An In-Depth Interview with Spencer Wise

Spencer Wise Steps Up

“You shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.” How about the first paragraph?

I met Spencer Wise the way most readers meet great writers: I read his book, The Emperor of Shoes. More accurately, I read the first paragraph of his book and thought it was simultaneously the funniest and most intriguing opening I’d read in a long time.

I have a simple theory about writing: if a writer can write a great opening (of any length), he or she can produce quality writing throughout. I don’t judge books by their covers. But I do judge them by their first few pages. With The Emperor of Shoes, I was hooked in about 15 seconds.

In reading the entire book, it resonated with me on many levels. It’s a family story, a father and son story, a passing of the family business to the next generation story, a love story, a story of the clash and mesh of two cultures, a story of confusion, hope, and struggle, a story we all know in some way but told here in a way that perhaps we’ve never heard it told before.

My family, much like the family Spencer builds his book around, is similar. We had a family business. It was passed to the next generation from father to son. I worked there once in a while as a kid. It was a good business. It had a good reputation. It made people happy. But it was also filled with tragedy and tension for our family as so many family businesses are.

Spencer’s family story is rich and filled with all the emotional energy one would expect, but it is really just the backdrop to an even more compelling story about a young American who finds himself intricately intertwined with a labor movement in China where his family shoe factory is located. I wouldn’t call this a coming-of-age story but there is some of that uncomfortable unmasking of the ways of the world here.

But mostly what there is is something very, very rare these days: a truly original story that has something for everyone in it and speaks to all of us in the lingua franca of human longing and universal truth.

A joy to read from the very first paragraph.

The Emperor of Shoes is the best of literary fiction: rich, smooth prose; well-controlled diction, elegant turns of phrase, compelling characters by turns comic and tragic; full of irony and longing—always soul-searching (and “sole” searching).

It’s rare to find a book so finely crafted yet so accessible. Spencer opens the door with an absolutely hilarious first paragraph and the reader just walks right in. (Couldn’t resist that one either! No more. I promise.)

Perhaps even more enjoyable for me has been getting to know the author. Spencer is a cool guy with a big heart and an enthusiasm for writing and teaching writers that I just don’t see very much these days.

Talented and humble, brilliant and generous, over-the-top enthusiastic and in love with life. There is not a single drop of cynicism within him. He is not a tortured artist. But no less an artist than anyone I know.

As you’ll see when you read the comments of some of his former students below, he’s also a wonderful teacher of writing. And well he should be having worked for years under the patient inspiration of Robert Olen Butler, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain.

One of the few short story collections ever to win the Pulitzer.

As Butler says of Wise:

“Spencer Wise is one of those extraordinarily rare writers whose first written novel — not just the first they published; the first novel they ever wrote — emerges from the depths of their unconscious — where all true art must come from — and has a pitch-perfect voice and a ravishingly evocative moment-to-moment sensual reality. He is the real deal from the get-go, and his potential is boundless to be a major literary figure producing great works of art to his dying day.”

An earlier mentor, Jonathan Wilson from Tufts University, also sheds a little light on Wise’s personality—which explains to me why some parts of the book are laugh-out-loud entertaining while simultaneously conveying serious ideas:

“I taught Spencer in the very early stages of his career, while he was still an undergraduate. In truth, I don’t remember what he wrote so much as his enthusiasm, energy, deep love of literature and of course his rolling, rollicking sense of humor. A talker myself I’m sure I came to rely on Spencer, another talker, to fill the spaces when I felt like shutting up. It’s hard to predict who among the striking writers in an undergraduate class (always a small number) will go on to produce a wonderful novel, but Spencer sure did. I love The Emperor of Shoes.”

I think you’ll love the book, too. I also think you’ll enjoy this rare in-depth interview of the author. There’s so much we don’t get to know about the people who write our favorite books. And though I’ve never met Spencer in person, I feel we forged a good friendship as this interview came together.

But don’t take my word for it. The demanding readers of The New York Times Book Review called Spencer’s work one of the best debuts of the year.

