Writing Through Grief, Unreliable Narrators, and Unlikely Structures: An Interview With Kristopher Jansma

Kristopher Jansma credit Michael Levy

Kristopher Jansma’s debut novel The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards was called a mix between F. Scott Fitzgerald and Wed Anderson. The writer continues his literary prowess with his follow up, the deeply poignant and personal Why We Came to the City. Based in part on his experience with his younger sister passing from cancer in the prime of her life, the novel explores the reality of the disease as well as what friendship means and how it changes over time. Jansma’s abilities as a writer are evident, but he is also a a skilled creative writing instructor. He currently teaches at SUNY New Paltz and has also served as a graduate lecturer at Sarah Lawrence College.

I know this was a really personal story for you, with your sister passing away from cancer in 2008, how much of this writing process served as therapy for you?

That’s one way of putting it. I think in addition to writing being therapeutic, actual therapy is good for dealing with something like that. My sister passed away in 2008. She was 22. She had oral cancer. She had a small tumor that just sort of appeared one day on the back of her tongue and nobody knew what it was. She went to go see a dentist because she thought something was going on with her teeth. People looked at it and thought she was biting her tongue or grinding her teeth at night. Of course by the time anybody taught to do a biopsy of it to see if it was cancer, it was kind of too late. Oral cancer is just not something that healthy 22-year-olds get. It’s most commonly seen in old men who have been chewing tobacco or smoking their entire lives. It was sort of a strange thing. Things were hard to process about if afterwards, and writing the book helped a lot with it.

I think working through any kind of grief is a tricky thing. Getting through any loss is hard. But losing someone to something so quickly, there was never really any explanation to what actually went wrong. There’s no direct reason for [cancer] to happen. It’s a really hard thing to comprehend. I think writing a story about a character going through something really similar really helped me explore a lot of the different ways to respond and react to it.

How long after her passing did you start this project?

She passed in early 2008. At the time I was writing a novel that never made it. It was something I was working on for a year; she had come to live with me and my fiancé, now wife, in a very small bedroom apartment in Manhattan because she was doing treatments here and she needed to be close by. I was trying to help my sister and write a book, and the results were not good. So, when it was finally all over I tucked [the book] into a drawer. I had a really difficult time writing for the rest of the year. I was so discouraged and of course grieving my sister. I couldn’t even really begin to think about how to start writing about what happened. I was still angry about all of it.

What I ended up doing in 2009, when I felt like I was ready to start writing again, was to go back to writing short stories. I hadn’t really done that since I was in graduate school, which at that time was four or five years. I thought maybe I had to get back to basics. I started this writing project that I was calling Forty Stories where every week I would try to write a story. I would do that for three weeks and then take a week off. At the end of the year I would have forty stories. It was great having to write so much every week. It really pushed me to write about a lot of stuff that I didn’t really understand at the time.

Through the process of writing the stories, I ended up writing several stories that became a part of my first novel, The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards. In between I was writing all of these other stories. One of those other stories at the time was called “The Murphys’ Odyssey” about a young couple named George and Sarah who were lost on a boat in the middle of the Greek islands. They are with an urn of the ashes of their friend. Which, if you’ve read Why We Came to the City–something similar takes place. That was the first time that I wrote directly about what happened to my sister. I eventually wrote more pieces about those characters and their friends and how they dealt with a loss. Then I went back and wrote about what happened in their lives before the character died.

One thing I’ve read that you said in a press release was that it was important for you to portray the experience honestly and to get all of the medical facts correct. What was the research side of this project like as opposed to the personal side?

I did a lot for a few reasons. One was as I was going through all of it, I wasn’t really taking notes. Years later looking back on it it was sort of amazing how much I had forgotten about it or how much was pushed out of my head. I had a lot of trouble remembering when things happened, in what order, and how they escalated. Luckily my wife has a much better memory and she helped with that. I looked back a lot of emails and was able to piece it together.

The character Irene has a different type of cancer than my sister had. Irene has a form of bone cancer, which would be very uncommon for someone that age. There were some differences there. You don’t treat bone cancer the same way you would treat oral cancer. I went to Johns Hopkins as an undergraduate, and some of my friends became doctors. I had a lot of people I could go to and ask questions about those types of details. A few of them are thanked in the back of the book. I was able to send them what was going on with the character.

The importance of getting all of the details right was that when I was going through everything it just was so foreign to anything I ever dealt with before. I thought about movies I seen where people had cancer, I thought about books where characters had cancer, and nothing came close to getting into the details of the types of things we had to deal with. Having to feed people for instance. There’s a scene in the book where Sara had to buy nutrient rich milkshakes at a store that they typically sell to senior citizens who have trouble getting nutrition. She had to force-feed them to Irene. That’s one thing that happened in real life. It was important to me to write a book that might have helped me while I was going though all of that.

