Kris, now that I have you here, can I ask what exactly this book of ours is about?
This “book of ours” as you put it, is a novel called Why We Came to the City, and it is about five friends living in New York City, struggling with their big dreams and small mortalities in the face of overwhelming odds.
That sounds like something that I could really identify with.
Is that a joke?
Honestly, I’m not sure. Though I wanted to say that I love the title of the book.
Thank you. It’s the title of the prologue, which sets a good deal of the tone of the novel.
On that note, could you explain to me exactly why we came to the city?
Well, Kris, it happened like this. One afternoon in 2003, in our Senior year of college, we received a phone call from Columbia University saying those simple words we’d longed to hear: “We’re pleased to accept you to the MFA program…” which were then followed unexpectedly by, “…not all of us thought you were ready, but anyway, welcome aboard.”
Ouch. But we were ready, right?
No, as it turns out, we were not, quite. To clarify, we were definitely ready for the MFA program—it was New York City that we weren’t 100% prepared for.
But we had lived in Baltimore for several years! Like, as seen on The Wire. Surely we could handle New York.
OK, but the closest we ever got to The Wire was seeing three-quarters of our college roommate in the opening minute of season four.
When Snoop buys the nail gun?
Right. But we’re getting way off topic here. The point is that we were not entirely ready for New York. We spent the first two years beating a narrow path up and down Broadway between 116th street and 102nd street, and rarely venturing outside of that. We had two friends in the city, one who lived on the Upper East Side, and the other who lived somewhere in Spanish Harlem but whose exact address was never known by anyone.
Doesn’t that last thing happen in the book?
I plead the fifth. The point is that our social interaction was limited to dinners once a week with these two friends, at one of three restaurants, where the total meal cost less than $20. Occasionally we’d get invited elsewhere—a birthday party downtown, maybe, or to see a Broadway show, and it would feel like traveling to another dimension. It would take years to develop any true sense of how the city fit together… and really by “city” I mean Manhattan, because Brooklyn was fuzzy until 2010.
It sounds like we weren’t really trying very hard.
It’s true. We weren’t, really. We were writing a lot and reading a lot, and not being all that brave when it came to experiencing the city.
To be fair, we were also pretty broke.
That’s true. But a few years later when it became clear that we were going to be sticking around, and when we began teaching and getting paid a small amount—
A very small amount.
A very small amount, to adjunct, and we felt like contributing members of the city in some way, we started to really appreciate the marvelous city around us. With its diversity, its highbrow and lowbrow all gloriously muddled together, with all that possibility and richness.
Whoa. Would you say that this book is our love letter to New York City then?
I’d say that it started that way, yes.
Well then what happened?
The 2008 financial crisis hit, and that opened our eyes to the tenuousness of everything we’d loved about the city. Suddenly it seemed very possible that we might not make it here, or anywhere. We were feeling very lucky to have jobs at all, and possibility and richness were out of the question for a few years.
That must have been a shock.
I’d say it was more like eye-opening. It wasn’t that this other side to the city didn’t exist before 2008. We had just been largely naive of it and blinded by a good deal of privilege before that.
Are the characters in the book similarly privileged?
Yes, in many ways. They’re young, they’re white (except for William, who is a Korean-American), they have attended Cornell, and they’re living in Manhattan. They’re hard-working and “broke” but they’re still used to thinking of themselves as special—and over the course of the book they come to understand that they aren’t. Or at least that their advantages can’t save them from the tragedy, the kind of fundamentally human struggle that they’re in for.
And is this also something you’re familiar with from real life?
I’d say yes. I had just lost my sister to cancer, which was of course very, very difficult and sad. And it caused me to reassess a lot of things I’d taken for granted in my own life, and about life in general. About what it means to be human and mortal, and to reference one of my favorite parts of the book, what it means, “to love that which death can touch.”
How long did it take to begin writing about this, afterwards?
It took a few years. At first I was so confused about what had happened that I couldn’t begin to sort it out. Then came a lot of anger and my instinct was to never, ever write about it, so as to not give meaning or purpose to it all, somehow.
What changed our minds?
Time passed, mainly. It started to pop up in our writing whether we intended it or not. Or liked it or not. And soon it began to be helpful—particularly in thinking about how to tell a story that would capture what had happened, and so be there for someone else going through it. How different it all was from what we expected, and so on.
