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

The American author on how his own experience of psychedelic therapy sparked his debut novel, and his poems about the opioid epidemic

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.

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