As debuts go, one can’t do much better than to have one of the best of year.
“Evocative…The Emperor of Shoes underscore[s] the extent to which the promise of economic opportunity still moves people across great distances on our planet…[A novel] of our times.”New York Times Book Review

QUESTION #1

Your new book, “The Emperor of Shoes”, is a work of fiction. And yet it is based closely on your life. What do you think about the difference (or lack thereof) between fiction and nonfiction?

I love writing nonfiction and fiction both. Though I’m primarily a fiction writer, you can read two of my nonfiction essays here.

The Peacock and the Bell Captain is about the time I met Rod Stewart in Italy while on vacation with my family for my sister’s 30th birthday. It was a disaster, but that essay won the 2017 Gulf Coast Prize from Gulf Coast Magazine: A Journal of Literature and Fine Arts.

This second essay, The Second Worst Rug My Father’s Ever Seen, took 2nd Place in the Fall 2012 Story Contest in Narrative Magazine, is about the time I was in real danger of flunking out of prep-school if I didn’t pass this rug-weaving elective that I’d blown off all semester. My father had to save me (as always) at the 11th hour.

I think your question shows an inherent bias that I happen to agree with, but I know a lot of people who don’t. When you’re saying there’s an arbitrary distinction in school between fiction and nonfiction, it seems as if you’re implying that there shouldn’t be any distinction. It’s a very blurry line.

There is no essential truth — only subjective truths — and thus everything is fiction, so we shouldn’t try so hard to separate them in school.

Our reality is socially constructed, and so is our writing about it. We build the world we want to believe in using language that is far from objective and neutral.

Language is not some passive conveyor of knowledge. Every piece of writing is an argument, right? It’s asking, manipulating, persuading, and coaxing you to see and feel a certain way.

But I know tons of nonfiction writers who believe that truths are to some extent absolute and verifiable. So nonfiction, for these authors, tells the truth. They endeavor to get as close to “reality” as possible.

We shouldn’t outright lie. I shouldn’t say I met Rod Stewart in Italy if I never did. But do I remember exactly what I said to my father at the dinner table three minutes before Rod walked in? No. Not even close. I have a terrible memory. And so we invent.

The way I see it: the only thing I owe the reader is an emotional truth. This is how it felt to almost fail out of school and have your dad bail you out. I’m just driving toward an emotional truth. That’s what makes the story relatable and humane. But I know some people who think it’s unethical to twist anything for dramatic effect.

Sometimes I’ll pull memories from different times in my life and set them together so it appears they happened at the same moment. Is that wrong? I don’t know. It’s a debate — that’s all. When I try to write from literal memory, it’s rigid and willed. When I relax, I start to outright lie and, oddly, I get much closer to the truth.

I often start from literal memory and then start wandering. My mentor, Robert Olen Butler, always says, “Good writers have bad memories.” I think he means that there’s something organic and free-flowing and evolving about art. You aren’t transcribing, you’re creating. That’s the difference between rote memorization and improvisation. Writing is the latter. Chemistry tests are the former.

Robert Olen Butler is a brilliant writer, has an entertaining Facebook feed, and is loved by all large insects.

So I think writing is creating a voice, a persona, and you never know who that’s going to be, and you shouldn’t try to restrain it. I think Butler’s point is that writing — fiction or nonfiction — requires invention and discovery and creativity.

Butler’s latest book,Paris in the Dark, is excellent. I just finished it.

Sometimes I start with a real memory but then I let myself exaggerate; I blend memories; I change small facts. I let my characters do things I wouldn’t expect and gradually things start to shift away from my own personal life. If I’m lucky, I got a good story rolling.

Most of the time it’s dreck and I never look it again. But here’s a successful example.

My mother used to always say: “A dry sponge is a happy sponge.” I wrote a story about it. The story has nothing to do with my mother. I have no idea what my mother meant. Maybe she meant it literally: moisture collects germs, so keep your sponges dry. But it could mean more.

I guess I wanted it to mean more. It could embody, as it does for the mother in this story, some essential expression of her identity. It’s both the literal meaning and, subconsciously, her worldview about what it means to be Jewish.

