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

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in today for Terry Gross. 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 of the new novel by our guest, John Vercher. The main character of his book is a veteran mixed martial arts fighter, and the groceries rotted in the car because the beatings and head trauma Xavier Wallace has suffered over the years left him unable to remember he'd bought them.

Vercher's novel is about the fight game, family, the ravages of dementia and about race. Xavier is the son of a Black mother who'd left the family when he was young and a white father who's now struggling with Alzheimer's. As the story unfolds, he learns more about his family's past as he struggles to resurrect his fighting career. Like his main character, John Vercher is the son of mixed-race parents, and he trained in mixed martial arts as a young man, though he never fought professionally.

Today, we're rebroadcasting the interview I recorded with Vercher in June because it was preempted on many stations then by coverage of the January 6 hearings. Vercher is a contributing writer for Cognoscenti, WBUR's online idea and opinion site, and NPR has featured his essays on race, identity and parenting. He's the author of a previous novel titled "Three-Fifths." His latest novel is "After The Lights Go Out."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

DAVIES: John Vercher, welcome to FRESH AIR.

JOHN VERCHER: Thanks so much for having me, Dave.

DAVIES: I'd like us to begin with a reading. This is from the very beginning of the book, when we are learning about this character, Xavier Wallace. You want to just pick this up for us?

VERCHER: Absolutely. (Reading) The game had passed Xavier "Scarecrow" Wallace by. Too many young bucks on the come up looking for a stepping stone to the next level. The cage had no place for old, toothless lions fighting for their pride. And then four in a row. No tomato cans, either. Championship kickboxers, jiujitsu aces, each one the next big thing. But none of them had the grind in them. All talent and hormones. Cardio made cowards of them all. Xavier dragged them into deep waters, the championship rounds, where lactic acid torched muscles, where deep breaths provided no oxygen, only the desperate need to breathe deeper, faster. Shoulders ached. Submissions lacked squeeze. Punches lost their snap. Kicks sloppy, thrown with languid legs, hinging and pivoting at the joints from sheer momentum. Break the spirit, and the body follows fast behind. But he'd paid a cost for his time in the deep end, too - worse than the patchwork remnants of stitches in his forehead, worse than the accumulation of crackling scar tissue above his jagged orbital bones, worse even than the seemingly interminable intensifying headaches. Worse than all that was the forgetting.

DAVIES: And that is John Vercher reading from his new novel "After The Lights Go Out." So we meet this character, Xavier Wallace - Scarecrow was his nickname - who has made a comeback in the fight game and is hoping to get back into it. He'd been suspended for something, which eventually emerges as the story unfolds. But we learn about the punishment he's taken. And the symptoms that this guy suffers are vividly described as we move through the book. You want to describe what he's going through?

VERCHER: So 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 at a very amplified degree. And all of this is creating a great deal of uncertainty in him because he would obviously like for these things to not be occurring. But he's got no other options. He's at a point in his life where fighting is all he has left.

DAVIES: And he's hearing things.

VERCHER: He's got tinnitus, which comes and goes at varying degrees, sometimes to a maddening extent. But he's also - he's experiencing what I described as a deterioration of his frontal lobe. And so there's a voice talking to him, in some sense. It's him, but it's his unfiltered self.

DAVIES: And what's really happening here is something that happens to a lot of athletes that compete in high-impact sports, not just mixed martial arts but certainly football and hockey and boxing. CTE - what is that?

VERCHER: So the - it stands for chronic traumatic encephalopathy. What happens is the - as the - as impacts occur to the head, the brain essentially slides back and forth in the skull. And as it bounces off the hard surfaces, it creates damage to those areas.

DAVIES: Now, you trained in mixed martial arts as a young man. How much of these descriptions come from your experience? How much of it comes from talking to people that you knew?

VERCHER: So it's a mixed experience. I always want to make the disclaimer that, though I trained, I don't - I never really had the same things at stake for the men and women who compete in this sport professionally or even as amateurs hoping to do it professionally. You know, 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 aftereffects of a career that is so physical. But I also - some of the experience 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.

DAVIES: You've had some experience with mixed martial arts. First of all, for people who aren't familiar with it, just explain a little bit about what mixed martial arts fights are, how they're different from boxing.

