In 2013, Kristopher Jansma came on the scene with The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards, a wild, clever, funny, heartbreaking novel. I read the book in two days and immediately vowed to follow Jansma down whatever road he’d take next.
To my great surprise, his second novel, Why We Came to the City, drops much of the manic, meta, playful energy that made Leopards so compulsively readable. In its place is an equally engaging, but altogether more serious and emotional work. It’s about five twenty-something friends—Irene, George, Sara, Jacob, and William—all trying to make it in New York when they’re suddenly forced to face the cruelty of life after Irene is diagnosed with cancer.
Jansma, also a frequently published short story writer and Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at SUNY New Paltz College, drew from his own experiences for the story. His sister, Jennifer, passed away in 2008 from cancer. Why We Came to the City is at once a reckoning with death and loss and also a hopeful reflection on how people grow and change into adulthood.
I spoke with Jansma about the process of writing Why We Came to the City, what he’s learned about living in a big city, facing adulthood in his thirties, and how he worked through his own experiences in fiction.
The Rumpus: Given how playfully meta your first book was, I was surprised how stripped back this one was.
Kristopher Jansma: It’s funny; I kind of wanted to see if I could do it. I had tried writing straight narratives before I got to The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards and they’d always, for one reason or another, not worked out. And then I had the idea for this one, and it seemed like the kind of story that needed to be told straight through. I didn’t know getting started with it whether or not I was going to be able to write just a straightforward narrative without a lot of metafictional stuff going on. And it’s funny because I’m glad that I did it, but now I do miss it a little bit, thinking back on Leopards. I’ve got some plans for what comes next, and I’m hoping it’ll get back to some of that postmodern-y stuff again.
Rumpus: The structure of the book is still pretty playful, so obviously you didn’t put that away completely.
Jansma: I’m really glad that comes through. That was sort of how I decided to keep it interesting. I had the idea early on that I wanted to do third-person, but moving around from character to character, and trying to inhabit each of their points of view throughout the book. With Leopards I wrote the whole thing in these pieces and I had no idea how they’d come together eventually. With this book, really early on in the process, I had to sit down and map out exactly what was going to happen with the structure because so much depended on getting that all through.
Rumpus: The book is called Why We Came to the City. The cliché would be “the city is a character in the book,” but I don’t think that’s entirely the case here.
Jansma: That was a little bit tricky, especially in those more poetic parts, because I wanted to include some details that were very New York-specific, like waiting for the G train, or certain neighborhoods. But at the same time I didn’t want to do too much of that and be alienating to readers who don’t New York all that intimately. And people who live in other cities, I wanted them to be able to connect with this just as easily, to have it say something about what it’s like to come to Toronto, or St. Louis, or something like that.
I’ve seen a few people now mention that, and I agree, I think it’s a little cliché that the city is a “sixth character” in the book. My own thought about it—and this is something I didn’t fully think about too much until the book was all finished—but I realized that in a way the city functions a little like a higher power. They came to the city almost in this pilgrim way, and then while they’re there the city alternately bestows favor on them or not at different points. Whatever they’re doing is struggling in the foreground of whatever is happening in the city behind them. There are times when it just feels like the entire city is constructed as an obstacle course or a labyrinth to try to defeat everything that you want to accomplish that day, and then other times it’s like everything clicks into place and the whole city is there just for you.
Rumpus: The city is a big place. New York is a city of millions of people, and the story focuses in on these five people who obviously have interactions with others, and go to different places, but it’s a pretty limited view.
Jansma: In the very beginning, I had these even grander ambitions of writing this book that would really do that, that would really get you into every corner of New York City, and you would see the high and the low. The Fulton Fish Market, and the Bronx, and Staten Island. And then as I got through it I realized one of the things that’s tricky about New York, and maybe even a little different from other cities, is that it really is like five or six cities are all on top of one another. I’ve read somewhere once that Brooklyn, if it was its own city, would still be the third-largest city in America, which is kind of crazy. It’s true that for anybody, that no matter where you are within the city, even if you make a huge effort to move around throughout it and see all different corners of it, you’re only ever experiencing a small slice of it.
