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During college and graduate school, he started several novels, abandoning one after another. In early 2009, "I decided to stop trying so hard. I thought, maybe I'm not ready to write a novel." Instead, he set himself a challenge: to write a new story every week and post it online for friends in a blog called "40 Stories."
"It was a way of pushing himself to try new things, but at the same time it took some of the pressure off—if a story doesn't work, you move on to the next," he explains. At first the stories he posted were just a few pages long, but "I worked up to where every week I was writing a 10-to-15 page story and putting it up."
Story #13 followed three friends on a brunch date that turns disastrous. Its title? "The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards."
"It's basically chapter three of the novel," says Jansma. "As soon as I finished it, I knew I had stumbled on something. I loved those characters." The following week, he decided to write the story one of them had described, changing the names to cover his tracks. By the end of the year, he'd posted 40 stories as planned, and eight of them were about—or purportedly written by—these three characters.
It took him another year to fit the pieces together. "I knew it had the potential to be a real novel—I could see the connections in my mind," Jansma says. Some of the far-flung locations were places he knew. He chose Raleigh for the narrator's hometown because his sister lives there, and he liked the idea of a boy with a working single mother growing up in the debutante South. "And it was different. Everybody writes about growing up in New Jersey."
Other locations were written from research. Jansma had never seen the Grand Canyon when he set a wedding scene on its rim, but went about six months later on a family vacation; he was pleased to find out he'd described it well.
Something Permanent and Beautiful
He's now hard at work on a new novel, What Can Go Wrong, to be published by Viking in 2015. It's about a group of five young friends living in New York, and how they come together when one finds out she has a serious illness. "I'm trying to capture the experience of my friends in the first 10 years after college, the struggle to make it, especially in the early years when there's no safety net, no idea how to get to where you want to be. We all helped each other—we sort of became a family in New York," he says, adding cheerfully that the manuscript's due in three weeks. "I've been writing on the bus, between classes."
Work seems to energize him. A month after Leopards came out, while he was juggling a book tour and teaching gigs, his son Joshua was born. (Jansma can't resist flashing a Smartphone photo.) His wife, Leah Miller, is an editor at Random House. One recent morning, Jansma dropped their son off at daycare, went to his usual coffee shop to write for a few hours, and opened his e-mail. He'd won the Sherwood Anderson Fiction Award, a $15,000 prize to support work in progress. "Leopards was long-listed for two other prizes and got a PEN/Hemingway nomination, but this was the first time I'd actually won something," he says, beaming.
All in all, Jansma seems to be leading a writer's charmed life. "I almost can't believe it's real," he agrees. "I've spent the past 10 to 12 years chipping away at this. I finally have a stable teaching job at a great college, a book out there that people are enjoying, and another book coming out."
So is he someone else's Julian, the object of awe and envy? Jansma says no. "The friends I moved to the city with in 2003 are all doing great things. There were times when none of us could really see how we'd get off the bottom rung."
The answer seems obvious: talent and lots of hard work. In his recent essay "Don't Write About Writing," Jansma observes, "Life will do its thing, one way or the other—the question is, once it does, will you have been practicing? Can you turn that into something permanent and beautiful? Can you write about what you'll know—as well as the many things you won't? Can you write so well that nobody can tell the difference?"