VERCHER: So you're going to make me the expert on mixed martial arts. And nobody hold me to this. But mixed martial arts is, in essence, what it sounds like. It is a sport that combines numerous martial arts, boxing, wrestling, what is known as Brazilian jiujitsu, which is a form of fighting on the ground that focuses on submissions, meaning joint locks, chokes, things of that nature. And it takes place in a cage instead of a ring, where the cage can actually be utilized in much the same way that the ropes can be utilized in a boxing ring. You know, the fighters can back off of them if they're on the ground. They can use their feet to change position. But it is a multi-disciplinary sport.

DAVIES: Right. And it's what - boxers wear big, heavy gloves, like 16-ounce gloves maybe or something.

VERCHER: Twelve ounces, probably...

DAVIES: Twelve ounce. OK.

VERCHER: ...For professional boxers.

DAVIES: In mixed martial arts, they are much smaller.

VERCHER: Four-ounce fingerless gloves. So just enough padding to sometimes keep them from breaking their hands. But the hands need - the fingers need to be free because Brazilian jiu jitsu incorporates a lot of grips.

DAVIES: Now, you say that you were a kind of a tourist in mixed martial arts, but you were serious enough about this that - to get in the cage at least once. And in fact, on YouTube, I found a grainy video of John Vercher in the cage, doing - in a match, which you prevail in pretty quickly. What does it feel like? You know, I have to say I kind of enjoy boxing, although, I mean, it's all kind of barbaric, I mean, people beating each other up. But there's some rules to it. If you knock somebody down, he gets to get back up. Mixed martial arts just seems so brutal to me that you can get on somebody and pound them on the face while they're down. Explain the appeal of this to us.

VERCHER: It's funny. Someone mentioned that to me not too long ago, and I do push back on that a little bit because particularly, there's a section in the novel where I talk about this where because we've applied certain rulesets to some of these sports, that somehow they seem less brutal or barbaric. But, you know, when you watch a football game, these 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 think there is something about the idea that you presented that, once it goes to the ground - we're so used to boxing, where, you know, 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. You know, this is - this sport, while it's much more mainstream now, is still kind of in its infancy in terms of being mainstream. So that's how I would speak to that point.

DAVIES: Right. And there are rules. I mean...

VERCHER: Absolutely.

DAVIES: When you're down, you can't use your elbow to come down on somebody's face.

VERCHER: Correct.

DAVIES: There are a lot of rules like that.

VERCHER: Yeah. It's from nine to 12 is how they describe that. You can't come straight down with an elbow. But there are still - elbows are still allowed in certain ways. So - but, yes, there is a rule set. And for - there was a period where there was an argument that, in some ways, mixed martial arts was safer in terms of brain injury because a fight doesn't always have to end by a knockout, where a submission can occur, where someone can tap out and say, I've had enough. So - but as the years go on, it's still quite clear that head trauma is a significant factor.

DAVIES: Well, now that we've established that you've been in the ring...

VERCHER: Yeah.

DAVIES: ...People can find this. You can see that it's John Vercher, and your friends are yelling for you. What does it feel like? What's the appeal of it?

VERCHER: What is the appeal? Well, I can tell you, as far as what it feels like, it is the - one of the most frightening things I've ever done. But it was also - because of that, it was one of the most challenging. And I think 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. I was never much of an athlete growing up. So to compete in an endeavor like that and to succeed - and even if I had lost, to be there supported by friends and family, to hear them screaming your name is a rush like no other.

DAVIES: Yeah, the moment when you stand up with your arms raised.

VERCHER: I can - I get goosebumps sitting here thinking about it, and it was so many years ago.

DAVIES: But you weren't tempted to try and make a career of it.

VERCHER: I think that in the back of my mind, I - when I decided that I would start training and start training that hard and start thinking about competing, I thought, sure, maybe. The one thing I did learn about myself is that I didn't have the mental strength to do that for a career. It was - I often defeated myself before I got in the cage. I wasn't one of those guys that walked into the ring or the cage with confidence and said, this fight is mine. I'm going to win this. It was more, I hope I make it out of here. And if I lose, I don't - I didn't expect to win.

DAVIES: So what do you make of that? Was that because, you know, you weren't as experienced or well-trained or you didn't have the fire?

VERCHER: I think it comes from - you know, one of my - one of the reasons I was so interested in writing this book and focusing it around the idea of mental health was because from an adolescent and well into my adulthood, I grappled with anxiety and depression. And so I think part of what accompanies that is that imposter syndrome - right? - 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.

DAVIES: And we're glad you did because you've got the mental capacity to write this book and talk to us coherently. And your record in the cage is 1 and 0, right?

VERCHER: Undefeated.

