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?
SW: Nonfiction 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.