Bobby Saraceno, the protagonist of John Vercher’s Edgar-nominated debut, Three-Fifths, is mixed-race but has been passing for white. When his best friend Aaron gets out of prison a hardened fascist, Bobby faces an identity crisis that is intensified when his mother tries to reunite him with his African American father.
A page-turner that recalls classic noir in its style and milieu, Three-Fifths is also a profoundly moving portrait of a relationship between a mother and a son. It tells the story of two friends, one of whom has become a monster.
Mr. Vercher and I conducted this email interview over several weeks.
Because you show us the brutality Aaron suffers, you manage to evoke a lot of empathy, if not sympathy, for the abhorrent choice he makes to embrace fascism. How did you go about creating his character?
Vercher: Aaron is easily the most asked-about character in the book, and I believe, whether consciously or not on behalf of those who ask, it’s for the reasons you detailed here. I wanted to create a “villain” who was not a caricature. For him to be truly believable, people not only had to believe that he felt justified in his choices, they had to be uncomfortable with the fact that they felt some sense of empathy toward him.
It certainly made me uncomfortable to make him empathetic, possibly even sympathetic, as some readers have told me they felt bad for Aaron. It’s great that I was effective in that regard, but at the same time, as person of color, I felt a responsibility NOT to make people feel for him. It remained important for me to make him somewhat empathetic because I wanted Aaron to achieve what the best antagonists do in books—hold up a mirror to the reader.
If non-POC readers were disgusted by Aaron’s beliefs, but at the same time saw a little bit of themselves in the things he told himself to justify his actions and were made uncomfortable by it—especially uncomfortable enough to start a dialogue—then I believe I did what I set out to do with him.
As a white reader, I’ve interrogated my response to Aaron: Do I feel too much for him? I don’t know if you’ve read Christian Picciolini’s White American Youth. It’s a memoir by a guy who was part of the neo-Nazi movement in the early 1990s. Now he deprograms Nazis. Do you think there’s hope for someone like Aaron?
Vercher: The cynic in me wants to shout no, but the idealist in me says yes, because if not, then why am I doing this? I know that sounds grandiose, but my goal in writing this book was to create a dialogue without being overly didactic—to ground this experience in the lives of characters that felt like living, breathing people with whom readers from all walks of life could identify.
The content of your self-interrogation was the goal in creating Aaron. It’s hard for us to accept that people who are capable of holding horrific ideologies and committing terrible violence also have people that they care about in their life, do the everyday things we do—perhaps even share outlooks on certain things.
It’s the latter that can be the most shocking of all for some. It is perhaps that realization that, if accepted, can allow for more conversation between “enemies.” While I haven’t read White American Youth, I’m familiar with Mr. Picciolini. It also calls to mind Daryl Davis and the work he’s done engaging with members of the Ku Klux Klan. It’s the idea that those conversations can and do occur—though far more rarely than necessary—that lets me believe there is hope for people like Aaron.
Your book is set in 1995, during a period when the neo-Nazi movement was highly visible. Now, we’re seeing a resurgence of fascist movements. Was setting your book 25 years in the past a way to comment on the present?
Vercher: The sad truth is the politics of our present moment are no different than those of our past—it’s all about perspective. I’ve heard it said so often as of late that our country is more divided than ever—no, it’s not. It’s as divided as it’s ever been.
The difference now is that we live in a time where we have more access to media than ever—which also means it’s harder for racists to hide their racism. We have more opportunities to see the injustices visited on people of color on a daily basis. For those who haven’t lived a life affected by systemic racism, things can seem worse. Those of us who don’t have that luxury know better.
That said, the first generation of this story began 25 years ago. I was in Pittsburgh as a student, and it was a time when I faced my own questions and struggles with identity.
The O.J. Simpson trial also got people speaking loudly and publicly about race, policing, and even class during those years, so it felt apropos to keep the story in that time period instead of trying to make it reflect a more modern setting. In fact, I’ve had some readers note that it was striking for them to look back at that time through the story and realize things hadn’t really changed.
You write powerfully about the grind of menial work. I often find literary fiction assumes a certain level of material comfort on the part of its characters. While with notable exceptions like Himes, noir has historically skewed white and male, it nevertheless has roots in proletarian writing of the mid-20th century. Was that part of your attraction to this genre?
Vercher: I have a love/hate relationship with literary fiction for exactly the reasons you’ve outlined here. While that division of literature does tend to deal more in-depth with the human condition, you’re exactly right that—generally—it historically skews toward straight white males coming from some degree of affluence.
…the first generation of this story began 25 years ago. I was in Pittsburgh as a student, and it was a time when I faced my own questions and struggles with identity.
When I set out to write this, I followed the advice of more than one mentor that I should write what I wanted to read. In this case, I wanted to read (and write) about the people I’ve known, about people who look like me, and who have shared experiences. The most compelling books for me are the ones where people are placed in the most challenging of circumstances—either by outside forces or by their own doing—and must fight like hell to come out on the other side, whether that struggle is successful or not.
The genre conversation is one full of land mines, but if we’re discussing classifications, I’m of the opinion that there is a blurred line between noir and literary fiction. I love that you brought up Chester Himes, but another great example is Wright’s Native Son. It’s held up as a work of literary fiction and deservedly so, yet that book is also as noir as they come.
It also qualifies as crime fiction in many ways, which seems to encompass so many different types of books. It seems to me though, that they set out to write compelling stories driven not by plot but by the very human situations their protagonists found themselves in. The classification of what kind of book they’d written came after. I had a similar experience in that I wrote the story I wanted to read. I actually hadn’t realized I had written a crime/noir novel until much later.
Initially, Bobby and Aaron connect because of their affinity for comic books. That bonds them, giving them a shared outsider status. Were comic books part of your identity when you were younger?
Vercher: Comics were a huge part of my identity when I was younger—and still are. I fell in love with the medium at a very young age. There was a period, maybe in the early 2000s where I stopped reading for a while—it can be an expensive hobby—but I’m back into them full force now.
As good as the writing was when I was first collecting, it’s even more incredible now, particularly with the number of diverse writers, storylines and comics themselves. We’ve got Ta-Nehisi Coates writing Black Panther and Captain America, Roxane Gay writing about the Dora Milaje, and Eve Ewing on Ironheart, just to name a few.
Did comics influence your storytelling?
Vercher: Absolutely. I’m a visual person when it comes to writing, and I sometimes think in panels. It helps me write to scene and see expressions on the characters’ faces which I (hopefully) translate well to the page. I’m a huge X-Men fan, and I loved—and love—the way they tackled issues of social justice without necessarily wagging the finger at their audience.
Including that comic in scenes in the novel was sort of my homage to a title that meant so much to me growing up. I hope someday to have an opportunity to work in that medium. I’ve recently completed a pitch for a graphic novel and am currently seeking an artist of color to help me bring it to life.
What started you writing Three-Fifths?
Vercher: I was first introduced to passing narratives and the concept of “the tragic mulatto” when I was a student at the University of Pittsburgh. I had taken a class in Black cinema and we watched a movie called Imitation of Life, based on the book of the same name.
I’m a visual person when it comes to writing, and I sometimes think in panels. It helps me write to scene and see expressions on the characters’ faces which I (hopefully) translate well to the page. I’m a huge X-Men fan…
I later learned of other passing narratives (Passing by Nella Larsen, for example), and wanted to see if I could write my own take on the idea. At the same time, I had seen American History X. The movie was incredibly impactful, and it occurred to me that the opposite of a redemption story might be more interesting—one where the antagonist does not see the light in prison, but it is damaged by his time there.
How did the novel evolve?
Vercher: My career took a detour into healthcare in that as much as I liked writing, I liked eating a little bit better. I came from a healthcare family, so it felt like the next natural step. I worked as a physical therapist for the better part of a decade, but I always felt my creative side calling to me.
The story of Three-Fifths lingered in my brain all the time, and I’d often tell my wife that someday I’d do something with the story.
She saw how miserable I was as a clinician and encouraged me to go back for my MFA. While I did that, I transitioned into healthcare marketing to make use of the vocabulary I’d learned as a practicing provider while working toward my degree. Three-Fifths ended up being my Master’s thesis.
Before his conversion to fascism, Aaron emulates black culture to such an extent that Bobby doesn’t want to tell Aaron about his own background because he is afraid Aaron will be jealous of the fact Bobby is authentically black. Along with passing, how important was the idea of appropriation to you when writing this novel?
Vercher: Quite important. Appropriation in that form is often perpetrated with little to no care about who it hurts. There are those who engage in it without dealing with any of the consequences of being an actual person of color. It’s great to wear the clothes, listen to the music, and emulate the vernacular when you can turn it off anytime you want to.
So often growing up I heard the refrain from white kids who behaved like pre-fascism Aaron that they were “blacker” than I was because I didn’t fit the stereotypes they tried so hard to imitate.
I also heard from some of my black peers that I was trying to be white. As such, I was always trying to manage this balancing act of code switching and trying to be all things to all people when I was just trying to be me—someone who was intensely proud of his blackness but didn’t fit pre-conceived notions of it. I wanted to express some of that struggle in Bobby in a way that wasn’t quite so autobiographical, but that demonstrated how a person’s identity and life experience can be defined by those notions and actions.
What are your thoughts on prison abolition?
Vercher: Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, which I had been introduced to by Ava Duvernay’s brilliant documentary 13th, was hugely influential for me in the writing of Three-Fifths, particularly during the revisions process. The effect of mass incarceration and the prison-for-profit system on people of color has been and continues to be incredibly damaging.
I had been less familiar with the prison abolition movement than I was with the prison reform movements, but the more I researched (and continue to research) the concept, the more I find merit to the idea. The prison system in conjunction with the Thirteenth Amendment has been used as a means of institutionalized modern slavery for black and brown men and women and the cost it inflicts on families and communities is generational.
Obviously, Aaron is not a person of color, and to make him the victim of the horrors of prison was an intentional choice. Like it or not (and I don’t), white readers tend to pay greater attention to white characters. Because I wanted this novel to spark conversation with people outside of the echo chamber, I felt it necessary to make that choice.
Three-Fifths is the inaugural title on Agora, an imprint of Polis Books dedicated to diverse crime fiction. That’s quite an honor. Now, your novel has been nominated for an Edgar. Congratulations! I wondered if you could talk about how that feels.
Vercher: As cliché as it might sound, the experience has been wholly surreal. I truly thought this book would sit in my hard drive, never to see the light of day. The fact that it was even published was a dream come true, but to be selected to lead off the launch of a new imprint devoted to diversity in fiction was something I never envisioned.
Each step of the journey, from the reader and trade reviews to the Edgar nomination (I still haven’t fully processed that) has left me in successive states of incredulity and gratitude.
I was at a local signing and got the opportunity to speak to a gentleman who had just walked in and stopped by the table to see who I was and what the book was about. We got to talking about his young daughter (whose mother was white) and was already beginning to have questions about her hair.
We talked a great deal about identity and how our struggle to find it shapes us. The conversation lasted more than ten minutes and we were both a little misty by the end of it. Without having been given the opportunity to publish this book, that conversation might never happened, and it’s now a moment I’ll never forget.
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