I’ve been in the city for twelve years. I’ve lived in four different neighborhoods in two different boroughs, and I still feel like after all that there are enormous parts of the city that I don’t know much about. That was something that I eventually had to come to terms with, that this was going to be a book about these five people, and that it was going to be about what this city is like for people like them, people who come to it, who aren’t really from there, and who are trying to make their way climbing the ladder at this particular age. Hopefully you do get little glimpses of other sides of it. I tried to get a little more of that in there through William, who grew up in Queens, and who has a different relationship with the city than the rest of them, because his family is actually there.
Rumpus: The absence of the characters’ families is interesting.
Jansma: Part of that was something I needed for the plot, because I really wanted to show these characters dealing with an adult situation on their own. It wasn’t going to be the same if Mrs. Murphy is coming to help out. I wanted to show them dealing this situation without external adult help. So we sort of only once in awhile see glimpses of their families. I think that’s kind of a characteristic of when you come to the city, and you start building a home with a new family out of the friends and people you turn to on a daily basis. Your actual family becomes a second thing.
Rumpus: It’s funny you mention dealing with situations without the adult help when these characters are, in fact, adults. They’re in their twenties. But they don’t feel that adult. Do you think that’s reflective of the world today?
Jansma: The world is changed, yeah. That’s something I see a lot. Right now I’m thirty-three. I haven’t lived with my parents in a long, long time. And I do deal with all those things on my own, but there’s still something really deep-seated in our culture now, where you’re not really considered fully an adult until well into your late thirties. I have a two-and-half-year-old son, and I’m starting a family, and I still find myself looking around like, “Jesus, is this it? Am I really an adult now?” I used to teach a class on children’s literature and young adult literature, and that was always a really interesting theme, when does adulthood really begin? And people were complaining, and have complained for a long time, that it used to start when you were eighteen and you moved out of the house or you joined the army. You went off to college and that was the beginning of adulthood, and that definitely is not where the line gets drawn nowadays. That’s a big part of what the book is kind of talking about, too. These are ostensibly adults, but they’ve never really been in a situation before where they’ve had to take on real responsibility for one another, and I think that’s finally where adulthood lies.
Rumpus: In a way you could see the big test that they go through, Irene’s cancer diagnosis, as their version of the Vietnam draft.
Jansma: That was one of those things, one of the ideas I had early on. I was thinking about The Iliad and The Odyssey, and how Part I is the war, or what counts as a war for them. They have to band together and fight this thing. Part II would be The Odyssey, them figuring out how to get back home after the war is over. That’s something I’ve weirdly thought about a long time. I remember back in college I’d done these traditional fiction segments on Hemingway, and read all these Nick Adams stories about coming of age in the time of war and having your eyes opened and becoming an adult on the battlefield. I remember even back then thinking, “well, what are we supposed to do?”
Rumpus: The subject matter of the book is very personal for you. Your sister, Jennifer, passed away from cancer, how many years ago?
Jansma: It was actually eight years ago. February 6th, 2008.
Rumpus: Was it something that you knew early on that you wanted to tackle through writing?
Jansma: It kind of went through a couple phases, is the short answer. First, just to set it up, we found out that it was cancer in early 2007. She had this bump on her tongue for about a year before that, but she kept on thinking it was just a cold sore. We took her to a dentist and the dentist gave her a mouth guard because he thought she was chewing on her tongue in her sleep, or grinding her teeth. Nobody was thinking cancer because at that point she was a twenty-one-year-old, and very healthy. She was a professional ballet dancer. She ate well, exercised constantly. She was one of the healthiest people I ever knew. So nobody was thinking oral cancer, which is something the doctors told us over and over again you rarely see, except in guys who’ve been chewing tobacco for fifty years. Once we found out that was what it was, she had some treatment in North Carolina where she was dancing at the time. She was working for the Carolina Ballet, she was a member of the corps of their ballet company there. Once that turned out to be ineffective, she moved up to New York to go to more advanced treatments at Sloan Kettering.
