'At First You Don't Want Death to Mean Anything': An Interview with Kristopher Jansma

The author of Why We Came to the City on losing someone to cancer too young, and how New York reminds everyone they're not special. 

October 18, 2016

Freddie Moore is a Brooklyn-based writer and ice skating instructor. Her work has appeared in Electric LiteratureStorychordLitReactor, and Quartz...

Zora Neale Hurston famously said: “There are years that ask questions and years that answer.”

For me, 2008 was a year full of questions. It was the year of the financial crisis, the worst since the Great Depression. It was also the year my family’s tenant was murdered while we were home, just months before I left Brooklyn for the first time to go to college. Why all at once? was just one of those questions.

Some strange and difficult years are ones we coincidentally share with other people. I found out later, when Kristopher Jansma became my senior project advisor at university, that 2008 was a time that changed him, too. It was the year his twenty-two-year-old sister Jennifer passed away from cancer. It was also the year he got married, finished a novel, threw that novel away, and realized he had to start his whole writing process over again.

Jansma’s second novel Why We Came to the City focuses on that time through five fictional characters: George, Sarah, William, Jacob, and Irene. With the exception of William, they are all fresh to New York, hoping to prove that they have something special to offer the city. It’s an ambition so many young people carry as they move here, except that one of the characters, Irene, discovers she probably won’t have the time to prove it. After finding a lump under her eye, she is diagnosed with cancer. In the most wry and tender way, Why We Came to the City explores Irene’s illness and then looks into how people pull themselves back together after life doesn’t work quite the way they imagined it.

I met with Kristopher Jansma at a coffee shop between our two respective neighborhoods in Brooklyn. Eight years after the strangeness of 2008, we looked back on everything, but it wasn’t a teary, wrought exchange—it was a good time.

Freddie Moore: Your first novel travelled around quite a bit—from Manhattan to the Grand Canyon, Sri Lanka, Luxembourg, Ghana, and other places around the world. What made you decide to ground this novel in New York?

Kristopher Jansma: I thought this time it would be interesting to stay in one place but move around a lot within that. One of the things I wanted to do was try to look at New York City as many worlds within one. So, the characters live in different neighborhoods, mostly in Manhattan, and William is from Flushing. I was trying to make sure that all the characters went to a bunch of other places as well throughout the book, so they go to Staten Island at one point, then go to Brooklyn and Queens. I think the Bronx was the only place I didn’t have them go, and Jacob drives through it at one point, but that doesn’t really count. [Laughs.]

I think one of the greatest things about living here is that you can always hop on the train and go into a totally different environment and see all types of culture smashing together. Even when you’re in areas like Greenpoint, which is pretty gentrified at this point, there’s still at least some of that. There are these old Polish places, and they might be full of hipsters, but they’re still there, they’re still serving their food. I think there’s still a lot of that variety in the city. It was important to me that the book revolved around that.

What was your favorite area to write about?

I don’t know if I can say Manhattan as a whole, but . . . I started writing the book when I was still living in Manhattan. I was living on the Upper West Side when I was writing the first chapters and that’s probably why it has a Manhattan focus to it. But, that was the thing I wanted to capture the most anyway—what it’s like to be young and in Manhattan—because I lived there for the longest of any place. I lived down on the Lower East Side during the years that this book is set in 2008 and forward. That is where I felt like I grew up, and went through a lot of the stuff that the characters are going through in the book.

I think my favorite part of the city is the drinking tour that the boys go on in the first half of the story. That was really fun to map out where they go, and most of that is in the downtown area.

Even when the characters leave New York, there’s this feeling that they could go back at any time. It still feels like a place that belongs to them. As a Brooklyn native, I am always struck by the loyalty people have to New York as an adopted home. Why do you think that is?

People are always so touchy about that. Right? Like, you grew up here, so if I were to call myself a New Yorker to you, that would be probably—

[Laughs.] No, you can call yourself a New Yorker!

Maybe not to you, but to others. Because it is different. You know, you grew up here, you went to the schools here, etcetera. It’s a little different from somebody who comes when they’re in their twenties. But I’ve lived here now longer than I’ve lived anywhere other than where I grew up when I was a kid. And I have no ties to that part anymore. I grew up in New Jersey—

Which wasn’t a place that you chose, either.

