Images courtesy Coffee House Press and Sylvie Rosokoff
"This Is Uncomfortable" Newsletter

“Temporary” author Hilary Leichter on losing yourself to gigs

Zoë Saunders and Tony Wagner Jun 13, 2024
Images courtesy Coffee House Press and Sylvie Rosokoff

Hilary Leichter’s 2020 debut, “Temporary,” is a surreal novel about the absurdities of modern work.

The page-turner follows a temp worker who moves from one bizarre placement to the next: chairman, pirate, barnacle, assistant murderer, ghost and eventually even a mother. Throughout it all, our unnamed heroine strives for an elusive sense of permanence, which she calls The Steadiness.

We called up Leichter to talk about her own temp career, finding purpose through work and why she says it’s impossible to bring your whole self to any job.

Here are some edited excerpts from that conversation. Leichter’s second novel “Terrace Story,” a thematically similar tale about real estate, will be out in paperback in August. 

This Is Uncomfortable: I loved how the book just jumped right into the deep end. I was still getting acquainted with this fictional universe and learning the rules after your protagonist’s first placement as the chairman of a corporation, and then suddenly she’s off to her next job as a pirate in the next chapter! And it’s like, “Oh, there are pirates in this world? OK, cool! What next?”  

Hilary Leichter: Yeah! To me, the absurdity had to be high from the very beginning so that it could kind of evolve into emotional stakes too. Like the pirate ship is high stakes in terms of life and death, but not high stakes in terms of her heart. And I wanted all of that to kind of fall away by the end, where one of her last jobs is working as a mother for this 7-year-old boy. And what does that look like? Well, just like making food and hanging out with him and taking him to school, and there’s no high-seas drama, but it’s also the most dramatic role that she’s ever filled. And that felt like an honest escalation, to escalate toward her own emotional investment as opposed to the zaniness of the work she was being asked to accomplish.

TIU: Oh yeah, because in the pirate boat early on, I wasn’t as invested in her as a person quite yet.

Leichter: I don’t think she’s invested in herself as a person, even really, which is so sad, but it takes the whole book for her to get there. 

TIU: I just love the idea of these increasingly absurd temp gigs. Can you tell me what inspired that?

Leichter: I was working very many jobs all at once. It was 2012, and I was finishing up graduate school, and I had a teaching fellowship, but I needed to get another job to support the teaching fellowship, and then I had to get another job. It was like this domino effect of jobs. 

And I wrote it as a short story, and it was a part of my graduate thesis, and then I published it, and I thought that was done. And then a few years went by, and I was looking at it again, and I thought, “Wow, this is still my life.” Strangely, nothing has changed: It was no longer “I’m taking all these jobs to reach some sort of goal.” It was, I had to contend with the question of maybe this is my life forever. And that was terrifying. It was funny. It was bittersweet. 

And I liked the idea of temping, not towards something, but temping as a condition of existence. And that led to thinking about immortality and the transience of everything we experience in this world. And it got big very, very quickly and almost without my permission.

TIU: I’m imagining that you must’ve had some very funny temp jobs. Can you tell me a little bit more about some of the jobs you did earlier in your career?

Leichter: They weren’t as funny as the jobs in the book, which is heightened to, like, a degree of drama that I could only hope to have in my day-to-day life. I worked for a long time as a personal assistant, and that’s wild and weird, and I was really lucky that I worked for someone fascinating, and she was generous and brilliant. And you know, it gave me such great material. 

But I also did more traditional temp jobs through an agency. I worked at a property management firm, where my main job was just filing things, but every file cabinet was completely full. So it was this weird conundrum, and no one had any interest in adding more filing cabinets, so I was just stuffing things where there was no room for things to be stuffed, all day, every day.

Gosh, one of the weirder jobs I had was for a marketing company, and they had a client, I think it was a South American beer. They were doing some sort of promotion around the World Cup, I think, and they were hiring people to stay up all night checking the website every seven minutes to make sure that it hadn’t crashed, and so that was what I did. And if it crashed, you had to call the CEO on his private cellphone. I think I was paid $250 for a night shift, from 7 p.m. to like 10 a.m., something like that. And I thought, “Well, that’s groceries, so sure!” And I was just struggling to stay awake. I was setting seven-minute alarms so I could fall asleep and then wake up, and then the website stopped working, and I had to call this random CEO who didn’t know me or who I was at 3 in the morning.  

I think it’s less that the jobs are strange, and it’s more that when you’re forced into situations where no one knows you, you’re inconsequential, and every now and then you have to do something important. It’s very disorienting. 

TIU: There’s this elusive concept of “The Steadiness” that runs throughout the book. Can you define that without spoiling too much?

