BookPeople will be hosting John Vercher and Jamie Mason on September 22nd at 2PM. Vercher’s debut novel Three-Fifths examines race and identity through the plight of Bobby Saraceno, a bi-racial young man, who witnesses a hate crime committed by his white supremacist freind. Vercher deals with these issues head on through some well fleshed out characters. Mr. Vercher was kind enough to take a few questions about the people who populate his novel.
- Which came first, the character of Bobby or the premise he is thrown in?
Bobby came first. His story has been bouncing around in my head since I was an undergrad at the University of Pittsburgh. I was a freshman when I took a course in Black Film History and had been introduced to the “tragic mulatto” and passing narratives with the film Imitation of Life, which as young mixed-race man had a significant impact on me. From there, I discovered books like Nella Larsen’s Passing, as well as more contemporary novels like Walter Mosley’s Devil in a Blue Dress, and wanted to create my own version of that kind of story.
- It seems that many books have difficulty depicting a character with extremely racist beliefs without falling into stereotype. How did you avoid doing that with Aaron?
No villain thinks they’re the villain—they’re the hero of their own story. Making Aaron a caricature would have made him far less interesting or terrifying. The most intimidating “bad guys,” to me, whether in books or in film, are the ones where, to our discomfort, we see some of ourselves in. I find it far more compelling to read antagonists who are not inhumanly evil, but humanly flawed—a person, that despite their terrible actions, have real feelings and connections with other people. Aaron doesn’t think he’s evil—he believes he’s justified in everything he’s done because of what’s been done to him, and he’s not afraid to hold up a mirror to those who choose to judge him—whether that be Bobby or the reader.
- What made you decide this was a story that needed to be told from multiple points of view?
It was mostly a decision based on rhythm. I love novels that switch from multiple POV’s because each section almost acts as a cliffhanger. When it’s done effectively, it takes readers up to the brink, and just when they think things are really going to kick into high gear, the author pumps the brakes. It’s almost a necessary breather, to slow things down, whether it be character development or plot, and it makes for a page-turner. I hope I was able to effectively do that in Three-Fifths.
- What made you decide to set the story during the O.J. trial?
The trial came just a few years after the L.A. Riots, and the wounds were still open. The O.J. trial so fiercely divided people along both racial and class lines, and contributed to the tension and mistrust of police officers by people of color. I was in Pittsburgh as a student at that time, so placing the story in that context helped me to place myself in the environment to sort of “look around” to tell the story and capture what I observed at that time.
- Each character in this book comes off as a complete, complex, breathing human being. How do you approach your characters when constructing them?
As a reader, I’m, drawn to literary fiction—as long as something happens. What draws me to it, though, are the fully fleshed-out characters. I’m fascinated by what makes people tick—not just what they’re thinking, but what they say, how they say it, and what motivates what and how they say these things. The best writing advice I’d ever heard was write the books you want to read, so I try to create characters that feel like I know them in real life (as pretentious as that might sound). I love Vonnegut’s notion of putting characters up a tree and then throwing rocks at them. Characters in trouble will immediately be more complex and interesting to me.
- You also demonstrate your knowledge of comic books in the book. Any super hero you’d like to write for?
Don’t forget to stop by BookPeople on September 22nd at 2PM and catch John Vercher and Jamie Mason in conversation with BookPeople’s Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery.