Spencer Wise’s debut nov­el The Emper­or of Shoes is the sto­ry of a young Jew­ish shoe­mak­ing heir who starts to ques­tion the ethics of his fam­i­ly busi­ness, which makes its shoes using Chi­nese labor. The book’s pro­tag­o­nist, Alex, falls in love with a Chi­nese labor orga­niz­er named Ivy, who gets him to think more deeply about him­self, his father, and cap­i­tal­ism. I chat­ted with Spencer about the inter­sec­tions between his book and his own life; how he approach­es writ­ing fic­tion ver­sus non­fic­tion; the intri­ca­cies of writ­ing dia­logue for non-native speak­ers of Eng­lish; and Jew­ish iden­ti­ty, white­ness, and Otherness.

Emi­ly Hei­den: Your book large­ly deals with the issue of iden­ti­ty. At one point, Alex says that per­haps the rea­son he came to Chi­na is to be in a place where he’s so dif­fer­ent that he final­ly belongs: I pic­tured myself at peace, in a place where I stood out so god­damn bad that I final­ly fit in.” Can you talk about that moment, about the role of the out­sider, and Alex’s search for identity?

Spencer Wise: Well, there is the sense that being Jew­ish is no longer dif­fer­ent” — and that used to be such a big part of our iden­ti­ty, that we were this unique group. Less than 100 years ago, Jews weren’t con­sid­ered white. We were com­plete­ly Oth­er and dif­fer­ent. In our rush to assim­i­late to Amer­i­ca — to suc­ceed — that changed. I mean, my par­ents named me Spencer. It’s an absurd­ly non-Jew­ish name.

In Judaism there’s been this sense of self-loathing, the sense that I’m dif­fer­ent and there’s some­thing mark­ing me as Oth­er.” Unlike oth­er minor­i­ty pop­u­la­tions, I think we were able to blend in to the point that we were no longer con­sid­ered Oth­er. But Alex is long­ing to be Oth­er again. There’s a self in Oth­er­ness; it’s like I’m some­body now, I’m unique.”

EH: Con­tin­u­ing with this theme of iden­ti­ty, it’s inter­est­ing to me that when Alex goes to meet the labor orga­niz­er, Zhang, he imag­ines the lizard on the floor cock­ing his head as if to say What’s with the Jew, bub?” instead of What’s with the white guy?” or some­thing along those lines. Alex him­self, on the next page, tells Zhang the Jew­ish part is just sto­ries, tra­di­tions hand­ed down. For me.”

SW:  In your heart you know what marks you. That’s what comes out when the lizard looks at Alex. I think that, through­out the book, Alex says things that don’t nec­es­sar­i­ly reflect what he real­ly is. He’s in denial at times. So with the lizard, he has this almost para­noid flash of a moment where he feels like the lizard sees straight through him into his Jew­ish soul — this very soul that he’s try­ing to dis­avow to Zhang as mere­ly sto­ries and tra­di­tions.” So, he’s con­flict­ed. As read­ers we get that. We almost under­stand more about Alex than he under­stands about him­self. That’s the dra­mat­ic irony that’s fun with a first-per­son nar­ra­tor; if they know every­thing, it’s real­ly bor­ing. So, at times, Alex is proud of his her­itage; oth­er times he shuns it. Isn’t that life? It’s not so straight­for­ward. We’re full of con­tra­dic­tions. In fic­tion, as in life, if you’re going to go into someone’s heart it’s going to be full of hypocrisy, and it’s messy. I guess I don’t see that as a bad thing. I find that inter­est­ing and very human.

EH: In the scene where Alex meets Zhang, Ivy is unchar­ac­ter­is­ti­cal­ly qui­et. Can you talk about the choice to have these two men dis­cussing the best plan for a poten­tial upris­ing in the fac­to­ry, when Ivy has been such a key fig­ure in the planning?

SW: I think it’s Zhang’s turn; he needs his time on stage. And Ivy is the only one who can bring the two guys togeth­er. She’s on the side­lines for this scene, but we’re sup­posed to under­stand she’s vital to the upris­ing. And, you know, I would love to read a book from Ivy’s point of view, but you real­ly don’t want a white dude writ­ing that book. That would real­ly be a reach for a white Jew­ish guy from Boston.

