It’s mid-March, and as I walk to meet Kristopher Jansma in a Brooklyn café, the snowflakes falling onto my coat are comically large. I reach out to grab one, and it’s easily the size of my palm — an image that, if recounted in a story, would seem like a writerly exaggeration, or even a lie. It’s an apropos way to usher in a chat with Jansma, whose debut novel, The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards, is a masterful web of literary lies and metafiction. Jansma’s unnamed narrator fibs his way through friendships, relationships, and a tour around the world. In his haze of lies, the narrator’s ultimate goal is to secure himself a spot as a literary force, although the journey isn’t without its bumps, leopard attacks, and shadows.
In conversation, Jansma appears to be little like his narrator — genuine, poised, and with a laugh that reverberates off the walls of the tiled café in which we’ve taken refuge from the snow. He assures me that the character’s story is more exciting than his own. And although I believe him, I find Jansma’s own life to be richer than his fabrications.
Meredith Turits: You’ve said that you’re a patently bad liar. What makes a bad liar, and why are those storytelling tools not necessary for fiction?
Kristopher Jansma: I don’t know the underlying reason why I’m a bad liar, but I know the reason I get caught is because I can’t look somebody in the eye and lie to them at the same time. If I’m lying to you, I’ll be looking at the table or something — that’s what always what happens. My whole life, I’ve never been able to get away with stuff. A month or two ago, I wrote this essay about trying to get away with lies as a kid and my mom always knew. I would be totally convincing, I’d have all my evidence lined up to back up my story, but she always knew. It was always over before I got started. So, I’m a terrible liar in real life, which is one of the reasons I was attracted to this character’s voice when I started writing the story, because I was like, This could be my chance. I could write this character to be as good of a liar as I wish I was in real life. That sort of got the ball rolling. In that way, the narrator is a lot like me if I were able to pull off these kind of lies in real life.
That’s one of the reasons I thought I might have struggled a lot at first as a fiction writer. I thought, Well, you have to be able to lie convincingly to people to make them believe that things happened, but it’s a totally different thing lying on the page — because you have time to layer and do research and you don’t have to look anyone in the eye and all that — and you can kind of fake it without having to deal with the people on the other side. The cool thing is that the reader in fiction wants to be lied to. They want somebody to tell them a story that they know isn’t true — and they want it to be a great story. They want it to be so wild and unbelievable, but that they still love it. And I think that’s so cool.
How have you found out that “the only person you can’t lie to is a better liar”, as you’ve said on your pages?
The original quote was, “The only mind a fiction writer can’t look into is a better fiction writer,” and that’s from Norman Mailer’s Armies of the Night. It’s a scene where he’s backstage with Robert Lowell the poet and he’s trying to figure out what’s going on in his head and he realizes he has no idea because Robert Lowell is just such a better writer than he ever will be. It’s such a cool moment in the book. It was too complicated to explain that all in the chapter, but I do think with real lying in real life that a better liar knows when they’re being lied to, as well.
In the same way that a reader does I kind of enjoy being lied to a bit. I’ve had friends in the past who are just fantastic liars. I know they’re lying to me about things and I just don’t really care because I kind of would rather hear the story, and I’d hate to ruin it by saying, “You’re full of it. You’re telling me a story.” Over the course of years, I’ve had friendships with almost pathological types of liars, and many times I’ve realized they’re telling me something made up, but it’s sort of more interesting and I’d rather just see where the story goes.
Does lying offer a safety net to enable you to actually write about yourself?
Definitely. I like fiction because I can take something that I know is true and I can translate it to something that will still have the right effect on the reader, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that they won’t be able to figure something out about my own life.
Are they personal stories, or things that you’ve heard, or guarded things about your personal life that you wouldn’t necessarily have revealed otherwise?
A lot of times they’re things I would happily tell friends or acquaintances because I don’t necessarily know who’s going to read it. I also feel like to some degree when I’m writing about myself, there’s this narcissism — an assumption that the other person is going to care about your life and your story. If it’s a friend or an acquaintance, there’s an understanding that they’re going to listen to your story and you’re going to listen to theirs, but on the page it feels more presumptuous.
Does writing metafiction allow you to hide in any way? Can it provide a disguise that allows you to confront personal issues more obliquely?
I think it certainly could do that. For me, writing this character was more of an opportunity to try on a disguise that was more fun than I am…I’m a very above-board kind of person, whereas the narrator has a lot of baggage he’s weighed down by, constantly lying and putting on different faces and trying to be one way around certain people. In real life, for me when I first got to college, I was similar to the [book’s narrator] in certain places, and it was a real adjustment from being a really average high school student who ended up at Hopkins.
For the first year I thought they were going to figure out it was a mistake and they were going to knock on my door at some point and tell me to leave, and my grades weren’t very good, so there was plenty of reason to believe I was in over my head at the time. It was a very different crowd than I was used to. In high school, I hung out with the tech crew of the theatre department who were in black t-shirts and combat boots, and I got to Hopkins, and I was in this very different environment with much preppier people, and it was a huge adjustment — I thought I was a whole different person in some way…
There’s a little bit of that underneath the layers of the story. For me, fictionalizing it, turning it into this guy from Raleigh trying to fit with these super-wealthy people makes it more glamorous and more interesting than my story, which probably isn’t that different from one-hundred thousand other stories every year.
What has become transparent to you — both as a person and a writer — while committing to the world of metafiction?
