When I first speak with novelist William Brewer, he is wearing a blue-black trucker’s hat that reads Gene’s Beer Garden, Morgantown WV and is insisting that he did not set out to write the Great West Virginia Novel. “I think any attempt to write the Great Anything is a bad idea. It’s a distinctly American one that people get themselves wrapped up in, but I would never attempt to do that, and have no interest in it.”
His debut, The Red Arrow, was published last month by Knopf. It is a novel about many things: consciousness, quantum physics, psychedelic mushrooms and their therapeutic effects, ghostwriting, depression, the ease with which the mind travels forward and backward in time, and how hard it can be to keep it in the present.
But it’s also about growing up in West Virginia, about the old steel and coal towns perched on steep river valleys—about a corner of the United States that is thought of mostly as a backwater when it is thought of at all—a region at turns forgotten, misunderstood, caricatured, and exploited.
At The Red Arrow’s center is a painter-turned-novelist who, in a moment of hubris, convinces his publisher he’s capable of producing a novel that can capture West Virginia’s essence—a Great West Virginia novel about the Great Monongahela River Chemical Spill of 1996, a fictional environmental catastrophe that stands in for the spills and disasters that have beset West Virginia periodically for years. Brewer’s narrator then proceeds to fail so spectacularly at writing that novel that he plunges himself and his wife into financial ruin. Rather than trying to capture West Virginia’s essence himself, Brewer says, “I was having fun with putting someone in the situation where they would make the mistake of attempting to do it.”
Brewer’s narrator then proceeds to fail so spectacularly at writing that novel that he plunges himself and his wife into financial ruin. Rather than trying to capture West Virginia’s essence himself, Brewer says, “I was having fun with putting someone in the situation where they would make the mistake of attempting to do it.
Still, like his protagonist, Brewer has been trying to make sense of West Virginia since childhood. “I was aware that it was very beautiful. I was aware that it had a kind of spirit to it. But it felt so remote, like the whole fucking world was outside of West Virginia.”
As an adult, though, he understands the place differently. He understands that its natural beauty is special—Dolly Sods, a rolling and strange plateau at the top of a mountain in the Monongahela National Forest, ecologically similar to Canada despite being south of the Mason Dixon Line, is one of Brewer’s favorite landscapes in America. He also understands that the resentments many West Virginians feel are unsurprising given the history of the state—a place that many Americans forget even exists.
“When West Virginia University would get a primetime football game, that was a huge deal in [Morgantown]. People knew that the world was going to see us and acknowledge us. And then the thing that would always happen is that the announcer would refer to the state as ‘Western Virginia.’ And people would get really upset. They’d feel kind of, you know, mind-fucked by it.”
The roots of that neglect are deep. In the 18th century, a whiskey tax that favored major eastern distillers over western frontiersmen in the Monongahela Valley led to the Whiskey Rebellion, America’s first insurrection. In the 19th century, the industrial era brought work in coal mines and steel mills to the region, work that lasted only until there was more money to be made overseas. In the 20th century, the fracking boom and mountaintop removal brought jobs and ecological devastation. In the 21st, Big Pharma got rich selling opioids to the vulnerable.
“It’s this place that has never really shaken off the frontier identity, and has always had a distrust of certain outside forces, always falling victim to outside forces, and especially the outside forces of industry. Very simply, some of some of the worst impulses of American culture, and especially American industrial and economic culture, are able to continue to perform over and over again in this part of the world.”
Like his narrator, Brewer was first a painter, and became interested in the written word in college almost by accident, starting with poetry (”Poetry was the workshop I got into”). When he began to study writing more formally he found that the visual instincts he’d developed as a painter helped him to write arresting images.
An MFA and a Stegner Fellowship later, Milkweed published his debut book of poems, I Know Your Kind (Milkweed), an unsparing but tender look at a West Virginia beset by the opioid crisis. The collection recalls the work of Jack Gilbert, whose elegiac writing about the scarred landscape of Appalachia was a revelation for Brewer.
I Know Your Kind won the National Poetry Series, and made Brewer into that rare poet whose work actually reaches beyond the academy. “I have read in places where the [opioid] epidemic’s claws are deep, and the response has been humbling and incredible and really shows me what poetry can do,” Brewer once told an interviewer for Zyzzyva.
But success in poetry was never the goal for Brewer. He’d always harbored a desire to write prose. Like his protagonist, Brewer first tried and failed to write a novel about an environmental disaster in Morgantown. Brewer insists it wasn’t the same novel his protagonist fails to write—Brewer’s was more of a crime novel or thriller, rather than his narrator’s attempt at a Great West Virginia Novel—but Brewer’s failed novel did contain the seeds of the one he’s now publishing.
Still, The Red Arrow is doing something a bit weirder than your standard-issue autofictional Künstlerroman, in which the artist overcomes failure to produce the great work of literature we’re now reading. If anything, The Red Arrow isn’t a novel about the education of the artist at all—it’s a novel about the failure of that education, and what’s left after you are forced to pick up the pieces.
Like his narrator, Brewer suffered from depression for most of his life. Even with his early success as a writer, its effects were all too real. Desperation led him to psilocybin therapy, the experimental therapeutic dose of psychedelic mushrooms that Michael Pollan wrote about in How to Change Your Mind. Brewer tells me that the experience was transformative. It was a leap of faith, but the alternative—not trying—was not an option.
