Jeff Glor talks to Kristopher Jansma about "The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards"
Jeff Glor: What inspired you to write the book?
Kristopher Jansma: It sort of hit me out of nowhere. I had gone to see "Waiting for Godot" with a friend one weekend, and I had never seen it before. I knew the concept, basically... I knew that it's a play about two guys waiting for a third guy to show up and that he never does. But I'd never actually bothered to read it. Anyway, we went to see it and I couldn't believe how moving it was... what really struck me was the way that Vladimir and Estragon wind up clinging to one another, and holding each other back, but at the same time they seemed to truly love and care for one another. So that got in my head, and then I was at brunch at the Washington Square Hotel, and there was this jazz music playing, and the two thoughts came together. That week I wrote a short story called "The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards", about two writers who go to brunch with a beautiful actress, and the writers get in an argument about a short story that one has written about the other. Then the next week I wrote the story they were arguing about, which features two writers arguing about a novel that one has written about a beautiful actress. And then the next week I wrote a piece of that novel... pretty soon I just couldn't stop writing about these three characters and by the end of that year, I had enough that it felt like a book.
JG: What surprised you the most during the writing process?
KJ: There were a lot of surprises... partly because it was written in pieces and I didn't always know what order they'd go in or what the larger plot would be. But I think maybe the biggest surprise was the evolution of Tina, the editor character, who comes in during the second half of the novel. I originally saw her as being a kind of stand-in for the actress, Evelyn, in the chapter when she and the narrator are in Ghana together, working on a biography of Jeffrey Oakes. But she really took on a whole life of her own, and became in many ways a foil for Evelyn. Instead of being a little cold and proper and privileged, Tina is hard-working and passionate and sarcastic. I surprised myself with how much I wound up liking her, and wanting to see her get a moment of triumph.
JG: What would you be doing if you weren't a writer?
KJ: Well, I'm also a creative writing professor, and I love teaching students the craft and appreciation of great fiction, so I suppose if my ink well were to ever run dry I'd hope to continue doing that. But it's hard to imagine: lecturing on great stories and helping young people harness their creative powers, and then not being able to run home and sit down at the laptop myself? Ten or eleven years ago, when I was a student myself, I remember I went to talk to one of my professors about being a writer. I really wanted him to tell me I was good enough to pull it off... I was hoping for a little vote of confidence or an ego boost. But he told me "If you can be happy doing anything else, you should do that instead." Like a punch to the gut, basically. But he explained it wasn't any reflection on my abilities, just that this is an incredibly hard and rarely rewarding path to go down... you can pour yourself out on the page and work and work for years on end, and it hardly ever pans out. As the narrator realizes at one point in the book, the odds are so long that no gambler would ever take them... and yet people do it all the time because there's something in us that can't be happy unless we try. I thought about what he said for a long time, and then I realized that no, there was nothing else that I would be happy doing.
JG: What else are you reading right now?
KJ: Right now I'm reading a collection of beautiful short stories called "So Close" by Jessica Francis Kane. They're wonderful and feel like a collection of new Lorrie Moore stories that I've been waiting to read for years now. I'm also doing some Salinger at the moment. We're doing "The Catcher in the Rye" in my adolescent literature class and it's gotten me re-reading all of the later stuff again. Oh, and my novella class is doing "Breakfast at Tiffany's" next week, so I should probably get on that one as soon as possible.
JG: What's next for you?
KJ: In terms of writing, I'm elbow-deep in a new novel, which I can't say a whole lot about yet, except that it's coming along very well so far. Leopards is so tightly-constructed and you can read it in just one or two sittings, and so I wanted to now try and write something bigger - not just in terms of length, but in terms of the sweep of the story. It's about living in New York City in your twenties and just trying to cling to the very edge of the center of the universe. So hopefully that will continue to go well, in light of the other news, which is that my wife and I are having a baby just about a month after Leopards is published. Which we could not be happier about, but we also just cannot wrap our heads around it at all. Which people tell us is normal. I think maybe the best things in life can't be wrapped around by heads... great loves, good novels... and fatherhood, I guess. That's what's next for me.