Author Talk: March 22, 2013
He is both everyman and no man. Kristopher Jansma’s highly-anticipated debut novel, THE UNCHANGEABLE SPOTS OF LEOPARDS, chronicles the life of an unnamed writer, who tells the truth on a “slant.” In this interview, Jansma reveals his inspiration for the book and the influences that went into developing the story, including why he left his narrator nameless. He also discusses his experiences with teaching at colleges and his rather prickly view of the state of higher education.
Question: First things first: 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?
Kristopher Jansma: 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: 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?
KJ: 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 UNCHANGEABLE SPOTS OF LEOPARDS begins and ends in an airport terminal --- a place that is not quite a place but rather a point of transition between places. Your novel seems to thrive on the moment and energy of transition; it never comes to rest, either geographically or in any other sense. Why such restlessness?
KJ: Airport terminals, train stations --- they're places that never change and yet are constantly in flux. As you say, most people are rushing through from one place to another --- and whenever I'm in an airport, I wonder about all the people who are there day in, day out, watching the rest of us. To me that's exactly what being a writer is like. Everyone else is rushing around, trying to get from point A to point B; my job is to sit back and watch all that restlessness, and hit pause on one person --- make them stand still so that I can capture what's driving them.
Incidentally, I love writing at airports. Part of this stems from my constant fear of missing flights --- I will inevitably end up at the airport with hours to spare, but luckily it's also really the perfect place to write. It's a self-contained universe; you've got everything you need in one bag; no one from the outside world can really bother you. If anyone calls you, you've got the perfect excuse not to be disrupted, "Oh, sorry, I'm at the airport. Can't talk right now." It's very liberating!
Q: Your book also continually expresses a fascination with diagonals: the zigzag movements of men on a checkerboard; the slant truths of Emily Dickinson poems. What attracts you to movements on the bias?
KJ: "On the bias." I like that. Great double-meaning to that word…I should have worked that term into the book somewhere!
At Johns Hopkins University, where I studied as an undergraduate, our introductory Fiction and Poetry course was split into two halves. The fall semester was called Telling it Straight and the spring was Telling it Slant, taken right from that Dickinson poem. So from the very beginning of my study of writing, I was thinking about writing in those terms. That first semester I wrote some of my very first stories, and they were almost all taken directly from my own experiences or those of friends from high school. It wasn't until the second semester that I began to understand how sometimes making something up out of pure imagination could be a far more truthful story.
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?
KJ: 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: 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?
KJ: 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: Readers who glance at your table of contents and see that the two most substantial sections of the novel are titled "What Was Lost" and "What Was Found" might anticipate a straightforward story of failure and redemption. That turns out not to be exactly true, though the story is about losing and finding in a lot of ways. Care to comment?
KJ: That's interesting. In a way it is a story of failure and redemption, though not a straightforward one, surely. Maybe it is a "slant-forward," redemption tale. But yes, it is a story about losing, right from the very first line. Losing novels, losing love, losing faith, losing friends…It could have been a very depressing book, except that I think that losing is also a first step toward changing. And that's the big question the narrator struggles with throughout --- can he change his nature?
There's a quote I stumbled upon while reading some of Salinger's old letters once, and it completely changed the way I wanted to end the book. While he was serving in WWII, Salinger wrote a letter home expressing his frustrations with the many stories he was continually writing while he was over there. He said he felt that no writer had "the right to tear his characters apart" if he didn't know how to put them together again. And that just hit me square on. I knew I had to figure out how to end the book without, as he put it, "leaving them all broken on the page with just 'The End' written underneath." It took a while but eventually I saw a way to do it, and that's when I finally settled on those section titles "What Was Lost" and "What Was Found."
Q: Your story also seems to take great pleasure in doubling. Your narrator has a doppelgänger. The lead woman is an actress, which is another kind of doubling. Many of the other characters have two names, and, of course, the manuscript comes in two halves of the same height and "consistency." What makes doubling so intriguing to you?
KJ: Doubling comes up in the story in many different places, but often it is a way of exposing change. When you hold a copy and an original far apart, it can be very hard to see any difference. But when you put them right beside one another, all the tiny modifications become easier to spot --- like one of those puzzles in a Highlights for Children magazine.
