Blame the red notebook.
Kristopher Jansma started writing in grade school in Brookdale, New Jersey. "Every day after recess was 'journal time.' We'd have 10 or 15 minutes to write about what happened that day," says the award-winning novelist. "During recess, my friends and I would enact these elaborate stories with superheroes killing dragons that went on day after day. I somehow became the chronicler who'd write it all down."
When a new fourth-grade teacher complained that they were supposed to write about what really happened, Jansma insisted, "This is what I really did today." The teacher was unconvinced.
"So I led a couple of other students in protest. We took it all the way to the principal," Jansma reports. The upshot? He was allowed to write stories for 10 minutes in a separate red notebook, then switch to a black-and-white composition book to write about what he'd learned in school. Jansma pauses. "Maybe that's where it all started."
Flash forward a couple of decades. The mutable boundary between reality and fiction is a central theme of Jansma's debut novel, The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards (Viking, 2013), and the recess rebel now teaches the class.
"Kristopher Jansma is the first tenure-track professor of creative writing that we've hired in the English department at SUNY New Paltz in more than a decade," says Associate Professor Pauline Uchmanowicz. It's Jansma's first full-time position, after five years as an adjunct at Manhattanville College and SUNY Purchase.
Jansma suggests meeting at the Village Tea Room, which turns out to be closed. So we stroll to nearby CafeTeria, where he heads for the cooler and grabs an orange Mash ("I'm trying to watch my caffeine intake," he explains, sounding sheepish). Clean-cut in a navy blue blazer, oxford shirt, and new jeans, he makes no comment on the cavernous darkened room with its gothy barista and wall of guitars, or the scruffy dog that sniffs his leg as he sits on a black upholstered banquette. He might set a scene here someday. Or he might make one up.
F. Scott Fitzgerald Meets Wes Anderson
The novel he always calls Leopards is the twisty, multilayered tale of an aspiring writer, his arch-competitive friendship with literary wunderkind Julian McGann, and the actress they both love in different ways. Julian is wealthy, gay, and alcoholic; the never-named narrator is none of the above, but has a genius for self-reinvention that carries him from college wannabe to globe-trotting adventurer. Since he's a young male writer, many readers assume he's a stand-in for Jansma. Not.
"I guess I should have expected it, but I really didn't," he says. "I thought everyday readers might conflate the character with my own life, and that would be part of the fun, but I never expected critics to say things like 'in this self-referential novel' or 'semi-autobiographical.' I felt like calling them up and saying, 'How do you know if it is or it isn't? That's the whole point!'"
Leopards does seem genetically engineered to confound critics, who've compared Jansma to everybody from Italo Calvino to Jennifer Egan to Gary Shteyngart; the Village Voice dubbed it "F. Scott Fitzgerald meets Wes Anderson." Its narrator's slippery handle on truth leads to labyrinthine deceptions; facts shift under our feet. From a high-rise hotel in Dubai—a city whose man-made islands and glass-enclosed ski slopes are themselves a sort of fiction—he deconstructs one of his several identities (journalism professor specializing in plagiarism) to chilling effect. Later, he says of the editor he's romancing, "She doesn't understand that the things I've made up are more real to me now than whatever used to be true."
Though Jansma seems far more reliable than his creation, he acknowledges that Leopards contains "some emotional truths." He also borrowed some real-life details. "My character studies writing at a college in the Berkshires. I went to Johns Hopkins, in Baltimore. The places are different, the professors are different—they're not based on actual people—but several Johns Hopkins students have told me they recognized the basement classroom with the clanking radiators."
A story a week
Jansma earned an MFA at Columbia, where one of his classmates was acclaimed novelist Karen Russell (Swamplandia!). There was, he says, no one model for the brilliant and profligate Julian. "But there were many people I looked up to. I would read what they'd written and think, this is great. It made me work harder on my own writing."