There are plenty of things in The Emperor of Shoes that are taken straight from real life: character traits and quirks and political views. But none of the scenes ever happened in reality. My actual life is pretty boring.

Real life is kind of disappointing. Sometimes my stories are just imagining what could have happened. An alternate path. But my stories and essays are all character-driven. Voice-driven.

A story, an essay, it’s all about flesh and blood. If you don’t show me real people in all their screwed-up messiness, I worry you’re trying to sell me something. An agenda. A point of politics. An ideology.

The art I like and try to write isn’t dogmatic. It asks, it presents. But it doesn’t tell you what to think.

The best feeling an author can have: seeing stacks of his own books hot off the presses.

QUESTION #2

You’ve spent many years working closely with Robert Olen Butler, one of the greatest writers in the world. What do you think people should know about three aspects of this relationship: Teacher and student; mentor and mentee; and senior colleague and junior colleague?

Well, Butler is family to me, but that relationship grew over 9 years.

I think you’re right about that progression. The thing I think you’re missing is friendship. I’m friends with all my mentors. I’m friends with the students I mentor. I feel like some educators feel very strongly that this is wrong. “I’m your teacher, not your friend” is a common refrain I hear and which I couldn’t disagree with more.

In creative writing, if you’re pouring your guts out onto the page and you want my feedback and you want to go to an MFA program or teach or publish a book and you come to my office with your grief and humor and humanity and vulnerability and you share all of that with me? Damn right I’m your friend.

This is why I like creative writing. There’s an intimacy.

Now of course there is a tremendous responsibility that comes a long with it, and you can obviously abuse that power and seniority and many horrendous things can occur, but that’s an ethical failing. It doesn’t have to become something awful.

For example, I’ve been on a 30-city book tour for The Emperor of Shoes and one of the coolest things about the tour is how many former students have come out — sometimes traveling quite a long way — to say “Hi”, to see me read, and to buy a book.

Former student, Alexis Phares, has a wonderful comment here:

Spencer taught us to take the small details of human experience and layer them on top of each other until we had a feeling, a moment, and a story. Spencer’s passion for writing made him my most relentless teacher, and every lesson made me a stronger writer. He sounds like Seth Rogan with a slight Boston accent, and I can still remember him saying “write every day. Seriously guys, I’m not kidding. Every day”
Alexis Phares works at the Bobby E. Leach Center at Florida State University. And loves her dog.

Do you know how meaningful and touching this is to me?

They have no money. None. They went to Florida State University full-time and worked at least one full-time job and sometimes two. That’s most of my students.

And now they come all the way to my reading and buy a book for $25! It makes me tear up to think about.

Here’s what a former student, Tamiera Vandegrift said about Spencer:

Spencer’s Fiction Technique course was one of the first writing courses I took at FSU. Unlike a lot of other professors, Spencer was always genuine and down-to-earth. Class sessions always felt relaxed and casual, as if you were just meeting up with friends to discuss projects. Spencer also never tried to mold students into a certain type of writer, which is a trap that many creative professors fall into. Rather, he helped us get closer to being the best we could be while remaining authentic.
Tamiera Vandegrift is a writer and filmmaker.

They didn’t come because I’m some great teacher, but because I invested in them and they invested in the class, and they’re empathetic caring people.

One of Spencer’s former students, Nia Dickens, had this to say about him:

“What has always stood out to me is the way that Spencer encourages his
students. When I joined his fiction class freshman year, I’d just been
knocked down a few pegs in a different writing class and feeling a bit
unsure of my own voice, especially in a room with upperclassmen. But
Spencer was a great source of encouragement during that semester and
continued to put in a good word about me to other instructors years
later.”
Not surprisingly, Nia Dickens is a writer and editor.

So that’s a big part of teaching for me. I’m building a literary army, one soldier at a time. I keep finding them and adding to this army, and they are the ones who are going to write great books and teach and march on behalf of art and empathy and self-expression and diversity in the face of standardized testing and the venomous anti-intellectualism of our present time and the budget slashes and layoffs in the humanities. So if I’m not friends with these young people, then what the hell am I doing any of this for?

That’s a long way of saying that Robert Olen Butler is my dear friend.

