Hilary Leichter’s “The Statue of Limitations ” plays by its own delightful set of rules. It’s at once the story of a couple imprisoned in their own home (a statue marking the furthest that they can roam into their yard without the “risk of pursuit”) and a parable for how intimacy ebbs and flows in a relationship. We recently emailed Leichter to ask how the story came about and to pick her brain about the odd eggcorn that inspired its creation.
Nate Brown: This story does something that you don’t see too often: it takes a common phrase, makes a pun of it (and uses the pun as its title), and then actualizes that pun as something real in the narrative. Truly, this “statue of limitations” is an imprisoning force for this couple. Did you start with the phrase? The pun? The idea of a couple being trapped in such close quarters?
Hilary Leichter: I definitely started out with the pun. A “statue of limitations” is something called an eggcorn, which is a word I had never heard until just a few months ago. It’s a little snip of language born of a misunderstanding, and often used in the place of another, “correct” phrase. But it very much has its own intelligence and logic. For example: play it by year instead of play it by ear. Or, a mute point instead of a moot point. They make a certain amount of sense! I started messing around with a whole stack of eggcorns just for fun, and my strange, tiny writing exercises eventually turned into a collection of short-shorts. I find these phrases to be so naturally evocative and mysterious, imbued with their own magic grammar and backwards wisdom. They are irresistible to me. I like to picture a rickety bridge between the actual phrase and the misheard phrase, and I’m hoping that my stories live somewhere on that bridge. “The Statue of Limitations” was maybe the most delicious eggcorn to write into, because of the tangible statue that immediately asserted itself on the page.
NB: There’s something almost masochistic about how this couple replicates the statue in miniature. They give these miniatures to one another, and they also leave them around the house for each other to come upon—and even to hurt themselves on. It struck me that this could very well be a broader metaphor for how intimacy ebbs and flows in a relationship. Sometimes, you feel like giving the gift of a carved soap miniature. Other times, you feel setting booby traps for one another. Is that a fair reading of the piece?
HL: That’s totally fair, and such a smart reading. I think you’re absolutely right. Though when I was writing the story, I was probably just responding to my perpetual apartment clutter, imagining all of my various forms of junk as having little statue faces and dark powers. I would say that it’s also an example of this couple rebuilding the outside world in miniature, not just the statue, but the whole world. Which seems like a very human-being-type-of-thing to do. Replicating large, world-sized loves and fears and politics and injustices and disasters and battles on a smaller, home-sized scale.
NB: We see the husband plan an escape, but we know it’s futile. And the protagonist’s gift of these little totems seems less like a going away present than it does a purging. Did you imagine your way past this moment in the story? Did you know that it had to stop here? I ask because I’m having that terrible urge to ask you what happens to the husband when he leaves? which is utterly out of bounds given that you end the story where you do.
HL: I would love for the husband to actually succeed in his escape, because for me, that’s an even more terrifying prospect. It’s terrifying for me to wonder what the rest of his universe is like. What if everyone is either a statue, or a prisoner trapped by a statue? Or what if there’s a strange and unexpected third option? I love endings that feel like they reach the limits of their stories’ particular lines of sight, but suggest lines of sight unknowable. It feels to me like a piece of music that ends on a major chord, when the entire piece has been minor, or vice versa. It is simultaneously worrisome and calming, to know that a universe set before me, however small, cannot be contained.
NB: That’s one heck of a good answer, though I do find it somewhat panic-inducing to imagine a world in which we’re all either statues or prisoners! And that analogy to a piece of music ending on a seemingly out-of-place chord is a good one. Would you say, then, that you’re interested in unexpected resolutions in fiction? Or maybe that you aim to unsettle a reader at the end of a story?
HL: Yeah, sure, unsettling is good! Unexpected is good! I don’t want to write comfy endings. Although now that I’ve said that, I suddenly really want to write a comfy ending. I wonder what that would look like. If a comfy ending does something to upset the temperament of the story, then that could be exciting. I remember writing really silly and nutty stories when I was a kid, all in an attempt to write a twist ending. The twist ending was sort of the holy grail of my creative childhood. I would contort my sentences into pretzels, hunting for an “a-ha!” moment. I found twists bewildering and wonderful and knee-slappingly cool. I still do. As a result, a wrote a lot of last lines that were basically, “It was all a dream!” Now I’m less interested in the twist, and more interested in something slightly askew. Barely askew. Just some mild scoliosis. Which, incidentally, brings me right back to middle school.
NB: Are you generally invested in the symbolic or figurative in your work? This piece really works because it takes its own otherworldliness for granted and, as a result, the reader just sort of runs with it. That’s hard to pull off, and I’m wondering if it’s something you do in your other work.
HL: That’s something I’m always invested in, but maybe not by choice. Maybe just by nature. It’s one of the only ways I know how to get at the thing I’m really trying to say, whatever the thing may be. I just hop on a conceit train and pray that it takes me somewhere honest or brutal or kind. It doesn’t always. I’m constantly trying to crack open language in the hopes of revealing something else, something emotionally true. I’m invested in the figurative to the extent that it pays off in emotion.
NB: I love that! Are there authors whose symbols typically pay off emotionally for you?
HL: Aimee Bender and Judy Budnitz, always. Donald Barthelme especially. Ray Bradbury, too.
NB: So good. I loved that Budnitz collection, too. What else are you reading right now—who have you generally enjoyed lately?
HL: Right now I’m reading a lot of poetry. I just finished Matthea Harvey’s If the Tabloids Are True What Are You? which was so wonderful. I loved Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up not only as an apartment remedy, but because I found the language in the book to be so particular and strange and smart and crisp. I have the entirety of Elena Ferrante’s series on my nightstand, which I will devour any moment now.
NB: I’m reading a lot of poetry, too. Do you think that’s something more prose writers ought to do? I sometimes hear that—and I agree—but I’m curious to know what you think.
HL: I think so. For me, poetry is essential; it’s how I navigate my way through even beginning to write a sentence. There is nothing that helps me more to break away from my composition habits and patterns than reading poetry. It’s the place I go to invent and build the language for the story I’m about to write. But I think that reading anything with an unfamiliar cadence or terminology can have the same power. I’m obsessed with old manuals and really specialized books. I have a book of wedding etiquette from the early 1970s that’s hilarious and great. And another book about writing in shorthand. Sometimes I visit these kinds of books and it’s like walking out my door and realizing I’m not where I expected to be. I need to shock my language in ice water or bring it to a boil or spin it around on its head ten times before I can sit down to write with the appropriate amount of wonder.
Hilary Leichter ‘s writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Southern Review, n+1, Tin House, Electric Literature, The Atlas Review, VICE, Kenyon Review, Indiana Review, and elsewhere. She is a contributing editor at NOON, and a recipient of fellowships from The Edward F. Albee Foundation, the Table 4 Writers Foundation, and Columbia University. She is currently working on a novel about an auction house.