DAVIES: Very good. We need to take a break here. Let me reintroduce you. We're speaking with John Vercher. His new novel is "After The Lights Go Out." We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE ROOTS SONG, "PROCEED IV (A.J. SHINE MIX)")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with writer John Vercher. His new novel about a mixed martial arts fighter struggling with issues of family and racial identity is called "After The Lights Go Out."

This character, Xavier - he trains at a gym in a neighborhood of Philadelphia which I know because we're in Philadelphia. And the trainer is his cousin. You know, trainers in boxing movies and stories are colorful people, and this guy's very colorful. Tell us about him, and tell us about his name.

VERCHER: So his name is Shamar "Shot" Tracy (ph). The name Shot comes from an uncle of mine who I unfortunately never got the pleasure to meet. But my father told me many stories about him. And, I mean, come on. It's just the coolest name both for a boxing trainer and just in general. So I felt it was a way to sort of pay tribute to him. But yeah, I love sort of that archetype of the colorful boxing trainer. But I wanted to take that a step further by making him family because Shot's role to me in this book is a truth teller. You know, he tells the truth whether you want to hear it or not. And Xavier needs that in his life because Xavier tells a lot of lies to himself.

DAVIES: Right. He - Shot runs this gym, and part of it he's turned over to the gentrifying crowd. And there, he has Zumba classes and, you know, cycling things and all that. But he's got a real old classic ring where he trains people on a heavy bag and all that. And he's given Xavier, our main character, a job there because Xavier was suspended for a year. And I want you to read a little bit. I want people to get a sense of some of the dialogue that you write here because I find it so riveting. You want to just set the scene for this? This is a heart-to-heart between Shot, the cousin and trainer, and our main character, Xavier.

VERCHER: Yeah. So Xavier has come to the gym after discovering a dog in his car that he had forgotten that he had adopted. And as he's explaining to Shot why he's showing up to his gym with this sort of haggard-looking, poor pit bull, he's revealing to Shot the struggles that he's been going through with his CTE. He's been keeping them secret as best he can. And so to some extent, I think Xavier came to Shot looking for pity. And again, Shot, in his role as truth-teller, is not willing to give him that.

DAVIES: So...

VERCHER: And so I'll read from that point.

DAVIES: And tell us who speaks first.

VERCHER: Shot is speaking first to Xavier.

(Reading) Excuses is all you got lately, cousin. Xavier sucked his teeth and looked off to the side. Man, go ahead. No, you go ahead - rolling up in here late like it's your name on the front of this building. Like, you don't owe me for giving you this job in the first place. Soon as you got comfortable, you just start coming and going when you please. But you family, and I ain't said nothing. Now today, not only is you late again, but you stroll in here with some broke-down dog like this is one of them restaurants down the street with a water bowl out front. And you got the nerve to come in here and ask me what you should do? Negro, please. Man, what is your problem? Right now, my problem is you coming in here whining 'cause you got some headaches and forgetting stuff. Whining? Did I mumble? Whining, acting like you don't know this - as he tapped at his temple. It's part of the game. You don't want to fight? Don't fight. That's your call. Oh, OK. Then, I'll just open a gym and sell out to all the other gentrifiers in the neighborhood. When you starting to go yoga classes, Shot? I want to make sure I sign up before you run out of spots. (Laughter) OK, you got jokes now. You know what else is funny? You not wanting to admit that you scared of ending up like your pops, drooling and pissing on himself in a home. So you putting it on me to tell you to stop fighting. Well, I'm not doing it.

DAVIES: And that's John Vercher reading some dialogue from his novel "After The Lights Go Out." Where does this dialogue come from? I mean, not just this scene, but - I mean, there's a lot of really rich stuff in the book. How do you do that?

VERCHER: I think 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 a just - I think, 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, 'cause we're not a monolith. But for me, as I was navigating my way through adolescence - you know, we're already trying to figure out where we belong, just we as human beings. But when you're mixed race, you're - there's an added component to that to find out where you fit in certain aspects of society. And so, you know, the term code switching becomes a part of that. You know, you change your dialect to speak when you're with one group, and then you do the same for another and another. So I think a lot of the dialogue comes from that experience.

DAVIES: You know, I mentioned in the introduction that our character Xavier, the aging martial arts fighter, had left groceries in his car overnight, and they had rotted because his - you know, his brain's been damaged. I left out another piece of that. There was something else in the car. You want to just mention this?

VERCHER: (Laughter).

DAVIES: And where this comes from?

