No One Expected Anything To Be True: An Interview With Kristopher Jansma

Kristopher Jansma’s debut novel, The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards, is an enchanting, transfixing, and intricate codex of mirrors—an unabashedly pure, witty case study of literary fiction.  We believe both everything and nothing simultaneously, snaking through Sri Lanka, up the Mid-Atlantic Coast of the United States to Manhattan, over to the United Arab Emirates, and all anecdotes in between.  Leopards reminds us to live, and every once in a while tell our own twisted version of whatever it is we believe to be true.  Over the winter, I was afforded the opportunity to chat with Jansma about his writing history, his influences, Samuel Beckett, and a little (read: a brief mention of) Barthes.

Kristopher Jansma is a New Jersey native who received his B.A. from The Writing Seminars (Johns Hopkins University) and his M.F.A. from Columbia University.  He writes monthly for Electric Literature.  At present, he works as an adjunct professor of Creative Writing at Manhattanville College and SUNY Purchase.

INTERVIEWER

How’d you begin to write?

KRISTOPHER JANSMA

I wrote all the time as a kid – during recess my friends and I would have very intense imaginary battles and adventures. Afterwards we always had journal time inside, and I would write all about everything that had happened in our make-believe that day. But I didn’t think of it as anything more than that until the seventh grade. My English teacher Mrs. Inglis was really hard on me at first. I kept getting bad grades even though my work was no wiser than anyone else’s. Finally I complained and she told me that she thought I was capable of a lot more, so she graded me more harshly. She was the first person who ever pointed out to me that “writer” was a job you could have. I had never really thought about where all the books I read came from before Mrs. Inglis pointed it out.

INTERVIEWER

Who are your personal influences in literature, music, or visual art?

KRISTOPHER JANSMA

With literature, I’m always looking for new sources of inspiration.  That’s one reason there wound up being so many different references throughout Leopards. Each chapter was formed partly because of what I was reading, or teaching to my students at the time I was working on it. Hunter S. Thompson one day and Beckett the next. But F. Scott Fitzgerald, J.D. Salinger, and David Mitchell are the ones I can turn to at any day or any hour and stumble across something near holy in their inspiration.

INTERVIEWER

How exactly do you write? Meticulously and calculated, or word/idea-vomit? In silence, or blasting Slowdive?

KRISTOPHER JANSMA

I usually need a good title and an opening line to start.  Sometimes that part can take days or weeks, even if I have other elements of the story floating around in my head already. But once I have the beginning, my favorite thing to do is just sit at the keyboard for six or eight hours, uninterrupted, just rolling along.  Of course, that’s not always possible. Hardly ever, really!  So most times it’s a matter of squeezing in an hour, or a half hour, between work and commuting and dinner and friends…but those minutes and hours add up at the end of the week.  Without them, I’d barely ever get anything written.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have any favorite contemporaries, or any sort of friendly competition?

KRISTOPHER JANSMA

I wouldn’t say I’m competitive with anyone but myself, but I’ve been very lucky to get to know some extremely talented writers, and to get their feedback both inside and outside class. One of my oldest writer friends, Ariel S. Winter, who I met in college, published a great novel last year called The Twenty-Year Death. I met Karen Russell at the M.F.A program at Columbia University, and from the minute I read her first story I was a fan. She was somehow twice as serious about her work as anyone else in the room, but also having twice as much fun with it. Reading her work has always been a reminder to me that one of the most valuable ingredients in any story is the writer’s own joy to be writing it.

INTERVIEWER

What was the major inspiration for The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards?

KRISTOPHER JANSMA

In 2009 a friend invited me to go see a Broadway revival of Waiting for Godot with her. I’d never seen it or read it before—someone had long ago told me that Godot never shows up, so I kind of felt like I got the joke. Well, when I finally saw it, I realized what an idiot I’d been. It was more moving than any other play I could remember seeing, even knowing, especially knowing the end. What struck me the most was how Vladimir and Estragon each seem, in moments, to be able to make a change and leave, yet the other one always holds them back. Somehow that got me thinking about three friends at a jazz brunch who are sort of stuck on one another and their routines and how they just can’t seem to change anything.

INTERVIEWER

A large part of Leopards deals with aspects of “writing education,” or, at the very least, aspects of a liberal arts education. Was this a conscious effort on your part? Is there something you wanted to illuminate in the context of Leopards, or in the context of your personal M.F.A experience?