The whole time she was doing that, she was staying with me and my fiancée at the time, now my wife, Leah. She was staying on our couch basically, off and on for about five months. That was the real world situation. The whole time that she was with us, we were doing our usual thing. Leah was working for a literary agency at the time; I think she was somebody’s assistant. I was adjuncting, teaching like four different classes at two different schools and running all over the place, and then I was trying to write a novel. I was working on a novel at the time that ended up falling apart shortly after, but I was still scrambling, trying to get a little writing in here and there.
After we put everything into it and she passed away early in 2008, for a while I really didn’t know where to go with writing. I was really frustrated because I had just been working on that other book, and it had really failed to come together. That was the last time I’d worked on a straightforward narrative, by the way. For the rest of that year, 2008, I kept writing a little bit here and there, but not very much. There was a lot of other stuff going on. Leah and I were getting married at the end of the year, so we had a wedding to plan. But then as 2009 was approaching I decided it was going to be time to get back into it again, and one of the big things hanging me up was I didn’t know how to write about the things that I was going through, the grief, and how to write about losing Jen.
One of my first reactions to the whole thing was angrily vowing that I was never going to write about it ever, because somehow that seemed to me like I was going to be taking advantage of what had happened, in turning it into something positive or artistic. It seemed like the kind of thing that no good should come out of. That was my feeling. So for a long time I felt that I was probably never going to write about it, but then that year in 2009 I started writing all these stories again, and that’s the year that most of Leopards got written. And in that same year, partly just because I was writing so much, a lot of stuff just sort of started to come out, not even within my full control. There were a lot of characters that now, looking back, they’re grieving, they’re dealing with loss in different ways.
One of those stories was called The Murphys’ Odyssey, and it was about a couple named George and Sara Murphy, who are on their honeymoon and trying to get rid of the ashes of their friend who died before, and there are some flashback scenes to before, remembering their funeral and a couple other things. And in that story they’re on a boat, lost in the Greek Isles, because I was hitting the Odyssey theme a little too hard. That scene still kind of exists in the book. That same thing started to happen more, where once in awhile I’d write a new story about somebody dealing with the loss of a friend, and eventually those turned into the characters in the book. I’d written one about William, and eventually I wrote one about Jacob, and I started to figure out how they’d all be together. The following year, I ended up writing another one hundred and fifty pages of what would become this book. A lot of it, especially the first half of it, was written before Leopards was even published.
One of the big things I wanted to try, and I wasn’t sure if it was really going to work or not, was having the big death happen in the middle of the book rather than toward the end, or right at the beginning, which is normally where you would find something like that in these types of books. That was something I wasn’t sure about how well it was going to get pulled off. Hopefully it will work.
Rumpus: One of the effects of that is it doesn’t prize one character’s point of view over another.
Jansma: Exactly. If it was all about Irene, then her death is the big climax, but because it’s evenly about all the other characters, too, their stories still have a lot of unfinished business going into the second part. One of the things I really wanted to look at was what happens when Irene gets yanked out of it abruptly, and how everybody has to then try to figure out how to deal with that absence.
Rumpus: The way you structure the second half of the book is quite bold, sticking to single characters for a longer period of time, and also jumping through time. Were you worried that you were going to lose some thread doing that?
Jansma: Yeah, I was a little worried about that. Especially because Jacob’s section, which is the first in the second half, ends up being the longest, and so I was a little worried that over the course of watching Jacob, that you’d start to forget about William, or George and Sara. There was actually some deliberateness to having them pop up in the background of each other’s sections. Sara reemerges at some point in Jacob’s section, and she’s texting Jacob throughout, and he sees a picture of William at the funeral at one point. One of the reasons for it was that an editor, early on in the process, suggested that we could have all this happen over a shorter period of time, maybe within a few months of Irene passing away. So I thought about it and realized that realistically it just wouldn’t work. My experience with the whole thing was that it was easily a year before I fully started to begin dealing with it. There needed to be some time travel there.
