A Conversation with Kristopher Jansma
Q: How does an adjunct professor working on two New York-area campuses manage to do any writing, let alone the thoughtful, sophisticated work that went into The UNCHANGEABLE SPOTS OF LEOPARDS?
A: During the semesters, I’ve typically taught five sections a week—though I’ve done as many as seven, and yes, often on two campuses, though they are thankfully close to one another. When you factor in the preparation and the grading and the advising and another four or five hours at a tutoring desk, it’s a lot of work, as thousands and thousands of other young adjunct professors around the country can tell you. But I actually get more writing done during these packed semesters than I do over the summers. When I know I can just get to it later, it’s too easy to put off. But when I’ve only got one free hour to write, and that it might be my only hour for the next two or three days . . . I have to give it everything I’ve got.
Beyond that, though, teaching gives me the chance to spend several hours each day thinking about writing and talking about writing…figuring out how to make it interesting to younger people who often don’t read or write very much outside of class. When you walk into a room full of eighteen-year-old students and it is 8:15 AM and half of them haven’t even gone to bed yet, you’ve got two options: One, you can just get up there and give them material and tell them it’ll be on a test or a quiz…Or, two, you can get up there and tell them, “Here’s why it matters. Here’s what you’ll be able to do, if you listen to what I have to say. And then I want to hear from you because this goes both ways.” If you go with option number two, when you walk out of that classroom at 9:30, you’re going to easily be twice as jazzed as they are—and that’s when I want to sit down and write something I’ve never seen written before.
Q: It’s interesting that you have written a novel that deceives its readers with Mephistophelean glee but that truth clearly means so much to you. What do you have to say about our current cultural preoccupation with regard to truth?
A: Like “Professor Wallace” I am really fascinated with fakers and plagiarists and liars. I’m really a terrible liar myself and I’m always intrigued by people who can do it so effortlessly. Growing up, I used to love the character of George on Seinfeld, who advises Jerry on passing a lie detector test: “It’s not a lie if you believe it.” And that’s one thing I wonder about—do these people really believe their own lies? A writing professor of mine once opined that fiction was “something that could have happened, but didn’t.” Jonah Lehrer wrote several things that Bob Dylan might well have said, but happened not to. Stephen Glass made up stories which could have happened, but didn’t. That’s fiction.
And people are upset by betrayals like these—and rightly so—because when you write something and say it is true, you’re asking people to go out on a limb and take you at your word. If they find out you’re lying, then it’s a breach of that contract. To me it’s important to keep in mind that James Frey started out trying to sell A Million Little Pieces as a work of fiction. Nobody wanted to publish it. Call it a true story, however, and it becomes a bestseller that sweeps the nation and garners Oprah’s seal of approval. Of course that was terribly, terribly wrong of him to do. But it also begs the question: Why does the same exact story fail to move us until we’re told “this really happened”?
People forget that fiction can be every bit as truthful as nonfiction. When the reader begins by accepting the premise that what they’re about to read is not a factual account of real events or the actions of real people…And yet they will still hang on every twist, and still fall in love with the characters and pump their fists in the air when they do well and sob when they fail . . . Well, that’s a very real thing.
Q: The novel takes readers around the world and back again, to many different locales: Tokyo, Luxembourg, Sri Lanka, Iceland . . . Have you been to all these places? How did you do the research necessary to transport readers to these places? And I’m assuming you aren’t fluent in French and Russian and Japanese and Icelandic . . .
A: No, I’m not at all. In fact I may be the world’s worst language student, and I have the report cards to prove it. I studied French in grade school and Russian in college, but I can barely remember a dozen words of either. Italian was the only course I ever failed outright. The only language I did well with was Latin, in middle school and high school, because we never had to speak it out loud. I could take my time on the translations, and I could also usually see the links between the Latin words and the English derivatives.
For the translations in the book, I got by with a little help from my friends. My sister-in-law speaks fluent French. A student of mine had done a semester abroad in Japan, and she very kindly helped me out there. And thanks to social networking, I was able to reach some old friends who helped with the Russian and even the Tamil and the Luxembourgish! They also helped me with some of the cultural details, because there was simply no way I could manage to go to all these places myself.