I actually through my undergraduate worked at a summer camp where we fundraised all year to send kids whose parents had passed from cancer or who were currently battling cancer to camp for free for a week. I personally never dealt with cancer, but have had a lot of friends who have lost parents or siblings, I think a lot of people will appreciate how poignantly you portrayed such a devastating disease.

I hope so. One thing I noticed as I was writing it, the more I found that people have either dealt with cancer or knew someone who did. It’s actually surprising the number of people who have lost a sibling or friend at a young age to cancer. I don’t know the statistics, but it seems like there has been an increase in cancer in younger people. I certainly talked to a lot of people who have seen it happen to a lot of people in the prime of their life. We don’t really have a lot of literature that deals with that, so I wanted to find a way to talk about it.

Obviously the book deals a lot with cancer, but it also deals with the shifting tectonics of friendship through such an influential time in a person’s life. Why is this such an interesting time to explore?

I think one thing that I think is true of a lot of people in their twenties is that you leave home and go to a different city where you start to build a new family for yourself. Especially if you’ve gone a long way [to college or for a job]. You don’t have your mom to knock on her door when something is going wrong. You can call, but your friends are the ones who are right there with you. In college I had a lot of close friends in my undergraduate, but when I moved to New York City for graduate school I only had two friends move to the city at the same time as me. The three of us weren’t even that close in college. We liked each other, but there were always other people around. Suddenly those two people were the only people I knew for two years after moving to the city. We got through it together and I think that bonds you in a way that’s much like a family.

The people that you go through the fire with share a bond that’s magical. That’s what the book’s about. It begins five or six years into their time in New York and they’ve been friends since college. Early on they’re starting to get sick of each other and even the city. That’s what starts to happen. The people you got drinks with every night start to move away or they find a significant other and they’re more central to your friend’s lives. That’s all part of growing up. The nature of the friendship changes. The ones that you see through the whole thing with are still there for you when you need them.

And I want to transition from the book about to your teaching career. Are you still currently teaching college courses?

When I wrote my first book I was an adjunct at a few different schools and had a full time position at one school teaching intro to writing sort of things. I was actually teaching other creative writing courses on the side, which is what I really wanted to do. I wanted the experience of teaching writing. It sort of ultimately paid off. I got to teach creative writing full time briefly. Now I’m teaching at SUNY New Paltz. That’s a full time, tenure track position, so I made it to that. I’m also teaching some graduate courses sometimes. Last year I had the opportunity to teach a graduate course at Sarah Lawrence College. I’ve been doing some work at Columbia University, where I went to grad school, mentoring some of the graduate students there. So yeah, I’m teaching a lot.

So I teach high school, you teach college; what is one skill you wish all incoming freshman had?

That’s a good one. It’s hard to pick one. Back when I was teaching freshman writing, I would have said something like understanding how to organize their thoughts with a thesis statement or something like that. I think probably that is the most important thing for any freshman coming to college is to be able to write clearly and make a persuasive argument. In terms of creative writing where we’re not as focused on that, one thing I hope they’d come in with, I guess would probably be to proofread themselves. More than just hit spellcheck in Microsoft Word. That would be the biggest thing. You become a much better writer the more you do it, but if you never learn to go back and revise your own work, you’ll never get very far.

So what’s your main philosophy on teaching writing? Is it more structured or is it more loose? What’s it like in one of your classes?

It depends on the class. I teach all the way through the program here. I have intro students, advanced students, some seminar students. One of the ideas that I really adhere to relates to a quote at the top of my syllabus for the advance seminar students: the art of writing is mysterious, our opinions of it are femoral. I’m pretty sure that’s it. That captures to me what teaching creative writing so difficult. There’s no one right way to do it. Any time you give students a rule like the story has to have this or that, or a character has to develop, or the plot has to have a certain kind of structure or whatever, there are immediately a bunch of contradictions to the rules that will pop up. That’s sort of the motto that I have in my head at all times. There’s certain fundamental elements we really talk about a lot in our intro course: understanding how to make a complex character, or how to tell a satisfying plot, or how to end a story. Those types of things. As it goes along through the second half of creative writing, into the workshop, and then into the advanced seminar, we really start to look at more and more things that don’t fit into those rules. Things that defy those categories. It could be kind of scary because students sometimes want to be told how to do it. That there’s a formula for writing a best selling novel or something like that. The truth that I try to tell them is that it’s not that easy. If there was one formula that anyone can follow there would be even more people than there are now trying to write novels. What it ends up coming down to is a lot of trial and error. What it comes down to is a lot of ability to take risks and see if they pay off with writing.