The other thing was I really wanted to show was how all the characters are each grieving in their own ways. Jacob has that line that he inverts from Anna Karenina, about happy families. He realizes that it is kind of true, that they are all unhappy, but the worst thing about it is that they can’t even be unhappy at the same time and in the same way. And that means that they have to deal with it themselves. That’s something that I think is really true of grief, that even two people who are grieving the exact same thing are going to end up doing it in such different ways. I really wanted to examine that with the characters in the second half. To show how there’s the hard thing of losing somebody, but then the way that grief isolates you from others afterward is a big part of that.
Rumpus: You manage to inhabit each of their different perspectives, and are very sensitive to those varying experiences. Was that something that came from your own personal experience, or was it an imaginative exercise for you?
Jansma: I definitely drew from my personal different experience. It’s funny, I was just realizing this the other day, but when I first started writing, and I was working on the first part, I thought George was going to be the character that I was going to be the closest to in the book. George is in this long-term, committed, monogamous relationship, the way that I was—and still am, I should say! I had this idea, even in the beginning, where they’ve been known in college as The Murphys, that George is sort of the core of the group. Then as the story went along, particularly as I got into the second half of it, I was able to channel different aspects of grief into different characters.
I think ultimately it ended up being William’s way of grieving that I was personally closest to. He ends up really withdrawing from everybody in a much bigger way. He has a hard time figuring out how to talk to people about what’s going on, and figuring out how to be who he is. And he can’t quite figure out how to reinvent himself. One of the big questions he has in the book is, why did Irene fall in love with him, and what does any of that mean, and how’s he supposed to make sense of that? That was something I connected with really personally.
My sister was three years younger than me, but from the first minute vying for the older sibling spot. She was always very much in charge, and bossing me around and all that. And she was very popular in school, which I wasn’t. I didn’t fully realize it at the time, but she had a lot of faith in me and she was really always encouraging me, to the very banal point where she would insist I go to the mall with her to buy me nicer clothes. She thought that if I just put on a J. Crew shirt I would be as popular as she, for some reason, thought I deserved to be.
But one of the big things was that I left for college to study writing and then the following year, she was only fourteen, she moved out of our parents house and went to live on her own in Philadelphia to go to a full-time dance academy. And over the years I started to realize how much of an impact that had on my sense of what could be accomplished. I started taking writing much more seriously. I started to realize that she was putting everything into this dream of hers of becoming a ballet dancer, and then as I was getting further and further into writing in college, that I could have the same types of ambitions and follow through. So some of that gets reflected in the William section, where he tries to figure out how to take what she saw in him and make it real.
Rumpus: People getting sick with cancer has been well-worn in a lot of fiction. William’s storyline was the one that could definitely have gone down a The Fault in Our Stars path, for example.
Jansma: I had to be very careful not to read that book or watch the movie at all, because I was already deeply into this. I was avoiding it because I didn’t want any risk of contamination, but I know enough about it.
Rumpus: The movie is fine, and I’m sure the book is very good.
Jansma: It must be. Literally all my students are obsessed with it, even now.
Rumpus: I don’t mean it as a knock against that book, or any other book, but how do you take this subject and make it unique?
Jansma: I think one of the big things that I struggled with as the whole thing was really happening with me sister, was feeling that as many times as I’d seen this sort of thing happen in books and movies, I was stunned at how different it felt in real life. Later, when I started to go back and write about it, I started to really think about that. How do I capture what it was really like, and what’s different about the reality of it from the way that it gets portrayed in movies? Typically, if you think about The Fault in Our Stars or Love Story, somebody dies relatively close to the end of the story because that’s the climax, that’s what it’s about. With my sister, at least from the story as it was from my perspective, it wasn’t happening right at the end, or right at the beginning of anything. It was happening right in the middle of everything else.