Yeah, It wasn’t a place I chose. I had a very happy childhood living there, but I was also very happy to leave. I’ve never really had any real inclination to go back. In a way, I’m even a little proud of the fact that I was able to get out because so many people I knew are still there. New Jersey in particular always seems like a place that draws people back and so I feel like I’m always fighting that urge. But my family doesn’t live there anymore. My grandmother moved farther south in Jersey and we would go down there to visit her every once in awhile, but my parents are gone, my brother doesn’t live there anymore.

New York has become a real home. I’ve been here for 13 years and now that I’m having to think about moving away, it really does feel like leaving home for the first time. So I’m trying to figure that out. There’s the home where you grow up and then there’s the home where you become an adult, and this is definitely that place for me. I mean, I got married here, I had my first kid here. He’s growing up here now. So, it’s very much like all my big life-cycle things revolved around here: My first jobs, and first apartments, things like that.

One of the main characters, Irene, undergoes chemo in the city. How different would her experience with the illness be if the book was set somewhere other than New York?

I don’t know how different it would be somewhere outside of New York. One of the big things I wanted to show with Irene, and with all of the characters, was how life around the illness doesn’t stop just because she gets sick. One thing that’s really annoyed me about other books and movies is that when somebody gets cancer, it’s like all other responsibilities melt away and everyone seems to be free to hang out in a hospital room all day. It ends up seeming really unrealistic.

One thing I wanted to show was how the city, as wonderful as it is, does not care if you are in the middle of something heavy. There are still going to be people who cut you off on the highway and give you the finger. There’s still going to be somebody on the bus who’s, like, shaving. [Laughs.] And you’re sitting there as you’re going through this cancer situation thinking: how is it that the rest of the world doesn’t see that? So I wanted to show that with what the characters go through.

I wonder if it was not in the city if that would go away a little bit? If it’s easier to stay within your bubble if you’re in another place? I think life would still find its way of intruding. There are always things that you have to deal with.

But you don’t have to deal with public transit.

Yeah. [Laughs.] Maybe it’s just public transportation. And other people in general. I think it’s easier to get away from other people when you’re not in the city. Here, there’s just no option. You go out the front door and you’ve got to deal with other people every day. You can’t just go from your house, to your car, to the hospital — back to your car, back to your house again. That changes it a little bit.

Eight years ago, your sister Jennifer passed away from cancer. How did the process for a novel based on that loss start? And when did you decide you were ready to write about what happened?

She passed away in early 2008 and the rest of that year I didn’t really do that much writing. I was sort of reeling from what had happened. Jennifer had been living with my now wife, Leah, and I for six months. While she was getting treatments here in the city, I was teaching, and Leah was editing, and we were all doing the things we do. I was also then trying to finish a novel and was very stubborn about it. I was like: I’m not going to give up my writing time and let this intrude. So I started writing through it, and then, around the time my sister ended up passing away, I had finished the book and realized that it was terrible. Obviously my head was not where it needed to be to do a good job with it.

The rest of the year I couldn’t get much done, but in early 2009, when Leah and I were on our honeymoon, I decided that I was going to get back into writing. That’s when I started this project I called Forty Stories, where I was going to try to write a story every week for the whole year. In the beginning, I wrote a bunch of very short pieces and then they got longer, and eventually, through that whole thing I ended up stumbling onto the characters for my first book. Most of The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards came from the stories that I wrote throughout the course of that year. I ended up writing something like 650 pages. [Laughs.] The more that I wrote, the more stuff started coming out automatically.

One of the stories from that year was called “The Murphy’s Odyssey.” I wrote it in the summer and it was about these two characters, George and Sarah, who are on a boat in the Greek Isles for their honeymoon, and swept off-course by some kind of storm. They have their friend’s ashes that they’re supposed to be scattering somewhere. That was the first thing I had written about those characters and it was something that ... I think up until that point I had been feeling like I didn’t want to write about what had happened with my sister. There’s this sense I’ve always had that one of the reasons to write stories is to make sense out of things that have happened in your life ... and I very much did not want any of what had happened to make any kind of sense. I didn’t want to give it any retroactive meaning or anything like that. I didn’t want to write something that said: “And then I learned a valuable lesson from everything that had happened!” And then, at some point, I got over that and realized I had to write about it anyway.

What made you decide to write the story as fiction instead of a memoir? Why tell it slant?

Erghhh. I absolutely do not think I could have written it as memoir. There are a lot of people who can do that, and I admire the hell out of them, but I just don’t know how they do it. Even being able to hide behind the little bit of fiction, it’s so hard to write about that kind of stuff.

