Three-Fifths is a tale of lost histories, identity, dangerous secrets, and deadly obsessions. It’s a confident, thoughtful novel that doesn’t hesitate to show the brutality of violence and the complexities of race relations, without pumping the brakes for the faint of heart. It’s a confident, mannered debut that feels carefully seasoned — like the work of an author leveling up after a string of starter novels, as opposed to a newcomer. I talked to Vercher about his motivations and influences.
ALEX SEGURA: John, can you talk a bit about why Three-Fifths was the story you wanted to tell now? It feels remarkably urgent, but pensive at the same time, if that makes sense.
JOHN VERCHER: It’s a story I always wanted to tell, in the sense that little to nothing has changed in our country in regards to race between 1995 when the story takes place to now. Similarly, little was different from the same 24-year time span from 1971 to 1995, and even further back. Having said that, I was fortunate that Three-Fifths found a home when it did, because there does seem to be, as a function of our increased access to all forms of media, more talk than ever about race and identity. It would be better if we were having conversations about it rather than talking at each other, and as always, books are some of the best means to spark those kinds of conversations. It was my hope that Three-Fifths could do that, even for the smallest of audiences.
Identity is a strong theme in your work, and this book in particular. What can you tell us about Bobby, the protagonist of the book? The crux of the novel is about him — and what parts he chooses to hide.
When we’re young, it’s already incredibly difficult to figure out where we belong. It’s human nature to want to be liked, and sometimes we’ll do anything for approval. We’ll change the way we dress and what we listen to; we’ll code-switch our dialect depending on the people we’re with; whatever it takes to feel a part of something. Bobby had to do that as a child, as do a great number of mixed-race people who have been asked at far too young an age, “What are you, anyway?” Heard often enough, you begin to ask that question of yourself subconsciously, and seek to find the answers in others. Bobby had only his mother and his grandfather in his life, and Isabel could hardly take care of herself. That left his grandfather a hateful bigot. It didn’t take much to steer Bobby down the path he eventually took, and even embraced, because when he emulated his grandfather, he received love and approval, which is all he was every looking for.
Secrets — as plot points and as a thematic tool — play a big part in the book. How did you accomplish both? Are you a plotter, or do you dive in and see where the story takes you?
I’m not a plotter. I develop characters first and then as the saying goes, I put them up a tree, and then I throw rocks at them — which is to say whether reading or writing, I’m most interested in characters in trouble. I want to know what they’re all about, and that’s revealed to me by the situation in which they’re placed. How they react is what advances the story, instead of the story propelling them forward. It’s their actions and motivations that turn the page, not necessarily the plot. In terms of it affecting my debut, I wanted the first book I wrote to be a book I’d want to read, and I hoped that that would be enough that others would want to read it, too.
Can you talk about your path to publication? I find that many new writers get a lot out of these bits of perspective. How did the book end up with Agora/Polis?
My path was not a straightforward one, though I wouldn’t change anything about it. Three-Fifths was my MFA thesis, and I mistakenly thought it was ready for agent eyes the minute I graduated. It was not. However, I was fortunate enough to get rejections that were informative and helpful as opposed to the standard form letters (though there were some of those, too). When I saw consistencies in the changes, I went back and made those edits. In the meantime, a good writer friend had directed me toward the independent publishing scene, and Polis in particular. My first agent and I had parted ways amicably, so I submitted to them directly. Fortuitously enough, this was right around the time now-Agora editor Chantelle Aimée Osman had connected with Jason Pinter at Polis to form their diversity-focused imprint. I was incredibly lucky that they saw something in Three-Fifths and even more fortunate to have been a part of Agora’s launch.
Why Pittsburgh? What makes it a good setting for this kind of novel?
I was an undergraduate at the University of Pittsburgh in 1995. I was there as part of a minority scholarship program and I wrestled greatly with questions of identity during my time there. Then, as I had as a child and a high school student, I was still trying to find where I belonged and not having an easy time of it. As such, setting the novel in Pittsburgh made it easier to reach back and access some of those feelings of unease and uncertainty.
I’m also an immense fan of John Edgar Wideman and his “Homewood Trilogy.” While I was attending Pitt, the city was struggling with a gang problem, particularly in the surrounding neighborhoods — Homewood being one of them. In fact, as a student, Homewood was one of the neighborhoods that was demonized, a place you were told never to go. The sad reality is that Homewood was a thriving cultural district that had suffered because of the industrialization of the city. It was — and is — a place where good people and families lived, but it was made out to be this exceedingly dangerous place. Because I have such a love for Wideman’s work, I wanted to put characters there to prove that point. I also made it so that Isabel and Bobby were there because tragically, I knew that putting white characters there might make people pay attention to it more.
As writers, we’re forever changing and evolving, or at least I’d hope so. We adapt and pivot based on the works that move us and the people behind them. Can you talk about your writing DNA? Which authors do you look to for regular inspiration?
Man, that’s a long list. The aforementioned Wideman, for sure. I love how Colson Whitehead has managed to defy genre while still tackling issues of race and social justice. Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow figured heavily into my revisions of my book when trying to draw attention to issues of mass incarceration. While it might seem like an obvious answer, anything and everything James Baldwin has written. I once saw Natalie Diaz read at a book launch for another author, and I bought her book immediately. I’ve recently been in the habit of reading it before I write. Ernest Gaines wrote shorter novels that ripped my heart out and showed it to me. I’m a big David Joy fan for the way he so eloquently writes violence that makes it feel almost poetic. Others include Paul Beatty, Attica Locke, Ta-Nehisi Coates … the list can — and will — go on.
Alex Segura is the author of the Pete Fernandez mystery series.