Behind the Scenes at Bookery Manchester: Spencer Wise

Spencer Wise has written across all genres, writing for such publications as Time Out NY and Sports Illustrated. The Emperor of Shoes is his first novel, and it is about something he knows well: Shoes. Spencer’s family has a long heritage of shoemaking, tracing all the way back to Poland. Bookery Manchester wanted to flip the pages of Spencer’s brain, kick the dust of his literary shoes, and get to the sole of him and his art.

Jared: For a first book, you are tackling some pretty heavy subject matter: globalization, labor conditions in other countries which forms the negative image of American capitalism, perhaps even threads of colonialism. Especially in 2018 America, these topics are overwhelmingly relevant, was it always your goal to tackle these topics, or did they grow from a "simpler" place? Simple isn't the right word, but it is the best one I can think of at the moment.

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Spencer: I always wanted and needed to write this book because it’s in my soul. That sounds like corny writer talk, but my family has been making shoes for five generations in every continent, in famine, in persecution, in prosperity. We kept making shoes. There’s something about that perseverance, that stubbornness to live--and to live as Jews in the face of prejudice and far worse--that’s really moving to me. It’s more than moving. I’m obsessed with it. Shoes are somewhere in my blood. But I also ended the family business. I’m the last son, and I made the ridiculous and impoverishing choice to become a writer. My father never pressured me to go into the business. He said become your own person. That was his incredible sacrifice to me and my sister. So I’m deeply indebted to him.

These weighty, timely matters, I got lucky they’re in the limelight a little as my novel was being published, but let’s be real -- the problems with capitalism and colonialism have been in plain sight for hundreds of years. When was the Haitian revolution? 1791. That’s a long freaking time ago. Vincent Oge & Toussaint l'Ouverture. They risked everything. Slaves, former slaves, free people, radicals in Europe--they were fighting colonialism and oppression and exploitation for hundreds of years. I’m not a historian so I’m sure someone can go back much further than that. But these issues that seem so relevant and timely today have been in front of our faces forever. Maybe people are paying more attention to them now. I don’t know. I know it’s takes a tremendous amount of self-deception to delude yourself into thinking this hasn’t been a problem--one of our own making--all along.

J: How did working in southern China influence this book? How much existed before you went and how much was gained by your trip's end?

S: I didn’t have any idea what I was going to write about when I got on the plane to China. I knew I wanted to write about the footwear business and the factories, but I spent a lot of time meeting people and doing interviews before the plot of the novel started to emerge. I had to learn some of the urgent issues. Of course I only learned a fraction of them. I’m a total outsider (as is the narrator of the book). But the Chinese people I became friends with shaped the plot. I won’t name them here, but they were incredibly generous with their time and knowledge. They were also intensely proud of China and Chinese culture, which is ancient, gorgeous, fathomless. At the same time, there’s a lot about the country they want to change.

J: How long have you known you wanted to be a writer?

S: I don’t know if I ever knew I wanted to be a writer. That’s just an arbitrary label. Here’s what I mean. The greatest book ever written--also an absurd label--might be Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. But it wasn’t published until decades after his death. This masterpiece, he never saw in print. The legend is that he knew he couldn’t get it published under an oppressive Stalinist regime, so he just read it to his wife and friends. That’s the beauty of the story. He knew he’d be killed if he published it, but he wrote it anyway because he had to. So just write the most urgent thing in your heart, which is what I tried to do with this book, and then I guess you’re a writer. Everyone defines and decides that for themselves.

J: I read on your website you once showed a friend some of your writing, to which they replied, "You know, you don't have to be a writer." How did you move beyond that? And are you going to rub this book in their face? Joking aside, I know criticism is one of the main killers of art, the fear of rejection, I am curious to know how you stayed motivated.

S: I was bad at writing. He wasn’t wrong. I didn’t know how to tell a story. But he underestimated one thing: I don’t give up. This is honestly what I thought: I’m going to keep writing and keep trying to create a beautiful work of art and I’m going to die trying. I was totally content with that decision. Die trying. I can live with that. I wanted to tell the kind of story I wanted to hear but hadn’t been written yet. I hate rejection of course. Once you’ve been rejected for the millionth time, though, it really starts to lose its sting.  

Jared Carlson