Hilary Leichter’s debut novel, Temporary (Coffee House Press, 2020), was a surreal examination of the very real ways that work and, more specifically, lack of meaningful work can pervert our sense of who we are and what our place is in the world. Her follow-up novel, Terrace Story (Ecco Press, 2023), takes a similarly slant approach to the ideas of home, belonging, and finding space for oneself in a crowded and disintegrating world.
Terrace Story begins with a young couple: Annie and Edward, and their daughter, Rose, all squeezed into a too-small apartment with no hope of being able to afford something better. The apartment is not only small; it’s anthropomorphized. Windows are introverted, clasped, and huddled. As in Temporary, Leichter cuts right to a conflict at the heart of our present moment, in this case, a paucity of affordable housing and the indignity of never being able to get ahead. But when Annie invites her coworker Stephanie over for dinner, a beautiful terrace suddenly appears inside a linen closet. But the terrace isn’t just an extra amount of square footage. For Annie, the terrace is a psychic reprieve, a reunion with her better self. “She had been accommodating some unknown injury for years. . . . Now, standing on the terrace, she woke to find her forgotten wound healed.”
Annie and Edward are delighted with this new discovery—it’s every city-dweller’s dream!—but gradually come to realize that the terrace only appears when Stephanie is around. As the story progresses, Leichter takes us forward and backward in time as we see that the terrace has opened up a rift between worlds and that this magical space comes at a tremendous cost, both for Annie and Edward and for the physical world. There’s no addition without subtraction, one of her characters admonishes, a theory Leichter tests in various incarnations throughout the novel. Set against a background of mass extinction, grief is on every page, whether in the fore- or background. Where do we put our loneliness, longing, and desire? What do we do with the emotions that seem to stretch beyond the body, beyond the boundaries of life and death? In Leichter’s world, these questions are both abstract and physical.
Based on a short story of the same name that went on to win a National Magazine Award, Terrace Story is funny and sad, tremendous and profound, beautiful and honest even or especially when Leichter is leading us down the strange paths of her brilliant imagination.
I spoke with Leichter over Google Docs about the shape of her novel, the physics of time, and what we mean when we talk about making space.
The Rumpus: One of the things that most strikes me about Terrace Story is the novel’s shape. Ever since I read Meander, Spiral, Explode by Jane Alison, I think about the shape of stories all the time. I would describe the action of Terrace Story unfolding in sort of a spiral, or perhaps concentric circles—everything radiating outward from a particular point like ripples. Do you agree? Was shape something you had in mind as you worked through drafts?
Hilary Leichter: Thank you for this wonderful question and for the opportunity to talk about structure. I love Meander, Spiral, Explode. I’m not sure I had thought of Terrace Story in terms of spirals until you said it, since so often Alison describes that motion as one that moves inward, toward the center of a first-person narrator’s mind, and Terrace Story has a structure with shifting perspectives. I love her description of the tsunami shape in David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, and the “meander” of Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine, which is a very important book to me. But I think Alison also says that the crucial shape is the one experienced by the reader and not by the writer. So, if you felt a spiral, then that’s really the only shape that matters!
While I was editing, I ended up spending a lot of time with The Poetics of Space, which I think is a kind of philosophical sibling to Meander, Spiral, Explode. Since so much of Terrace Story deals with space—how we create it, how we refuse it, how we share it—I thought a great deal about the problem of indicating space in prose. How do you actually do it, when the only literal space is the perimeter of the page?
I set a formal challenge for myself, to see if I could make a novel feel like it was expanding and contracting without using visual tricks. There are other books that already do inventive work with formatting and do it better than I ever could. But I was curious about whether prose alone could appear to shrink and grow. I wanted the book to feel like this: You live in an apartment, and you think it’s a studio, but every day you find a new bedroom. Suddenly, there are ten, twenty bedrooms. The apartment is a whole building and you’re walking past it on the street, wondering if you’ve ever lived there but knowing that that’s impossible! You’ve never even been inside.
Rumpus: I’m interested in this problem of rendering space in prose. It seems like you’re talking about the problem of describing physical, fictional space (i.e., where the characters are seated) as well as wanting the novel itself to occupy a space in the reader’s imagination. Is that correct?
