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Q&A with Clinician Turned Novelist, John Vercher '16MFA

John Vercher and the text John Vercher '16MFA, Mountainview Low-Residency MFA in Fiction.

John Vercher '16MFA didn't think he had what it takes to make a career out of writing, so he went to school to be a clinician instead. After spending more than a decade feeling unhappy in his role, he decided to revisit his passion for writing. 

Since Vercher hadn't written regularly in a while, he knew going back to school was a smart move. Not only would it immerse him in the discipline and craft again, but it could even result in a publishable book.

And it did. Three years after Vercher graduated from Southern New Hampshire University's (SNHU) Mountainview Low-Residency MFA program, he published his thesis and debut novel, "Three-Fifths," out this September.  

Have you always written?

Yes and no. I’ve been in love with books and storytelling since I was a kid. One of my fondest memories of grade school is when the Scholastic Book Fair rolled those big folding metal shelves into the lobby of our school. I wanted my parents to buy everything (I just recently read "Bunnicula" to my kids for the first time, and it brought back all of the feelings of reading it for the first time).

I majored in English with a concentration in fiction in college, but I had planned on going to physical therapy school. I come from a healthcare family, and at the time, it never occurred to me that I could make a living (from) writing because while I loved it, I never saw myself as very good at it.

So for more than a decade, I worked as a clinician, but all that time, I felt the creative itch clawing at me. My wife encouraged me to go back for my MFA to immerse myself in the experience of writing again. She knows me so well—it was exactly what I needed.

What’s your process in developing your storyline and characters?

I wish I could tell you I have a specific process, but I don’t. For my debut novel, I drew on personal experiences and created characters and stories that were an amalgamation of them. However, I don’t always “write what I know.” Sometimes I pull ideas from a song lyric that might have struck me or an obscure news story.

While there is some light outlining involved to frame out the direction I’d like to take the story, more often than not, I sit down with a concept, start writing, and see where it takes me.

What challenges do you face in your writing, and how do you overcome them?

The cover of John Vercher's novel Three-Fifths.As cliched as it might sound, the biggest one is carving out the time. My wife and I both work full time and have two young boys who do not like to sit still! While we love every minute of our family life, it can be challenging to find a quiet moment to sit down and be creative. That said, we work hard and communicate to give each other the space to do those things, and we do a great job of it.

Another challenge I face is staying focused on one idea at a time. I have a number of story ideas bouncing around my head at any given moment, and there are times when I lose focus on the project at hand. I’m working on getting better at taking notes on those ideas to return to when it’s their time.

What has the road to publication been like for you?

Serpentine. I made the rookie mistake of thinking my MFA thesis was ready for agent eyes the minute I graduated, so the query rejections came fast and fierce. However, I was fortunate enough to get helpful feedback from many of those rejections and applied the edits that made sense.

I attended a few pitch conferences, where I eventually met my first agent. After some time, it became clear we weren’t a fit for each other and parted amicably. Through a close friend who was far more knowledgeable about the independent publisher scene than I was, I began to query publishers that I felt would be a good home for my book and who didn’t require an agent to submit.

It was there that I connected with Polis Books, right around the time they were deciding to launch Agora, their diversity-focused imprint. They made an offer, right around the time I connected with a new agent via the Twitter event, #DVPit, and that brings us up to speed.

How do you market your work?

I'm not super comfortable with self-promotion, but I’ve been doing what I can with it. I created a website and a Facebook author page that I keep updated with any news or events such as readings or reviews (though I’ve been far better about keeping the website current).

More than anything, I’ve been extremely fortunate to have connected with a writing community (including SNHU’s own Gabino Iglesias) that is simply incredible about signal-boosting other writers. From authors who have written blurbs for the book and fellow MFA grads, to organizations like the Crime Writers of Color (follow them on social!), people have been overwhelmingly kind and supportive about getting the message out about my debut. I’m so grateful for them.

Persuade someone to read “Three-Fifths” in 50 words or less.

"Three-Fifths" is the story of a biracial black man, passing for white, who must confront the lies of his past with the truth of his present when his best friend, just released from prison, involves him in a hate crime.

Who are the authors that have inspired you most, and how have they inspired you?

  • John Edgar Wideman — A Pittsburgh writer whose lyrical prose deals with issues of race and justice. His most recent work, "Writing to Save a Life: The Louis Till File," was devastating.
  • James Baldwin — Both his fiction and nonfiction and what he accomplished with the written and spoken word are the reasons I want to be a writer.
  • Jesmyn Ward — I would read her grocery list. I lose hours in her writing. She writes novel-length poems.
  • Colson Whitehead — I love the way he writes whatever he wants and is never bound by genre.
  • Paul Beatty — The way he combines satire with issues with race is incredible.
  • Ernest J. Gaines — "A Gathering of Old Men" showed me how powerful a “shorter” novel can be. I aspire to be that economical with words while still having a tremendous impact.

If you could keep just three books in your library, which would you choose and why?

This is impossible to answer, but I’ll give it a shot! Right now, it would be:

  1. "Salvage the Bones" by Jesmyn Ward
  2. "A Gathering of Old Men" by Ernest J. Gaines
  3. "If Beale Street Could Talk" by James Baldwin

Look for "Three-Fifths" on a bookshelf near you this September. 

Rebecca LeBoeuf ’18 is a writer at Southern New Hampshire University. Connect with her on LinkedIn.

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