Last December, Polis Books announced that it was launching Agora Books, an imprint devoted to finding new, diverse voices in crime and noir fiction.
“Having been to more conventions and readings and events than I can count,” said Polis founder Jason Pinter, “it began to feel like the books being published weren’t representing society or a culture as a whole. The more time that passed without active measures to counter this, the more it began to upset me first as a reader and fan, and then as a publisher. We were doing something wrong. Rather than simply talk about the issue, we had the chance to try to do something about it.”
“People read for an escape, but also for new experiences and exposure to viewpoints and ideas,” agreed Chantelle Aimee Osman, Agora’s editor. “That is particularly true for crime fiction, because at its core it shines a light on social and moral issues. But there’s so much homogeneity—entire cultures, places, voices and stories are just not there.”
The year is 1995. Against the constant background buzz of the O.J. Simpson trial, four characters speed on a collision course. Bobby Saraceno, the twenty-two-year-old son of a black father and a white mother, so pale he happily passes as white, is on his way to a reunion with his best friend, Aaron, newly released from prison for a series of escalating crimes. But after three years away, Aaron is no longer the friendly comic book geek white kid he once was. He is virtually unrecognizable – bulked up, shave-headed, inked, scarred, and a member of the Brotherhood: “Prison had created Prison Aaron, and Prison Aaron did what he thought he had to do.”
And when the two of them try to celebrate Aaron’s new freedom, one of the things Aaron thinks he has to do is smash a brick in the face of a black college student offended by Aaron’s racist tats, leaving the boy bloody and unconscious on the ground, and very possibly dead.
Bobby panics, Aaron does not, but the night is about to get far worse, not only for them but for Bobby’s mother, Isabel, who is fighting her own demons, and for the father Bobby never knew, a doctor about to receive a new patient – a young black man smashed in the face with a brick.
These four characters are about to have their lives changed forever, in a searingly unforgettable story of secrets, identity, violence, and obsession. The book is short, but the effect on the reader will be long.
John Vercher was inspired by his own struggles with identity as a biracial man:
“My hair, unlike other mixed-race kids I grew up with—and even unlike mixed-race friends I know today—grew long and wavy. As a small child and even into grade school, my parents let it grow out and never made me feel anything other than proud of it—particularly my father, with whom I had discussions about race at a very early age.
“Still, it was a regular occurrence for me as child to be asked, ‘So what are you, anyway?’ Given the opportunity to guess, most people ran the gamut of races and ethnicities, often surprised when I told them I was black. My father told me this country would always view me as black, even though my mother was white (referring specifically to the one-drop rule), and that did nothing to stop the questions from the white community.
“But because my hair was different, because I spoke in a certain manner, and had interests that didn’t necessarily align with their concept of blackness, my allegiance and pride was also often called into question by my black peers. I found myself constantly spinning plates, trying to satisfy both sides, and continually exploring who I thought I was—what it meant to be mixed-race to some, black to others, and becoming more and more of an unknown to myself. It wasn’t until I started losing my hair and shaving my head that some of the perceptions of others started to change.
“Three-Fifths was born many years ago, heavily influenced by those questions, both external and internal. The spark for it came from American History X, an impactful movie for me as a twenty-something college student. After watching it, a story began to brew in my mind about a character who had the opposite experience from the one in the movie—what if a character who wasn’t racist became so? I didn’t want that character to be the protagonist of the story, however, so I began to explore other ideas, and became fixated on the idea of a character who was mixed-race and who had grown up passing for white and raised with racist ideals.”
Vercher also worries about his own sons’ racial identity, because though he is raising them to be justifiably proud of their blackness, he knows that their lighter skin and hair may benefit them. And he feels conflicted.
“On a daily basis. It’s something my wife and I discuss fairly frequently. I’ve written about the obvious benefits my sons will have by appearing white. I won’t ever have to worry about them during a traffic stop. I won’t have to worry about them getting shot for wearing a hoodie in the ‘wrong’ neighborhood. They’ll never have to wonder if they’ve been denied any kind of opportunity simply because of the color of their skin. Of course, I’m glad that there’s a means for them to be denied pain and danger—and part of me is ashamed that I’m glad, because I want them to know everything that their grandfather, and his father, and so on, have had to live through. I want them to understand the fears and struggles that I have gone through—but I don’t want them to experience them.
“Children spend so much time away from their parents’ influence once they’re school age, and I have fears about what they’ll hear and see because they’re assumed to be white. What if they think those things are okay because it’s not about them or their father? I often wonder when it will be time to have the conversations my father had with me when I was in grade school, particularly because I looked different then than my sons do now. It’s a difficult and delicate balance.”
In Three-Fifths, there is a particularly strong passage early in the book about the effect prison has on a man, spoken by the general manager of the restaurant where Bobby works:
“Once you got that label, that prison stink on you? You never really have a shot after that. Especially when you look like us. They’ll look for any reason to put you back inside. Can’t pay your court fees because that job keeping the walk-in clean only pays minimum wage? Back in. Caught hanging with one of your homies who caught a charge, too? Back in. You young brothers have less than half a chance. People will talk to you about accountability, tell you that you have none. That you have a commitment to that life. If you keep going back in, that might end up being the case. If you’re in long enough, if the things that happen to you are bad enough, you don’t know what to do with yourself on the outside, that even though you tell yourself differently, that there’s no way you ever want to go back, it becomes the only home you know.”
“The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander might be one of the most influential books I’ve ever read,” says Vercher, “and I did that while I was working on revisions of the book. This country’s history of mass incarceration is shameful and horrifying, and while Three-Fifths isn’t a book about prison, I saw an opportunity to use it as another vehicle to bring just a sliver of that
history to a reader’s attention.”
