Interview with John Vercher, Author of Three-Fifths

John Vercher’s debut, Three-Fifths, is a riveting crime story told with touches of poetry, razor-sharp characterizations, and the sort of cinematic pacing that keeps you on the edge of your seat. It’s also a powerful narrative about family, friendship, and race that will make you examine your own attitudes about identity even as you rush to turn the pages.

Three-Fifths is set against the backdrop of Pittsburgh in the mid-nineties and tells the story of Bobby Saraceno, a biracial young man who keeps his mixed-race a secret, even from his best friend, Aaron. But when Aaron, who’s become a white supremacist, involves Bobby in a terrible hate crime, Bobby must choose between his loyalty to his childhood friend and the price he could pay for revealing his secret and the truth of what happened.

Three-Fifths is the first book published by Agora, Polis Books’ new crime fiction imprint dedicated to promoting unique and diverse voices, and it has been piling up accolades ever since its release.  Kirkus Reviews calls it a “sad, swift tale bearing rueful observations about color and class as urgent now as 24 years ago.” It was named one of the Best Books of 2019 by the Chicago Tribune, a Best Debut Novel by CrimeReads, a 2020 nominee for the  Left Coast Crime “Lefty” award for Best Debut Novel, and was just nominated for an Edgar Award for Best First Novel.

Whether you’re a crime fiction lover or new to the genre, I highly recommend this incredibly moving novel that combines the beautiful prose of literary fiction with the propulsive power of the best crime writing. I was delighted to chat with John about the genesis for his story, making the message matter “as much as the story and characterization,” and so much more.

Emily Ross: Though Three-Fifths is set in the ’90s, Bobby feels like the perfect lens though which to view the racial turmoil of our own times. Tell us about your inspired decision to put a biracial man at the center of your novel.

John Vercher: The decision wasn’t about timeliness. The genesis for this story goes back twenty years to when I was in college. The sad truth is that any stories about racism in our country will always be “timely,” because the history of this country is steeped in and founded on racism and white supremacy. Had this book been published in the time period in which it took place, it would have been as timely then as it is now.

The choice to make the protagonist biracial came from my own experiences as a biracial Black man. While my life certainly wasn’t as fraught as Bobby’s, I had questions of my own about identity and where I fit, particularly at Bobby’s age. I felt that the truth that could be told through fiction was the best way to address and confront some of the emotions I felt at that period of my life, and that perhaps it would speak to others who had gone through the same.

The OJ Simpson trial lurks in the background of this novel and I remember quite well how mesmerizing that case was. Why did you choose to set this story in that time frame?

The Simpson trial was such a part of the cultural milieu that still seems to fascinate us to this day. I think that’s due in part to how it sparked so many public and polarized conversations about  race, class, and the policing of Black people in America. However, because it was also a media-saturated celebrity scandal, people voiced ideas and opinions they might have been more prone to say behind closed doors or after looking over both shoulders to make sure no one was listening. With the tensions surrounding the Rodney King verdict barely in the rearview, it seemed appropriate to cast a story of race, identity, and class against that backdrop.

You have a fantastic eye for the small details that reveal a person, and your characters are so beautifully developed I found myself incredibly moved even by the ones I wanted to hate, like Aaron. He’s not one of the comic book villains he and Bobby like to read about. He’s complex and disturbing, and you offer understanding without offering excuses. What were some of the challenges and rewards of putting Aaron on the page?

The simultaneous challenge and reward regarding Aaron was the reception I received about his character, which was that while people found his actions reprehensible, they also found him sympathetic. When I first envisioned Aaron, he did more closely resemble a comic book villain, and he was boring as a result. The best villains are the ones who think they aren’t—that are the heroes of their own story, and Aaron is certainly that. He feels completely justified in what he’s done and no one can tell him differently.

I wanted to spark conversation around the idea that even people as terrible as Aaron are more than just their worst attributes. He genuinely cares about Bobby. He is capable of love and other things we’d consider normal. That’s a hard thing to consider about people who hold views like his—but it doesn’t make it any less true. That said, it was hard to hear that people felt bad about his story, because I felt a responsibility to not make him too sympathetic. I hope I achieved that.

Isabel, Bobby’s mother, is one of my favorite characters. In spite of her best intentions she is driven to make wrong decisions by forces she can’t control, including her alcoholism and constant anxiety over making ends meet. All too often Bobby’s the one who must take care of her, though her life has been shaped by her love for him. She’s exasperating but also sympathetic. Can you talk about how you created this believable and heart-wrenching female character?

As is true with arguably every writer of fiction, I created a character who represents an amalgamation of people I’ve encountered throughout my life, as well as a reflection of some aspects of my own traits and experiences. Similar to Aaron, I’ve had readers tell me, “I just wanted her to get her shit together!” and there’s certainly a time when that statement would have applied to me. I wanted to create a female character who was strong in her own way, yet still incredibly flawed, who could make readers feel as though her wrong decisions were beyond her control when in reality they weren’t.

For example, I felt it was important to address the unfair stereotype of Black fathers abandoning the white mothers of interracial children by showing that what drove Robert away was not a lack of accountability, but Isabel’s blindness to her privilege and to her near-fetishization of her relationship with a Black man. Yes, she’s in a sad and difficult situation, yet much of it is of her own making, despite her intentions, something she is blissfully unware of until it’s painfully pointed out. Until then she was living under the pretenses of her own narrative—a condition I’m certain many of us can identify with.

Three-Fifths conveys a powerful message about racism and identity without ever being preachy.  By giving us characters who challenge racial stereotypes, you make readers more aware of their own preconceptions about race. It’s a brilliant strategy for showing readers how insidious and pervasive racism can be, but it never feels forced. Did you deliberately set out to do this or did it arise organically from your story?