I wrote a few essays about the realities behind the book when it came out and even that was pretty difficult. Then we’re just talking about 1000 words, so ... [Laughs.] On top of just writing about my actual sister, which I still find really tough to do, there are parts of it that I don’t even necessarily feel I have full ownership over to write about. Whether it’s how other people in my family dealt with the situation, or even, to some degree, writing about who she was felt really tricky.

Did you have to make conscious efforts to work in humor and balance in Why We Came to the City? Or did these sections come to you as a means to get through some of the raw, emotional parts of the novel?

I think it was important to balance things out. I knew that what I was writing was going to be very sad in a lot of places and I wanted to show that these characters are full of life and really living in New York in a way that’s taking inspiration from everything around them. One of the things I learned through the reality of everything is that the purpose of humor is to help us get through those things.

I can remember days when I was trying to get my sister into a chemo appointment and some guy would cut us off on the highway. I drove her in a couple of times, and I remember her leaning out the window and just screaming at this guy, and then, of course, because he has no idea, he leans out of his car with both fingers up, screaming right back at her. In the moment, it was the worst thing that had ever happened. I was like: “God, the universe just does not care about what we’re dealing with right now.” But then later, even by the end of that night, we were laughing about it. It’s funny even when you get a little bit of distance from the actual moment.

One of the big things I wanted to do in the second half of the book was show how their friendship is able to help bring them back from the grief they’re suffering, through humor and all of the stuff that holds them together in the beginning. That was a big risk with the book. I had always had this idea that Irene’s death would fall somewhere in the middle, and the second half would be all about the journey home. That’s where the Odyssey idea came in. They have the war and then the journey back again.

What made you decide to spend just as much time with the illness as with the grieving process?

The easier way, or more common way of writing that story would be to just do part one and then have the death happen. And then what you tend to see, or at least what I tend to see, is some sort of epilogue chapter or two where we flash forward five years into the future and everybody is getting their shit together, and then they’re all happy, and whatever. Or you have something like The Big Chill, where it starts with everyone getting together right after somebody’s died and then explores their grief that way. I wanted to put those things together because they’re all one story. The story of what it takes to help somebody through that, but also how you recover from it afterwards.

There’s this quote that I read a long time ago—I was sort-of nerding out and went to the Salinger letter collection at Princeton’s Library—and it’s in this letter that he wrote while in basic training. Salinger was complaining to his editor, Whit Burnett, about how he was feeling that something was off in all the stories he was writing. He wrote something along the lines of: I feel like I’ve gotten really good at writing stories that leave everybody broken at the end.And then he says something like: I feel like no writer has the right to do that unless they can put them back together again. That was a real moment for me. I never wanted to do that again. I had been through phases when I was writing really sad stuff, and not because I’m a sad person or anything like that, but just because that’s what people figure smart literary fiction is supposed to be. It’s just relentless tragedy, and then it’s over. It’s like things start out terrible and then get worse and worse.

Like Vonnegut’s Kafka plot diagram?

Exactly! And I still see that everywhere. It obviously works really well. It’s a narrative that people like, although I can’t entirely figure out why. Maybe it makes people feel better about how their lives are not quite so terrible. [Laughs.] I don’t know. But, yeah, for me I wanted to be able to—if I was going to do that, then I had to be able to do the other part too.

That’s something I look for when I’m reading as well. I want to see: Can this writer not just devastate me? I think anybody can make you sad. It’s like: Here’s this character, I’m going to make you like them, and then I’m going to have terrible shit happen to this person for five-hundred pages, and then it’s over. I think it really takes something else, and something special, to show how you make things better again. And I don’t read much that does that, so when I see it, I really get excited about it.

One of the characters, Jacob, gets really excited about bibliotherapy in that latter portion of the book. Do you believe reading can serve as a form a therapy?

Yeah, absolutely. When you’re reading the right kind of thing that is not just trying to show you the truth about how terrible life can be, but the truth about how there’s a lot of wonderful stuff in life too. Jacob in that section is channeling a lot of what I think about as I’m teaching, which is the other big part of my life.

Is there a book that’s been therapeutic for you?

There are a lot. Though, one I read last year that I would definitely put in that category is Maggie Nelson’s Bluets. Towards the end, she’s writing about her friend who is a quadriplegic after some sort of accident and there’s one part where she’s talking about despite the fact that her friend is in this terrible situation, she’s still able to be remarkably upbeat about some things. She doesn’t dismiss the pain and suffering that she’s going through, but she addresses it and then moves on from it.

