INTERVIEW with Kristopher Jansma on WHY WE CAME TO THE CITY

Today, Jocosa’s Bookshelf expands to include interviews, and I’m delighted that the award-winning, best-selling author Kristopher Jansma agreed to launch this new endeavor.

Kristopher Jansma received his B.A. in The Writing Seminars from Johns Hopkins University and an M.F.A. in Fiction from Columbia University. He is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at SUNY New Paltz, teaches graduate courses at Sarah Lawrence College, and the winner of the 2014 Sherwood Anderson Fiction Award.

His first novel, The Unchangeable Spots of Leaopards (Viking/Penguin 2013) was described by The Village Voice as “F. Scott Fitzgerald meets Wes Anderson.” Why We Came To The City (Viking/Penguin 2016) was nominated for the Brooklyn Eagles Prize and its French translation, NEW YORK ODYSSÉE by Sophie Troph and Rue Fromentin is the winner of the Priz du Livre de Voyage Urbain.

WHY WE CAME TO THE CITY follows a tightknit group of friends living in New York who are suddenly forced to confront mortality when one of them falls ill. The book is both a love note and a breakup letter to New York, and Jansma captures perfectly the way young people give themselves to the city, and what the city gives to— and takes from— them. It’s a heartfelt novel, tender and painful and cathartic all at once, and even if the characters belong to New York, the story belongs to us.— Michael Straub, book critic

You painted the energy, hope, doubt and fear of life of being twenty-something in NYC with such accuracy, it was impossible not to recall my own dreams and disappointments of that time in my life. Were you consciously attempting to reach out universally to touch multiple age groups and cultures, or do you feel the universality of the story is simply a by-product of the specificity in your writing?

That’s a great question, and thanks, by the way for reaching out to me to talk more about the novel. I think that when you’re writing, the way to the universal is usually through the specific. When I first arrived in New York City in 2003 and began to start a life there as a writer, I experienced a particular set of things that were unique to that moment in the city. It was shortly after 9/11 and that was still an everyday topic of discussion for most people I met there. The iPhone and the iPod weren’t ubiquitous yet on the subways and sidewalks. The gentrified neighborhood I was in, Morningside Heights, was pushing up into Harlem and there were protests going on all the time about the war in Iraq. So when I think about those days, that’s the New York I remember, which doesn’t quite exist anymore.

The characters in Why We Came to the City are living through the 2008-2009 financial crisis, and so they have a different view of city-life and what finding your dreams looks like than I did a few years earlier. The specifics are different, but that universal thing of “if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere” is always there. And I hear from readers often who lived in the city in the sixties, or seventies, who recall that same energy and spirit and chaos—and when they come to the city now they can’t even recognize it.

And I should say too that this is something universal about cities everywhere—it happens to be New York City, mostly Manhattan, in my novel. But that experience is the same in Toronto or Miami or Seattle or Toledo… the universal parts, anyway, not the specifics. Hopefully that makes the novel relatable, not just now, and not just to New Yorkers, but to anyone at any age, who has dreams and ambitions to pursue.

From 1994 to 2004, the sitcom Friends resonated with your generation the way Thirtysomething previously spoke to mine. The friends in Why We Came To The City feel like the flip-side of the Friends collective, and yet, I sense your characters are going to impact twentysomethings for generations to come. Why do you think this story, set during the financial crisis of 2008, has such an impact today? And what elements do you feel make it timeless?

That’s very true, and there is a little nod to Friends in my book. Some of the characters like to watch a show called Vamanos Muchachos! in Spanish that is like some version of Friends set in Mexico City. And I did that because there’s a little fantasy of city life that I think many of us do get from television. Maybe from novels too. There’s something in my first book, The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards, about two young men who come to New York thinking it will be like an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel!

But one thing that Friends and Thirtysomething both get to in different ways is how, in a city, you make a sort of second family out of your friends. You can count on them to be there for you in times of joy and crisis. Meanwhile your real family, that isn’t there with you, may not really understand what’s going on the same way. So you turn to these friends for guidance and comfort as if they were your brothers and sisters.

In Why We Came to the City, the larger crisis in the background is the collapse of the financial system. This event really threw a whole sub-generation of Americans for a loop—and came directly in the way of those dreams and ambitions we were just talking about. People lost jobs, had to leave school, sell their apartments at a huge loss. There was suddenly very little momentum. Things just sort of stopped—if you were lucky enough to even hang on. And that presents a big crisis for them in the novel that they have to face… along with some other pretty major crises!

The novel is told from five points of view: three males and two females. Did you ever have doubts about your ability to capture the two female characters? What helped you make the female characters as complex as the men?