As an undergraduate, I was lucky enough to take a graduate seminar with Professor John Irwin, who had written tremendous essays and books about doubling in modern literature. One concept he introduced me to, I remember, was a gnomon. It's what the Greeks called the triangular piece on a sundial that casts the shadow that goes around slowly over time. In literature, a gnomon can be anything or anyone that the protagonist meets early in the novel and then sees again towards the end of the book. By contrasting the protagonist's reactions to these two encounters, a reader can better see how he has changed during the time between.
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?
KJ: 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?
KJ: 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: I also caught more than a hint of Hunter S. Thompson. Is he another personal guru?
KJ: I had avoided Thompson for a long time because I thought of him as a guy who mainly wrote about drugs, which don't really interest me much. But then I happened across DOWN AND OUT IN PARIS AND LONDON by George Orwell, and I loved it, and I wondered if maybe Thompson's title was a nod to Orwell's. So I picked up FEAR AND LOATHING one day and read the first page and was completely riveted. The narrator's voice just sucked me right in. I'd expected it to be sloppy and sprawling and surreal, but it was so crystalline and so real. And really funny! I wasn't expecting that. Plus it gave a firsthand account of something that couldn't be described any other way, like poverty in Orwell's book.
But, I couldn't say he was a "personal guru" because I never read another book of Thompson's after that one, and I don't know that much about his life.
I think in terms of personal gurus, I'd have to go with writers whose lives inspire me as much as their work: David Mitchell, J. D. Salinger, Nabokov, Fitzgerald. They leave me in total awe of what they can do. I don't know that I can call them influences though, because I don't dare try to write like them. I sort of want to go on believing that what they can do is just magic that can't be replicated.
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?
KJ: 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: We take your point in the novel that all of fiction is a pack of lies. But can it afford to be just a grand deception? Do the lies mean anything at all unless they reveal some deeper truth?
KJ: Absolutely not. There is no meaning to lies without that deeper truth, and more important, no, it can't afford it. We can't afford it.
Elizabeth Bowen said, in her “Notes on Writing a Novel,” "The novel lies, in saying that something happened that did not. It must, therefore, contain uncontradictable truth, to warrant the original lie." And I think this is part of the limb that fiction asks you to step out on. There's a promise of some high-hanging fruit at the end of that limb. We read books all the time that fall short on this promise, I think. The characters make implausible choices or the author creates unearned twists in the plot, or the sentences just simply fail to animate our own imaginations. There's nothing irrefutably true about these things. Readers know, deep down, that the real world is a lot more complicated and interesting than that.
But when that irrefutable truth is there, a beating heart beneath every paragraph, it allows a writer to tell greater and greater lies. There are some fantastic things that happen in LEOPARDS. But my hope is that when readers come to the end of the novel, they will think, "Ok, yes, finally!" and not "Puhlllease! You expect me to buy this?"
Q: Your story within a story within a story about Colette Marsh and the Civil War-era gilder is a marvelous vignette. How did you come up with it?
KJ: It was a leap for me, because I'd really never written historical fiction before, but it was something I'd always wanted to try. I'd initially written the "Anton & I" chapter without the excerpts included, but with the characters only describing the story enough that a reader might get an idea of what it was about. I wanted it to feel like a fantasy version of the narrator's situation with Evelyn, but for him to still feel like it might be hidden in some way --- that he could reasonably believe she wouldn't think it was about her when she read it. Gold was already becoming a big motif in the other sections, and so I thought I'd set it during the Gilded Age. But then I began doing some research and discovered all this fantastic and horrible stuff about the Draft Riots in 1863, and it seemed like the perfect backdrop for this opulent wedding, and this story about class, and so then I had to shift it slightly to "Just Before" the Gilded Age. In my early drafts it remained a whole separate chapter, following "Anton and I" but it took us too far away from Julian and Evelyn, and so I trimmed it considerably and wove it directly into the earlier chapter.
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?
KJ: No, but we're keeping our eyes open! Until then, I'm more than happy to continue taking the credit.
Q: The novel takes readers around the world and back again, too 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…
KJ: 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.