I’d have to say a bit of both. As I was writing, there were certainly times where I found I was veering too far into didacticism and finger-wagging, either on my own or via trusted beta-readers. I wanted the message to matter as much as the story and characterization, so I had to deliver it in a way where I could deliver a capital-M message in what felt like small-m package, if that makes sense. I felt the best way to do that was to let the characters and their journey drive the narrative, which in the end, I think, made the theme come through more organically.

Three-Fifths combines the beautiful prose of a literary novel with a powerful narrative about family, friendship, and race. But it is also a gripping crime novel about the gut-twisting repercussions of committing a crime, and it achingly conveys how one wrong decision can shatter many lives. Who are some writers, crime writers or otherwise, who have influenced you?

Wow, thank you for that! On this book journey, I’ve discovered in retrospect that a number of writers I like in fact write “literary crime,” even though their novels might not be considered as such. For example, James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk is a literary crime novel. The same holds true for A Gathering of Old Men and A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest Gaines, or Where the Line Bleeds by Jesmyn Ward, and more recently, The Incendiaries by R.O. Kwon, as well as all three of David Joy’s novels. All are full of rich characterization, but there is a crime element that raises the stakes for all involved.

The shifting POVs in this novel kept me turning the pages and the multiple story lines all collide in a way that feels inevitable and immensely moving. As someone who struggles with structure I’m jealous! What’s your secret? Are you a pantser or a plotter?

Once again, a little bit of both. I try to lay out a basic chapter structure to guide me where I have a sense of where the chapter will begin and end, but after that, all bets are off once I sit down to write. I go where the situation takes me. It involves a lot of talking to myself out loud in an attempt to figure out how my characters would react in a realistic way to the awful situations I tend to put them in. Those are the books I like to read—ones where the story is driven not by plot, but by how people try to make the best of a terrible predicament, whether it’s brought on by outside forces, or themselves.

I read that you work in healthcare. I know day jobs eat up precious writing time but are there ways your day job helped with writing this novel?

I’m no longer in healthcare, but I was at the time I wrote Three-Fifths. It was immensely helpful, especially in my characterization of Robert. Healthcare, as with most professions, has its own language and those who work in healthcare are quick to call out inaccuracies not only in vocabulary, but in situations. Having that background helped me bring some validity to that.

It was also important to me that the violence in the book has consequences. That the impact of the violence wasn’t left at the scene of the crime, so to speak. Having an in-depth knowledge of anatomy and knowing what happens to the body with trauma allowed me to write about the aftermath of what Aaron wrought in a way that felt more visceral. Too often, we only read or see the shock of the violence, but not it’s lingering and rippling after effects, which are often more shocking and terrible than the acts that initiated them.

Your debut was also a debut for Agora, Polis Books’ new crime fiction imprint dedicated to diverse voices, and it has gotten them off to a great start. Can you talk about your path to publication and how your novel found a home at Agora?

It’s been an incredible path—one that I feel like I’m still on! Three-Fifths was my MFA thesis, and I made the mistake of trying to shop it right after I graduated. Word of advice—don’t do that. So there were years of revising based on consistent feedback I saw in rejections, which I found myself fortunate to get. It was rare that I got the form letters telling me it wasn’t a fit or just wasn’t for them. I often got actionable, thoughtful advice, for which I’m still quite grateful.

I was between agents when I submitted to Polis Books. Due to some serendipity in the universe, I did so at the time that Chantelle and Jason were collaborating to form Agora. I connected with my agent, Michelle Richter through #DVPit on Twitter, and had some incredible signal boosting from people like Matt Coleman, Gabino Iglesias, and Kellye Garrett. I can’t say the rest is history, because it’s still going!

That Polis and Agora took a chance on launching their imprint with me first out of the gate is something I’ll never forget. In the few short months, all they’ve done to get this book out into the world, from readings to signings to reviews, has fulfilled any dream I ever had about publishing a book and then some.

They’ve also given me access to a community of writers who are so incredibly kind and supportive, people I interact with on a daily basis. I never expected to make so many friends in what often feels like such a solitary endeavor. It’s been one of the absolute best parts of this entire experience.

Once your book launch whirlwind dies down, what’s next for you?

I’m hard at work on book number two and plan to have the draft completed in the next two months! I’ve also completed a pitch for a graphic novel and hope to start shopping it soon.

In the meantime, I’ll be attending Left Coast Crime and The Virginia Festival of the Book, both in March. I’m also excited to share that I’ve been nominated for a Lefty Award for Best Debut novel alongside some other incredible writers, including Agora alum Tori Eldridge!

About John Vercher: John’s debut novel, Three-Fifths, was named one of the best books of 2019 by the Chicago Tribune, a Notable Mention in CrimeReads best crime novels of 2019, a Best Debut Novel by CrimeReads, was a 2020 Nominee for Left Coast Crime’s “Lefty” Award for Best Debut Novel, and was nominated for an Edgar Award for Best First Novel. John is a contributing writer for Cognoscenti, the thoughts and opinions page of WBUR Boston. Two of his essays published on race, identity, and parenting were picked up by NPR, and he has appeared on WBUR’s Weekend Edition. His non-fiction work has also appeared in Entropy Magazine and CrimeReads. His fiction has appeared on Akashic Books’ flash fiction features Mondays are Murder and Fri-SciFi. He lives in the Philadelphia area with his wife and two sons. You can find him on Twitter @jverch75, on Instagram at johnvercher75, and on Facebook at John Vercher—Author.

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