Thank you, first of all. I hope that they are as complex. I wanted Irene and Sara both to be very full and human characters—they’re both strong women, but I didn’t want that to be the whole thing. I think lots of male writers think they can sort of fake a good female character by just making them entirely tough and “badass” and strong, which is sort of an overcompensation, I think. That’s just as bad as making them all soft or weak or motherly. Any character, male or female, has to have more than just one side to them. Because all people, male or female, have those sides. And that’s the trick, really—we have to just think about people we know and really see them for all of who they are. What are they afraid of, what do they pretend to be, what do they hope for?

Sara, in the novel, is sometimes very maternal to the rest of the group—which is something she often winds up feeling trapped and frustrated by. She’s excited to marry George, her long-time boyfriend, but there’s some debate about whose apartment they will both move into, and when they finally do get married there’s not a quick happy ending there either. Irene, on the other hand, is even more complicated. She’s an orphan, she’s bisexual, she’s trying to be an artist, and, as the novel opens, she’s struggling with a potentially terminal cancer diagnosis. She falls in love with William, somewhat by accident, in the opening chapter, at what kind of turns out to be the worst possible time for both of them. She’s not very trusting of him, but she’s also very curious about him and his family and his private world. And then as fate would have it, these two misfit lovers end up together during this very scary time in her life.

Sarah, George, Irene, Jacob and William are all flawed as characters, but we love them because we’re able to feel their vulnerability in spite of the flaws. How do you navigate into the hearts of characters with issues?

Well, I love characters with issues because, again, I love people with issues. I love their issues. I am fascinated by my friends and my family and people around me. Watching people I love struggle through these things is something that brings me a lot of hope for us as a species, you know? And I think it is necessary to present people honestly in books like mine because that is the exact thing you want to replicate for the reader. Flaws are what draw me to people in real life, and I think they are what draw us to characters in fiction.

We have, in this book, Jacob, who is in an unhealthy relationship with his boss and hates his job and is somehow both kind of repressed and too loud at the same time. William, who is majorly repressed and a little immature—both maybe partly coming out of a love-hate conflict with his Korean family and traditions. George is, seemingly, something of a saint, but he secretly has a drinking problem, which is a way of covering his massive anxieties. Sara’s a bit of a control freak, and Irene can’t trust people… as we just spoke about. So yeah—I don’t know. Who couldn’t love them? They’re incredibly real to me. They’re trying so hard.

In your Acknowledgements, you say Why We Came To The City was written in loving memory of your sister, Jennifer, who pushed you first. I’m so sorry for your loss. I’m also inspired by your ability to tap into what you learned about the grieving process to create a story that, in many ways, feels like a tribute to your sister’s spirit. In your interview on largehearted boy, it’s clear that you used a lot of threads from your personal life to enrich the novel. How do you know when an experience of your own can be extracted, then twisted or transformed for the benefit of a story? Are there signs that tell you, “Oops, if I use this event it’s going to be too much like a therapy session? Or do you feel writing is fundamentally a bit of therapy for writers and readers?

Thank you so much for saying that. I do hope that the novel is a kind of tribute to my sister, Jennifer, who was a wonderful young woman and, I want to say, every bit as flawed and complicated as we were just discussing before. We did not always get along, but we tried, I think, and in the last year of her life she came to stay with my fiancé, Leah, and I, while she got treatment at Sloan-Kettering in New York City. It was one of the most difficult and awful experiences of my life. We took care of her every day, during treatments and side effects… and while just dealing with all the usual catastrophes of life in a big city in your early 20s. It was a dizzying and heartbreaking time. But we also got very close, finally, and I think we came to know each other better as adult people in all the kinds of ways we just talked about.

And I think because of that, I did know that there was going to be something worth writing about in there. For a long time I really fought against my impulse to write about her illness and then her death, for many reasons. I somehow felt like if I wrote about it then I was validating it. Like I was saying that it was OK that this awful thing had happened because at least I’d gotten this book out of it. It all felt so unfair and I couldn’t allow it to be made sense of—and writing fiction is a way of making sense of reality. (And it is a lot like therapy, which I also needed to get plenty of!)

Eventually I basically had no choice. It literally started coming out in my writing whether I wanted it to or not. And when I finally saw what that novel was going to look like, and what it could show people, and me too, then I knew it was going to be worth the pain of getting it all down.

After Jennifer passed, you took a writing hiatus then started a project called Forty Stories. One story called The Murphys’ Odyssey was about a couple on their honeymoon in the Greek Islands, who are trying to get rid of the ashes of a friend who recently passed away. This story became the basis for the characters of George and Sarah, and a variation of the story found it’s way into your novel. You’ve also said your debut The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards was developed through short stories. What can you offer writers about the use of short stories as a tool for novel development?

