Kristopher Jansma gave a talk at The Center for Fiction last week and Zola’s Kevin Zych was on the scene to learn more about how the young author’s life has changed since publishing his debut novel The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards.
By any measure, Kristopher Jansma is doing well in life. Not only was his debut novel, The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards, critically acclaimed as “a breathless work that celebrates the literary tradition” (Time Out New York) and “one of the best books of the year” (CBS), but he was featured as one of Paper magazine’s Beautiful People of 2013. The guy has looks and talent!
Yet these superlatives don’t reveal much about the real Kris – the teacher-friend-father-figure behind the glowing reviews and twinkling blue eyes.
Who is he? What’s his story?
Kris’ latest book talk at The Center for Fiction in Manhattan offered some insight. Last Monday, he and fellow author Gabriel Roth (The Unknowns) met to discuss coming of age novels as part of The Big Read Program. Between their conversation about growing up and a short post-event interview, Kris shared details of his own journey from ambitious dreamer to published author.
Since he was a child, Kris dreamt of being a writer. Books were his greatest passion and when he wasn’t reading he was visiting libraries and bookstores, imagining where on the shelf his future book would belong. Today he still remembers the sequence: “It would go Henry James then Kris Jansma. I know this is really geeky, but I did it all the time.”
Flash forward to late March 2013, when Spots was finally released. A lifetime of hard work and perseverance had culminated in a successful novel and Kris was ecstatic. “I had been hearing all day from friends and family about finding the book,” he shared. “They said either they saw the book at Barnes & Noble or that they went to such-and-such store and couldn’t find it. So I had been feeling up and down all day.” He wanted to see a copy on display for himself, just like in his childhood visions.
And then Kris visited The Center for Fiction. “When I came here it was the first time I actually saw it. It was so amazing to see it just sitting there among all the other books.” The dream had come true; his novel was right where it’s supposed to be – on the shelf to the right of Henry James.
Because of this experience the Center for Fiction has become somewhat of a special place for the young author. It is the place where he saw his dream materialized for the first time and it is also where, seven months later, he was asked to talk about coming of age and growing up. It was a fitting subject given how far he has come.
Yet that begs more questions about Kris: How has he grown? The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards follows a young aspiring writer who struggles to find his place in the world, but is that the real Kris? Does his life parallel the development of his protagonist?
“No.” Kris laughed. “The narrator is not me. He’s the version of me I would be if I were better at lying.”
In addition to not being a pathological deceiver, there are a number of blatant differences between the author and the protagonist: Kris doesn’t have a distant relationship with his parents, and he never lived in many of the places featured in the book. Kris does, however, admit that beyond these most noticeable features some of the more internal struggles and relationships of the narrator represent situations which were common to his past.
Primarily, he refers to competition. “At the heart of it, what is true to my experience of wanting to become a writer is that relationship [the narrator] has with Julian.” In Spots, Julian is depicted as someone who effortlessly writes amazing work all the time and has everything the narrator wants. A competitive tension exists within their friendship, which is a lot like what Kris experienced in graduate school. “There were always people in class who seemed naturally gifted and more talented,” Kris noted. “These types of relationships are unhealthy, but common among people in their early-twenties.”
Karen Russell, Karen Thompson Walker, Rivka Galchen, and Tupelo Hassman were in workshops with Kris at Columbia.
Unlike his protagonist, Kris realized harvesting grudges or trying to one-up other classmates was deconstructive. “What I realized is that competition is good in the beginning, but ultimately…writers are stronger when they encourage each other.” He reflected for a moment about his writing friends from graduate school and how their relationships were more productive and healthier than previous rivalries. “We all kind of cheer each other on now.”
In this way, Kris’ growth parallels, or maybe even surpasses, the struggles of his protagonist. Certainly, from the outside, the writer’s endeavors appear like a coming of age story with the debut novel and fresh perspective on competitive writing. Moreover, the author recognizes he’s changed, he’s grown, and he’s gained a broader perspective.
But that’s not always quite how it feels. “I don’t always feel like a published novelist,” he joked, “until suddenly I walk in and see my book on the shelf.” The satisfaction of being published is a temporary feeling, but Kris thinks this feeling is a defense mechanism: “I think it’s a good thing – something to keep me wanting to write a new book.”
Want more of Kris? Curious about Spots? Read his exclusive interview with Zola here.
This article originally appeared on Zola Books.