VERCHER: Yeah, so he finds a dog in the back of his car that he rescued as he was visiting his father at the nursing home. I - as happens at some nursing homes, sometimes, rescue centers, adoption centers will bring dogs to - for the residents to spend some time with. And he did so because he was worried about being alone. But because of the trauma to his brain, he forgot the dog was in his car. And I did that not in order to manipulate emotions because I know how - as a dog owner myself, I know how emotional we can get about dogs and about harm coming to them. But I felt it was a poignant and striking way to emphasize how - just how bad things had gotten for him.

DAVIES: Right. And I will just reassure the audience that the dog is OK...

VERCHER: (Laughter).

DAVIES: ...Does not die. But it was a rough night for the dog, and, you know, he urinated and defecated in the car. And then - but it was - the other interesting thing about that is that he was formerly a fighting dog...

VERCHER: Right.

DAVIES: ...An aging fighter like Xavier.

VERCHER: Yeah. That's - the allegory there was very intentional. It's - you know, even to the point where the dog had not eaten for a great deal of time when it was found by the rescue. And there's a parallel there in the sort of intense weight cutting that takes place in mixed martial arts in order to make a weight class for a fight.

DAVIES: Let me reintroduce you. We are speaking with John Vercher. His new novel is "After The Lights Go Out." He'll be back to talk more after this short break. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with writer John Vercher. His new novel tells the story of a veteran mixed martial arts fighter struggling to revive his career while dealing with personal and family issues that involve racial identity and the effects of dementia. Vercher's book is "After The Lights Go Out."

A lot of this story is about race, and one way we learn about it is about Xavier's father. Tell us about him, Sam.

VERCHER: So Sam was a coach, as well as a father for Xavier. And as such, he had a bond with his son that he didn't quite have with his mother. However, as Sam is in the throes of his late-stage Alzheimer's, some of the filters that he may have had in place while married to Xavier's Black mother are beginning to fall away in quite dramatic ways. And because Xavier's mother left his family when Xavier was a teenager, Xavier carries a lot of resentment for her. But he's discovering through the fog of his brain trauma that his memories about his mother and why she left and actually the memories about his father may not be quite so accurate.

DAVIES: Right. So he goes to the nursing home. And, you know, his father is angry. He's talking about you people, referring to some of the people who care for him. And then we meet this woman, Mrs. Thomas, who's an administrator at the home, who I bet is like a lot of people you knew in your work as a physical therapist.

VERCHER: Absolutely.

DAVIES: Tell us what she tells Xavier about what his father's been doing.

VERCHER: Mrs. Thomas - she's one of my favorite characters, as well. I know that sounds weird to say that as a writer, but she's also a truth teller. She tells Xavier exactly what is happening - is that Sam is using horrific racist language to many of her staff and has become even physically violent at some points in the throes of his dementia. And Xavier refuses to believe it until he gets to see it for himself.

DAVIES: Right. You know, the sense - race relations and racial identity are so much a part of this book. It was also part of your - a big theme in your first novel, "Three-Fifths." Tell us a little bit about your own background and, you know, kind of where you lived, what kind of neighborhood you had, what your parents were like.

VERCHER: So my father's Black. My mother is white. You know, I grew up - and growing up mixed race, while I think there were some great benefits to it, there were also some challenges to it. Before 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. You know, 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, well, what are you anyway questions. And when you get that question asked of you often enough, you start to ask that question of yourself. And...

DAVIES: Kids at school would ask you this?

VERCHER: Kids at school, adults. 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 sort of my internal perceptions. So both "Three-Fifths" and "After The Lights Go Out" are not about answering anything about race. They're asking questions and interrogating selfishly for me but hopefully also for people who are like me that may have those same questions.

DAVIES: Right. And I think a lot of people who ask those questions and - might think to take a little more deeply about it. How would you answer the question when it was asked to you? What are you?

VERCHER: Well, at first, I - when I was young enough not to really understand the depth of that question, I would tell them. You know, I would say I'm - you know, my father's Black. My mother's white. I got to a point where when I understood sort of the layers to that question, I would say I was a human being. You know, it's not about what I am. It's who I am.

DAVIES: Your main character, Xavier - he's, you know, trying to revive his fight career. His mom, who is Black, had left the family years before in circumstances that he kind of resented her for. But that changes as the novel progresses. And his dad is in a nursing home, where he's begun to show evidence of very racist thoughts. He's living in his dad's house in Montgomery County, which is a largely white suburb of Philadelphia. And when he goes there, there's a neighbor, Ray. What kind of interaction does he have with Ray? Tell us about Ray.