EH: Let’s talk about the char­ac­ter of Ivy. Her per­son­al­i­ty is real­ly charm­ing, real­ly open; she feels ful­ly fleshed-out — and her dia­logue is a large part of that. How do you write dia­logue? Does writ­ing dia­logue for a char­ac­ter who’s a non-native speak­er of Eng­lish change things? How did you han­dle that dur­ing the writ­ing process?

SW: It was so hard. I was so con­scious of that. One thing I did to get my dia­logue to feel real was I inter­viewed tons of Chi­nese peo­ple and I record­ed it. I also read tons of oral his­to­ries, which were real­ly just tran­scribed inter­views. That was immense­ly time-consuming.

The Chi­nese char­ac­ters in my book can’t speak in Amer­i­can col­lo­qui­alisms. Ivy can’t be like What’s up dude?” But I chose to make the Chi­nese char­ac­ters speak most­ly decent Eng­lish. I wor­ried that if my Chi­nese char­ac­ters spoke real­ly bro­ken Eng­lish they could end up say­ing these pro­found things, but it might be less under­stand­able or sound less intel­li­gent. Also Amer­i­cans have a stereo­type of what Chi­nese-Eng­lish” sounds like from TV and pop cul­ture. I didn’t want to go there at all. So the read­er is going to have to sus­pend their belief and just accept that every­one in the book speaks Eng­lish pret­ty fluently.

EH: Fedor, the father in the nov­el, is a major fig­ure. He’s believ­able but not nec­es­sar­i­ly like­able; the book essen­tial­ly ends with his own son oust­ing him. What has been your father’s response to the book, as a lot of the book reads as autobiographical?

SW: He’s been the num­ber-one sup­port­er and cham­pi­on of me becom­ing a writer. At no point in my life did he envi­sion me get­ting into the shoe busi­ness. He want­ed me to get out of it. And of course I picked a real­ly crazy thing to do. 

Although the book is crit­i­cal of cap­i­tal­ism and glob­al cap­i­tal­ism, one thing that it also does is pay homage to the shoe­mak­ing indus­try, and that’s a huge part of my her­itage and my tra­di­tion. I think my dad sees it as hon­or­ing our fam­i­ly — five gen­er­a­tions deep of shoe­mak­ers, going all the way back to a shtetl in Rus­sia. When my great grand­fa­ther came over on the SS Car­ma­nia, he was illit­er­ate, and he had three cents in his pock­et. Writ­ing this book was a chance to go into that legacy.

Also, the unlike­able parts of the father in the book are not like my dad at all. I was wor­ried when he saw it on the page that he wouldn’t like it, that he would think it was him. I was think­ing Oh my God, he’s going to dis­own me and be so pissed.” And then it got pub­lished and I think he was just proud. I had big­ger prob­lems with oth­er fam­i­ly mem­bers who just couldn’t sep­a­rate the char­ac­ter of Fedor from my dad. It’s not him. He’s the oppo­site of Fedor. I mean, noth­ing in the book actu­al­ly hap­pened. I’m not Alex. Fedor’s not my dad.

EH: NOTH­ING in the book actu­al­ly hap­pened? Not even the poi­son ivy scene?

SW: The poi­son ivy scene is true. It hap­pened, but I didn’t tell any­one. A lot of what I do in my writ­ing is I embell­ish it. So: I got poi­son ivy while mak­ing out with a girl in the woods, but no one exam­ined me. But I thought, Wouldn’t that be hilar­i­ous if that hap­pened to me?” That’s tak­ing some­thing from real life and stretch­ing it until it becomes funny.

Objec­tive­ly, moments and events don’t real­ly count until we make them count.

EH: Okay, so some of it’s based on real­i­ty. I con­fess, when I was read­ing it, I was look­ing for those moments in the book that felt like they might be auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal. Per­son­al­ly, as a non­fic­tion writer, I have no inter­est in or com­pul­sion toward inven­tion, so I’m always read­ing for the real. But you’re say­ing you made most of it up? How do you nav­i­gate that?