Author and mentor together.

What he taught me about writing is second to none. He was unbelievably generous and insightful, but that’s only a part of his greatness. His greatness was in believing in me when I had been rejected for the millionth time, when I was full of doubt and timidity, when I thought about quitting. That’s where he saved me time and time again.

He believed in me enough for the both of us. He believed until I started believing. This is the greatest gift the mentee receives from the mentor.

I think what differentiates it from the teacher-student relationship is really how much that student invests in the relationship. I was Bob’s assistant for many years as a graduate student, so I got to be around him a lot. We became friends.

That’s how it was with my mentor at Tufts, Jonathan Wilson, another brilliant writer and friend. I kept going to his office. I got to know the human behind the teacher.

Teachers are people, after all. The students that make the extra effort to get to know one of their teachers are positioned for a lifelong relationship because we didn’t get into this business just to hear ourselves talk. We like helping other people. We crave that. Helping someone else find their way through the murk.

So I was determined to move from teacher-student to mentor-mentee with Robert Olen Butler. I wanted to learn all the nitty-gritty things about life and writing and publishing and academia that you can’t learn in the classroom. You can only learn certain things by developing genuine relationships.


QUESTION #3

Mr. Butler produced an amazing 32-hour long video series of him writing a short story from scratch. In the beginning, he says that at the core of any story there must be the expression of a deep sense of longing on the part of a character. What do you think of this idea?

Oh, I believe in that strongly. Butler thinks, and I agree, that this extends beyond writing. This applies to all of life. He calls it the Universal Field Theory of Yearning, which means that we are always unconsciously striving to create a self-identity.

Watch Robert Olen Butler create a short story from scratch across 32-hours of video: every thought, every keystroke, every backspace, a rare experience of watching a master writer at work from start to finish.

The things we do and say are often just manifestations of this primal longing. The forces and obstacles standing in the way of achieving that identity constitute the plot in a work of fiction. So I fully ascribe to this and I think it’s been very helpful for me in terms of my own writing.

You start with your own yearning. That’s what Butler says and that’s what Emperor is. I’m not Alex, the main character, but all his yearnings are mine. He desires to establish an identity apart from his larger-than-life father. He desires to establish an identity apart from what his heritage and his religion have told him he is or should be. And the conflict is that he very much sympathizes with his father and his heritage, and yet he sees himself apart from those worlds.

Everything he does in the book is really to sort out this fundamental question: who the heck am I? That’s at the core of any good book or movie, I’d say. So it’s been very helpful for me in terms of going inside my own soul, my own unconscious, my own yearnings, and writing about the stuff I was really most scared of.

I thought my father would disown me when he read the book. I hid it from him for so long. It wasn’t until HarperCollins bought the book, and I knew it was going to be out there in the world, that I knew I had to show it to him.

Remarkably, he liked it. But I was going after some of the things — feelings and questions — that had never been spoken about between me and my Dad. So I took my real life yearning and created Alex. I took some of my Dad’s yearning to create Fedor. The book is about people longing to become Emperors. Not of a country but of their own little fiefdoms — a Jewish family, a shoe factory, an underground political organization.

Everyone has some central longing driving them forward and that’s what keeps the plot moving.

The author on tour: “An absolute joy to read at Innisfree Bookshop in Meredith, NH, where I’ve been going since I was a little kid.”

QUESTION #4

In your teaching now, what have you carried forth from the teaching you received from Mr. Butler, and what of your teaching has either evolved from his teaching or arisen directly out of your own experience as a writer and writing instructor?

I teach Butler’s notion of yearning in all my classes, so that’s certainly a carryover. But Butler runs a unique class predicated on short-form writing and I run a more traditional workshop.

I can’t remember who said it (probably a famous writer/teacher) but I really like the saying, “Write until every word doesn’t feel so precious anymore.”

I believe in that. I try to convey it to my students who are often trying to get assignments done quickly.

This is how they’re thinking. It’s understandable given their other courses and their jobs, but that’s a sure-fire way to write a bad story.