Leichter: So, The Steadiness, as the main character understands it, is a nine-to-five job basically. A job with health insurance, a job where you get to stay for as long as one stays at a job, and you’re not filling in for anyone else, and there’s no one coming back to replace you. It’s actually more than that, but she doesn’t know that yet. But like most jobs, it’s only half of what we think it’s going to be when we first encounter it. 

TIU: As the book goes on, it morphs into this idea of fulfillment and finding a job that makes you feel a sense of purpose. That’s something that we’re all seeking in our jobs.

Leichter: Yeah, I think the character, the unnamed temp in the book, would respond well to that saying, “You want a career, not a job,” you know? I think she would really feel that in her bones. I think The Steadiness implies a sense of purpose in what you do and the idea that it will exist after you’re gone.

I think the really hard feeling with a lot of temporary work and gig work is this feeling that it’s erased immediately after you do it, or deemed inconsequential, or someone literally asks you to undo everything you just did. And we’ve all been there. And so, I think The Steadiness is maybe the idea that what you do matters and will be remembered by someone other than you.

TIU: Throughout the book, she’s striving for this ideal of a job, a career that gives her meaning and defines her and gives her purpose. And correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems like you don’t necessarily share that ideal?

Leichter: Well, I don’t want to be a hypocrite because I’m lucky enough to get to do something for my work that does give me a sense of purpose, you know, after many, many years of trying to get there. At this stage in my life, I mostly write and mostly teach, and that’s how I earn a living, and both of those things are hugely important to me, and I get a lot of my self-worth from doing them and a lot of satisfaction from it. And if I was suddenly told that I couldn’t do those things, I think I would have an identity crisis. 

But the fact that our identities are so closely tied to what we do to earn a living does not seem to be the healthiest approach to a life well lived. I think it’s one part of what one would hope would be a many-layered existence that involves being a part of a community that’s not related to an office, interacting with people where you live and existing in the world, not only as a consumer or a producer, but as something else. And I think when we’re preparing to be adults in the world, those conversations sometimes get lost, about what it means to be a person in the world who isn’t just tied to capitalism.

TIU: It does seem to me that with creative work, like the work of writing, there’s even a higher risk of blurring these lines between personal and professional, and conflating the worth of your work with your self-worth. Is that something that you’ve experienced? How do you navigate that?

Leichter: I think that’s definitely true. And it only starts to bother me when I start to remember that books are products, in addition to being art, and it’s something that you can’t escape, but it’s also something that I try to will myself to forget about every time I start a new project, because I never want to be writing toward the sale of something. I never want to be writing toward some sort of market’s idea of what is popular or what should be popular. I feel like that’s just a one-way road to being miserable.

And I should say, it’s not because I don’t need to pay rent or don’t want to make a living, but I think that if you’re always kind of chasing what your art should look like on a shelf as a product, you’re never going to create anything new. And so, I try to tune that out as much as I can. 

And then the voices come back the minute that you’re ready to publish a new book. And it’s maddening to remember that it’s still a part of the same system. And for me, the critique that I’m making is actually a part of the same system I’m critiquing too, which is a little bit of a tangle to get oneself in! 

TIU: On TIU, we talk a lot about our relationship with work and how workplaces can strip away our individuality and humanity. I feel like temp work is sort of the epitome of that, and then your book takes that to an absurd extreme. Your protagonist doesn’t even have a name.

Leichter: No, I think there are jobs where they just call you the name of the person you’re filling in for. I think there’s this idea that if you get to know someone, then they’ve kind of rooted themselves there in some way that’s uncomfortable for everyone. But I’ve always appreciated the employers and supervisors who have made an effort to understand who I am as a three-dimensional person, and you know, I think it’s rare.

TIU: Yeah, we have this ideal of being able to bring our true self to the workplace.

Leichter: And a lot of times they don’t want you to bring your true self. I mean, I can only bring part of my true self to being a teacher, you know, just in terms of professionalism. You can never bring your true full self to a job because a job is not the world. It’s this strange microcosm of the world.

And that was very inspiring to me in thinking about this book: What is allowed to exist in this world between the four walls of an office and what is not allowed, and if the office expands to include pirate ships and assassins and being a mother, then where do you put all of the things that you’re feeling? Where do you put your true self, as you said? Where does it get to live?

TIU: It seems like kind of a theme for you is the inherent absurdity of capitalism.Leichter: Yeah. I don’t go into it thinking that way, but I think capitalism dictates every single part of our lives, especially if you’re a working person, if you’re living in a city. And so I’m drawn to the absurdities of life, and those just happen to also be governed by capital.

📚 Our next Uncomfortable Book Club pick 📚

In two weeks, we’ll talk with Priya Fielding-Singh about her study of nutritional inequality, “How the Other Half Eats.” Beyond simply calories and nutrients, we talk about the cultural significance of food and the undervalued labor of motherhood. It’s available wherever books are sold. Have you read it? Send us your thoughts and we might include them in the convo!

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