Well, like the way that real life, and the city, never seemed to stop. All the other things still had to be attended to: jobs, wedding planning, friends, subways breaking down, and rents going up. In books when someone has cancer it tends to be the focal point of the story, while in real life I found that it struggled to find its way into the daily To-Do List just like grocery shopping and such.
And so that’s reflected in our book?
Very much so, as well as the way in which death isn’t an ending, the way you’d think it would be, but rather an odd kind of middle to a story. I can’t say a lot more about that without risking spoiling the plot though, so I’ll leave it there.
Our characters—are these typical Millennials we’re dealing with?
How do you mean typical?
You know… fame-obsessed, navel-gazing, work-averse, sexually-adventurous, social-media-addicted Millennials.
I’d say not, and moreover, I’d remind you that we don’t really know a lot of Millennials who are really like that. You and I are, currently, 33 years old, and at least everyone we know has worked their collective asses off to get any kind of leg up in this city and this life. Let’s just double emphasize that right now.
And while we’re at it, let’s just acknowledge as well that a whole generation, even a whole city—maybe especially this one because it is so large—can’t be represented by five people in one novel. Our city and our generation are far more diverse than that. But the people that we were writing about, as I say, don’t gaze at their navels or even their iPhones any more or less than people who are 45 or even 65, these days. And as for sexually-adventurous, we don’t know much about that, other than we mainly hear stories about terrible first Tinder dates that certainly aren’t ending with much sex or adventure. It’s possible that it’s all happening out there just like on Girls and we’re blithely oblivious to it, but my sense is that there’s a lot more to our generation than we are often given credit for. And the characters in this book reflect that, dammit.
All right, all right. No need to get all up in arms.
So are these likable characters then?
Well I like them, that’s for sure. I wouldn’t say they’re all rainbows and sunshine though, but who really is? These characters mean well, they care about each other, but they have plenty of rough edges, as we all do. That’s essential.
Which of them do you identify with the most?
That’s a great question, and my answer may be surprising. Going into it, I certainly expected that George Murphy would be the closest to my real self. He’s a scientist, not a writer, but he’s a thoughtful guy, a loving fiancé, and a good friend—all of which are things I continue to pride myself on. But the truth is that as the book went on, it was William who I identified with more than anyone.
William, the Korean finance guy?
Yes, and to whom in the beginning of the novel is rudely shut out from the group by “good guy” George and his friend Jacob, who are very exclusive and insular. There’s an extent to which William is always an outsider, before and after his relationship with Irene that connects him to the others, and that’s what I identified with.
One thing we wanted to show in the book was the way that grief hits everyone differently. It’s what sucks the most about grief, to be blunt. You can’t even grieve alongside the others grieving the same thing, often, because some people are in denial and others are angry and others become very withdrawn… William’s response is the closest to my own in real life. He pulls away, gets pulled into an existential crisis. That was the same route I charted through it.
Speaking of charting routes, there are two epigraphs in the beginning of the book, and another two before the second half. First one from The Iliad and Murphy’s First Law, and then one from The Odyssey and Murphy’s Second Law. Is that important?
Well epigraphs ought to be, really. Yes, from the beginning the idea was that the first half of the book is sort of a never-ending war… though it happens rather quickly in real time. And the second half would be the journey home again. The Murphy’s Laws are a nod to George Murphy, and the group’s nickname in college “The Murphys”—but also they set the stage for what’s happening. What can go wrong will go wrong. And then, everything takes longer than you’d expect.
So this was meant to be an epic from the get-go then?
A double epic, even.
We never make things easy for ourselves, do we?
Hardly ever, but then again we are New Yorkers, at least for now, and that’s one of the many reasons that we came to the city.
Nice. I see what you did there.
Thanks. This was fun. We should do it more often.
KRISTOPHER JANSMA is the winner of the 2014 Sherwood Anderson Award for Fiction. His debut novel, The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards, received an Honorable Mention for the 2014 PEN/Hemingway Award and was long-listed for the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence and the Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize. He has written for The New York Times, The Believer, Story, The Millions, ZYZZVA, Slice, and the Blue Mesa Review. An assistant professor at SUNY New Paltz and a graduate instructor at Sarah Lawrence College, Jansma lives in Brooklyn, NY, with his wife and son.