’s fitting—maybe even a little on-the-nose—that the last book I finished on my commute to work was Hilary Leichter’s Temporary. Now that my twice-daily train ride has been indefinitely suspended alongside the commutes of millions of others, it’s tempting to claim Leichter’s debut novel is even more resonant, asserted in the key of the now more than ever message bombardment from every corner of the COVID-19 pandemic. But the uncanny resonance of Temporary doesn’t come from some hyper-accurate prediction about the future of work or wage labor or society; what Leichter weaves is more parable than prognostication.
Temporary‘s chief concern is with the way employment, or lack thereof, inflects every aspect of our lives, which was as true when it was published in early March of this year as it is today—differently true, maybe, but still true. If the book feels extra prescient at this moment, it’s because Temporary illustrates that before things get better, they’re first going to get much, much weirder.
I spoke with Hilary Leichter earlier this spring about her irregular writing practice, the definition of a “bad job,” and why it’s critical for her nameless protagonist to have 18 boyfriends. The following has been edited for length and clarity.
Calvin Kasulke: Before we even dive into book stuff: What’s the worst job you’ve ever had?
Hilary Leichter: I’m lucky in that I think my bad jobs are a sitcom brand of bad job. And right now “bad” job means something very different to me—not being recognized by your billionaire CEO, not getting sick days when you’re being forced to put yourself in harm’s way. That’s a bad job.
For my weirdest job, I’ll go with something fairly recent. It was advertised to me as an administrative assistant job working for someone out of her apartment. She had her own business, and when I arrived it was clear that there was no rhyme or reason to what I was asked to do. It was everything from moving boxes to sorting swatches of fabric to placing Amazon orders to helping her hire someone because I couldn’t stay with her full time.So I was Farren from my book, looking for other people for her.
After I had worked for her for several weeks, I was waiting for payment but hadn’t received it yet—this is a position I think many freelancers can relate to—so I shot her an email just saying, “Hey, waiting on my check.” And she emailed me back and asked if I would be willing to be paid less than what we had agreed on for the work I had already accomplished. And it was already a very low hourly rate, and something maybe a few years ago I would’ve said, “okay,” we all have those moments when we’re desperate for a paycheck. But I said no, and I was paid anyway, to her credit. But the chutzpah—I can’t think of anything more nervy than to ask someone to be paid less for something they’ve already done. It was a nightmare, but not in terms of our current nightmare. There’s quite a chasm between not-great and inhumane.
CK: Similarly, you can sort of characterize shifts in tone in your book based on the emotional reality of the narrator’s bosses, or whoever is giving her orders. I know you wrote this book over a long period of time, and I’m curious as to how it got the shape it eventually took on in its final form.
HL: I’ve never thought about it that way, but that is the situation when you walk into so many workplaces. You’re a part of a reality that has nothing to do with anything except the person that you work for, and I think that’s a really good way of thinking about the structure of the book. Oftentimes the narrative trajectories are just kind of strange and get the label of “surreal,” but I was really following where the emotions of her careerlessness would take her.
Very literally, the book got its shape from a short story that I wrote in 2012, and many of the jobs appear in that story. It was very short, I think only six pages or so, and she just hops from place to place. And then I went back to it and thought, “Well this is kind of perfect,” and such a great outline for a book. So I just went through and expanded. Instead of drawing the story out to something different, it was more like inflating a balloon.
CK: Were there any jobs or portions of the original that you felt didn’t fit in the final version that you had to drop?
HL: It’s not in the short story, but in one version of the book she spends a lot of time in prison in solitary confinement. She has the job of filling in for a prisoner who escaped, and I actually love that section but it kind of didn’t go anywhere, so I had to lose it. I think some of the emotions in that section could be found other places in the book. I was really interested in escalating the things that she was being asked to do, and she wasn’t being asked to do anything there except be alone. And that’s kind of where she is for most of the book anyway.
CK: You wrote Temporary very quickly, in one summer. I’m curious about how inflating an older work, the original short story, might’ve impacted the shape of the novel?
HL: I really wrote it in a sprint, but not because of any deadline or because anyone cared to read it critically. It was an experience that I am bashful to talk about because I don’t know that it will ever happen again and I think every book is different, and I think every book requires something different. The next thing I write might take 10 years.
I had been working on a different book for a really long time and just not getting anywhere with it, and I had told so many people about it that I felt weird compunction to keep writing it, even though it just was not working. I wasn’t having fun, which is not to say that writing is always supposed to fun—I think a lot of times it’s really not.
But I was looking for a way out of that and I just went back to play with this story, because it was more in line with what my life looked like at the moment and the things that I cared about and the emotions that I had.
I just took a look at it again and started fiddling with it and it was so much fun and I wrote it from a real place of—it was like a mix of joy and rage. The country was on the verge of electing Donald Trump and I was filled with this weird combination of hope that that wouldn’t happen and rage that it was even a possibility, and I wrote it from that fevered state. It took about a month and after that I edited it for a long time. I was still working on it and editing it through the process of finding an agent and selling it, and it changed a lot from that first draft, but it is very much still the same book.