SWNon­fic­tion is amaz­ing but I sort of know the plot before I start. When I sat down to write the essay about the time I met Rod Stew­art, I knew Rod was going to walk in, act crazy, and I was going to have an exis­ten­tial melt­down because I had no idea what the hell I was doing with my life at the time. With fic­tion, the plot isn’t there. You have to dream it and it’s hard because there are end­less pos­si­bil­i­ties. So, I sort of let myself imag­ine all of them and then see which one feels right.

Trav­el­ing around Chi­na is dif­fer­ent from the West in many ways. It’s sen­so­ry over­load. Like at a tan­nery, every sin­gle sense is bom­bard­ed, and there’s a man squat­ting by the split­ting machine and he looks at you with these blood­shot eyes, and it’s all pret­ty intense. So I tried to just stay open to all the dif­fer­ent pos­si­bil­i­ties of what could hap­pen to my nar­ra­tor at that tannery.

Objec­tive­ly, moments and events don’t real­ly count until we make them count. We read into things. We make them mat­ter. So in fic­tion I’m expe­ri­enc­ing the moment, walk­ing through this tan­nery, and I’m try­ing to feel for those scenes that mat­ter intense­ly to my nar­ra­tor, that chal­lenge, change, or rein­vent him. The scenes that count. The things that feel like they were meant to happen.

EH: To go back to the idea of peo­ple or events based in the real, what about the char­ac­ter of Alex’s moth­er? There are some moments that work to cre­ate a real­ly believ­able, emo­tion­al­ly pow­er­ful car­i­ca­ture of her. There are also some unflat­ter­ing moments that reveal the rough edges of the moth­er and father’s rela­tion­ship. Does embark­ing on a project that poten­tial­ly reveals such sides of a fam­i­ly member’s char­ac­ter ever hold you back from beginning?

SW: It did hold me back for a while, but I think it was Philip Roth who said to write a book your moth­er will hate. Mean­ing write so close to the bone, about what is so urgent and inti­mate and hon­est and trou­bling about your con­flict­ed sense of self and iden­ti­ty, that you have to tell it.

Even­tu­al­ly, you go so deep into the rab­bit hole that you think, I don’t even know what’s going on any­more, I don’t know if this will ever get pub­lished,” and then final­ly you’re like, Let me just cre­ate a work of art I’m proud of, that engages the kind of urgent ques­tions I want­ed to ask.” And if that res­onates with some­one, awe­some. I wrote it because I had to write it.

Also, about unflat­ter­ing por­traits: some peo­ple have told me that what we need are books that depict Jews only in an angel­ic or hero­ic light. But that’s not the world, nor is it the busi­ness world. Peo­ple don’t want to think about where their shoes come from, where their things come from. We can’t just tell our­selves hero sto­ries all day long — we have to take respon­si­bil­i­ty for our place in the world, and that’s part of what my nov­el is about. As Jews, activism is part of our lega­cy, but cap­i­tal­ism is also part of our lega­cy. The Jew­ish expe­ri­ence is real­ly diverse and complex.

EH: At the book’s end, Alex says he loves Ivy, but she’s told him that he’s not real­ly at home in the rev­o­lu­tion. Pages lat­er, you write She’s gone.” Are we to read this as an end to their rela­tion­ship, or is it meant to be more ambiguous?

SW: I think it’s the end of the rela­tion­ship. Ivy’s going to lead a rev­o­lu­tion for a Demo­c­ra­t­ic China.

A lot of the book is about how awe­some Chi­na is, and Ivy’s pro­found sense of los­ing that. It’s about her los­ing her own sense of iden­ti­ty and her past in this hyper-cap­i­tal­ist Chi­na. And Alex’s sense of los­ing him­self. The ques­tion becomes: How far can we drift from the cen­ter before we lose every sense of who we are? What Ivy goes to do is for her coun­try. It’s a hope­ful end­ing — not for them, but for China.

Emi­ly Sulz­man is a writer and PhD stu­dent study­ing lit­er­ary non­fic­tion at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cincinnati.