After the success of his debut novel, The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards, Kristopher Jansma tells me he has met a number of readers who tell him: “You’re really very nice. You seemed so mean in the book.”
“I guess the narrator is like me if I was really mean all the time, or if I had no conscience,” Kristopher laughs and admits “which is what made him so much fun to write.”
The unnamed, unreliable narrator of Leopards is a pathological liar who goes through the trials and tribulations of becoming a writer. He attends lavish jazz brunches and travels the world donning multiple personas, eventually losing himself and his closest friends from college when he characterizes them in his writing.
Kris is nothing like this. I met him two years ago while I was a student at SUNY Purchase. He was my senior project advisor, and for a year, we worked one-on-one on my 100-page senior project. Even though Kris was teaching five or six course loads between Purchase and Manhattanville, writing and commuting from the city, he was patient, sympathetic and helpful.
I meet with Kris by Prospect Park for the first time since his book launch in March at the Center for Fiction. We sit in the swamp-like heat of a New
York City summer, sipping iced tea and lemon San Peligrino, catching up.
After reading Leopards, I loved that the narrator met his closest
friends in college — the two who fuel his writing, who help influence,
define and ground him. I tell Kris: Let’s talk about college.
Freddie Moore: The second chapter of The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards is set when the main character and his friend Julian are still in college. What was it like to write from the perspective of a character who is still in school now that you teach as a writing professor? Did you take any inspiration from your own experience as a student?
Kristopher Jansma: That guest lecturer story is actually based on something that really happened when I was a senior in one of the final workshops that I was in during college. The professor had a guest come in who was a real working writer, who was living in San Francisco. I was really excited to find out from someone who was really living that life what it was really about. He started by telling us about the reading circuit in San Francisco and that the best way to get your name out there is to do a lot of readings and to go out to bars and clubs and coffee shops and anywhere that they’re looking for people to do readings and read, read, read, read, read.
He was trying to be very honest about how hard it was by describing how much rejection he had faced, and he got all worked up in front of the whole class and just started weeping. Nobody knew what to do. He kind of calmed himself down and then he went on. But I’ll never forget it because it was what I wanted: I wanted to see what real life as a writer was like and that was probably the hard honest truth of it. I could see it right then and there. And I still left that class thinking: Okay, I still want to do this. I don’t care if it’s exactly what this guy is describing; it’s still going to be worth it.
FM: I thought of the dynamic between the main character and his writer friend, Julian, as sort of a Hemingway-Fitzgerald duo. Their professor in Leopards even calls them “Fitz & Hem” at one point.
KJ: I took a class, probably one of the best classes I ever took in college, called “Faulkner, Fitzgerald and Hemingway.” It was actually a graduate-level class that I snuck into because I had heard so many amazing things about the class. I had to go and convince the professor to let me in and convince him that I could handle the workload — and it was a lot. But it was one of the best classes I ever took. And the professor, John Irwin at Hopkins, really just talked a lot about Hemingway and Fitzgerald in particular.
Out of that class, I started to think about that time in the ‘20s when these guys were writing and their two voices were the biggest voices in American literature. It was an interesting turning point for me because I had read a lot of Hemingway before and hadn’t read Fitzgerald since reading Gatsby in high school. Then, after reading Tender is the Night and some of his other stuff, I started realizing that I wanted to be a Fitzgerald writer. I wanted to be able to write really beautiful sentences, and I didn’t want to be afraid of adjectives and have all these stoic masculine characters standing around drinking and not talking about their feelings. I had been writing a lot of that because that was mostly what my classmates were writing and that was mostly the mode that was taught in our workshops — you know, how to imply things subtly in a description. It was a lot about how to write around what you were really trying to say in all sorts of artistic ways. I still really feel like there’s still a split in American Literature now: There are writers who follow in one vein or the other, and in a way, with Leopards, I wanted to bring those things back together again.
FM: You went to college to study creative writing at John Hopkins. What was that experience like?
KJ: It was a weird experience. I really loved it there. I was not the greatest high school student at all, I was a little stunned when I got into Hopkins. I had applied there because they had a major in creative writing and I was so sure that was what I wanted to do that I only applied to schools that had creative writing majors. I had never been in a place where there were other people around who were interested in writing, who liked books and liked talking about books. That didn’t exist in my high school, really. But I got so side-tracked by the interesting characters that I got to know there that I nearly failed out after the first year. I had a horrible G.P.A. It was something like 1.99 at the end of my freshman year. And then I just kind of pulled it together.