VERCHER: Ray was not a not a pleasant man to Xavier. He, the minute he saw him in the neighborhood, questioned his presence in the neighborhood. I can tell you that came from a life experience.

DAVIES: Well, I was going to ask that. You must - yeah.

VERCHER: Yeah, yeah. The same thing happened to me in the first week that my wife and I moved into the neighborhood in which we currently live. So as I was walking my dog down the street, someone accosted me about making sure that I picked up after that dog, to which, of course, I answered that, of course, I would do that. And then was followed up with a, do you even live here? So yeah, Ray got a special place in the book.

DAVIES: Right. And Ray is consistent throughout (laughter) the book in this.

VERCHER: If nothing else, he is consistent.

DAVIES: Xavier also has an encounter which Ray generates with police officers who come. Xavier's gone in. And as you mentioned, one of the effects of the brain trauma is mood swings and sometimes rage. And he'd gotten angry and thrown some stuff around his apartment. Ray calls the police. A couple of police officers show up. They're kind of tensely hovering their hands over their service weapons. I mean, it ends without violence. Is this the kind of thing you experienced, too?

VERCHER: No, that story I lifted from a similar experience of a close friend. You know, when he related the story to me, it was - I mean, it raised goosebumps on my arms. And one of the reasons I included it here was because we've seen so much trauma and horrible things in the news about George Floyd and all of these other instances, too many to name and count at this point. But there's still that distance of the screen and the ability to turn it off at some point and not empathize in the same way that we do when we're in a book, and we're sort of inhabiting this character's life.

DAVIES: Let me reintroduce you again. We are speaking with John Vercher. His new novel is "After The Lights Go Out." We'll continue our conversation after this short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN COLTRANE'S "OUT OF THIS WORLD")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with writer John Vercher. His new novel tells the story of a veteran mixed martial arts fighter struggling to revive his career. The name of the book is "After The Lights Go Out."

You know, it's interesting that Xavier's trainer is his cousin, who goes by the nickname Shot. And as their dialogue and their conversations develop in the book, we learn that - Shot tells him that when he was a youngster, when Xavier was a youngster, that Shot would kind of have to help him out because he would get picked on because Xavier was from a mixed-race family, was lighter-skinned. And so, you know, people - I guess some people would pick on him because they thought he wasn't really Black or Black enough or tough enough or whatever. And Shot would have to come and help him out. And that's one of the reasons Shot got him into fighting because he needed to learn to defend himself.

VERCHER: Right.

DAVIES: Was any of that based on your own experience?

VERCHER: To some extent. You know, again, it's - the navigating of those spaces can be very challenging. And I was not athletic in school. I was - and I was certainly not a fighter. I was no tough kid. So you know, I didn't have sort of the escape of sports or the community of sports, you know? I had to find - I found community in different ways through friends that were fans of comic books or friends that were fans of books or video games or that kind of thing. So yeah, it was - there was a part of me that wished I had that safety net, kind of, of being in those - of being someone who could be more physical or felt like someone that could protect themselves. And so it was in high school where I first got into taekwondo and really got into martial arts and things like that. But it's still sort of - even though there are other people there, it's still a very individual sport, so it didn't quite have that same sense of community. So yeah, I think that...

DAVIES: Did it make you feel more secure in yourself physically, like you could handle yourself if you got into a jam?

VERCHER: You know, I thought it would, but it didn't (laughter).

DAVIES: I'm not sure how much you want to say about the mysterious, missing Black mother in this story. I mean, she does emerge. And we learn a lot more about it. But I think it's fair to say, one of the things we learn is that the racism in Xavier's father, which he exhibits now in an unfiltered way in a nursing home, where he yells at the Black staff there, that it didn't just emerge then. It had been there all along and had showed up, in some way or another, in the marriage. And I feel like this is, in some ways, kind of the heart of the story, isn't it?

VERCHER: Yeah. You know, we've - I've talked to many people about the idea that, though I have this great love for mixed martial arts, it really was a bridge to tell another story, you know, this parallel story about dementia in someone younger, dementia in someone older and the things that get revealed through that.

DAVIES: So Xavier has to kind of - and again, I'll let people read the book and see how this emerges.

VERCHER: (Laughter).

DAVIES: But he learns a lot more about his mother. And that's really a touching part of the story. But I guess what's at work here is how, you know, people can be in friendships or even close friendships or even in a marriage with someone who is from a different background or a different race and think that they are free of prejudice. Or people assume that that's the case. But, in fact, there are really very deep-seated feelings that emerge.

VERCHER: Yeah.

