Sunday, July 29, 2018

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.

His debut novel is The Emperor of Shoes.

Recently I asked Wise about what he was reading. His reply:
I’ve been on the road for over a month touring, so I’ve had to poach some time here and there to read. Mostly short stories. I adored Elizabeth McCracken’s collection Thunderstruck. It’s a few years old. What I love about it--the narrators and protagonists are all laughing about things you absolutely aren’t supposed to laugh about. The grandmother in “Hungry” mocks her granddaughter’s appetites at the same time she encourages them. The granddaughter loves “heat-lamped fried chicken and tall glasses of cubed Jell-O”and she’s already split one pair of pants and didn’t care in the slightest. It’s hilarious and wrong. None of this cheek-pinching nonsense, here’s a grandmother that you know is real. “Juliet,” the story about the murder of a library patron, is also somehow funny. The narrator gets you to lower your guard and fall in love with her voice, but then you slowly realize it’s all about grief and how we process loss. That’s true of the whole collection. McCracken is obviously an incredible talent. We also both adore Grace Paley--who writes in a similar style. Lots of humor and pathos all mixed together. In fact, and maybe it’s just the zeitgeist that makes me think of this, but the brilliant author, Leslie Epstein (Please read King of the Jews, just trust me) once said to me when I was interviewing him: “Wherever humor is absent, perk up your ears--trouble is on the way.” That always stayed with me.

I also went back to “Kindness” by Yiyun Li. It’s from Gold Boy, Emerald Girl. She’s tremendous, as everyone knows. This story is heart wrenching. Moyan, the middle-aged protagonist, is basically a recluse. This narrative relies on a lot of dramatic irony. Moyan says right at the start that she doesn’t feel alone and yet goes on to tell a novella-length story about loneliness. She has two primary female mentors--one from her time in the People’s Liberation Army, the other a professor. The voice is straight and without much adornment, and that makes it even more heartbreaking when, for instance, she remembers how her father solemnly shook her hand at the train station when she went off to the army. It also gets at why we as humans feel so terrible all the time. I mean, why are we sad, why are we alone even when we’re surrounded by people. It’s those huge ineffable mysteries that Yiyun Li gets at in this piece, which makes it feel epic.

I’ve also really looking forward to reading Lucy Tan’s new novel, What We Were Promised, set in modern-day Shanghai.
Visit Spencer Wise's website.

The Page 69 Test: The Emperor of Shoes.

--Marshal Zeringue