William Brewer: ‘The Red Arrow is not a drug book, but…’ | Fiction

William Brewer, 33, is the author of I know your kind (2017), a collection of poems about poverty and drug addiction in West Virginia, where he was born and raised. Selected for the prestigious National Poetry Series in the US, and cited as an inspiration by 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 of his first novel, The red arrow, told by a troubled ghostwriter desperately looking for a missing Italian physicist whose memoirs to deliver. Brewer, who teaches creative writing at Stanford University, spoke to me via Zoom from Oakland, California, his home since 2016.

where went The red arrow get started?
The writing really took off in 2019 after I finally got psychedelic therapy for the depression that had dominated my life for a long time. I was able to write in a way I hadn’t before because my brain had been so clouded. The therapy showed me all the ways 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 10am and at 4:30pm it felt like a 50lb tumor had been cut out of my back. I wanted to take that energy into my writing.

The red arrow is not a drug book, but it does try to capture certain qualities of psychedelic experience, including the complete destruction of linearity. Often when people try to write about that, they write incoherent, distorted text, like something from the beat era, but psychedelic experience can actually be very clear: it’s not so much a wild and crazy light show as an elegant reveal of how things work with are connected to each other. Psilocybin in particular gives you a 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 for the most part?
Yes, I wanted a voice that felt propulsive, so I had the very simple idea of ​​just putting it into something that literally moves quickly through space. When I showed the book to a friend after I wrote it, he said: Zone [a novel by Mathias Énard, also narrated during a train journey through Italy], which I still haven’t read. My narrator is on an Italian train because I went there myself. I didn’t even know “Frecciarossa” [Italy’s high-speed train service] meant “red arrow”; all things about physics and the arrow of time in the book were a happy coincidence. I am against plans; I follow what’s coming, let the pages fill up and then, as I’m editing, I start to notice connections that I could never have consciously imagined.

The plot is driven by the main character’s need to pay back a lot of money
I do not think so Thatis an accident. I didn’t mean to write about debt, but someone in their thirties in America will think of it; it’s a lot in our heads. I have student debt and so do most of the people I know. Debt seems to be the engine of our economy: it’s just everywhere here. I’m fascinated by it as something that we do to ourselves, and that the world asks us to put on ourselves – and makes us do to ourselves.

How did you feel about being called “America’s poet laureate of the opioid crisis”?
I have no interest in being the poet laureate of anything. People write things and that’s fine – it doesn’t annoy me, but I don’t think it’s healthy to think about that. The poems in I know your kind are certainly about the opioid epidemic, but it is a book about how the opioid epidemic in west virginia is just one version of the industrial exploitation that happens to my part of the world over and over again. So in the same way that my home state was almost fully registered and then completely looted by mining, this was just another version of the industry coming in and operating a place and knowing that no one would really notice for a long time

The red arrow plays partly with the frustration you feel when you come from somewhere other people don’t care about. Where I grew up, the water was bright orange because it had acid mine drainage in it; it wasn’t until I left that I realized, oh, that’s not in everyone’s water.

Why did you switch to prose?
What interested me about writing a novel was the great formal challenge of convincing someone to give up five hours of their life to read it. I imagined someone having to feed their kids after an eight-hour workday before getting an hour and a half of silence with the lamp in bed: am I going to earn that time? As a reader, I notice how it feels when you feel cared for in that way. Your job as a writer is to make your material attractive; people pretend when they write literary stuff that you don’t care, but I do.

What have you been reading lately?
i just read London Fields [by Martin Amis] and Flaubert’s parrot [by Julian Barnes]† The British writers of the 80s seem to have had a good time, much more fun than the Americans back then.

Was there a book that first inspired you to write?
The real big game changer was reading Moby Dick in my teens, when I spent a lot of my time painting and thought I was going to art school. I waited for something to dry in art class and picked it up thinking it would be undecipherable; instead I felt completely electrified. How that book made sense to a 16-year-old stoner punk rock kid is still a mystery to me, and that’s the beauty of it.

The red arrow by William Brewer is published by John Murray (£16.99). In support of the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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