William Brewer, 33, is the author of I know your kind (2017), a collection of poems on poverty and drug abuse in West Virginia, where he was born and raised. Selected for the prestigious National Poetry Series in the United States, and quoted as the inspiration of Ocean Vuong, he has been described by New York magazine as “America’s Poet Laureate of the Opioid Crisis.” Psychiatry, debt, and quantum gravity are among the themes in his first novel, The red arrow, narrated by a troubled ghostwriter who is in a hurry in search of a missing Italian physicist whose memoirs he is to deliver. Brewer, who teaches creative writing at Stanford University, spoke to me about Zoom from Oakland, California, his home since 2016.
Where did The red arrow Start?
The writing really got underway in 2019 after I finally underwent psychedelic therapy for the depression that had been controlling my life for a long time. I was able to write in a way I had not before because my brain had just become so blurry. The therapy showed me all the ways that depression had run the show; it was hard to realize how much the disease had allowed me to hurt people I care about. I was given a dose of psilocybin mushrooms at 10 in the morning and at 4.30 in the afternoon it felt as if a 50 pound tumor had been cut out of my back. I wanted to bring that energy into the writing.
The red arrow is not a drug book, but it seeks to inhabit certain qualities of psychedelic experience, one of which is the complete destruction of linearity. Much of the time when people try to write about it, they write incoherent, scramly lyrics, like something from the beats era, but psychedelic experience can actually be very clear: it’s not a wild and crazy light show so much as an elegant revelation of, how things are connected. Psilocybin, in particular, gives you this real sense of momentum, and that’s what I wanted for the book.
Is that why you put the narrator on a high-speed train most of the time?
Yes, I wanted a voice that felt momentum, and therefore I had the very simple idea of putting him in something that literally moves fast through space. When I showed the book to a friend after I wrote it, he mentioned Zone [a novel by Mathias Énard, also narrated during a train journey through Italy], which I still have not read. My narrator is on an Italian train because I was going there myself. I did not even know “Frecciarossa” [Italy’s high-speed train service] meant “red arrow”; all the things about physics and the arrow of time in the book were a happy accident. I’m against planning; I follow what’s coming, let the pages fill up, and as I edit, I begin to notice contexts that I had never imagined consciously.
The plot is driven by the protagonist’s need to repay a lot of money …
I do not think tois an accident. I did not sit down to write about debt, but someone in their 30s in America will have it in mind; those are many of our thoughts. I have student debt and most people I know have too. Debt seems to be the engine of our economy: it’s just everywhere here. I’m fascinated by it as something we do to ourselves, and which the world asks us to do to ourselves – and makes us do to ourselves.
How did you feel about being called “America’s poet winner of the opioid crisis”?
I have no interest in being a poet-winner of anything. People write things, and that’s fine – I do not regret it, but I do not think it’s healthy to think that way. The poems in I know your kind is certainly about the opioid epidemic, but it’s a book about how the opioid epidemic in West Virginia is just one version of the industrial exploitation that is happening in my part of the world over and over again. So in the same way that my home state had been logged almost completely, and then completely searched through coal mining, this was just another version of the industry that came in and exploited a place and knew no one would really notice it for a long time.