The Fire in His Wake (McSweeney’s, 2020), Spencer Wolff’s exuberant debut novel, tells the story of two men swept up in refugee crises of the twenty-first century: Simon, a young employee at the UNHCR in Morocco, and Arès, a Congolese locksmith left for dead in the wake of ethnic violence. The novel has a page-turning pace and an epic scope. Wolff spoke with Amanda Uhle of McSweeney’s.

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AU: Blurbs have said your novel is “a work of extraordinary empathetic and imaginative power” and emphasize the book’s “compassion.” Tell us more about the aspect of empathy in the novel, which seems to be a genuine throughline in its many settings and turns of plot.

SW: This is such a fascinating question for me, because there was no conscious effort on my part to be “empathetic,” i.e. it is not a staged or contrived affect. When you write about your friends and the people you lived with and worked with, a certain concern for their fates and ambitions, and a certain indulgence for their follies and erring, seems instinctive. Despite the imaginative labor of scene-crafting in the novel, the characters themselves are almost universally patterned after individuals who were my neighbors, my confidantes, my roommates, my friends, and even my lovers — since I am simply describing the universe in which I lived, empathy is a natural consequence.

But this brings us to a vital question of literature’s role as an antidote to intolerance and a remedy for callousness. If empathy flows from familiarity, then the humanizing potential of literature lies in its ability to transport you into a foreign world and then, by making this world your own, to inspire empathy for its inhabitants. This speaks to the vital necessity of publishing works about places and cultures that may seem alien or even “exotic” to a certain reading public but which are not to its authors. The author can transmit her lived experience to the reader, and by drawing the unfamiliar close to the reader, this sort of literature may enable the imaginative and affective leap that we call empathy.

AU: As a reader, it was very easy to see your provenance as a filmmaker in the text. Scene by scene, this is a downright vivid, cinematic novel. How did your background in filmmaking influence how you wrote the book?

SW: I happen to be a very visual thinker, so when I begin drafting a scene, I first visualize it in my mind and then try to describe what I see: that ever arduous struggle of conniving language into reproducing vision without foregoing a story’s momentum. More than anything, though, it was my background as a film editor, and specifically my experience in setting the pace of filmic works, that influenced the structure of The Fire in His Wake. Time is compressed in a visual medium and viewers’ attention spans are limited and notoriously boredom-prone. I learned as a filmmaker that the action of a plot has to be engrossing and propulsive. Certainly, great cinema permits interstices of aesthetic beauty and moments of contemplative bliss, but my favorite films (as well as my most-beloved novels) are those that propel the story ahead in an economical and absorbing fashion. It was in the editing room that I mastered the often distressing discipline of leaving poetic jewels on the cutting room floor for the sake of the narrative, and I applied this training to the many revisions of The Fire in His Wake.

AU: Tell us about your award-winning documentary STOP, and the process of making it. How did that process compare to writing The Fire in His Wake?

SW: There are striking similarities between the labor of a documentary filmmaker and the world-building aspired to by any “realist”, or even halfway-“realist” writer. I prepared the early drafting of The Fire in His Wake much like I approach production for a documentary film. This meant that I cribbed an enormous amount of information from my environment — logging notes about my surroundings, rendering peoples’ expressions and character traits, and making sure to jot down the hilarious repartee of a tight-knit group of my friends who were in a Rabat-based West-African hip-hop group. When the “resettlement” protests suddenly erupted in front of the UNHCR, I diligently recorded the strained but revealing conversations happening inside the UN Bureau.

This invaluable raw material I then combined with a myriad of historical and novelistic sources about Morocco and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), much as (years prior), I sought out expert interviews and documentation about racial disparities in policing in New York City for STOP. However, being of the observational school of filmmaking, I tend to privilege first-hand personal accounts over expert opinions, and lived-experience over studied analysis. So I conferred at great lengths with Moroccan and Congolese friends, especially those who had grown up in Kinshasha or lived there for long periods of time, in order to ground the novel’s story in those seemingly trivial details that like Blake’s grain of sand conjure up an entire universe.

AU: Without giving too much away, The Fire in His Wake has a stellar, genre-busting ending that has caused me to wonder about your reading habits. Do they fit neatly into a category of literary fiction or international affairs or something else? Tell us what you read — and what you recommend.

SW: I almost exclusively read literary fiction and I heartily subscribe to the adage that fiction better emulates (and excavates) truth than non-fiction. In regards to the denouement to The Fire in His Wake, I do admit that my adolescent love of literature crystallized around works that flirt with (or openly embrace) the fantastic in the aims of arriving at poetic revelation, for instance: Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, the short stories of Kafka and Borges, Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo, any number of Shakespeare’s plays, The Odyssey by Homer, and all of Sophocles’ unforgettable tragedies which found their worthy modern successors in magisterial works like Naipaul’s A Bend in the River, Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians or Camus’ The Plague. These are all novels where the promise of radical social transformation is incarnated in a mytho-poetic turn, and where a concern for the political is sublimated in literary artifice.

At the same time, I think that readers of The Fire in His Wake will remark an overriding sociological interest in the diverse contours of Rabat’s variegated communities that stems equally from my love for this global crossroad of a city and from my admiration for Balzac’s Comédie Humaine, picaresque novels like The Decameron and Don Quichote, and a critical-realist tradition which for me is best exemplified by the works of Austin, Baldwin, Zola, and Orwell to which I return to time and again (especially Baldwin). African politics are on every character’s lips, and the protagonists’ stories flow through a space where personal aspirations intersect with world-historical (r )evolutions.

Finally, having spent great swathes of my life abroad, and much of it in the so-called Global South, my literary diet over the past decades has shifted towards contemporary (and not-so-contemporary) African, Maghrebin and French literature, from Tahar Ben Jelloun’s many admirable works, to Ishmael Beah’s gripping memoir and lyrical novels, Mohammed Choukri’s For Bread Alone, Adichie’s stunning early novels, to the globe-spanning visions of Mathias Enard, the migrant musings of Valeria Luiselli, and onward to sweeping fantastical-historical fiction by Namwali Serpell, Marlon James, Colson Whitehead, Jennifer Makumbi, and then what we might call more realist-historical works like Ronan Bennett’s The Catastrophist. I prefer plot-driven novels that camouflage their wisdom in action, so that, only after you have turned the last breathless page of the book, do you realize how much you have gained by their reading.