“My wife would be sitting five feet from me telling me we’re going to get through it, please don’t do anything crazy, and I couldn’t even see her. It was like she just wasn’t there. It wasn’t just this malaise or this disinterest, it was a real weight. It had physical power, and it controlled my body as much as it controlled my mind. When I did psilocybin therapy, I saw some wild shit. At times, really terrifying stuff. But nothing was as remotely terrifying as being a depressed person wanting to die.”
Though The Red Arrow is a literary novel shot through with a tinge of the speculative, it is perhaps most successful as an addition to the shelf of literature that tries to unpack the experience of living with depression, like William Styron’s Darkness Visible or Sartre’s Nausea. “I was trying to get that right, and my hope is that if people recognize that experience of depression, they might also recognize the potential to get out of it, or to just feel less alone.” Like Sartre’s narrator, who calls his depression “the nausea,” Brewer’s narrator calls the depression that stalks him “the Mist,” giving a name and a shape to a feeling that would otherwise be overwhelming.
The seeds of The Red Arrow were sown when Brewer encountered the work of the physicist Carlo Rovelli, author of the bestselling Seven Brief Lessons in Physics, and realized how closely the principles of quantum mechanics seemed to echo his own experience overcoming depression through psilocybin therapy. “It was just a re-articulation of so much of what psychedelics show you: the complete disillusionment of linear time, the ability to see that no thing is a thing, that there are really only interactions—and that what you perceive as stuff is ultimately yet another illusion.”
Without a clear idea of where the book was going, Brewer began to write. He had a sense that depression, his own failed West Virginia novel, and the remarkably similar insights into consciousness offered by quantum physics and psychedelic therapy, would all play a role. But what shape the book would ultimately take was something he only discovered through the process of writing.
The Red Arrow opens long after the narrator has already failed as a novelist. He’s been given a chance to dig himself out of the financial black hole he’s in by ghostwriting the memoir of a famous physicist, a character based loosely on Rovelli. There’s only one problem: the physicist has disappeared, making the completion of the memoir—and thus the cancellation of the narrator’s debt—impossible. As the narrator searches for the physicist in the Italian countryside, he also excavates his own past—and how closely The Mist came to killing him.
Brewer felt his way forward as he drafted, revising heavily but never writing with a plan. Though Brewer teaches writing, he remains largely suspect of how much formal education can really teach about the artistic process—a suspicion perhaps not surprising for a native West Virginian, who has seen generation after generation let down by somebody selling a quick fix.
“I have a lot of qualms with a lot of craft teaching, and the craft industrial complex of writing, and I say that as a person who teaches people writing. But there is one principle that I really do think holds true, time and again, which is: through the specific, the universal. Growing up in West Virginia was an exceptional education in America. It is such a particular place that has been treated in such a particular way. It taught me to get a sense of what this bigger show is all about. As a writer, I’m going to drill into the most specific little parts of it and see what emerges.”
It struck me that it was failure—the narrator’s failure to write the kind of Great West Virginia novel that he had promised, and what that failure has to say about the nature of artistic ambition, or even the nature of consciousness itself—that Brewer chose to drill down on. Brewer is ultimately most interested in the limits of the human mind—that is, in the limits of the controlling ego—as a useful artistic or even epistemological tool
“I think instinct is the key.” If you want to write, Brewer says, “there are basically two things you need to do: read a ton, about one hundred times more than you write, and then you need to write. If you really need some sort of craft education, read all of the Paris Review interviews—because what those teach you is that no one knows what they’re doing, that everyone just sits down and bangs it out until something hits.
“It’s a process of egolessness, of not having a plan, of trusting that the imagination is much more intelligent than the daily ego. It’s being patient enough to allow something to emerge, to make a discovery, so that a reader might be able to sit in that discovery too. I think it has a lot to do with the willingness to fail, which a lot of people are frightened of. We’ve created this huge world around writing that is, I think, selling something that isn’t real.”
For Brewer, true failure—in art, and in life—comes when trying to impose meaning, shape, or control from the outside. Good art, and a satisfying life, ultimately comes from surrender. After all, he says, it’s that process of egoless searching that has led to some of the most profound breakthroughs in the arts and the sciences.
The Red Arrow has won praise from novelists like Charles Yu and Nathan Hill, and memoirist Anna Weiner—but Brewer was especially interested in the reactions of one searching thinker in particular: Carlos Rovelli, the bestselling physicist whose book exploring the inchoate nature of reality through quantum physics so resonated with Brewer.
Knopf sent Rovelli a review copy of The Red Arrow, and to Brewer’s delight he heard back. Brewer didn’t want to share the specifics, but he paraphrased Rovelli’s note: “‘I’m glad this book was written and I’m glad that it will be published,’” Brewer said. “Which I thought was a really sweet sentence.”
I asked Brewer what was next for him, now that The Red Arrow had been published, but he didn’t want to say. Putting a writing project that is still inchoate into words, after all, risks fixing it in the mind, perhaps destroying what makes it special through the very process of observing and describing it.
Plus, what he’s working on now might fail anyway. If it does, that will probably be just fine by William Brewer, who admits that he’s still just feeling his way forward as a husband, teacher, poet, and now novelist.
“Frankly,” he says, “A lot of people are not willing to admit the fact that they don’t know what they’re doing.”