Hilary Leichter on Time and Re-Reading
In Conversation with Maris Kreizman on The Maris Review
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from the episode:
Maris Kreizman: I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit about how time works (or doesn’t work!) in the novel, both for the characters and then for you as the writer of this story.
Hilary Leichter: Yeah, I’m a huge nerd when it comes to time in books. I teach a class on it. Because of teaching it, I think it’s come to frame much of the way that I experience books that I read and things that I write as well. So it was very important to me, but it also became quickly apparent that in a book about space that appears and disappears at will, and a world that’s expanding and contracting, time would have to be kind of wobbly around that space as well. They go hand in hand, right? And so I was thinking about that. I was thinking about how to use time to indicate the shifting parameters of the world that these characters live in.
In terms of how time works for me as a writer… I don’t know. I think it’s so mysterious with this book. I could say that there are things in these pages that echo emotional experiences that I’ve had, and I could do that thing of saying like I did at the start of this conversation, you know, I was living in a small apartment and that’s what happened, and that’s where the book came from.
And on a certain level that’s true. But there are also things that I wrote in this book that then happened to me after writing it. It was like I spoke them into existence. I mean, I don’t have a typewriter where I click a key and predict the future. I don’t have that going on, but I think there’s a way in which books don’t move forward in time. They reverberate. The biggest evidence of that to me is that they’re in conversation with books that you’ve never read, both because you’ve read the authors who have read those authors who have read other authors, and then people have read you that you don’t know about, and it’s like this circular continuum.
And so if you’re really tapped in a book can be inspired by something that hasn’t happened yet.
MK: You are doing a very good job of talking obliquely about this. And I love that the characters themselves can acknowledge that if they’re recalling something, they’re maybe not sure if the thing they’re recalling happened in one specific day or if it was over time. And that seems like something about memory that we all experience, and yet it feels so not right to acknowledge it.
HL: I know. But it’s the way that I experience things. Is it the way that you experience things?
MK: Oh, of course. I mean this, listening to your character say that made me in an interview be able to say, I actually don’t know when this happened.
HL: Oh, good. Good. It’s, isn’t it? Ugh. It’s a relief to say. You don’t know or you don’t remember, or that you’re not sure because, I don’t know about you, but that’s kind of how I feel a lot of the time. I’m not sure, and I think what’s shocking to me is that reading works the same way. I was just talking about this with someone, but I never had to reread books until I became a teacher. Then you’re rereading the books that you teach all the time and you’re reading students’ stories multiple times and you become this kind of keeper of a palimpsest of a book.
I’m never not astonished by how little I remember about not just any books, but my favorite books, and even after a third reading, there are moments that have eluded me and I can’t believe I’ve missed them. Of course, I haven’t. They’ve just left somehow, and I think life is the same way. I really believe that.
MK: And that’s so interesting to me because I really did feel like so many of the different parts of the novel echo each other. And a really close reading pays off very much, especially by the end.
HL: Oh, that’s so good to hear. Because of the nature of the structure and the fact that it kind of folds back on itself and it has this double helix shape, I wanted it to be amenable to a second read, and a third and a fourth. I wanted there to be new things that could be discovered only on a second read, and not just because a reader like me has forgotten the whole book, which is totally fine too. But I wanted it to welcome rereads that felt like a different way of thinking about fiction. And it’s risky too, right? Because it means that maybe you can’t have everything the first time around. But that feels emotionally true to me too about life.
MK: And as a reader, it kind of flatters me to know that you trust me enough to be able to go back and piece all of these things together. It’s almost like solving a little mystery,
HL: Or, or not go back, you know? That’s okay too. I like the idea that it’s not mine anymore, you know? Go back, don’t go back. Read it out of order. That might be confusing, but, okay. And it’s not mine to read. It’s yours to read. It makes the world of the book larger for whatever experience you choose to have with it.
But I’m really interested in fiction that requires something of me. I think there are so many ways to receive narratives now, and they’re all different and they’re all great, and we have just this abundance of art at our fingertips, but it means that novels have to make a claim for why they should be here.
And I’m interested in a novel that, like you said, believes in me enough to allow me to be an active participant in the world of the book. And when that happens, I think that a book not only becomes a book that I’ve read, but it becomes an event that I’ve experienced in my life and I can think about books that I feel that way about.
I feel like Jane Eyre was maybe the first book I read where I felt that way. It was for summer reading in high school and I stayed up all night reading it for homework and then I just immediately started reading it again after I was done. Again, I haven’t read Jane Eyre in a long time. A lot of the details are lost in the midst of my brain. But I remember sitting in my bed with Jane, with Mr. Rochester. They were there. It was a moment that was a part of my life. It was sandwiched between the school year and camp. It’s something that I lived through and I want that feeling when I read a book.
I’m sometimes ashamed by how little I remember of the books I claim to love the most. But I guess if you can just remember the feeling you had, that can be enough.
MK: I think the feeling is the main thing.
HL: I mean, there are no people in books. There are no places, there are no events. There’s just words. And so they’re all letters and spaces and punctuation clustering in groups to create a feeling. And so there is nothing else but that at the end of the day.
Hilary Leichter is the author of Temporary, which was a finalist for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize and the New York Public Library Young Lions Fiction Award, and was longlisted for the PEN/Hemingway Award. Her writing has appeared in Harper’s, the New Yorker, and the New York Times. She teaches at Columbia University and lives in Brooklyn, New York. Her new novel is called Terrace Story.