Writing, maybe more than any other art, seems to take people a while to get the hang of. I know that’s the case for me. So I try to get my students to let go of the sacredness of every sentence. Another great one will come along.

In my classes, I want my students to work on radical revisions because they are so often loathe to change more than a few sentences.

The biggest challenge though — and this is something that I took away from Bob — is negotiating the central contradiction of the creative writing class. You need to teach craft and technique of course, and yet no writer ever sits down and consciously thinks, “Now’s a good time to use some indirect dialogue with a dab of subtext.” You have to get into a voice and get lost in it.

Bob always says, “I’m going to teach you some things and then I want you to forget everything I told you.”

That cracks me up. But it’s incredible advice. That’s why we’re always talking about reading like a writer. The hope is that one day you’ll internalize the craft and technique to a point where it’s second nature and then you can get out of your own way.

It’s like a basketball player trying too hard, thinking about what he or she is doing, when the beauty of sport is in its spontaneity. It’s instinctual not analytical. You don’t have time to think.

In writing, you’ve got to almost consciously practice not thinking.

Lastly, the whole business side of writing made me a nervous wreck. Butler was great at reminding me that the writing itself was all that mattered. The rest would sort itself out.

I think times have changed to a certain extent. You need to network on social media and all that good stuff, but at the end of the day, the writing is still the thing that matters.

Write the best book you can. If you’re writing to become rich and famous you’re probably headed for major disappointment.

The last thing I’ll say is that I want my students to find something they care about. A passion.

When I wrote Emperor, I went down the rabbit hole of shoemaking, partly because it was so deeply connected to my family.

But I also learned everything I could about South China and about the Cultural Revolution, in order to write about China. I even lived in China for a summer at a shoe factory and did a real apprenticeship, learning how to make shoes.

One of the reasons I love writing is because I love research and learning.

I think students write their best stuff once they find a subject they’re really passionate about or they want to learn about.

Sharing an evening with the amazing Elizabeth McCracken. Check out the cool octopus on her website.

QUESTION #5

Many college-bound high school students are facing an uncomfortable discovery when they get to school: they don’t write very well and the institution that accepted them is requiring that they take remedial courses with no credit attached. This is a new phenomenon, maybe just the last 20 years or so. What’s going on here?

That’s a complicated question.

The very notion of remedial writing makes me kind of queasy because it suggests something is wrong with the student, something that requires mediation on behalf of the teacher. I don’t know if I really believe that.

I’ll stick with the sports metaphor. Larry Bird used to shoot free throws until dark so he could hit them in a game when it counted. My hunch is that it’s the same in school. This isn’t a cognitive issue, it’s a practice and environmental one. You need to write to get good at writing. That sounds simple, but it’s true.

We wouldn’t be surprised if all incoming freshmen weren’t adept at playing the guitar. I stink at the guitar, but give me some time to practice and I’ll get better.

But this raises other questions. What is writing? It seems like it depends on what genre you are talking about.

Do you mean a lab report or a short story or a cover letter or a business report? Those are all vastly different kinds of writing. You’d need to practice all of them to get good. But to make someone write an expository essay who has very little experience writing expository essays and who has in fact perhaps not read many of those kinds of essays is really unfair.

I don’t have a solution, but I know all writing isn’t writing. It’s situational and genre dependent. So what is the goal of teaching writing? That would need to be reassessed at an institutional level. You’d have to start way back at the beginning and ask: what is writing? Then you could devise practical learning outcomes and ways to achieve them.

So I’m answering the second part of your question here. Is a semester enough time to get them up to speed? For what? What’s the goal? Being a good writer is too vague for me.

If you text a lot and people understand you and text back, you’re a good writer, right? You’ve communicated something to another human effectively. If you make a funny meme online and post it to Instagram and people like it then you’re a good writer. In my mind, that’s good writing.

But that’s not what you mean, of course. That doesn’t get you a college degree.

My point is simply that writing looks so different today than it did 50 years ago. People are writing more than ever, and yet we’re saying that students are worse at it than ever before. How can that be true if they’re doing it more? I think that’s something we’d need to look at carefully, institution by institution.

This is what happens when your work gets bigger than you are.