I showed up in China like most white people—clueless, not speaking the language, utterly out of my element, and trying to convince myself that the hotel employees actually liked me. I’d gone to Guangzhou to write a novel about a shoe factory. The only leg up I had on the other foreigners was that I willing and openly admitted I didn’t know shit.
In China, I embraced that chaos and my ignorance from day one. All I did was take notes and listen and observe. By the time I flew home, I had dozens of interviews to transcribe, four full Moleskines, and countless restaurant receipts and hotel stationary with scribbled notes.
Heartbreaking as it was to accept, most of this material never made it into the final novel. 75% of what I researched wound up on the cutting room floor. And because this was impossible to accept—at times I just forced it. In the middle of the novel, for instance, I had a Melville moment. Do you remember this from Moby Dick? Probably not. No one remembers when he goes off for about 150 pages detailing how to hunt and butcher a whale, as if someone nestled by the fire at home reading his book would actually need this manual on extracting whale oil. I swore I’d never do anything like that–how insanely boring! But then, in middle of my research, I thought to myself, you know what, this shoe stuff is really fascinating. People would probably love to read a shoemaking manual–all 94 agonizing steps. It’s totally different than Melville. So of course I did exactly what I swore I wouldn’t: I wrote 50 agonizing pages about how to build a shoe from scratch.
And of course I watched from the dock as all my characters just sailed off like Ahab and vanished on the horizon. I tried to force a character to show up from time to time just to feign the presence of some kind of conflict. A woman would run in and say something lame like, “Oh no, what are you doing with that zipper!” which gave me more of an excuse to continue blathering on about shoemaking. I thought it was terrific. The whole bit. I showed these pages to my mentor, Robert Olen Butler, the famous novelist, who read about three out of 50 pages, and set the book down, studied my face, and asked if I’d lost my mind. I had! It was my Melville moment. I suddenly understood Herm. You do all this exhaustive research, it deserves to go in the book. It’s so damn interesting!
Not true, I’m afraid. The problem is that it’s divorced from character. So much of what I researched just wasn’t related to the characters I eventually created. Maybe it was indirectly related to their backstories but not the particular scenes. Many times I caught myself trying to force my research into the novel. But why in this scene of two people in line ordering McDonald’s would someone suddenly start talking about the horrific mass starvations of the Cultural Revolution? They wouldn’t. Or if they did, I’d probably be friends with them by now.
So all that time I spent learning about and making shoes wasn’t the actual book. That was hard to accept. So what was it? Well, it wound up giving my protagonist the soul of a ‘shoe dog.’ My narrator had to see the world like a real shoemaker. So the color of the dirty Pearl River water was lampcow. That was the name on our leather sample swatch card for this murky greenish-black color. The hull of the Iranian yacht out in the harbor was snow geese. The font on the factory walls was iceberg rose, and the sky wasn’t grey but seagull. I had to start seeing the world in terms of leather swatch cards, in this secret language of shoe dogs, before my character could. Otherwise he wouldn’t feel authentic and his story wouldn’t feel as urgent.
So for the first time in my life, I took an interest in what shoes people were wearing when they walked into a restaurant. In other words, it had to be more than a passing interest or hobby for my protagonist, it had to be his identity. For it to be his identity, first I had to make it mine. It was almost like method acting. Overkill for sure, but so many of the little details that I learned in my research came out naturally in the flow of writing actual scenes because I’d spent so much time thinking that way. I was immersed. I was a damn shoe dog. Now I had my protagonist and I was ready to tell his story.
In terms of getting it published–everyone’s publishing story is so vastly different that I don’t feel it’s all that helpful to relay mine other than to say: expect turbulence. It’s emotionally draining and takes forever. Prepare a list of apologies to your partner and practice saying them in the mirror. Sure, there are a few new authors who get an agent and a book deal in a couple of weeks but we all hate those people behind their backs. For us mortals, it’s an odyssey. Which makes things even sweeter when you finally get to hold the book in your hands. But I can tell you that I didn’t concern myself at all with demographics or market trends or analytics. That would have driven me crazy. I just tried to write the best book I could. The book I wanted to write. The one I wanted to read. The book is everything. After that, as my mentor says, let it go to the universe.
(c) Spencer Wise
Born in Boston, Spencer Wise is a graduate of Tufts University and the University of Texas at Austin and worked in the editorial departments at Sports Illustrated and Time Out New York. His work has appeared in Narrative magazine, Hayden’s Ferry Review, The Florida Review, and New Ohio Review. He is the winner of the 2017 Gulf Coast Prize in nonfiction. Wise teaches at Florida State University and lives in Tallahassee.
About The Emperor of Shoes:
From an exciting new voice in literary fiction, a transfixing story about an expatriate in southern China and his burgeoning relationship with a seamstress intent on inspiring dramatic political change.
Alex Cohen, a twenty-six-year-old Jewish Bostonian, is living in southern China, where his father runs their family-owned shoe factory. Alex reluctantly assumes the helm of the company, but as he explores the plant’s vast floors and assembly lines, he comes to a grim realization: employees are exploited, regulatory systems are corrupt and Alex’s own father is engaging in bribes to protect the bottom line. When Alex meets a seamstress named Ivy, his sympathies begin to shift. She is an embedded organizer of a pro-democratic Chinese party, secretly sowing dissonance among her fellow laborers. Will Alex remain loyal to his father and his heritage? Or will the sparks of revolution ignite? Deftly plotted and vibrantly drawn, The Emperor of Shoes is a timely meditation on idealism, ambition, father-son rivalry and cultural revolution, set against a vivid backdrop of social and technological change.
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