I was trying to get a teaching job, and I was trying to finish a novel, and my wife was trying to finish a manuscript, and all the daily stuff that you just have to deal with. None of that goes away. Meanwhile, in books and movies it always seems like miraculously nobody has to worry much about getting to their job on time or paying their rent. There seem to be a lot of opportunities for people to hang out and have deep, meaningful chats in the middle of the ICU. In reality, we’d be there in the ICU, but it’d be 4 a.m., and I’d have a class to prep for the following day, and I’d be sitting there grading papers and trying to figure out where the hell is the nurse. So that was one of the big things that I wanted. I felt like if I could get that kind of detail in there, and show the way that real life never lets up even in the face of death and illness, that would be one thing that would make this something that would feel really different from other books and movies about somebody who has cancer.
Rumpus: Often in other books and movies the illness is used as a plot device to create growth in the other characters. That’s not really at all the case here. The characters sort of are the characters. They deal with the ramifications, but it’s not a direct cause and effect.
Jansma: And whatever growth happens is happening in the context of something they were already struggling with before she got sick at all. William’s identity crisis is already ongoing before he even meets her. George and Sara are already dealing with George’s drinking problem. Sara’s control issues are there from day one, and Jacob’s anger issues. Often I’ve found in books or movies—and I guess I’m thinking now of the Jake Gyllenhaal movie, Moonlight Mile, where his fiancée dies of cancer at the beginning of the movie, and then it’s a movie about him dealing with it in this Big Chill kind of way. It’s him and the family recovering from the loss that’s already happened before we even got to the story. I think that’s one of the big things I wanted to avoid with this book. I wanted to show that, yes, they are growing, they are sliding further and further into adulthood, but it’s happening in the middle of an ongoing process.
Rumpus: It also doesn’t reduce Irene’s character at all.
Jansma: I was particularly concerned with Irene that she wouldn’t turn into the classic Manic Pixie Dream Girl figure, in particular for William. I tried to make sure that, first of all, she’s a substantive character in and of herself, and that she’s not just there to be missed, or mourned, or to inspire everybody else. There was definitely a real danger of that happening if you don’t do it cautiously. Especially because she has this mysterious past, which I think is part of that trope. You know, nobody knows where Zooey Deschanel comes from.
Rumpus: I was telling a friend that Leopards took me about two or three days to finish, but then this one took me a bit longer. The book is a bit longer, but it’s also a more emotional, heavier book, and I needed to put it down here and there.
Jansma: I’m glad. Actually, that threw me for a while. When we first started sending copies out I remember waiting very impatiently to start hearing from people. Weeks would go by and I still wouldn’t really know, and I started to worry that they must really not like it. With Leopards I heard that sort of unanimously. People would say, “I started it and I read the whole thing in two days.” It had surprised me back then, when that was happening, that people were reading it so fast. And then suddenly realizing with Why We Came to the City, that this wasn’t the kind of book people are going to read too quickly. But that’s probably a good thing.
Rumpus: It does veer into being sentimental here and there, though it feels earned.
Jansma: I know that it probably will have that impact on people. I know that it has already, and I’m okay with that to some degree. I remember joking with my editor that we should stitch tissues into the middle or build a tissue box into the back of the book. That was something that I was also trying to be very careful about, and it’s something that I find is very tricky with writing. I read a lot fiction that has, at least for my taste, not enough emotion in it. I think there’s still this sort of hangover from the days of Hemingway and Carver, and the Iowa Workshop that still teaches this strategy of having your characters very reserved and never speak their mind, but their inner workings are betrayed by tiny gestures. I see that a lot, and it’s fun to talk about in my classes, but I always find that it feels untrue to me. Most of the people I know have no problem talking about what the heck is on their mind all the time. I wanted to make sure that they were realistically emotional with one another. There’s this fear of having overly emotional characters because then it’ll become either sentimental or melodramatic. If I’m going to shoot for something, I think I’d rather shoot a little farther on the emotional side than cut all of it out and hope nobody accuses me of being sentimental.
Author photograph © Michael Levy.