I think it is a perfect way for many writers to get going. I teach writing as well, at SUNY New Paltz and Sarah Lawrence College, and we start small because that’s how it is easiest to get comfortable with the fundamentals. A really amazing short story is a work of art unto itself—some can take as long to write as whole novels. But it lets you tackle things on a manageable scale for a while. For me, I had tried to jump right into novels because I had all these huge ideas and I wanted room to play with them. But I tried, several times, to write longer works and they always sort of lost steam or fell apart. That was when I started 40 Stories because I wanted to get back to those basics and see if I could get more practice. And it made a really big difference. I just got more and more comfortable with characters and plotting and all that stuff. And then, sort of by accident, I realized one day—this was on the 13th story—that I had written about three people I was in love with and had to write more about. So I sort of cheated, and over the year, I finished the 40 Stories project, but about 8 of them were secretly part of this longer book. But I didn’t focus on the big picture with them as I went. I wrote them out of order and just whenever an idea for those characters came along. And it was, really, amazing. Then of course it took me another year to figure out how the hell to assemble it all into something coherent! But that’s also part of the fun of it.

Based on The Murphys’ Odyssey, you ended up writing the second half of Why We Came To The City first— the portion of the book that deals with how the characters deal with Irene’s death— then you went back to discover how this group of characters formed. How does knowing specifically where the story is going to end help a writer determine where a story needs to start? Can you share a bit about how this process worked for you?

So I also wrote Why We Came to the City in a bit of a scattered way. I did write “Murphys’ Odyssey” first, and that was originally the title of the whole book. But I later figured out it would need to be later in the book because George and Sara were on their honeymoon already. So I tucked that away. Almost a year later I wrote another piece about William, looking for a lost girlfriend who has died and I just knew… hey, this fits. A while after, I wrote what turned into the first chapter of the novel, which was then called “The Vicarious States of America”… and then I had already written the prologue years earlier as its own standalone prose poem. So little bits and pieces started to come together, and soon I could sort of see what the whole thing looked like. I had five characters and I started to work out how they’d all get their points of view into the book. 

The novel begins with the prologue “Why We Came To The City”, the second half is marked with— for lack of a better word— the mid-logue “Why We Left The City” and ends with the epilogue “The City That Is”. These sections read like prose poems and could easily stand on their own. What went into your decision to use these sections to frame the story? And when did you know that they were actually going to be written by Jacob’s character?

So the prologue was, originally, its own piece and it was always a bit of prose poem. I had taught Thoreau’s “Why I Went to the Woods”, which is a piece of Walden, many times to Freshmen, and I wanted to see what would happen if I inverted it, basically. And that came out. But as a standalone story I had never really been able to do anything with it. Finally, with this book, it had a home.

The “mid-logue” (I like that!) came very late in the game. I knew I needed something like that in there between the first and second parts of the novel, but by then it had been so many years since I wrote the prologue that I was nervous about trying to replicate the tone and match the detail. But I finally sat down with Walden again and found the part at the end where he talks about deciding to go back to civilization. And it just came right to me.

The epilogue, “The City That Is”, came suddenly too, but I was less sure I needed it. I think this, and the mid-logue were both actually things written late in the editing stages of the novel. We all felt like it needed some balancing. I had originally ended the novel with George and Sara flying back from their honeymoon and seeing the city down below through the plane window, and them thinking about it from this great distance finally. And it sort of worked, and sort of didn’t. It seemed wrong to end with just their points of view, and I wanted to make it more universal again. And to also acknowledge that their collective experience of the city was just one tiny facet of it—that the thing about a place like New York, but again, almost any city—is that we’re all down there living in slightly different cities from one another, and they overlap but we hardly ever see so much of it. For this I looked at another old favorite of mine, Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino, and it worked beautifully.

Lastly, the idea of Jacob being the author of these poems did not come to me until very late, again maybe not until the final edits. I wanted something for him to be contributing to the wedding—a gesture of his participation and approval after all his naysaying, and also for us to see him getting his poetic voice back again after all this time. So it all pointed in that direction, and I hope there’s some catharsis there for the Jacob lovers, of whom I am one.

Jacob’s last words to Irene, which we don’t discover until nearly the end, are unexpected, and at the same time capture their relationship and his heart so well. Did you know while you were writing the death scene what he said, or did the words reveal themselves later? Jacob gives Sarah and George two completely different answers when they ask him what he whispered to Irene. Were those answers ever serious options, or simply part of your process of discovery?