DAVIES: I mean, did you - you know, this may be a complete reach and make no sense. But, you know, since your parents were mixed race, I wonder if you ever saw any of that or heard of any of that between your parents?

VERCHER: Not to the extent that we see here. And again, I think this is, for me, a novel of interrogation, you know? I think there's still a narrative that people like to convey, that I have - I can't be racist. I have Black friends. I can't be racist. I'm married to a Black person. Like, you know, I can't - and this doesn't - obviously, this is not just limited to Black and white. But there are people that will still continue to say things like that. And I wanted to push at that theory and question the truth behind that idea, while at the same time trying not to wag a finger about it and say, you know, that I have the definitive answers about that, if that makes sense.

DAVIES: Right. I mean, it's there in our human relationships. And, you know, the thing that's a little hard is that - and, in fact, Xavier expresses this. When the people at the nursing home tell him that his father has been doing and saying racist things about the staff, he says, are you kidding? Look at me. You're saying this - my guy was a closet racist? And it comes out now that the filter is off. And I think it's probably a little hard for us to think, wow, you could have married a Black woman and still have these really (laughter) violently racist beliefs.

VERCHER: Right.

DAVIES: Did you have someone in mind for creating Sam? Or...

VERCHER: Well, stories. Not one person, no, but multiple stories of - there's a large percentage of Black women that work in the skilled nursing setting. And I've heard story upon story of these women taking care of white patients and residents who are arguably in the most vulnerable state of their lives and in need of this significant care and yet hurling the most vile and venomous things to these people that are - to these women that are caring for them, trying to preserve their dignity while they seem to have no respect for their dignity. And we don't talk about it. It is - those women are unsung heroes. And having worked in the health care profession, I felt a responsibility to highlight that story and make that known.

DAVIES: There are some short chapters in the book, which are written in boldface type, where there's another voice speaking to Xavier about his circumstance in ways that are kind of taunting him, you know, kind of pointing out truths or at least beliefs that he doesn't want to face. Who is this? What's happening here?

VERCHER: Well, it's Xavier. One of the hallmarks of that type of brain trauma is there is deterioration of inhibition - right? - the filters that we set up ourselves, whether it be the frontal lobe or whatever part of the brain. And to me, you know, 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.

DAVIES: Right. One of the things - and I wrote this down - was when he's talking to him about the fight game and he says to Xavier, violence is in our nature, homeboy. Violence builds empires. Violence destroys tyranny. Violence is the only way forward. And it's in our DNA. It's damn sure in yours. He further says that that's why people love this sport because we're all kind of animals at root.

Is that the rage that comes from brain trauma, or is that - I don't know. Is that something that makes sense to you in some primal way?

VERCHER: It's, again, one of those things I was interrogating because - and, again, I don't - he's - that voice is not just referring - you know, as that passage goes on, it's not just referring to mixed martial arts. It's referring to all the sports we watch. I mean, even NASCAR - I mean, when do people cheer the loudest or when are people on their feet? It's when they see these horrific crashes. So, you know, it's not that I have this answer that this is why we watch those things. But I find myself - as someone who worked in sports medicine, I have a love/hate relationship with a lot of sports that I watch. You know, I love the skill and the artistry and the discipline that it takes to become a professional athlete. But for some of the sports I enjoy, I also know - I see and I know the cost. And so that voice and that passage in particular is kind of me interrogating, well, if I know how bad it is for them, why do I still watch it? And why do I still enjoy it? So that really is what that's about. It's questioning both for myself and maybe raising the question for others about why we have this enjoyment for these sports that break people down.

DAVIES: You know, since George Floyd, I mean, there's been this movement for social justice. And the notion of white privilege and the extent to which white people don't think about both the ways that they are historically privileged and, you know, some of their attitudes that they might not be so conscious of are important. This obviously connects to some of the ideas in your books.

VERCHER: Again, my whole goal in writing about these topics is to generate conversation because I think conversations are what we're not having enough of. I think when we decide that we have the answers is when conversation gets stopped. Selfishly, I write for me first. These questions and conversations are, again, self-interrogation for me. But I know that I'm not the only one that has these questions. And so it's my hope that by writing to these subjects that others consider these ideas and questions, and maybe we have to talk about them.

DAVIES: Well, John Vercher, thanks so much for speaking with us.

VERCHER: Thanks so much for having me. This was great.

DAVIES: John Vercher's new book is "After The Lights Go Out." Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews 'Less Is Lost," the follow-up to Andrew Sean Greer's Pulitzer Prize-winning satirical novel "Less." This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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