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W.Va. Native Looks At Depression, Treatment In New Novel

The Red Arrow  Cover Art.jpg

Debut novelist William Brewer currently teaches creative writing at Stanford University, but his Morgantown roots have deeply influenced his writing, and even the main character of his new book — "The Red Arrow" — is also a West Virginia native.

Brewer also wrote a highly acclaimed book of poetry that focused on the opioid crisis in West Virginia called "I Know Your Kind." He will be speaking at Taylor Books in Charleston on Wednesday, Aug. 10.

News Director Eric Douglas spoke with Brewer about the book and growing up in the Mountain State.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity. 

Douglas: Tell me a little bit about the plot of the story in The Red Arrow.

William Brewer
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Poet William Brewer, whose debut novel ?The Red Arrow? will be published by Knopf in 2022. Brewer is also a Jones Lecturer at Stanford University.

Brewer: So the book begins with a narrator sitting on a train in Rome that's about to depart for the north of Italy. He's heading towards Modena, a town in the north, hoping to find a physicist that he works for as a ghost writer. He's working to try to write this guy's memoir to clear a huge debt he's gotten himself into. He got into debt by taking a ton of money to write the 'great West Virginia novel,' which he sort of BS’d his way into and then quickly realized he had no business doing. So the book begins as the train is leaving the station. And he starts reflecting on how he got himself into this position. And in the meantime, what happens is he reflects on his failed career in the New York art world, a large chemical spill disaster in West Virginia, the phenomenon of psychedelic therapy in northern California. And then lastly, some experience of travel in Sicily and Italy.

Douglas: It's interesting, you chose the chemical spill. Obviously, some of the facts have changed, but you set it about 20 years previous to the actual water crisis here in West Virginia. Why did you choose that as a seminal event?

Brewer: Something that's really amazing about being from West Virginia, and then not living there and meeting other people, is they really struggle to believe the number of chemical and environmental disasters that have happened in the state and those disasters keep happening from a relationship with industry. People just don't believe it's possible.

They say that there's no way you could do that. They're like, I've never heard of it, so it couldn't possibly be true. And so there's two phenomena there. One is the scale of these events when they happen, and how often they've actually happened over the history of the state. If you look up the number of water crises that have happened, it's quite a long list. But at the same time these things could be so big and so common, and yet people never know about them. And there's something quite challenging about that in my mind.

The one that I fictionalize is, in some ways, cobbled together from any number of events; a detail from this one, a detail from that one. And the parameters sort of replay themselves over and over again.

I grew up in Morgantown, the river is sort of the central artery of the area. And it's how you orient yourself. And I think that's pretty much true throughout much of the state. There's almost always a river where the towns are. And so when this sort of thing happens to the water, how quickly it has the ability to impact basically everybody's lives in that town, and then how they each sort of struggle to deal with it in their own ways.

Douglas: I’m interested in your book of poetry as well. Tell me a little bit about that.

Brewer: The first book I wrote was a book of poems. And its main focus is the opioid epidemic in West Virginia. At the time, when I was going from undergrad up through grad school, and when I was writing my first book I was realizing this was happening all around. And I think people in West Virginia knew that this sort of epidemic was taking place, really before much of the nation caught on to it.

I think that was really by design, I think people who were moving these drugs through the state knew that the world wouldn't notice right away. So I became really interested in that phenomenon and why it was happening. That's sort of how these pharmaceutical companies treated people in the state in a way that was not unlike how timber treated people, and then how coal for much of its history treated people, which is more broadly to say the relationship between industry, these big industries with a great deal of power, and the people themselves that actually live in these places and have real lives.

Douglas: So what's the name of the book?

Brewer: It's “I Know Your Kind,” and it was published by the wonderful publisher called Milkweed Editions

Douglas: How does one make the transition from writing a book of poetry to teaching creative writing to your debut novel "The Red Arrow?"

Brewer: I started reading really seriously when I was about 15. And then I just sort of followed it wherever I went. One of the gifts of growing up in a place like West Virginia is that I was aware at a very early age that I was living somewhere that was vastly different than a lot of other places. And the times when my family would leave and travel to other parts of the Eastern Seaboard, it was very clear to me that where I lived was very different. And I mean that both in the landscape, the very distinct quality of the place, but also the quality of the people and the culture. And also how the state lives in relation to the rest of the country, that it's this place that the country has been sort of built off the labor of, especially coal.