And I would say at Hopkins, it’s a very sink or swim. They’re very competitive. And it really — in a way I never felt before — fostered that kind of competitiveness, and it made me really want to not just be a good writer, but to be a better writer than the other kids in the class. So workshop was always a little warzone. You were always pushing yourself to show up the other guy or wanted to get more attention from the teacher than the other person, which was good for me because that really caused me to push myself.
FM: Yeah, I felt that way going into Purchase. You’re sort of going from being the only kid at your high school who really loves this and is good at it, and then you’re in a setting where you’re with a bunch of other people who are just as good if not better, and it does stir up that competition.
KJ: And it’s wonderful at first because you’re not alone, but then you realize that only so many of us are going to make it. But like I said, the class I just finished teaching at Purchase — there were 14 people in the room, and everyone’s really working on such different projects, there’s no reason to be better or “the best,” and I don’t think there was anybody in the class who was clear and by far the best. You know, there were a bunch of really great ones, and then there were some other ones who had different strengths and different weakness. I think that’s what a good college education about writing can give you is to learn how to have relationships with other writers.
When I got to Columbia, it was really in a weird way the antidote to my undergrad program. One of the first things the director told us at the orientation was, “This is not an episode of Survivor. You do not become a good writer by making everyone else quit.” And he said, “The best thing you can hope to get out of here after two or three years is a group of other writers whose work you trust and respect, and who you know will read your work well.” Because then you actually have to go and write in the real world, and the hardest thing to find is an audience. The hardest thing to find is someone else who will look at your work and give you honest feedback about it. Even if you work at a magazine or a publishing house where other people love books, they’re reading for work or they have their own stuff to read, so it’s hard to find other people who would be willing to read your work. Even if you only have two or three people to read your work, that could be all you need.
FM: I had seen this in an interview: You started at Columbia straight out of John Hopkins, and you mentioned that going into that, you were working with people who had these crazy life experiences that they were writing about, and you felt like, “I can’t compete with that!”
KJ: Yeah, and even in undergrad that was the case, but especially when you get to grad school. Then you’ve got people who are all different ages, so I had classmates who were in their mid to late 30s, and people who were coming in as retirees even, in their 50s and 60s, who, after having a full life and a family and a career and everything and traveling the world, were now coming in to try to learn how to write now that they had some time. So yeah, you just get such a mix! I would be in one class, for instance, with a woman who is now a great writer, Zoe Ferraris, and she was a grown woman who had a child who was about four or five years old and had lived this incredible story where she married a guy from Saudi Arabia and couldn’t leave the country because they were married, and now her daughter was considered the property of her husband. It was just this crazy story, and I was like, I can’t top that. I’m a 23-year-old guy from suburban New Jersey. The hardest thing that has ever happened to me is...I don’t even know...I got dumped by a girlfriend once or something like that.
And I think that pushes writers in two different ways. There are writers who then decide, “Well, I need to go get some life experience so that I have something to write about,” and then you get all sorts of interesting stuff that comes out of that. You get people who go on all sorts of crazy world tours or do all sorts of bad drugs or make all sorts of crazy life choices just to figure out how to write a really fucked-up story. Plenty of people in that camp.
I sort of realized, very quickly, maybe I wasn’t brave enough to go down that route, maybe I’d been raised too well to make bad decisions — that bad — so for me the only other option was, well then, you have to learn to write real fiction. You have to learn how to write about things that are happening in the world that you haven’t personally been through or experienced.
I had to write about going to Luxembourg before I had even gone to Luxembourg, and I had to make it believable to someone who had really been there. I think that’s the real trick of fiction, and I think that’s why, so many times you get to the end of a book and you wonder how much of that book was real, how much of it was based on real life. For me, I’m always more impressed when I realize that it was written by somebody who was not of that background at all or who had never been to these places because to me that’s so much more impressive if they’re able to make it feel real even though it was based on research.
For me that’s kind of what’s fun about being a fiction writer too: You get to sort of live vicariously through your characters and through the adventures that they’re having if you’re not brave enough to go out and have all those adventures yourself.
I think that’s what draws readers to fiction too. That’s certainly how I started reading. Reading was an escape from the boring reality of growing up in suburban New Jersey, and when I was in seventh grade, that meant reading about dragons and wizards and stuff like that, and as I got older, it meant books about distant times or far off places.