Interview with KRISTOPHER JANSMA
Kristopher grew up in Lincroft, New Jersey. He received his B.A. in The Writing Seminars from Johns Hopkins University and an M.F.A. in Fiction from Columbia University. Kristopher Jansma's debut novel, THE UNCHANGEABLE SPOTS OF LEOPARDS, was published by Viking/Penguin in March of 2013.
What are you reading right now?
At the moment I'm reading a science book called HIDDEN REALITIES by Brian Greene, a physicist who teaches at Columbia and who is a guest I like on WNYC's Radiolab podcast. The book is all about string theory and multiple universes and hidden dimensions that scientists believe exist far beyond our ability to ever detect them. It's partly research for a new project I'm working on, but also just something I love to think about. There's a weird overlap, I've noticed, between physicists and writers...I know several writers who once thought they'd go into physics. Both fields involve asking a lot of big questions about the nature of the universe. Fortunately only one requires a working knowledge of Calculus.
What first sparked your interest in writing?
Well, like the little boy in the Author's Note of my book, I wanted to be a writer since I was very young. Like him, I wanted to be a writer even before I knew that was a thing you could do. When I was in 3rd or 4th grade I would write down all the imaginary adventures I'd had with my friends during recess each day, mostly just so we'd be able to remember them. Then in 7th grade I had an English teacher, Mrs. Inglis, who saw how much I liked to read and how much I liked to write our little vocabulary essays, and she was the first person to point out to me that there were real people whose job it was to write books. I had always thought that books just existed, or that they'd been written long before I'd been born. I didn't really put it together that you could still write new ones.
What do you love the most about writing? The least?
The best thing about writing is when you look back at a full page and remember when it was blank only an hour ago. The worst thing about writing is when someone comes along and tells you to cut half of this genius stuff you think you wrote, even though they're usually right.
Tell us a little about your writing process.
It changes all the time, depending on what else is going on in my life. When I was writing LEOPARDS I was teaching six or seven classes a semester and working at night at a tutoring desk. I had to get my writing time in there any free second that I had. But that was exhilarating. I thought about my book all the time, even when I wasn't working. Now my teaching schedule is a bit more manageable, thankfully, but I'm taking care of my newborn son several days a week, so that presents a whole new set of scheduling challenges.
What are your passions?
Outside of writing? I love cooking...I love good theater - I used to be the President of my college theater group, The Barnstormers. I get pretty passionate about certain television shows. I think novelists are supposed to be kind of anti-TV. When I was coming up in the MFA world it was pretty common that my friends would not even own TVs, sort of as a stance against a supposedly lazier form of entertainment I guess? Meanwhile I think I learned more from binge watching The Sopranos and The Wire than I did from half the books I read during those same years.
What inspires you?
What inspires you?
It's hard to predict! I've gotten flashes sometimes from paintings, songs, news headlines, even words in the dictionary. Most often I'm inspired by people. Some little behavioral tic or expression. Even just the way someone says something, sometimes, can launch my mind off into storytelling mode.
How was THE UNCHANGEABLE SPOTS OF LEOPARDS born?
In 2009 I started an online writing project called 40 Stories. I was fed up with trying to write a novel and failing over and over, so I thought I would clear the cobwebs by writing a series of stories...a new one almost every week, and posting them online. It was a lot of fun and it did indeed get me into a whole new groove. Then suddenly I wrote the 13th story, which I called "The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards" and it was so exciting that I knew I'd accidentally struck on something with a lot of potential. So then over the course of that year I wrote 7 or 8 more stories that used similar characters and themes, and as time went on, I realized I had a novel on my hands.
Was it fun and/or challenging writing about writing?
It was a big challenge, but one I'd always been curious to try. The problem is that most readers aren't as interested in how the book gets made as a writer is. You don't go to a bakery to hear all about how cake gets made; you just want to eat some cake. So what I realized is that you have to let them eat cake (if I can get away with that!) and the cake needs to be so good that they just have to ask the chef how it's made. I love postmodern books that are full of metafictional stuff, but lots of readers are turned off by it. Too self-involved and too often the story and characters are lost to the ideas. I wanted to write a book that would bring the joys of postmodernism to readers who still enjoy the satisfactions of modernism. On that note, I'd love to just add that post-this and pre-that are just awful and misleading terms when it comes to literature. The two most postmodern books I ever read were DON QUIXOTE and TRISTAM SHANDY and they were written hundreds of years before there was a modernism for them to be post- of.
Did you enjoy writing such an unreliable narrator?
Absolutely! Unreliable narrators are the wickedest kind of fun you can have in writing. You're constantly walking this very fine tightrope with the reader: the trick is that they can lie as much as you want, so long as they're absolutely earnest about it. To me, that's the very heart of great fiction.
Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?
The two most powerful words for anyone aspiring to do anything are "we'll see.” It takes a long, long time to get good enough. So all along the way you're going to face disappointment and rejection. People are going to tell you that what you're trying to do cannot be done - by you for sure, and sometimes by anyone. People told me I couldn't write a book about writers. "We'll see," I said. Quietly, to myself, a lot.
Is there anything else you would like to tell us about yourself?
Just that even though my narrator is a terrific liar, you should know that I'm a terrible one in real life. That's what made him so much fun to write...and it's also why you can trust everything I'm saying to you here.