Written by Kristopher Jansma
Published by Viking
On Sale February 16th, 2016
WHY WE CAME TO THE CITY which has already been named one of 2016’s most anticipated books by Chicago Tribune, The Millions, Brooklyn Magazine, and Bustle, is an elegant and deeply moving meditation on friendship.
With incredible magnetism, Jansma—author of the critically acclaimed novel The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards—chronicles the trials of a tightly knit group of twentysomethings, taking on post–9/11 New York City in the midst of the 2008 economic meltdown. When we first meet Irene, William, George, Sara, and Jacob, they have been in New York nearly five years. They are overworked, underpaid, and trapped in coffin-sized apartments. Yet somehow, through the bug infestations, the boozy late nights, and myriad uncomfortable dates, they have stuck together, ambitious young professionals on the verge of something bigger. None of them, however, imagined that that something could be a death that would tug at the very fabric between them until it nearly unspools.
A Conversation with Kristopher Jansma
Q: Was there any particular event that compelled you to write this novel?
A: Nine years ago, my younger sister, Jennifer, was diagnosed with cancer. She’d had a small bump on her tongue for months that wouldn’t go away. She was only twenty-one at the time (I was twenty-four) and nobody thought it could be a tumor, but that’s what it turned out to be. She began treatment in North Carolina, where she continued to live and dance professionally in a ballet company. But when a new lump appeared, Jenn came to New York City to begin more aggressive treatment at Sloan Kettering.
For five or six months she stayed with me and my fiancée in the cramped one-bedroom apartment where we had to continue facing all the usual day-to-day challenges and excitements of being in New York City in our twenties while also getting Jenn to and from her treatments, managing their many awful side effects, and trying to keep her strong enough to carry on.
After a while it became clear that as hard as we fought, it was a losing battle. Jenn passed away about a year after her initial diagnosis, and my family and I were left to deal with our grief, which in many ways I felt even less prepared for than her illness. Although we were all grieving the same loss, but none of us grieved in the same way, and so the experience became even lonelier.
It was a long time before I was able to begin writing about some of this in my fiction, but once I started I couldn’t stop, and Why We Came to the City took its shape from all that love and failure and grief and hope.
Q: What kind of research went into writing the book, particularly when it came to writing about the character Irene’s cancer symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment?
A: There was a lot to learn. When Jenn was sick there was so much that happened so quickly, and so much that we left in the hands of her doctors. I wasn’t really all that concerned with the mechanics of a chemotherapy drug, for instance. I just wanted to know how long it would take and when she’d feel better. But in writing the novel, I needed to know everything. Irene’s cancer is a different type, and its spread and treatments were also different. So I did a lot of reading, and I consulted some friends who had become doctors and were willing to share their knowledge.
It was important to me to get the medical facts correct, but even more important to portray the experience of illness honestly. There’s so much that you don’t understand while it’s happening. The treatments create side effects, which have to be managed with medications that have other side effects. It becomes a daily whack-a-mole challenge. Every time you think that you’ve found some kind of stability, something new comes along and you start all over again. Capturing that constant uncertainty was the most significant challenge.
Q: The city of New York looms large in your book, which is set in a post–9/11 world and in the midst of the Great Recession. What made you decide on this particular time and place?
A: 9/11 happened when I was halfway through college and hardly knew New York, so my experience of it was very much from the outside, and seeing the way it changed the whole future ahead of us.
When I moved to New York City in 2003, to begin graduate school at Columbia University, I came with two college friends, and a few more joined us in 2005. Our first few years there were difficult but we all felt like we were making progress. The city, too, was getting back on its feet. Our internships soon became assistant positions, and then some of my friends had interns of their own. I was adjuncting, teaching freshman essay writing at one school, then two, and then two more. It was incredibly hard, but even when we were putting in insane hours and scraping by on meager salaries, we had this sense that things were moving in the right direction. The city seemed to be supporting us and we were rising up with it.
Then in 2008 the market crash happened and everything just sort of stopped. So many people we knew lost their jobs. Those of us lucky enough to keep ours felt like we’d managed to get ahead just before an axe fell.
And then . . . nothing happened. Our bosses went from panic mode to wait-and-see mode. We kept working as hard as ever only to stay still. There was a year when my rent actually didn’t increase and, at the time, I remember it was the only reason I was able to stay. But everything was uncertain, and it seemed like the perfect moment for the events of Why We Came to the City, because those characters are suddenly being gripped by forces beyond their control.
Q: Like the characters in your book, you also moved to NYC after college. How did your early experiences here shape the course of the narrative for WHY WE CAME TO THE CITY?
A: To be perfectly honest, for the first two years that I lived in New York, I did not love it. At least not the way I came to, eventually. I was overwhelmed and terrified. I’d come from Baltimore, which is a very different kind of city, and my life there as a college student involved lots of friends nearby. I knew my way around and understood how things worked.
Suddenly, I was in New York City, only an hour and a half from the New Jersey town where I grew up, but somewhere I’d never spent much time and never expected to call home. I had, literally, two friends. I was scared to walk either east or south of my apartment (which was in a very safe part of Morningside Heights). My entire social calendar involved meeting those friends, every Wednesday night, to eat cheap food (Thai, Indian, sushi) and watch TV in one of our apartments. It took about two years before I began to branch out and connect the dots between various places I’d randomly been. Slowly the city became familiar. Every week more friends came to join us, and we were all making new connections through our jobs. I felt a huge swell of ownership and belonging that I’d never felt before. I would find myself just staring around in Union Square sometimes, unable to believe that I really lived there. It really was a life beyond even my wildest dreams.
Why We Came to the City begins about six years after these friends arrived in the city, which was around when I first felt that glow begin to fade. Some friends were beginning to leave. We didn’t feel so young or so blessed. Manhattan was getting more expensive every minute. All the difficult and frustrating parts of the city began to come back into focus, just as old college friendships began to show signs of strain. We were becoming different people, growing in different directions, and not quite sure why, or if, we still needed each other. That’s where the novel opens—as that second change is beginning to happen to these characters.
Q: Your novel centers on a tight-knit group of five friends with vastly different careers and personalities. Do any of these characters bear a resemblance to any of your own friends or friendships?
A: Well, I hope that they resemble my own friends to a certain degree, in the same way that I hope these characters will feel, to many readers, like people they know or like themselves.
Certainly there are details borrowed from real life. One of the first apartments I saw when I was moving up was this tiny, windowless room, with a Murphy bed that folded out of the wall and a bathtub in the kitchen. The funniest part of that visit was how the realtor kept stressing that it was a prime location for schools—as if you could have squeezed a child in there! I passed, but always wondered what it would have been like to live there, and so one character, George, lives in a similar apartment.
George’s fiancée, Sara, moves in with him, leaving behind a beautiful railroad apartment where her roommate’s boyfriend has inconveniently taken up residence. That was a situation a friend of mine found herself in. And, well, let’s just say that, like Jacob, I had another friend whose apartment in Spanish Harlem we were never invited to, and which we never saw, and which we believe to this day he barely stayed in, if it existed at all.
But these are just a few of the kinds of uncomfortable positions that every new city-goer finds themselves in, and they’re what make it all so exciting and complicated.
Q: One of the main themes of the novel is friendship. Irene, William, Jacob, George, and Sara have known one another since college and remain incredibly close, despite the many challenges they each face individually. Friendship also plays a big role in your first book, The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards. Is there a reason this theme is so prominent in your work?
A: It’s true that friendship plays a huge role in both books. In many ways it becomes more prominent than the romantic plots. I think that can be really true for people at this time in their lives. Certainly it was true for me. My friends got me through those first few years in the city, and through everything that happened when my sister got sick. At the same time it was hard to resume life as usual, after she died, and I pulled away from a lot of people.
Like any relationships, friendships can grow stale or even become toxic over time, and that’s also very interesting to me. You can wake up one day and feel that someone you’ve always needed in your life is now holding you back. Especially in the city, just as no one grieves in quite the same way, no one grows in quite the same way either. What’s really incredible, though, is when these friendships do manage to find ways of evolving with the times. I’m still quite close with those first few friends I came to the city with, twelve years ago now, and though none of us are the same people we were then, and our friendships aren’t the same, we all love each other in new and sustaining ways.
Q: What are you working on now, and what’s next for you?
A: I’m finally teaching creative writing full time, which is a goal I worked toward for almost ten years as an adjunct. Now that I have this opportunity, I’m loving it. Working with students, and with brilliant writers on the faculty, always inspires and pushes me in my new work.
Recently I spent time at the wonderful Ucross artist’s colony in Wyoming, where I began working on a new novel, which I believe will be about family—a subject that isn’t as prominent in my first two novels.
Two years ago I became a father and my family is a huge part of my life now. It may even be what finally convinces me that it is time to leave the city. Either way it marks a whole new chapter for me. I’m finding that all of that is very fertile ground for fiction right now.