‘Why We Came to the City’ totally gets city living
Kristopher Jansma tells us about his own fickle relationship with inner-city living and the real-life traumas that inspired the book.
Kristopher Jansma's second novel, "Why We Came To The City," (out Feb. 16) begins at the onset of the 2008 financial crisis and centers around a group of five close friends in their 20s who moved to New York City after college.
Idealism vs. reality
The book opens with a chilling inversion of "Walden," which is telling: “We came to the city because we wished to live haphazardly, to reach for only the least realistic of our desires, and to see if we could not learn what our failures had to teach, and not, when we came to live, discover that we had never died.” This battle of idealism and reality is explored through the ever-present motif of the city.
In the book, one of the characters is diagnosed with cancer and the friends struggle through the uncontrollable illness, which is paralleled by the economic turndown. "Neither [struggle] cares how hard you're working, how much you deserve success, or all the things you believe when you’re young will eventually get you the things your after,” Jansma tells us.
Writing what he knows
Jansma, whose first book, “The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards" won the Sherwood Anderson Award for Fiction, has firsthand knowledge of both experiences. His younger sister, Jennifer, was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer at age 21, and later passed away in 2008. Then he lived through the recession in New York City and, like many others, feared for his livelihood.
Despite the novel’s serious themes, “Why We Came to the City” is often humorous and shows a different side of Jansma’s writing than his post-modern debut novel. “I think the beautiful little counterbalance to [the heavy themes] is that it also has this sort of warmth, this humor, which really comes in through their friendships with one another,” he says. “It’s a book about hard things happening to people, but it’s also about how they can come together as friends to get through it.”
I (sometimes) heart New York
The novel reflects Jansma’s ever-changing relationship with the city, from love to alienation and back again. Jansma, who is considering moving to a suburb with his wife and young son, explains that his feelings toward New York City have fluctuated over his almost 13 years living there.
“I didn’t hate it I guess, but I didn’t love it. I was totally overwhelmed,” Jansma says of first moving to New York City. “My relationship with the city’s changed so much. It really has become like a companion.”
While the city in Jansma’s life and novel is New York City, he emphasizes that the themes and experiences of “Why We Came to the City” are relevant to cities everywhere.“I think it’s a book that will appeal to people from other cities, but also just from anywhere — anybody that’s ever chased a dream,” Jansma says.
Local book events with Kristopher Jansma:
New York City
Feb. 16, 7 p.m.
143 7th Ave., Brooklyn
March 1, 7 p.m.
Center for Fiction
17 E. 47th St., 212-755-6710
March 16, 7 p.m.
Barnes & Noble UES
150 E. 86th St., 212-369-2180
Feb. 17, 7 p.m.
279 Harvard St., Brookline