Yes, I did know what those words would be from the very beginning. It was, to me, what the entire emotional journey he undertakes is about. He is a natural skeptic, though as we find out in that section, he is the kind of skeptic hardened so much because he used to believe. I’m not a very religious person, but I try to keep an open mind and heart. I’m mostly interested in people and how faith helps or hinders them in their progress. This was, I think, a very spiritual book for me to write—Jacob is Jewish, George is Catholic, Sara is a Protestant, William is tied to a Korean mysticism through his mother. Irene alone is not religious, though she does have something of an artistic/spiritual vision in the hours before her death—she sees the city, connects to ancient Greek and Roman myth, and realizes she ultimately wants to be with her true family, her friends. But anyway, I knew from the beginning that Jacob’s last words to her would be what they ended up being. “When you get there, just let me know you made it, all right?” It is what his own mother says to him before he boards a plane earlier in the section. And it means that, underneath all the skepticism, he believes she will live on in the universe in some way.

Let’s go a little further into the character of Jacob with a passage from the first section of the novel.

Though the 1 Train was quiet in an early-afternoon sort of way, Jacob transferred to the express 2 train at 96th Street, hoping to move even more swiftly to Fourteenth Street and the coffee shop that he required to sit in and write his poem. It was the only place he could breathe easily enough to tease it out. The challenge, as always, was to hold his impish idea in his threadbare net until he could get there…

For this was what writing poetry had become: a delicate extraction, done in quarter-turns, where the slightest jostling meant starting all over…

In high school he’d written like blinking. On the backs of napkins. In textbook margins. On the edges of his desks. On the dividers in the bathroom stalls. On the chalkboards of empty classrooms.

When I read that passage I thought, “I get it. I’ve been there, and yet, a part of me recognized his perspective as a kind of fearful procrastination. Is fear Jacob’s biggest obstacle? How do you tackle fear in your writing?

I think Jacob’s biggest obstacle might be fear, in the form of a kind of perfectionism or purity? Writing is hard work! It is messy and requires a lot of patience. And faith, I suppose. Jacob wants to think that he will just sit down at the page and write brilliant things almost reflexively. I think that’s how a lot of us feel, especially in the beginning when we’re maybe almost a little amazed by our own abilities. It can feel like a super power when it is going well. He thinks about being young and having it all just flow out… but as you get older and you read more and you realize how difficult it really is to write something good, that can be paralyzing. He’s had some success the old way—in the beginning of the novel we learn he once won a prize for an epic poem called “In the Eye of the Shitstorm” which he wrote all in a rush after his uncle’s suicide. But now he looks back on it and hates it! So he’s not sure what to do.

And the only way through this, I think, is to just accept that drafts are flawed—that it takes time and dedication to work things out. But you have to keep at it and not get discouraged, even as you recognize everything that is wrong with what you’ve put down on paper!

Jacob actually works in a private psychiatric facility, where he eventually uses his background in Classics to help the patients on his ward. Unfortunately, Classics are no longer an integral part of our educational system. Did you ever worry that the references to the Iliad and the Odyssey would be an obstacle for your audience? Or did you hope the use of Homer’s work would spark a fire in your readers? Or was the Odyssey just a perfect fit for the tale you were telling?

It’s funny, I don’t know if I thought that much about that. I do remember reading The Iliad in high school English class, though I don’t remember liking it much. I studied Latin in middle school and had to translate The Aeneid as a project once. I think that there are texts like The Odyssey that, God knows, we should teach more to students—but which are so ingrained in our culture that we come across them in some way. We talk about going on an Odyssey. You can go on an Odyssey in your Honda Odyssey™ right? I remember as a kid watching a Duck Tales episode where they are sailing around and there’s a Scylla and Charybdis thing—there’s a Simpson’s episode probably, I’m sure. Anyway, I think that most people have some sense of the basic idea that mattered for me in the writing of this book, which is that you have first, The War, and then, the Journey Home after. And I did have fun playing with specific references to the actual poems, which are there for readers who want to dig around and who know their Classics. There are also a number of references to The Waste Land, by TS Eliot and The Bridge by Hart Crane, which were two more epic poems that helped me figure out the emotions that Jacob and William, especially, were going through.

Another interesting character choice was George’s work in astrophysics. Is astrophysics an interest of yours? Or did you see the moment when George feels the last four years of his research has been a waste of time as a reflection of the stressful transformations these friends would undergo?

Yes, this has long been a weird side interest of mine. I joke sometimes that I know more writers who used to want to be physicists… I think in an odd way it makes sense. Both writing and physics are, at heart, about answering big questions about life and the universe. Why are we here? Is there some order to everything around us? George solves for these things with equations and numbers. I solve for them with characters and plots. Of course, as an armchair physicist who barely passed Calculus, I had to make sure I checked a lot of George’s parts out with people who really know what they’re talking about. I had some great help here from a friend of a friend, Dr. Joel Green, who is currently working at the Space Telescope Science Institute at my alma mater, Johns Hopkins University. And, no spoilers, but I will likely be calling on him again soon for some more help, as my new book (which is coming along!) has a lot more of this stuff in it. I think it is fun, and I like knowing I can write about more than just writers and artists sometimes!