In publishing we also talk about envisioning which space the book will occupy, where on a shelf it will sit—will it be shelved with Stephen King versus Toni Morrison, say. Or we can say a certain author fills in the space left behind by others as in, “She’s the new Kurt Vonnegut,” or “This memoir occupies a needed space in the Latinx canon.” I hadn’t thought until now about all the ways we picture books and stories occupying space. It’s really fascinating.
Leichter: Yes! I definitely use the word “space” as a container for all different manner of ideas. There’s always the question, both in fiction and in life, of who is taking up too much space, who is not afforded enough space. Is someone holding space for you, or do you really just need everyone to back off and give you some space? I’ve often had the feeling of wanting to be held and wanting to be left alone, needing space and wanting my space invaded, simultaneously.
I love the idea of “spacing out” as a way of describing the act of dreaming, as if imagination requires us to leave a room, to exit the physical world. And a stanza is, of course, a room, so when you leave one stanza for another, what world are you abandoning, what world are you entering?
But I think I’m most interested in the space between people, the tension of distance and intimacy. The act of connection and the failure to connect . . . this is the terrain that fascinates me the most in fiction, because intimacy is a destination where one can never fully arrive. You can never actually be anyone but yourself. Even with great empathy, you can only fully occupy your own space. So when we’re talking about space between people, we’re also talking about perspective and knowledge, what it feels like to be known by someone else, what it means to be misunderstood. What it means to know and not-know. Not-knowing can feel immense. Knowing can feel claustrophobic. And vice versa.
Rumpus: I love that: “A stanza is a room.” I’d like to also go back to what you said about discovering new rooms inside an apartment. I have dreams like this constantly, and according to dream dictionaries, a house is usually a representation of the self. Therefore, a dream about discovering new rooms and new things inside those rooms is about discovering new abilities inside yourself. Was this on your mind at all as you wrote? Without spoiling anything, is it fair to characterize one character’s ability to create space as a discovery process? Because I’m not sure the character would put it like that.
Leichter: You are the second person to tell me this fabulous dream-fact! I didn’t know any of this when I was writing Terrace Story, but it makes perfect sense. And I like the word you used to describe this uncanny thing that’s happening in the novel: it’s an act of discovery. This makes so much more sense to me than describing it as some kind of self-actualization. If anything, the process of discovery is a process of defamiliarization, of making the world strange. Discovery can be terrifying. I don’t want to know what’s under that wobbly layer of tile in my old Brooklyn bathroom!
Rumpus: You play with time in the novel as well. It reminded me of an astronomy class I took in college where we learned the universe expands somewhat like a chocolate chip cookie baking in an oven. The whole cookie (universe) gets bigger, but the distance between chocolate chips (galaxies) increases as well. Time at certain points in the novel would push people apart or pull them back together (now I’m imagining a cookie baking and unbaking—maybe I just need a snack). How did you conceive of time as you wrote this novel?
Leichter: I teach a seminar at Columbia on time travel and the uses of time in fiction, so this is a subject that’s very near and dear to my heart! I have spent many hours thinking about another kind of cookie (the Madeleine).
I wanted time to feel malleable and unstable in these pages. I wanted time to behave unpredictably, much in the way that Annie’s apartment behaves unpredictably. It felt only natural that if a terrace could spontaneously appear and disappear, time would also need to somehow stretch and collapse around that space. This presented an opportunity for me to think about chronology and the assumptions I’m sometimes guilty of making about the order of events in fiction. I think that in a series of moments, there’s a premium placed on whatever moment happened first.
But what happens to a reader when they see a wound before seeing the moment of injury? To go a step further: can a wound predict an injury that hasn’t happened? Is the past the only thing that impacts the present? I know that in everyday life, I feel the immense weight of the future—what will it look like? Will there even be a future? Something that hasn’t happened yet can impact the things that are happening this very minute. So many of the most interesting emotions—desire, hope, anxiety, fear—are governed, at least in part, by an idea of the future, if not the future itself.
Rumpus: This novel was based on a short story, correct? Why did you decide to expand it into a novel? How do you know if you want to pursue an idea?
Leichter: I didn’t know that this would ever be a novel! I wrote the short story in 2017 when I was living with my husband in a very tiny Brooklyn apartment. And then it was published in spring of 2020 during lockdown—suddenly, the idea of feeling claustrophobic and cramped took on a whole new meaning. As a world, we were stuck inside, but we were also very far apart from each other. There was a great deal of closeness coupled with a great deal of distance. This paradox was interesting to me, and it sort of knocked down the walls of the original story, revealing something much larger, much stranger. There was something shaped like grief at the center of what I had created, and it mirrored the extreme and sudden grief that the world was experiencing as a whole. It was like I had found a novel-shaped terrace hidden in the apartment of my short story.
Rumpus: I can certainly see how lockdown would make anyone fantasize about a magical outdoor terrace that appears at will in one’s tiny apartment.
From the pandemic to another existential threat, climate disaster and mass extinction sort of play in the background of the novel—first the shrimp go, then the trout, then the crows. Aside from being a commentary on our present moment, I wondered if there was another reason for making this choice. What is the relationship for you between extinction and space, or the environment and space?
Leichter: I am often overwhelmed by a feeling of too-much-not-enough. Have you ever had this feeling? There is a horrible juxtaposition of dearth and abundance, and you can see it everywhere. There are empty office buildings stalking midtown Manhattan, and there are people losing their homes, unable to afford rent. These realities exist right beside one another. The world can be both stingy and enormous, generous and narrow-minded. Extinction is a heartbreaking literalization of this tension. When a species dies, the world gets a little bit smaller, right? But there are people who would argue that the world gets bigger because there’s suddenly more room for everyone else.
Rumpus: Yes, I know what you mean when you say “too-much-not-enough.” At least once a week, I think about how half of all the plastic ever created was created in the last twenty years, which is the kind of thought that really makes you want to stay in bed forever. Sort of on the same note, in the novel you say there is no addition without subtraction. Without getting into the law of conservation of mass, do you think this is true?
Leichter: The characters who dwell on this idea—no addition without subtraction—are college students, and they’re showing off for each other. They’re trying to figure out how the world works and trying to figure out what type of people they’d like to be in that world. They have a theory for everything. I was probably like this when I was in school, and now I think, what a wonderfully fertile moment for fiction—that moment when you still believe that every year leads you toward a greater certainty of what is true.
Then there’s another character who takes this idea of addition and subtraction and runs with it. It shapes her whole life, the notion that whatever she has found for herself is somehow stolen or bound to be retracted. It’s absolutely true that our daily comfort is often obtained at someone else’s expense. So much of life comes at a terrible cost. But I was also thinking about this particular character’s kind of isolation and a way of putting that sadness on the page. She’s catastrophically alone. Her zero-sum approach to life forecloses on her ability to find intimacy in the world, because intimacy is messy; it is an equation that does not add up. That’s what makes it so scary and so special—it’s more than the sum of its parts.
Rumpus: You have two lines in the novel that I highlighted because they were so stunning to me: “There was more of her in the world, for maybe being thought of by him.” And, “It was love, to recognize the inventions and inconsistencies that make a person whole.” I’m not sure I have a question here, I just think there are entire worlds contained in these two sentences.
Leichter: That’s so kind, Elizabeth. Thank you for finding those sentences. They are absolutely about love, but I was also thinking about death and grief—the idea that we continue to exist in the minds of the people who knew us, that to be known by someone is a way to live past the end of your life.
I also like the idea that the thoughts we think and the dreams we dream are a part of reality. That reality is larger than what is real. The little white lies we tell about ourselves, the moments when we fantasize and hope for unlikely outcomes—these are maybe fictional moments, but they’re no less true. As fiction writers, we’re always saying that what we write is not “real,” but as soon as we write it, it becomes a part of the world.
Rumpus: Is there a certain emotion that motivates you to write?
Leichter: There are so many! Grief, desire, loneliness, joy. Confusion too. But now that I think about it, I’m not motivated so much by individual feelings. Being a human haver of emotions is the thing that makes me want to write.
Rumpus: And I ordinarily don’t like this question but because I know the answer is going to be genuinely fascinating, I’m going to ask anyway: What are you working on next?
Leichter: I’m working on a new novel. It’s about New York City, vanishing landscapes, and a restaurant that’s only open for dinner once every quarter century.
Author photograph by Sylvia Rosokoff