Brooklynite writes novel he ‘always wanted to read that didn’t exist yet’

On March 28, Brooklyn writer Kristopher Jansma will appear at powerHouse Arena in DUMBO to celebrate the release of his debut novel “The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards.” Photo by Michael Levy.

Brooklyn Eagle recently reported that Brooklynite Kristopher Jansma has just released “The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards” – his debut novel that follows an unreliable narrator and his two friends as they travel the world in an effort to find and define themselves.

In this coming-of-age tale, Jansma’s erratic narrator and his friends – the brilliant Julian and Broadway actress Evelyn – attempt to assert their individuality in the face of their interconnectedness. The three travel across the U.S. and beyond, exploring Manhattan, the Grand Canyon, Iceland, and Sri Lanka. Somewhere along the way, the friends have a tragic falling out, after which the narrator envelops himself in a fictional world, seeking to evade his upsetting reality. Jansma’s moving book investigates the importance of confronting the truth in spite of unpleasant circumstances.

Jansma will appear at DUMBO’spowerHouse Arena on Thursday, March 28 for a reading and book launch party. In anticipation of the book’s release, Brooklyn Eagle spoke with the writer, who tells us how his first novel came to be, and reveals some of his favorite Brooklyn spots and activities.

After publishing short stories and essays, what inspired you to write a novel? …Was the process quite different, or mostly longer?

Actually, for me the process went the other way around. Ever since I was an undergraduate, I wanted to write a novel. I never liked writing short stories as much, because if I had characters I liked enough to write about, I always had more to say than I could fit into 15 or 20 pages.  By the time I left graduate school I was finishing up what I believed would be my first novel… but it fell apart on me, along with two more that I tried writing afterwards.

Finally I decided maybe it was time to get back to basics, so in 2009 I decided I was going to write short stories again. I challenged myself to write 40 of them in one year. I would do one each week, for three weeks, and then take a break. And it went really well at first, because with the time constraints I just had to wrap up my stories before they began to grow into novels.

But then about 13 stories into the process, I wrote one about three friends who go to a jazz brunch together, and as soon as I finished it, I knew I was going to write more about them. The next week I wrote a new story about them, going to visit a doctor in a snowstorm. And the week after that I wrote another, about a gilder in the late 1800s. And by the end of that year I not only had my 40 stories, I also had a novel.

You’ve created some interesting characters in this book…did you create the plot around the characters you’d thought of, or did your idea for the plot come first?

The characters definitely came first.  Mine usually do. Usually I have a feeling for where a story begins, but only rarely do I get the same feeling for where it ought to end.  I can’t make that decision for the characters. I just try to know them well enough to figure out what choices they’d make next.

Are you familiar with the varied locations featured in your book?  Did you do any additional travel to these locations in preparation for writing the book?

I spent some time in Raleigh and I’ve lived in New York City for the past nine years, but other than that, I wrote about all the locations in the book based primarily on research. When I was in college, my professor used to tell us that fifteen minutes in a library was all it took to be able to sound like an expert on anything. Now with the Internet it’s probably more like two minutes. But then there’s always uncertainty about how accurate your information is.

So actually I went to the Grand Canyon, Ghana, and Luxembourg – but only after I’d written the chapters about those places. In each case I went there more to do fact-checking afterwards.  My in-laws went on a trip to Iceland, and I spoke with a Tamil friend about the Sri Lanka chapter, and she helped me with those translations as well.  A student of mine doing a study abroad chapter helped with the Japanese part. All that was only possible because we could keep in touch on Facebook. You can plop yourself down in the middle of the Colombo Fort Railway Station on Google Maps… none of it is 100% accurate, of course, but you get as close as you possibly can.

When did you move to Brooklyn, and what neighborhood are you in?

My wife and I moved to Park Slope about a year ago. Her sister had lived here for many years, so we were out here all the time, and then when an apartment opened up in her building we jumped on it. And by “we” I mean she, and I, and our cat, and our library of 600 plus books. Which took forever to pack… but once we got here we thought for sure we were set.

There are no fewer than six coffee shops within ten minutes of my apartment, so I’ve always got my pick of places to write. I go wherever it isn’t too crowded already. We joined a CSA, got Brooklyn Library cards, got a Bierkraft Growler. I go running in Prospect Park all the time… but of course, as soon as we moved out here, all our friends warned us, they put something in the water…

Anyway, eight months later, my wife and I are expecting our first child. Which, of course, we couldn’t be happier about.  But the apartment’s too small for a baby and 600 books, so we’re looking for another place now, hopefully in the same neighborhood!

What does your typical day of writing entail?

Well, at the moment I work part-time teaching Creative Writing at two different colleges, so there’s pretty much no such thing as a typical day of writing for me. Sometimes I get a few hours in at home, before classes begin. Sometimes I’m writing on the Metro North train, as I head up to teach. Sometimes I write between student meetings or on the way home…

I wrote a good amount of The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards at the tutoring desk in between visitors.  I write any chance I get, because otherwise I’d never get a chance. But when I do have a few hours, I’ll go to a café and work there. I like having other people around. It makes you feel like you’ve got to keep busy, or else they’ll think you’re hogging a table, just screwing around on Twitter.

What are you working on now?

I’m deep into a second novel right now. I can’t say too much about it yet, except that it’s going to be bigger and even more ambitious. With Leopards, I wanted to write something that felt like a classic. Leopards is the book I’d always wanted to read that didn’t exist yet. I want this new book to feel like an epic. Something with the weight of history behind it.

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Kristopher Jansma is a lecturer at Manhattanville College and SUNY Purchase and writes a monthly column for Electric Literature’s blog The Outlet. He was selected as a finalist for BOMB Magazine’s 2011 fiction contest, and his work has appeared in the Blue Mesa Review.

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The March 28 event will begin at 7 p.m. powerHouse Arena is located at 37 Main St. in DUMBO.

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