In a way, the way that I wrote it is where the structure came from. It’s a very stream of consciousness word association type of structure, almost like a group of people playing charades. And that’s indicative of how I wrote it, I just kept going. I haven’t felt this way about anything else I’ve written where I would just wake up in the middle of the night and want to work on it. And I hate myself for saying that. It sounds so annoying, but it’s absolutely true. It was so much fun. I had so much fun writing it,the way the narrative works is in the name of fun.
CK: It can like the worst of both worlds, though, if you don’t have a regular practice. You seem lazy until you crank out something in a month and then everybody’s taken aback.
HL: Screw regular practice, especially right now. I have a problem with the idea that anyone can tell anyone else how and how to execute. Being a writer is something you totally have to figure out for yourself, and it’s something that each project tells you how to do. Any time someone’s like, “This is what you need to do, these are the three tricks your doctor doesn’t tell you about being a writer.” No, no, that doesn’t exist. There are no tricks.
CK: You talked about writing Temporary during one very heady period of American life, and now we’re in a very different, intense period of American life. Are there any parts of the book that are newly resonant to you as you’re seeing it discussed as part of the conversation?
HL: There was one very specific passage that keeps coming up where the narrator is learning all of the lingo that she needs to know to work on a pirate ship, and a pirate slang for being dead is “working remotely.” So that paragraph keeps popping up again and again because we’re all working remotely right now.
I think everything is newly resonant in this moment. I think for everything that was, there’s the before and after. It’s very strange having a book come out right now; it’s everything from disappointing to illuminating. The things that we care about in these moments of publication are suddenly so incredibly unimportant. I’m disappointed not to stroll around and see my book in bookstores, that was something I was looking forward to, but at the same time I’m grateful that I have a job that allows me to stay home, and that I still have a job. So everything is put into a new kind of perspective at this moment.
CK: I wanted to ask about the narrator’s 18 boyfriends and the logic behind that—
HL: Behind the number of boyfriends or just behind their existence?
CK: Behind their multitude.
HL: Even since the short story there has been a gaggle, a murder, of boyfriends. I don’t know what the collective noun is, but they’ve always been there. I envision them as this chorus line of well-intentioned doofuses, and I say that with the most love. Because she loves them, she’s not able to commit to any of them or even to all of them—because of her nature, because she’s a temp, but she does care about them, and so I care about them too.
In creating them I was really thinking about the way that female characters pop up in a male work narrative. A lot of the workplace stories from the 20th and 21st century have been about men. And part of that is because women were kind of invisible in the workplace, and still are sometimes. So I was thinking about the way girlfriends in some of those movies and books become interchangeable and are sort of window decoration. That’s where I started from, and then they all took on these very endearing personalities and it turns out I’m not really capable of writing window dressing.
They do provide a bit of grounding for her. I think that if she didn’t have some sort of story or some sort of personal life, it would be very hard to stay with her for the whole book. That’s something that I definitely discovered the more I wrote into the narrative. It became important to give her not a love story, but a social life, a family life and something else too, which is like the mythology that comes into the book, like a history.
And I think these are the things that you have when you come to New York, right? As a young person, you have your day job, your family, and you have your social life. And those are the three things that tether you in this city, whether they’re non-existent or whether they’re complicated or whether they’re tangential to work or whether they overpower work. So it made sense to have that be part of her story since it’s part of the stories of a lot of young working people.
CK: The condition of temping is passed on matrilineality in the book’s mythology, or at least in the lived reality of the narrator’s existence. I was wondering why you chose to make temping something that was passed on to her, as opposed to something she opted for.
HL: When I was creating the mythology that grounds the book, I was thinking of Greek mythology. I was thinking of fairy tales but I was also thinking of Judaism, which is a matrilineal religion. And even though it’s not overtly a Jewish book, a lot of the themes about where her history and her impulses come from Judaism.
I was thinking about that in editing it—maybe not in writing and at first, but then editing it I was thinking about again, the invisible nature of women’s work and the way that women sometimes don’t have a choice in the work that they get, in the work that they can have, in the work that’s available to them. There is often a convergence between the personal and the professional, and I wanted to explore that too. So it was very intentional that this was something that’s passed down. Even though that doesn’t happen in our world—technically—it kind of does, right? Our understanding of ourselves and what we’re capable of is passed down. Our confidence, our financial security, all of that is something that we receive from somewhere else. And so she couldn’t just decide to be a temp because a lot of those decisions are really made for us by capitalism.
CK: At the beginning of our conversation I asked about your worst or weirdest job, and I’m wondering if there is a job or a gig that you haven’t had or tried your hand at, but you think that you would absolutely crush. A job you would be fantastic at.
HL: I think I’d be an amazing publicist.
CK: What makes you think you’d nail it?
HL: Well, I had to do it for my book, right? I have a publicist who’s wonderful, but we all kind of have to be our own publicists when we have books coming out. Also, I’m a theater kid at heart, and so everything for me is high-key putting on a show. And I think that’s something you have to be very comfortable with in publicity, putting on the right kind of show for the right audience. Oh, I think I would totally nail it. If anyone’s hiring.