John Vercher's first novel, Three-Fifths, was published by Agora in 2019 and went on to be nominated for multiple awards. On June 7th of this year his next book, After the Lights Go Out, will be released by Soho Press. There is no sophomore slump, and since the protagonist is an aging MMA fighter, we had a great reason to get in touch with John to talk about his personal history with MMA, a little classic hip-hop, and of course, the book. Not "just" a sports novel, he continues to take a hard look at fractured family dynamics, race, loyalty, and specific to this novel, the fragility of the mind.
We exchanged emails for a few weeks, worked through my ineptitude with Gmail, and came out with something that is tailor-made for Words & Sports readers.
Your new book, After the Lights Go Out, is about an MMA fighter that is nearing the end of his career. In addition to being a writer, you are also a practitioner of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Could you tell us a little about your background in combat sports?
I’ve been training in some form of martial arts or another for a good portion of my life. I grew up on Saturday morning Kung Fu theater, and I’m a kid of The Karate Kid era. I started with Tae Kwon Do just before high school and earned my brown belt. College and the associated partying put a stop to martial arts training for a good while, though my love for it never faded. Then I turned around and I was thirty, and in the worst shape of my life to that point. Mixed Martial Arts was working its way out of obscurity and as the gym and the elliptical trainer held no interest for me, I signed up at a school that taught kickboxing and submission grappling. I competed as an amateur in a few kickboxing matches and one MMA fight.
To be clear: I was a tourist when it came to competing. I competed for personal reasons and to achieve goals I had set for myself. I in no way equate what I did with the sacrifices made by the professionals who do this for a living and the amateurs who are striving to do so.
When my second child was born, I took a brief hiatus from training, and when I returned, I did so solely to Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. I still love the striking arts and stay sharp on the bag, but all of my training now is in BJJ, where I earned my brown belt last year.
There have been quite a few MMA-flavored films to come out (who could forget Kevin James in Here Comes the Boom?), but not a ton of novels. Writing fiction about sports is hard to pull off because the people that know the sport well tend to be hypercritical. How important was it for you to put MMA fiction on the map, so to speak, and to do it right?
The book hasn’t come out yet, so I don’t know that I’ve put anything on anyone’s map, but here’s hoping.
Writing a book about MMA was a selfish endeavor for me. I’ll sound like a broken record here, but I always fall back to Toni Morrison’s quote: “If there’s a book you want to read that hasn’t been written yet, you must be the one to write it.” As you pointed out, there’s a dearth of MMA fiction, so I wrote the book I wanted to read.
But I didn’t want it just to be a sports book. For me, MMA was a bridge to explore other avenues, including healthcare, race, class, family, and loyalty. That said, MMA figures prominently into the storyline via the character of Xavier, and as you’ve pointed out, fans can be extremely critical when their beloved sport is fictionalized. Because I also love the sport and had some amateur experience, I’m hoping I was able to convey it in an accurate manner.
There is a lot more going on in the book than fighting, but our main character, Xavier, is likely dealing with the effects of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). Memory loss, extreme mood swings, and rage are some of the things making his daily life a struggle. The NFL has been criticized for its handling of head trauma, but combat sports have not shown as much attention to the issue. From the time you first had the idea to do an MMA-related book, did you know that head trauma would be a big part of it?
For certain. My relationship with combat sports is truly love/hate. Though I make my living as a writer, I’m still a licensed physical therapist. My main area of focus was sports medicine, but I also worked in settings with patients suffering from dementia, head trauma, and post-concussion syndrome. While I admire the skill and discipline it takes to be a fighter, whether in boxing, kickboxing, or MMA, knowing what I know of anatomy, neuroscience, and injury also makes the sport difficult to watch. There is so much that these athletes contend with after the horn sounds, after the bell rings, or after the whistle blows. I once worked with a former NFL lineman who had to have both hips replaced in his early forties because of the trauma his body experienced on the field. I felt writing a book about MMA without addressing the cost these athletes pay for our entertainment would have been disingenuous, at best.
In addition to the sports angle, this is also a family drama. In particular, it deals with a fraught father-son relationship that Xavier starts to come to terms with when his own mental capacity is rapidly diminishing. He must deal with some heavy truths when he is least capable of doing so. You have whole chapters that are, essentially, his CTE-infected brain talking to him, encouraging him to burn everything down around him. You do such a good job of pulling the reader into the chaos that is Xavier’s mental state, but there is great restraint. Those chapters are short and intense. Was it difficult to balance those sections with everything else and maintain Xavier as a sympathetic character?
Thank you for that. You’re right in that I did have to exercise some restraint in those sections, and it’s exactly for the reason you identified. It would have been very easy to let that disembodied voice go off the rails for pages and pages, but to your point, doing so would have overwhelmed the character I was trying to build in Xavier. I wanted readers to have the sense that Xavier was fighting that voice because it is whispering some pretty awful things in his ear. Those sections are short as they’re supposed to represent flashes in time for him—rants from his deteriorating frontal lobe.
At the same time, I wanted the presence of that voice to cause readers to question if the voice was a true representation of who Xavier was, or if the persona he showed the world was the actual façade. I don’t subscribe to the notion that a character has to be likable to carry a story. In fact, if a character is too likable, I find them disinteresting. At the same time, I didn’t want to veer into complete unlikability, so I did my best to maintain a balance that left readers wanting to pull for Xavier but at the same time making them question if they always felt that way for the duration of the book.
