William Brewer: ‘The Red Arrow isn’t a drug book, but…’

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 grew up. 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, narrated by a troubled ghostwriter urgently in search of a vanished Italian physicist whose memoirs he must deliver. Brewer, who teaches creative writing at Stanford University, spoke to me over Zoom from Oakland, California, his home since 2016.

Where did The Red Arrow start?
The writing really got going in 2019 after I finally underwent psychedelic therapy for the depression that had controlled my life for a long time. I was able to write in a way I hadn’t before because my brain had just been so clouded. The therapy showed me all the ways that depression had run the show; it was hard to realise 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 by 4.30 in the afternoon it felt like a 50lb tumour had been cut out of my back. I wanted to carry that energy into the writing.

The Red Arrow isn’t a drug book, but it does try to inhabit certain qualities of psychedelic experience, one of which is the complete destruction of linearity. A lot of the time when people try to write about that, they write incoherent, scrambly text, like something from the era of the beats, but psychedelic experience can actually be very lucid: it isn’t a wild and crazy light show so much as an elegant revelation of how things are connected. Psilocybin, especially, gives you this real sense of momentum, and I wanted that for the book.

Is that why you put the narrator on a high-speed train for most of it?
Yeah, I wanted a voice that felt propulsive, and so had the very simple idea to just put him in something that’s literally moving rapidly through space. When I showed the book to a friend after I’d written it, he mentioned 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 was going there myself. I didn’t even know “Frecciarossa” [Italy’s high-speed train service] meant “red arrow”; all the stuff about physics and the arrow of time in the book was a happy accident. I’m against planning; I follow whatever comes, let the pages fill up, and then, when I edit, start noticing connections I never could have imagined consciously.

The plot is driven by the protagonist’s need to repay a lot of money
I don’t think that’s an accident. I didn’t set out to write about debt, but a person in their 30s in America will have it on their mind; it’s on a lot of our minds. I have student debt and so do most people I know. Debt seems to be the engine of our economy: it’s just everywhere here. I’m fascinated by it as a thing we do to ourselves, and that the world asks us to do to 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 – I’m not annoyed by it, but I don’t think it’s healthy to think about that stuff. The poems in I Know Your Kind definitely are about the opioid epidemic, but it’s a book about how the opioid epidemic in West Virginia is only 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 had been logged almost entirely, then completely ransacked through coal mining, this was just another version of industry coming in and exploiting a place and knowing that no one was really going to notice for a long time.

The Red Arrow partly plays with the frustration you feel when you’re 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; only when I left did I realise, oh, that isn’t in everyone’s water.

Why did you switch to prose?
What interested me about writing a novel was the big 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 work day before they get an hour and a half of silence with the lamp in bed: am I going to earn that time? As a reader, I notice what it feels like when you feel cared for in that way. Your job as a writer is to make your material compelling; people pretend when they write literary stuff that you’re not supposed to care about that, 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 been having a blast, a lot more fun than the Americans were at that time.

Was there a book that first inspired you to write?
The real big gamechanger was reading Moby-Dick in my teens, back when I spent a lot of my time painting and thought I would go to art school. I was waiting for something to dry in art class and I picked it up thinking it was going to be indecipherable; 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). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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