KRISTOPHER JANSMA

Since before I began working on the book, I’d been teaching anywhere between four and seven sections of different writing courses each semester, and at two different colleges.  It can be exhausting, but I really love the job. For one thing, it really forces me to figure out how to get people interested in fiction—there’s a real audience sitting there each week, hoping to be inspired and entertained, or at least not bored to death. So when I sat down to actually write, I was always very aware of what is needed to make these lofty “writerly” ideas accessible to curious people who don’t think about writing constantly the way I might. Over and over I was told by agents, professors, and other writers,”Oh, you can’t write a book about wanting to be a writer. Nobody cares about that stuff except people who want to be writers.” But if I can walk into a room of students who want to be police officers and hockey players and public relations managers, and I can get them to care about some Cheever story written 40 years before they were born, then I figure I can get people to care about these characters too.

INTERVIEWER

Early in the novel, the narrator is forced to “lay waste” at a writing contest’s conclusive reading, shocking and hurting a select few characters.  Have you ever had to do something like that? Are you familiar with that feeling?

KRISTOPHER JANSMA

It’s one of the reasons I’ve never written a lot of personal nonfiction! The narrator has rushed the job on that story, and hasn’t had time to fictionalize things before he is thrust up on the stage.  However, in real life, I always know what kernels of truth are hiding in the stories I write, and it can be very nerve-wracking to put things out there and know that friends or family members might recognize a detail here or there, or see themselves in a character.  But they rarely do. Or, if they do, sometimes they’re even flattered to see something familiar come back on a page.

INTERVIEWER

Of all the writing adages a student hears over their academic career, why use the Dickinson quote throughout Leopards? Were you always committed to that one in particular?

KRISTOPHER JANSMA

At Johns Hopkins when I was an undergraduate, Introduction to Fiction & Poetry was split in two. The fall semester was “Telling it Straight” and the spring was “Telling it Slant.” It was never totally clear to me, back then, what the difference was. But like the narrator [in Leopards], I felt like it had to be very important. Years later, I finally dug up the Dickinson poem and thought I knew what she was getting at. If fiction is a way of saying something true, then do you want to drive right at that truth directly? Or do you want to circumnavigate it a little, approach it on the sly? Dickinson advises, “Success in circuit lies… the truth must dazzle gradually, or every man be blind.” It comes back to the idea of a liberal education…do you just write things up on the board and have students memorize them? Or do you engage them in Socratic dialogue, and lead them to mull these questions over? At the end of the day, I think the second way is more likely to stick with them.

INTERVIEWER

Roland Barthes comments in “The Death of the Author” that “writing is that neutral, composite, oblique space where our subject slips away, the negative where all identity is lost…it is the language that speaks, not the author.” Do you write mostly from personal experience? How did the narrator of Leopards come to be?

KRISTOPHER JANSMA

I’ll have to check my pulse, but I’m pretty sure that despite Barthes, my heart’s still beating. I have to admit: I’ve never been a fan of that approach to reading literature. I took plenty of classes where we were drilled about responding only to the text itself, and please render the author irrelevant. Of course, as someone who wanted to be an author, I was constantly interested in finding any and all evidence of the author, alive and well in the language. Readers are curious—at least I was—about where stories come from and how writers do their work. Leopards is very much a book about where stories come from, and why authors matter. There’s personal experience at the heart of every chapter, even though none of these things have actually happened to me in real life.  I don’t know anyone just like Julian or Evelyn and I’ve never been to Sri Lanka or Iceland.  I did go to Ghana and Luxembourg, but both times only after I’d already written about those places.  The narrator is a lot like me, except of course that he’s a much better liar and has far fewer scruples than I do. So really, then, he’s nothing like me at all. That’s what made him so much fun to write.  He’s true and not true at the same time.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have any peculiar writing habits? Do you sit or stand? Drink anything special?

KRISTOPHER JANSMA

Nothing too special is needed besides some coffee in the mornings! With my busy teaching schedule, I had to get comfortable writing pretty much anywhere, anytime: on trains, in the subway, in the library, out on a bench somewhere.  I’ve written sections of things out on my cell phone when I didn’t have a laptop or a pen handy. My ideal place to write is a little cafe called B Cup in the Lower East Side, close to where I lived when I first started writing Leopards. Everything about it is comfortable and familiar, and I’d go there every day if I could!

 

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