I think that’s something you struggle with after you’ve gone through a big loss. You don’t want to deny your grief and pretend that everything is fine because that’s not going to work. You also don’t want to dwell on it, because that just leaves you nowhere. I think that’s where that clicked for me. You have to be able to acknowledge pain and then move on from it, and acknowledge that it’s real and it’s not going anywhere—that it’s always going to be part of your story. And then you have other things to do with the rest of your time.

What about writing? How can authors strike a balance between writing to heal themselves and creating a story for other people?

That’s where I think fiction can help. By making something fictional, you’re already starting to take what you experienced and process it in a way that makes it not so much about you. Whereas with memoir, it’s always first-and-foremost about you and then hopefully, usually, you can open up a few windows so that people can jump into your experience. I think fiction allows you to take your experience and give it to other characters.

When I first started writing Why We Came to the City, I thought of it as the book I would’ve wanted to read while I was going through everything with my sister. I wanted to write something that was true and honest about what the process of losing someone to cancer is—especially when they’re young and you have all that wrapped up in it too. Then at some point when you’re writing it, it starts to become bigger than that.

Of the three mourning sections in the second half of the book, William’s really stuck out. I love that Irene’s death inspires a scavenger hunt of sorts for him—he goes from contact to contact in her address book to turn pieces of her past into something he can understand. It made me think back to Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, when Oscar is given a key without explanation of what it might unlock. Why do you think death sends people on these journeys?

I think at first you don’t want death to mean anything, and then, eventually, you do start to feel like you’re trying to figure out how it fits into the rest of the world. I think it promotes this existential crisis where you’re searching for meaning in the wake of what has happened.

All the characters in the book are dealing with this revelation that there’s nothing special about them. When they’re young and they first get to the city, they feel like they’ve been knighted and they’re ready to come forth and conquer, and then everything comes crashing in on them. William’s a bit of an outsider from the beginning because he’s the only one who doesn’t feel he is special. In fact, he is puzzling over the opposite: Irene seemed to find him special and he doesn’t understand why. I think, then, he’s trying to figure out what is special about me? and embrace that. That was a big part of it.

The thing with Irene, trying to figure out who she was, mirrored what I was talking about before with my sister. Especially after somebody has died, you can look at them in a hundred different ways and see all these different pieces but they don’t ever add up into the person who is gone. I think that’s something that William is trying to figure out.

William is also literally haunted by her ghost. The novel grounds itself in realism, but there are some spiritual moments that push the bounds a bit. What made you decide to play with that?

All the characters are fairly agnostic. George is a lapsed Catholic, Sarah has a Protestant upbringing, and Jacob is Jewish ... culturally, but doesn’t seem to buy into the rest of it. William has also been raised with shamanism in his background, but thinks it’s sort-of crazy. So, through the second half of the book, I wanted to show them all looking for answers back in their faiths.

William’s journey involves looking back into some of that stuff, which I really loved. I went to Columbia’s East Asian Library and read all these articles on shamanism. I was fascinated with it because a lot of what I was reading was talking about how in Korea in particular, and even in places like Flushing where there are large Korean populations, that people are able to—with no cognitive dissonance whatsoever—go to the hospital and have something treated with Western medicine, and then turn around and walk over to the shaman’s office and be like: “Can you do a ritual here to clear things up?” When they interviewed people, they would say they didn’t believe in the stuff, but then a shockingly high number of those people were also going to do these things anyway. I think that’s what pushes William towards it eventually, too. He doesn’t believe in it as a principle, but when he’s in a moment of crisis it’s there for him anyway.

So, what’s next for you after writing something so personal?

I’m trying to figure that out now. I would like to get back to something a little more fun and playful the way that Leopards was. Obviously this book has a lot of fun, playful parts to it too, but I definitely need a little break from the personal side, and the heaviness that comes with it.

I’ve been working on something recently that I’ve been very excited by—right now it’s looking like part of a novel about a family. I’ve always really loved intergenerational family stories like Middlesex or East of Eden where you get three or four generations and you follow the course of their family through history. So I’m trying now to write something along those lines about a family where each generation doesn’t really know very much about the previous one.

It’s going well so far, I think. We’ll see.

Freddie Moore is a Brooklyn-based writer and ice skating instructor. Her work has appeared in Electric LiteratureStorychordLitReactor, and Quartz, among other places.