John Vercher’s novel, Three-Fifths, is a debut not just for him but for his publisher, Agora at Polis Books, and it’s on sale this week! John’s received starred reviews from Library Journal and Booklist and praise from writers including Edgar and Anthony Award winner Sujata Massey, He answered some questions for us about his influences and who–besides him–you should be reading.
Welcome, John! What got you started writing Three-Fifths?
When I was at the University of Pittsburgh, I took a course focusing on the history of Black cinema, and we watched Imitation of Life, which introduced me to the book of the same name, as well as other passing narratives, such as Nella Larsen’s Passing. Around that time, I had also seen the film American History X, and became fascinated with the idea of a story told in reverse—where someone who was not racist came out of prison newly radicalized as a white supremacist. After some time, I decided I wanted to combine the passing narrative with that story, and that was the beginning of Bobby and Aaron.
How does Bobby’s sense of himself and his experiences compare with your own or of other young men in Pittsburgh in the 1990s?
In my personal experience, mixed-race people—particularly those whose appearance might be ambiguous to some—are constantly faced with a question of identity. I certainly was, and at an early age. I’ve written in personal essays about how often I was asked the question, “What are you?”, particularly when I had hair, which was long, and very different from my father’s tight curls. While I don’t know anyone specifically like Bobby, there are narratives of characters who experience a self-loathing of sorts when it comes to ethnicity, religion, or sexuality, and I wanted to explore those ideas through Bobby’s character, in particular how firmly he would hold on to his sense of himself when it quite literally put his life in danger.
Which writers inspired or influenced your writing? Who’s on your must pre-order list?
This is by no means an inclusive list, but here are some that are constants, and in no particular order: Jesmyn Ward, John Edgar Wideman, Ernest Gaines, James Baldwin, Mat Johnson, Colson Whitehead, Richard Wright.
Must Pre-Order: Any of the above still writing, as well as Maurice Carlos Ruffin, David Joy, Gabino Iglesias, Matt Coleman, Stephen Mack Jones, Rob Hart, Sujata Massey.
Though the book is set in 1995, it fully resonates in 2019. What do you hope readers take away from the book?
That what we’re experiencing post 2016 election is nothing new. None of it. The issues of racism have always existed. It’s not a matter of history repeating itself, or things being any worse than they were. There was a period, however brief, when bigots and racists felt less comfortable voicing their vitriol in “polite company” than they had, but their time has come again. My sincere hope is that readers realize the responsibility we all hold for being ever vigilant—to understand that the insidious indoctrination of hate has roots in the home, in our schools, and in the other places where we are not always able to protect our children from it. We must always be on watch if we ever hope to implement change before hate takes hold.
For more about John and his editor, Chantelle Aimee Osman, check out this article on The Thrill Begins.
To purchase Three-Fifths, visit one of the following sites or a bookseller near you.