As a young person, when I would say, "I'm from West Virginia,” people would say, “I have cousins in Arlington.” And I don't live in a state with Arlington. And so realizing that I was in this very specific part of the country, and yet, it was a part of the country that most of the country didn't recognize, that piqued my attention at a really young age. And it sort of made me observe really heavily for much of my life. And if you're going to write stuff, you have to be relatively good at paying attention and seeing the world around you. West Virginia was like a crash course on how to do that.

Douglas: It's an interesting perspective that forced you mentally to pay attention, to be an observer. And then that extends into your writing.

Brewer: It shows you the relationship between people and where they live. And that's something that you don't necessarily get everywhere you go. I've certainly been to parts of the country where there's these vast, sprawling suburbs, and you really could be anywhere. That's never the case in West Virginia. When you are there, there is no doubt about where you are. And that's something that I really became interested in.

Douglas: I thought it was interesting you chose a narrator, so the book is in first person, rather than a more traditional third person for a novel. Why did you choose that perspective?

Brewer: For this book, specifically, one of its concerns is how people lose track of reality in their minds. That their perceptions can get the better of them. And specifically, in the case of mental illness. I think the book is definitely interested in depression, but even sort of a kind of hyper awareness and a pressure of anxiety. And these are situations that I think are running rampant in America at the moment. I think the last two years of the pandemic made that all the worse with people being isolated, and strange for their jobs and just their own health.

The book is really interested in how mental illness functions in the mind. One of the ways to do that, to explore that in a book is to really sit squarely in a person's mind. But the speaker has found freedom from this sort of oppressive depression that he's lived with for much of his life. One of the ways to do that in the book is have this person speaking from the other side of the sort of burden of depression, which then allows him to reflect on his own mind from within his own mind. It sort of gives the reader the closest examination they can hope for.

Douglas: What haven't we talked about?

Brewer: One of the blockbuster topics in the book that people are probably starting to learn about is the subject of psychedelic therapy. A documentary that just came out on Netflix called “How to Change Your Mind,” which is based off of the book by Michael Pollan. That book recounts the use of psychedelics towards how they function in the human mind demystifying them as these really, really dangerous drugs, but also showing how they can help people that are undergoing serious suffering.

I'm always interested in how humans change their minds, how they change consciousness. My poetry book relating to the opioid epidemic is part of that. If we look at something like the opioid epidemic, it doesn't suggest to me that West Virginia has a problem with a lot of people that just want to use drugs. It has a problem with a lot of pain, and it's a place that's had a lot of pain put on it. If one drug gives people the power to numb that pain, and those drugs being opiates, the alternative then is these psychedelics, which used in a therapeutic context, are being shown time and time again, at places like Johns Hopkins University, for example, that are running huge studies and have now opened an institute for the study of these chemicals, that they offer immense potential in helping people be alleviated from that suffering.

People want to tiptoe around it as a subject, but my job as a writer is to dive headfirst into it. I based the book off my own experience. It completely changed my life. I encountered it here in northern California, but it's something that I believe would offer immense help to places like West Virginia, for example, where I think people want help.

Douglas: In the book, you referred to the mist, which is a euphemism for depression, for feeling like you're kind of walking through a cloud. Tell me a little bit about that.

Brewer: I experienced depression pretty severely for much of my life, and I'd read a lot about it. But in a lot of books, they talk about it in the abstract. Something I wanted to do is make it sort of a presence. That's certainly how it felt. For me, it felt like this thing that was with me at all times, but was not me. I hoped that it could show people the kind of physical power of it, how it really becomes this thing that interrupts your experience of reality, that anyone who has been around someone who has a really hard walk with depression.

It can be really hard to even get your words to them. By making it this cloud, this misty figure really articulates the physicality, the sort of derangement of it. I live here where there's the famous Bay Area fog all the time. That's often a quite common component of life. And in the mountains of West Virginia, there are these foggy, misty mornings that hang on for much of the year. Those always stayed with me. I have very visceral memories of walking to the bus stop through these foggy mornings, and I think I've never stopped thinking about them.

Douglas: You went through this psychedelic therapy, and by all accounts, it has changed your own mind.

Brewer: It completely changed my life. It liberated me from the disease of depression. And it taught me a lot about how the human mind works. It sounds to some people very hippie dippie. But it's the most immense experience I've ever had. Besides meeting my wife, easily the most important thing that's ever happened to me. But it also made the most sense in terms of mental health care of anything I've ever experienced. It’s like having open heart surgery on your mind.

News Director, edouglas@wvpublic.org, 304-556-4946, @AppalachiaEric

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