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A novelist's time in the MMA cage informed his book on memory loss and identity

John Vercher is the author of the novels <em>Three-Fifths</em> and <em>After the Lights Go Out.</em>
Karen Maria Photography
Soho Press
John Vercher is the author of the novels Three-Fifths and After the Lights Go Out.

Imagine opening your car door one morning and being greeted by the stench of groceries, including raw chicken and vegetables, that were left in the backseat overnight in sweltering weather. That happens in the opening pages John Vercher's new novel, After the Lights Go Out.

The main character of the book, Xavier, is a veteran mixed martial arts (MMA) fighter who's also grappling with his biracial identity. The groceries rotted in Xavier's car because the beatings and head trauma he suffered over his years in MMA left him unable to remember that he'd bought them.

"He's experiencing what I described as a deterioration of his frontal lobe," Vercher says of his character. "He's experiencing short term memory loss. He's having violent swings in terms of mood. He goes from happy to anxious to angry — not that we don't all do that in our normal lives, but he's now experiencing this sort of at a very amplified degree."

MMA is a multi-disciplinary sport that combines martial arts, boxing, wrestling and Brazilian jiu jitsu, a form of fighting on the ground that focuses on submission holds. Vercher trained in MMA as a young man, and though he never fought professionally, he knows what it feels like to step into the MMA cage.

"It is the one of the most frightening things I've ever done," he says of his MMA fights. "But because of that, it was one of the most challenging. And because I was able to be afraid and still do it, it did many things for me personally. It was an accomplishment I never thought I would be able to do."

Vercher says that in his novel, Xavier's experience as a fighter is secondary to the larger story about memory loss. In addition to his own memory loss, Xavier is also struggling to care for his father, who lives in a nursing home and is in the throes of dementia.

"Really, the heart of the story is about misplaced loyalty and what we can do with memory and how fluid and malleable memory can be when we ... use it to fit the narrative that we've created in our mind," Vercher says.

Interview highlights

<em>After the Lights Go Out</em>, by John Vercher
/ Penguin Random House
Penguin Random House
After the Lights Go Out, by John Vercher

On training in MMA and working as a physical therapist

I always want to make the disclaimer that though I trained, I never really had the same things at stake for the men and women who compete in the sport professionally or even as amateurs hoping to do it professionally. I was a tourist, is how I describe it. But being immersed in that world, being around some people that did have those aspirations professionally, you do hear the stories of the headaches and the after-effects of a career that is so physical. But some of the experiences about the symptoms themselves come from my working life. For over a decade, I was a physical therapist, and for a good amount of time, I spent time working in sports medicine. So I was working with a number of athletes, including football players and people in other contact sports.

On the perception that MMA is more brutal than other sports

Because we've applied certain rule sets to some of these sports, somehow they seem less brutal or barbaric. But when you watch a football game, those gentlemen are experiencing the equivalent of a car crash every down. So I don't think it's any more brutal than any other sport, but I think there is something about the idea ... that once it goes to the ground, we're so used to boxing where a referee intervenes and they're allowed to stand up and they get the standing eight count. I think it's just something we have to wrap our minds around. The sport, while it's much more mainstream now, is still kind of in its infancy in terms of being mainstream.

On focusing on Xavier's mental health

One of the reasons I was so interested in writing this book and focusing it around the idea of mental health was because from adolescence and well into my adulthood, I grappled with anxiety and depression. And so I think part of what accompanies that is that imposter syndrome, that voice in the back of your head that says, Maybe you're not quite good enough. Maybe you don't do these things as well. And so, for me, doing these amateur kickboxing and the one cage competition, to me those were an attempt to fight back against that voice. And it worked well for me. That's what it did for me. But I knew that I didn't quite have the same fortitude to do that professionally, to have it be the only thing I ever do.

On writing rich dialogue

I tend to be an observer. I love to listen to people speak. I remember when I was a kid, my dad used to just take trips to the local mall and sit and just watch people and observe and listen. For no other reason than just a natural curiosity. We also talked about the fact that I'm mixed-race. And so for me, I don't want to speak for all mixed-race people, obviously, because we're not a monolith, but for me, as I was navigating my way through adolescence, we're already trying to figure out where we belong, just we as human beings. But when you're mixed-race, there's an added component to that to find out where you fit in certain aspects of society. And so the term "code-switching" becomes a part of that. You change your dialect to speak when you're with one group and you do the same for another and another. So I think a lot of the dialogue comes from that experience.

On writing Xavier as a mixed-race character, and Vercher's own mixed-race identity

My father's Black. My mother's white. And growing up mixed-race, while I think there were some great benefits to it, there were also some challenges to it. I think navigating those spaces as an adolescent and then even as an adult, I found that as I got older as an adult, I was doing more exploring and interrogating identity.

One of the things that was interesting for me is that while my father continues to wear this very big, proud, natural Afro, my hair was not like my father's. My hair was wavy, but much more straight. So I had a lot of those, "What are you anyway?" questions. And when you get that question asked of you often enough, you start to ask that question of yourself. ... People were very comfortable asking that question. It wasn't until I lost my hair and started shaving it myself that both external perceptions of what I was changed and that started to shape my internal perceptions. So both Three-Fifths and After the Lights Go Out are not about answering anything about race. They're there asking questions and interrogating selfishly for me, but hopefully also for people who are like me, that may have those same questions.

On portraying Xavier's unfiltered thoughts with boldface type

One of the hallmarks of that type of brain trauma is deterioration of inhibition: the filters that we set up ourselves, whether it be the frontal lobe or whatever part of the brain. And to me, when we've heard some of these awful stories about athletes who have either harmed themselves or taken the ultimate step of taking their own lives, I had to wonder about what must have been going on in their minds before those things happened. And it made sense to me to imagine that there must have been something that almost felt like a disembodied voice that was still them, that was telling them these things, that were things that thoughts that they may have actually had, but they had pushed down because they weren't the thoughts that they should have.

Sam Briger and Joel Wolfram produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Natalie Escobar adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Dave Davies is a guest host for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.