I did go to the Grand Canyon, and rafted the river with my family, and also to Luxembourg with my wife, and we spent a day in the old city there. I was also able to go to Ghana with my in-laws, who were taking a sabbatical to teach in Kumasi. But I haven’t been to Dubai or Iceland or Sri Lanka. Yet. Those stories required a lot of research, in libraries and also online. It’s pretty incredible what you can do these days. A few mouse clicks and I can be looking at a street view right outside of the Colombo Fort Railway Station. I can look at the cocktail menu for Vu’s Bar in the Jumeirah Emirates Towers. I can go onto a forum where Indian couples are discussing Hindi weddings.
People say you should write what you know, but that so depletes our possibilities, and by extent, our literature. It was important to me that the novel not just be limited to what I knew already. For me, writing has always been an excuse to learn a lot more than the little I know.
Q: Your readers are likely to have come across other unnamed narrators, like Ellison’s invisible man or Dostoevsky’s paradoxalist from the underground. However, few such narrators are as teasingly and playfully presented as the alias-rich voice of your novel. Why did you choose not to give him a real name, and did you have as much fun with the whole nameless motif as you appear to have had?
A: Absolutely, I had fun with it. I love The Invisible Man and Notes from the Underground. My favorite unnamed narrator might be from The Aspern Papers by Henry James. The narrator in that story is trying to con an old lady and her niece out of some valuable papers, and he’s very upfront with us all along about how he manipulates them. He says he invents a nom de guerre, as in a war name used by a soldier, when he introduces himself to them—but he never tells us what it is. And then, later in the book, he casually mentions that he’s confessed his true name to the niece, and you almost drop the book because it’s so unfair that he’d tell her and not you! Anytime a book can trick you into thinking something like that, you know you’re in good hands.
Unnamed narrators have long been a fascination of mine, because here you have someone who is telling you a story, most likely confessing all sorts of personal and intimate things, and yet withholds the most basic social intimacy. And this creates a kind of suspicion. Anyone making a confession is also trying to sell you something–a version of events, a justification for wrongdoing, or even just a humanity behind certain actions. But when the person won’t even tell you his name, then it makes you think twice about his agenda.
Q: Your novel is strewn with unattainable women and with quite a few highly available gay men. Would you like to talk a bit about the sexual mood of the book?
A: Well, I think the women are only one of many unattainable things that the narrator yearns for, especially in the first half of the book. He wants to best Julian in the story contest, he wants to write this novel, he wants to fit into this world of privilege, and he wants Evelyn to run off with him. But to be always wanting something and never actually having it is to exist forever in a fiction. It can always be whatever you imagine and never what it truly is. Maybe that tells us something about his reticence to be with the women in the book who are attainable.
As for Julian’s “high availability,” the narrator implies this at various points, but conspicuously he never considers that Julian might love, or be loved, by these men. They are so interchangeable to the narrator that he meanly refers to them all as “Simons”—a joke he shares with Evelyn. And yet there is real love between Julian and the narrator, which is not sexual, but which the narrator cannot seem to speak about.
Talking about sex all the time is the mark of someone who doesn’t know anything about real love, and I wanted that to come across in the way the narrator talks about Julian’s sex life, as well as his own.
Q: The way in which your narrator approaches the honeymooners in Dubai reminded me a lot of M. Clamence in Camus’s The Fall. Do you count that book among your influences? What do you see as your major influences, for that matter?
A: There were a lot of influences on Leopards, that varied wildly from chapter to chapter. I did read The Fall, quite a long time ago, so maybe it crept in there. I had mainly been thinking, in that chapter, of telling a sort of Thousand and One Nights type of story within a story—which rose up out of the Middle Eastern setting, but which also fit that moment nicely, where the two halves of the novel meet. It’s a little jarring, and the reader needs a little jarring there. Other chapters came out of other, different places. I wrote the eponymous chapter just after seeing Waiting for Godot on stage for the very first time. The next week I saw the British film Withnail & I and that got me thinking about the next chapter, which I named “Anton and I” out of respect to the film, which is brilliant. And “In the Writer’s Colony” had a bit of “In the Penal Colony” behind it, at least at first . . . I think I had just been teaching that story and it seemed to resonate with the themes. The whole book came together in this way. I’d be working on other things and then I’d run across something somewhere that just felt like Leopards.
Q: Your teaching has given you some rather prickly views about the state of higher education, and you aren’t shy about expressing them in your novel. What’s wrong with teaching at the collegiate level these days, and how do you think we might start changing it?
A: Well, first, let’s be clear: many of those opinions are the narrator’s, not mine! And he expresses them at a pretty low point in his life, when he’s losing all faith in his life as a writer.
Two years before I began working on Leopards, I was teaching at a city college and I was totally new to the job. I’d sent out CVs to dozens of schools and no one was hiring, and then just a week before the semester began, the chair at this college called me up and said that someone had just quit and would I take two sections? I said of course I’d do it, and he said, “Great. Pick out a textbook and show up on the first day!” And that was basically it. There wasn’t an orientation or a syllabus or a list of course expectations or anything.
So I walked in on the first day and started talking about William Zinsser and more or less made the rest up as I went along. I brought in readings I liked and some I thought they’d like. There were thirty-five students in each class. By week four or five, I had maybe twenty-five still showing up. By the end of the semester, I only had fifteen coming regularly, and about five more kids who showed up just enough to pass. And I was so upset—I thought for sure I’d be fired. Some of the kids were doing really well and were really into it, but I knew a huge portion of the class would fail.
Finally I found another professor to talk to about it and he laughed and said not to worry. The attrition rate for first-year students at the college was over fifty percent. It was just a given that kids would either give up, drop out, or fail because they couldn’t handle it even if they tried hard. No one saw it as their own failing, because it was built into the system . . . so I wrote the first pieces of that chapter back when I was feeling that disillusionment pretty intensely.
But in the years since that first class, that school has put more effort into supporting its teachers and its first-year students. I began teaching at another college, which also had a high attrition rate and lax admissions standards . . . but they were working hard to change it. There are practical paths toward improvement, but the main thing is that someone has to care about the students. College needs to be a place where a student can discover they’re capable of more than they ever believed possible—not the other way around.
Q: The two main characters of THE UNCHANGEABLE SPOTS OF LEOPARDS, your nameless narrator and his “frenemy” Julian McGann, have a great deal in common—they’re both gifted but slightly deranged writers who have trouble putting down roots—and yet you manage to develop them as distinct and different characters. How did you manage to keep them from blurring together?
A: Over the years I spent in classes and workshops with other writers, I think I developed a sense for the many, many varieties of writers out there. And if we are slightly deranged then I’d say we each go about it in our own unique way. No, seriously though, every writer comes at the task differently and for different reasons, and our literature is more diverse for it.
The narrator sees Julian as a writer who is naturally gifted—simply more talented than himself. But like many novice writers, the narrator doesn’t understand that, ultimately, talent is somewhat beside the point. Plenty of people with talent lack drive. Julian’s dedication comes from this kind of total obsessiveness, but this also threatens him. He’d rather be writing than sleeping or bathing or eating or experiencing the outside world. It can become an addiction, and it can really break people, as it does in Julian’s case.
The narrator’s dedication comes mainly from his envy of Julian’s dedication, and he romanticizes the sacrifices that he sees his roommate making . . . which I think we all do sometimes. We talk about how much Hemingway could drink and Byron’s scandalous sex life, and even come to believe that self-destruction is a prerequisite for being a writer, instead of a very perilous side effect. Anyway, as the narrator learns, envy can be a very good motivator, but I think it can only take you so far. You’ve got to have something else to get you through the final stretch.
Q: THE UNCHANGEABLE SPOTS OF LEOPARDS is prefaced by a sort of all-points bulletin, asking anyone who thinks he or she may be the author of the book to please contact Haslett & Grouse. Has anyone come forward yet?
A: No, but we’re keeping our eyes open! Until then, I’m more than happy to continue taking the credit.
Special thanks to Elaine Broeder at Viking for providing this conversation with Kristopher Jansma, and for allowing me to host a giveaway of The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards. Leave a comment on this post to enter the giveaway; the winner will be announced on March 29th.