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?

A joy to read from the very first paragraph.
One of the few short story collections ever to win the Pulitzer.
As debuts go, one can’t do much better than to have one of the best of year.


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.

Robert Olen Butler is a brilliant writer, has an entertaining Facebook feed, and is loved by all large insects.
Butler’s latest book,Paris in the Dark, is excellent. I just finished it.
The best feeling an author can have: seeing stacks of his own books hot off the presses.


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.

Alexis Phares works at the Bobby E. Leach Center at Florida State University. And loves her dog.
Tamiera Vandegrift is a writer and filmmaker.
Not surprisingly, Nia Dickens is a writer and editor.
Author and mentor together.


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 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.”


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.

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


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.

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

Founder of Teaching That Makes Sense, an education consultancy specializing in literacy and leadership. Author of "Be a Better Writer."