I can think of people in my workshops in college or graduate school who would have told me not to write something in first person plural because that’s gimmicky or unsustainable. But there are wonderful books that do that. One tricky and interesting thing I think about this book is that one character dies. I found that books most often end with a major death of a character, or sometimes open with the death of a character and it’s about other characters recovering from that death. With this book what I wanted to do was try something I’ve never really seen before and put the death right in the middle. To try to not only tell their story about the fight against the illness, but also their struggle to recover afterwards. If the death is a big dramatic moment, what do you follow it with to sustain the next couple hundred pages?

You mentioned earlier that proofreading would be one skill, but what about reading? What do you suggest writers read?

I think anything. I could recommend things that I love, but my students don’t always love them. In class I try to give them a variety of different writers. I try to bring in a mixture of classic fiction writers like Chekov, or Hemingway, or Flannery O’Connor. Those types of writers. That’s really what I was taught mostly in college. I never really read anything in college that I could remember that was published after 1960. What I try to do is pair those writers with more contemporary writers. I bring in David Foster Wallace, Lorrie Moore, Marilynne Robinson, lots of writers who are still alive and writing today. I think that’s really important because if they want to become writers they need to understand how to write in the world we live in now which is totally a different world than Ernest Hemingway lived in. Some of the questions are the same, but it’s very, very different now, the concerns, than fifty years ago. That’s not something I see too much. I see a lot of people in the many places I’ve taught over the year by and large teaching older canonized writers.

There’s a contemporary canon that’s much more diverse and much more interesting. I think students usually respond to it much more because they recognize that world. David Foster Wallace writes about technology taking over our lives and they totally get it, they relate to it right away. They don’t necessarily have that same connection listening to Hemingway talk about World War Two and PTSD. That’s one of the things I think is important for people to read.

Your undergrads was some Chekov and some classics, but what are some writers, either classic or contemporary, that have inspired you in the last few years.

Working on this book I looked at some things that I haven’t read very much before like The Odyssey and The Iliad, [TS Eliot’s] “The Wasteland,” and Hart Crane’s “The Bridge.” I re-read Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald, which has the marriage between Dick and Nicole Diver. It’s something I was looking at with George and Sara in this book even though their stories are fairly different.

In terms of inspiration, Salinger is always one of my favorites. I can never get enough of going back and looking at Nine Stories. in particular [Those] are just some of my favorite stories ever written. I haven’t taught it in awhile, but The Catcher in the Rye used to be one of my favorite books to teach. It has a lot of really great things in there. It gets misunderstood as a young adult novel, but I think it’s much, much more complicated than that. The big overriding thing in the past few years has been reading some more of David Foster Wallace. He passed away [in 2008] and at the time hadn’t really read him at all. Over the years I kind of had gone back and read his works. I’m really loving it and getting interested in it. I’m kind of devastated that he’s not here to keep on doing what he was going, but I also think that leaves some space for the rest of us to try and pick up the ideas that he used to [write about].

Let’s say you’re creating a literature course – not creative writing. What would the topic be? What are some books you would throw in?

There’s a class I’ve been kicking around for awhile now. I’ve been trying to do it in the fall depending if I can. The topic would be unreliable narrators. It’s something I think would be very fascinating from both the literature perspective but also creative writing. My first novel had an unreliable narrator. I was looking at a lot of stuff to see how it works. I actually had at one point written up a reading list for what would be in that class. It would be things like The Catcher in the Rye, and then The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro. It’s kind of a very different unreliable narrator. I think that’s what I would want to look at. Sort of an unreliable narrator who isn’t actively deceiving the reader; there’s all of these different shades of it. It could be a narrator deceiving himself or someone who is misinformed. There’s a lot of fun you can have with that.

The classic one that I really love is The Aspern Papers by Henry James. It’s a short novella that I love where it’s about a narrator trying to hunt down these letters that this poet named Jeffery Aspern wrote to a woman he had been in love with before he died and the biographer is trying to find the woman who is sort of an ancient, decrepit old woman who still might have the letters. He has to try to find a way to break into her house and convince her into coughing up these letters. It’s really great and he’s really unreliable. He tells you about this con he’s trying to pull on this old lady, but there are all of these details that he leaves out.

That’s probably what it would be if I had to pick one right now. It would be a class on unreliable narrators.

Photo: Michael Levy

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