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.