It’s interesting, though, that while the manager’s warning is specifically about black men, the person in the book who is most affected by prison is Aaron.
“The most interesting villains to me are the ones who have qualities that make you sympathize and even empathize with them—ones that make you step back and question why you’re feeling anything for such an awful person. Aaron isn’t all that unusual, at least in my experience. I said that the fear for my sons is that they would be around people who would do or say things in their presence unaware that they were mixed-race. I was around people like that, particularly as a teenager.
“I spent time around them, had even become friends with them. Then they would make a racist comment around me. It sometimes happened even when they knew I was black, but they didn’t see me that way because I didn’t fit their stereotype—and when it happened, it was devastating. Here was a person who appeared to have all these good qualities. Kind, funny, and enjoyable to be around—only to find they had hatred in their heart.
“In that way, yes, I think the events are a tragedy for Aaron as well. Aaron, too, had issues with identity, trying to figure out who he was, but he had hatred in his heart, and it consumed him.”
Vercher’s influences on his writing, besides the Michelle Alexander book, are many: “The Autobiography of Malcolm X; in no particular order, the works of John Edgar Wideman, Ernest Gaines, Colson Whitehead, Paul Beatty, James Baldwin, Jesmyn Ward, Mat Johnson, and Ijeoma Oluo.”
And one more influence, as well. Vercher is also a physical therapist, and, in particular, has worked with amateur and above-amateur-level MMA fighters. He himself has fought as an amateur. Did his interest in physical therapy come about it as a result of it?
“I became a physical therapist sort of accidentally on purpose. Both of my parents were in healthcare, and heading into my senior year of high school, I didn’t have a solid idea about what I wanted to study in college. I grew up a HUGE comic book geek, loved movies, and anything story and character-related, but as in most schools, I was encouraged to think about a career. I wasn’t a good writer in high school—in fact, I was pretty terrible, so even though one teacher (who has sadly since passed) saw potential in me, no one was really pushing me in that direction. My mother eventually arranged for me to do some observation hours at a sports medicine clinic. I had never been an athlete but always wished I could have been, so it felt close, and it seemed like a sure thing in terms of a job when I got out of school. I had no idea how hard it was going to be to get into PT school, let alone graduate. Thanks to some very understanding professors, I made it through and had a pretty successful career in it. The creative itch won out, though, and I made my way back to writing.
“MMA came about because around the time I had hit thirty, I had gained a significant amount of weight. I had tried running, I’d tried the gym, and nothing was working. Around this time, the first season of The Ultimate Fighter premiered, and something about the idea of fighting spoke to me. Perhaps because I’d been somewhat of a bullied kid in high school—the butt of a lot of jokes, particularly when it came to race—and some of the fighters on the show had similar experiences growing up. I was a martial arts-obsessed kid and had taken Tae Kwon Do, and it was one of the few athletic endeavors I could get lost in. I found a school that promised me I could fight. I took an introductory class and never looked back.
“The discipline involved certainly carries over to my writing, but maybe not in the expected ways. I am not an “ass in chair” writer. I cannot force myself to sit in front of the laptop if the story isn’t coming. I have to marinate on an idea or a scene for quite some time, but when I sit down to write, it’s for hours at a time. I don’t get distracted and can be singularly focused when the time is right.”
He was similarly focused when he dove into the quest for publication, but at first the time wasn’t quite right yet. “It was definitely not a straight line, and while I made some mistakes, they got me to this point, so I have no regrets. I wrote Three-Fifths for my MFA thesis, and I made the ill-advised choice to begin querying the minute I graduated when it clearly needed more work. I was fortunate enough to meet an agent at a pitch conference who saw potential, but after some time, we realized we weren’t a fit for each other and parted amicably. One of my closest friends, another writer, encouraged me to explore the independent scene, which is where I learned about a project Chantelle had been starting up. She took an interest in the manuscript and shared it with Jason at Polis while they were working on forming Agora. In the meantime, I was fortunate enough to sign with another agent and here we are.”
He agrees with Jason and Chantelle that an imprint devoted to diversity is necessary? “I don’t think there’s any secret there. Publishing is a largely white industry in which the prevailing thought has been—much like in the film industry—that work by men and women of color doesn’t sell, because there is either no audience, or amazingly, that the quality isn’t up to the standard. It’s gratifying to watch this renaissance occurring in the film industry where box office records are being obliterated by movies written by, directed by, and starring men and women of color in the lead roles. That time in publishing is coming. Imprints like Agora and others will lead the way.”
What’s next? “More than one thing! On the front burner is a novel about an aging mixed martial arts fighter who is losing his battle with pugilistic dementia, and it’s gotten him into some trouble he can’t quite get out of.”
And Agora has plenty on the front burner as well. “We want everything,” says Pinter, “as long as the stories being told and the authors telling them are in some way underrepresented in the genre. We want novels about race, sexuality, gender, culture, violence, redemption. We want serious works of art, and we want great entertainment.” There are two more debuts for Fall 2019, then for the first list in 2020, three works by already acclaimed writers with decidedly new takes on the crime fiction. “As excited as I am about our early roster,” he says, “I’m just as excited to see what comes next.”
He won’t be the only one.
Three-Fifths is now available.
About John Vercher
John Vercher is a writer currently living in the Philadelphia area with his wife and two sons. He has a Bachelor’s in English from the University of Pittsburgh and an MFA in Creative Writing from the Mountainview Master of Fine Arts program, and he is a former adjunct faculty member at Chestnut Hill College in Philadelphia.