Author Hilary Leichter on her book 'Terrace Story'
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Annie, Edward and their infant daughter Rosie invite a friend, Stephanie, to dinner in their new city apartment and are about to apologize for its modest size when Stephanie suggests, should we eat outside? Let's ask Hilary Leichter to bring us into her novel.
HILARY LEICHTER: (Reading) She opened the door that normally led to their closet and revealed a terrace decorated with strings of twinkling lights, knotted vines gathered around the edges, forking and blooming and racing up the sides of the apartment. The terrace was news to Annie and also news to Edward. Had they simply overlooked it this whole time? No. It wasn't possible. What? Annie said under her breath. She settled Rose against her hip and peered out onto this terrace - her terrace? - which was equipped with a table and four chairs, a grill, and the kind of sturdy umbrella one could shove open on a sunny afternoon. Everything looked glossy and expensive, as if just purchased or just invented. She felt like she had found a missing pair of glasses sitting on top of her head.
SIMON: "Terrace Story" takes us through a series of ideas that bend the world into new shapes. And Hilary Leichter, who also teaches at Columbia University, joins us now from Brooklyn. Thank you so much for being with us.
LEICHTER: Thank you for having me, Scott. It's a pleasure.
SIMON: What is this place? Is it a shared dream? Is it a door?
LEICHTER: It's a little bit of both. I'm really interested in the places that exist between other places. And having lived in small New York apartments for most of my adult life, it is a dream to open your closet one day and find a magical outdoor space located within. I was thinking a lot about that when I wrote this book.
SIMON: Yeah, of course. Well, let me ask you about Stephanie, because she seems to have a gift. She can change the shape of things. She can think new spaces into existence, add rings to a tree stump, make a cup of coffee bigger. Does she change things or change the way we see them?
LEICHTER: I think that Stephanie is secretly a writer. That's not her profession in the book, but I think of her as someone who can make the world bigger, who can make the way we see the world change overnight. And I like to think that books do the same thing. So while the spatial considerations of Stephanie's world are very relevant to the characters around her - she makes their apartment more spacious - it's also about tilting your view and seeing the world a little bit differently than you did before, which is, I think, something special that a novel can do.
SIMON: I think I discerned a theme in the stories interwoven or passed from one to another in your book - tell me if I'm onto something. And that theme is extinction - it's not just for dodo birds.
LEICHTER: (Laughter) Yeah. In a book about the space that we make for each other and the space that we make for ourselves and how we find the places where we feel at home, I had to think about a world that's becoming less habitable for everyone. It led there naturally. The world is shrinking because it's becoming inhospitable to us. And the question remains if there will be a place for us tomorrow and the day after that. And even more than that, if we deserve a place in the world anymore, or if we've lost the right to have one.
SIMON: Like, talking about the climate crisis but not just the climate crisis?
LEICHTER: Not just that. I think that there's - I thought a lot about the way that the world is getting bigger and smaller at the same time when I wrote the book, the way that we're sort of exposed every day to incredible generosity, but also a stinginess in the way that we treat each other and the way that we perceive the things around us. I was curious about the space between what we expect of the world and what the world has to show us.
SIMON: Well, that makes me think of the section called "Cantilever" and Rose, the infant - is it the same infant we glimpse on Annie's hip?
LEICHTER: It is. That's their daughter, all grown up.
SIMON: Yeah. And she's on a space station, without giving too much away, because of what's happened here on Earth. How do we understand what your story calls - what you call alightment?
LEICHTER: Alightment is something that is not given a name until the end of the book. And so without giving too much away, it refers to an ability to move between different kinds of time. I was writing so much about space and how we experience space both metaphorically and physically in the world that it became obvious I couldn't do that without writing about time. So in an apartment where a terrace magically appears and disappears, time around that space has to be a little bit wobbly. And alightment is how some of the characters in the book move through time in ways that might be unfamiliar to us in our world.
SIMON: I've got to tell you, your novel also made me ask, is there an eternity? And by the way, I got to tell you, I can't go on unless I tell myself there is. I don't care if it's true or not (laughter).
SIMON: That's just what I'm going to tell myself.
LEICHTER: Yeah. Personally, I don't know.
SIMON: Well, your novel made me ruminate about that.
LEICHTER: Thank you, I think (laughter). I think that's a good thing to ruminate on. I keep coming back to narrative concerns and thinking about how it's hard to read a story if you know there's not going to be an ending or if you know it's going to end on a cliffhanger, right? But that is kind of our experience of life. You don't really know what the end will be or if there even is an end. So I wanted to capture a little bit of that problem of duration that we all experience going through the motions of day-to-day life - not really seeing the narrative threads, not really knowing where we're heading or if there is something beyond that.
SIMON: Is there an end, or just you turn the page or the curtain comes down and you go on to something else?
SIMON: Totally personal question.
SIMON: Do you have a terrace there in Brooklyn?
LEICHTER: Alas, Scott, I do not have a terrace in Brooklyn. I do have a very strange large closet...
LEICHTER: ...That my husband and I have nicknamed Narnia because it's huge. It's enormous. But there's no way to use it. It's not functional. It seems like it goes up into the the heavens. You can't see the top of the closet, but there's no way to put a shelf up there. So we have this non-functional, oversized closet. But no, no outdoor space - not yet.
SIMON: Well, I look forward to seeing that in House Beautiful.
SIMON: Hilary Leichter - her novel, "Terrace Story." Thanks so much for being with us.
LEICHTER: Thank you for having me. What an honor. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
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