Kristopher Jansma: "Short Bursts Add Up"

Kristopher Jansma: "Short Bursts Add Up"


The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards book coverThink you don’t have time to write a novel? Kristopher Jansma penned his acclaimed debut The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards in five-minute spurts while riding the train.

Zola: The unnamed narrator’s friend and rival—let’s call him Julian, for simplicity—writes feverishly, drunkenly, nocturnally. The narrator is much more methodical, more grounded. What are your own writing habits?

Kristopher Jansma: I, for one, have never been able to write under the influence of anything stronger than coffee, which is probably for the best. And since I started living with my girlfriend-now-wife, I don’t write much later at night anymore. We have a newborn son, though, so maybe that’ll change as I’m up all night rocking him to sleep?

But I do love when the writing gets feverish, and in that way I relate to Julian’s writing habits. My favorite days at the keyboard are the rarest ones—when I can be there undisturbed for hours and hours, and when the writing begins to take on a life and steam power of its own. But with family and teaching obligations, those days aren’t common—and that may also be for the best. Like Julian, I think I’d get burned out if I worked that intensely all the time.

What I had to learn to do with Leopards was to write any chance I got. Even if it was only for five minutes between classes or on a train ride home when I was exhausted. I had to learn to give it my all whenever and wherever—and however briefly. Because all those short bursts add up and, in the long run, much more gets written that way.

Zola: In a previous interview, you claimed you constructed your novel out of several short stories pieced together because you decided to go “back to the basics” after some of your first novels got rejected. What was it about writing more or less stand-alone stories and then linking them together that was more effective than writing a conventional novel?

KJ: I’m not sure it’s a process I could ever replicate now, but what I loved about it at the time was that I got the chance to be surprised at every turn in the writing. I didn’t often know where one story would end or what would follow it. I didn’t have any clue as to the eventual, over-arching structure…just faith that I’d figure it out if I kept at it. What came from that was that the characters are built steadily and spontaneously out of each experience that they have, and I think that mirrors the way real people’s characters are shaped. Life happens in its own meandering fashion and we mold and morph along with it.

I don’t think I could have sat down on day one and plotted this all out, with character arcs and such. I just had to take it one page at a time and see where it took me. But I think the reader feels that same way as they read the book and it’s a really refreshing experience for most!

Zola: The book features plenty of literary allusions, from Kipling to Beckett to Calvino. Was there one writer or book in particular that influenced this novel?  

KJ: There are so many references, and the crazy thing is that I feel I barely mentioned half of the books that inspired me. I think the biggest influence that goes unnoted—but which is hopefully felt all over the place—is David Mitchell and his Cloud Atlas. I remember finishing that book for the first time and just being totally taken to my knees. I called a writer friend of mine who had recommended Mitchell and I think I said, “That’s it. I’m just going to give up right now because nobody can ever write a better book than that one. I’ll never ever ever be that good as long as I live.” And my friend agreed. I think his exact words were, “Mitchell is a god,” and somehow that helped. Thinking of Mitchell as something empyrean actually made me feel like I could at least aspire to what he’d pulled off with Cloud Atlas. I think he broke every rule about writing a novel I’ve ever imagined, and it’s unparalleled, as far as I’m concerned. But I keep my copy on my shelf—I got him to sign it actually, when he was in town for Jacob de Zoet, and he drew a little Starship Enterprise above his signature. The dude is so humble and so down-to-earth in real life…that’s another thing about him that I take as inspiration. You hear him talk and you know: it’s all about the work with him.

Zola: In your “Acknowledgments,” you thank your parents for sending you to “summer writing camps and at least two universities so I could learn how to do this.” What would you say to those who scoff at the notion of learning to write creatively?

KJ: I’m so glad someone noticed that!  God, I don’t even know what to say to people who scoff at that notion. I think that skepticism comes from a number of places. People want to believe that great literature simply pours out of great writers naturally, which is so ludicrous. Great books make it feel that natural, but it never ever is. I’m not saying everyone has to go to an MFA program, but we all have a lot to learn from other writers who have gone before us. Can you do that by yourself with a library card and a lot of midnight oil? I suppose. But I’m much happier having done it in the company of other great writers. By which I mean not only the professors, who are inspiring, but also the students. At Columbia I was in workshops with Karen Russell and Rivka Galchen and Tupelo Hassman and Karen Thompson Walker. Reading their rough drafts made me want my own to be better. I went to Johns Hopkins University as an undergrad and I met writers that I continue to commiserate with to this day—including Ariel S. Winter, who wrote The Twenty-Year Death and who introduced me to my agent. I studied Joyce and Woolf at Oxford one summer… that’s something you can’t get with a library card. Before college I went to a summer program at Brown University. This was when I was 16 years old in high school. And there I read Borges and Garcia Marquez for the first time. I met a girl there who, just a few weeks ago, invited me back to do a reading at Hopkins where she is now a MFA student. And from middle school to high school I used to go to Creative Writing summer camp at Brookdale College (now Brookdale University) down the street from my house, where I met the most fantastic liar I’ve ever known, and without whom I surely would never have written this novel. So I lost count, but yeah, that’s a lot of schools and a lot of people at those schools who helped shape my outlook on writing.

If I can put it simply, after all that, I would say that writers need each other much more than we want to admit. We can get a tunnel vision about our work and about what’s possible…and all you need to escape that tunnel sometimes is a cup of coffee with someone stuck down a different tunnel. And then you’re both free.

Zola: What bookstore were you in the first time you saw The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards on the shelves? What was that feeling like?

KJ: It was incredible… I was at the Center for Fiction in Midtown, right before my launch party, and they had it out on display in their store on the street level. It was as exciting as I’d always hoped it would be. For years now, I’ve been going to bookstores and finding the spot, alphabetically, on the shelf where my name would go someday. Usually right beside, or not far from, Henry James. I took photos on my phone even, of “J” shelves from Shakespeare & Company to McNally Jackson to the Barnes & Noble in my hometown—before my book was there, but just to remind myself it would be there someday. Seeing it there now finally is an experience that I’ve been daydreaming about since I was roaming around bookstores as a kid.

My seventh grade English teacher, Mrs. Inglis, who is also thanked in the acknowledgements, was really the first person to ever point out to me that books were written by real people. Up until then I thought they’d just all existed in libraries and stores. I didn’t know people were allowed to write new ones. But she was the one who said, “Hey, you should try writing one of these yourself someday.”

This article originally appeared on Zola Books.