One thing that I hadn’t seen before was how much a writer’s ambitions are as internal as they are external. In the beginning of the story, he’s competing with Julian, trying to be a better writer than him — which he’s not! — and what he starts to realize over the course of the bigger book is that it’s not about being better than Julian, that it’s about how to be more honest about what’s going on in his own life and how to write about it honestly — how to embrace the dark sides of himself and be honest about those parts and the writing.
The book started as individual stories, and as the stories started to come together, I started to realize as it was heading in that direction that it needed to be more about what he needed to get over and how he could succeed with writing — which is what I was trying to do at the time, too.
Did you learn anything about your past or yourself, because you’re so intensely defined as a writer?
Yeah. I wanted to be a writer since I was very young, and started writing when I was a little kid… Eventually, like the narrator, I had to come to terms with if this was something I wanted to do when I was a kid, like being a firefighter or something, or was it something that I deeply needed to do for other reasons. Writing is definitely how I process what goes on in my own life. Saying it’s therapeutic is not really enough. It’s necessary. So many great things happen in the course of a month or two, and then they happen and then we forget about them a week later, and we tell them to someone or send an email to a friend, and they fade away, and that really frustrates me, so if something exciting happens, I’m always thinking, Well, I can hold onto this, I can use this in a book, and that’ll make some kind of record of it.
I had an interesting experience with a novelist-friend who picked up your book in my apartment; he saw it was about another writer, and immediately seized up. Have you had that reaction from other writers? And to what would you attribute his reaction?
Just last semester I was in this workshop I’m running with one of my students and a girl read a beautiful story about a couple that’s breaking up and the female character was trying to make sense of the breakup by writing some sort of journal or diary about it. The piece was written in fragments of different journal entries. It was beautiful, really well done. And the first comment — a kid raised his hand in class — was, “I really liked it, but you can’t write stories about writers.” I just looked at him and asked, “Why not?” and he said, “Because nobody cares about writers besides other writers.” I was like, “I don’t know where you got that rule from, but that’s not a good rule.”
First of all, there shouldn’t be rules about things that are off-limits. It would be a bad thing to write a book about writers that’s totally narcissistic and self-serving and insular so that no one could possibility enjoy it, sure, and I think maybe there’s been other books like that that people have read and that have maybe turned them off to it. I think that’s where I get excited, because as soon as someone tells me, That’s off-limits, you can’t write about that, immediately I try to figure out why not, and how can I do it.
Now that the book’s coming out, I got that reaction from agents in particular—editors won’t be interested in a book about a writer writing; it’s a cliché, everybody’s debut is about a writer writing, it’s too meta, it’s too whatever — and thankfully found someone who was willing to read and enjoy the book and not just willing to write it off based on the plot summary. Of course, they realized it’s much more than that.
In a recent conversation with Sam Lipsyte here on Full Stop, I spoke to him about how the young writers he teaches are too scared to write what they know — yet, in Leopards it’s all your main character can seem to do. Is it just the character’s nature? Is it his education? It is something else entirely?
Starting with me, I had a big fear of writing about what I knew because I feared my life wasn’t that interesting. I was only 21 when I started the Columbia program, and I was 23 when I left, and everyone was older than I was and had done other things. They were in their late 20s or 30s and had had interesting lives — they’d trekked across the desert or owned a bar and had interesting material and I had nothing . . . I think it’s really hard at the beginning to trust that your experiences are valid.
With the narrator, though, he keeps on writing about these [same] events — in the same way that I kept on getting drawn back to events that I was trying to figure out — and I think the more you write, the more you figure out there are things you’re trying to work through, and that’s why in college the one thing he can find to write about is the whole story of Billy and Betsy and how he ended up getting where he is. It’s kind of a crazy story, and it’s a sequence of events that led him there that were out of his control.
There’s a line in the opening pages of the novel in which one character says to your narrator at age eight, who’s just authored his first work, “A book . . . Sounds like someone wants to live forever.” When you started writing, were you of the mind that being published made someone immortal?
When I started writing as a younger kid? Yeah. I read books constantly as a kid, and I was in seventh grade when my English teacher explained to me that a writer was something you could be as a job. It’d never really occurred to me before that books were created by people. Yes, there were people’s names on the books, but from my perspective as a kid, I was born, and there were already a million great books out there. And sometimes there were new ones, but I never put the whole picture together. Then all of a sudden this idea that you could be a person who creates something like that had that feeling that you could be immortal to it.
That line comes from when I was 14 and I was working my first job in a Dunkin’ Donuts, there was a guy who worked in the back. I think he was Hatian. He made all the donuts every day. We were chatting and I told him I wanted to be a writer and that was his response to me, and I thought that was such a weird thing to say. That really stuck with me and I started thinking, Oh, maybe that is really why I want to do this.
How has taking on a challenging structure informed your next project?
The new project structurally is also challenging, but in a different way than Leopards is. With Leopards, there are a lot of metafictional elements because the main character is a writer and he’s ostensibly telling the story, and kind it’s pieced together from the stories he’s written. With this new book, it’s not that. I’m trying out a third person narration that I first saw reading James Joyce — he pulls off this great close third person narration that is able to move from character to character — and another rule I’ve always struggled with a little bit is that you can either first person, third person close to one character, or third person omniscient, and then I read Joyce and then I realized he’s cheating. He’s getting one character, and then he can get another and then slide the focus back to another. It’s tricky! Then, structurally, I’m working with different sections where I have ones just from one character’s point of view, and then another section from another character’s point of view — it’s exciting to try to find some new ground to break.