Xavier is a mixed-race guy, with a Black mother and a white father. He grew up mostly with his father, and in the present day of the book, he is estranged from his mother. Along with the issues he is enduring because of CTE, his father is in a nursing home going through the late stages of Alzheimer’s. For the first time, he sees the racist side of his father. Both characters aren’t playing with a full deck, so to speak, but Xavier is in better control of his faculties, and he needs to try and square this reality with the image of the man he grew up with. There are so many layers to this, but as a storytelling choice, did you always have the father in a nursing home, his mind steadily deteriorating, when his bigotry would be revealed to Xavier?
I want to be careful not to give too much away here. As you say, there are layers to the relationship between Xavier and Sam, particularly when it comes to what he believes he knows for sure about his father and what he may have made himself believe. I’ve always been fascinated by the fluidity, impermanence, and selectiveness of memory.
All that said, yes, I always envisioned having Sam’s ultimate deterioration and betrayal take place in the nursing home. There are racial dynamics taking place in those settings that most wouldn’t believe. Again, it’s hard to go much further into that without giving too much of the book away, but there was no better setting to place Sam as the filters fall away from his mind and his true nature is revealed to Xavier.
I have to ask you about the chapter titles in the book. I was born in ’78, so they popped out at me. You reference DMX, 2Pac, De La Soul, M.O.P., KRS-One, Brand Nubian, and more in the titles of each section. Their inclusion must have made the writing a little more fun for you, but did they influence the direction or tone of the novel in any way?
Finally, someone asks me about the chapter titles!
I’m a comic book geek through and through and loved when Netflix brought Luke Cage to the small screen. One of the little things I enjoyed was how each episode was named after a Gang Starr track, so the chapter titles were sort of my homage to that homage. Like you, I grew up on that era of hip-hop and those artists are still in heavy rotation on my playlists today. As a result, they definitely influenced the tone of the novel, though not so much the direction. I knew that I wanted the chapter titles to be from hip-hop tracks, but I didn’t decide on which ones until I’d after I’d written the chapter. In the great “pantser vs plotter” debate, I’m most definitely a pantser. I knew how I wanted the book to begin and end, but the rest is as much a journey of discovery for me as it is for the reader.
I had forgotten about what they did with Luke Cage! And then the second season was all Pete Rock & CL Smooth. Definitely cool to see. Speaking of comic book adaptations, what did you think of the slate of Marvel shows Netflix put out? They had some incredible casting on Cage, and Jon Bernthal on The Punisher was just insane. Would writing for one of those shows be a dream assignment for you?
Look, as someone who grew up on comics, even bad film and tv adaptations are good to me to some extent. Seeing characters and storylines that charged me up as a kid being brought to life is just so much damn fun. I can’t identify with the debates about whether or not these films are cinema or any of that because I’m enjoying myself too much. Are some of them better than others? Of course—but isn’t that true of just about everything?
All that said, I thoroughly enjoyed the Netflix run of Marvel characters. Cage was fantastic (though Mahershala Ali was criminally underutilized; he was the draw for me) and they couldn’t have picked a better Punisher than Bernthal. Daredevil gets better with every re-watch and Jessica Jones was terrific. We won’t talk about Iron Fist. I loved Power Man and Iron Fist as a kid and had high hopes for their team-up.
Yes, I would love to write for one of these IPs one day. Thanks for asking.
While we’re on the subject of TV, a quick scan of your Twitter profile reveals that you’re doing some writing in that realm, as well. Any projects that you can talk about right now?
I can to some extent. My first novel was optioned by a major streamer, and I was brought on board to write the pilot by two industry veterans of whose work I was a HUGE fan. We didn’t get picked up but our work on it continues. In the meantime, that work allowed me to join the Writer’s Guild and I’m actively working to become a staff writer by getting involved in the union. I’m also currently working on a limited series pitch with another author. Fingers crossed.
I want to circle back to the book and bring up a supporting player. Xavier’s cousin, Shot, owns a gym and is a former boxer that also trains him. For me, the family relationships are what carry the book, and Shot is so well drawn. He’s got his own problems to deal with, but the relationship with Xavier is fraught and authentic. For each other, they represent a means to an end. I’m curious about Shot’s evolution as a character. Did his voice and persona come to you early on, and is there a lot of him on the cutting room floor, so to speak? I feel like there’s a whole other novel that could take place in his gym.
I’m glad you homed in on the relationships because they’re what I like writing about most. Yes, Shot’s voice and persona were very clear for me from the very beginning. I’m a big fan of Brian Tyree Henry (Paper Boi on Atlanta) and I very much wrote Shot with him in mind. Shot is also the nickname of an uncle who passed when I was too young to have known him, and some of the stories I was told about him are reflected in some ways in Shot’s character.
I love the idea of a novel in Shot’s gym. At the risk of sounding pretentious, the gym and Shot felt very vibrant and real and alive in my head. Those scenes were among the most enjoyable and easiest to write. You’ve given me some food for thought here.
We always like to wrap up with recommendations. Are there three writers, sports-related or not, that you think our readers should check out?
In no particular order: