William Brewer talks debut novel ‘The Red Arrow,’ psychedelic therapy

Illustration of author William Brewer's abstracted likeness in a style resembling an optical illusion.
Aishwarya Jayadeep/Senior Staff

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Content warning: Suicide

Arrows draw straight lines — direct and unwavering. On the contrary, Bay Area author William Brewer’s “The Red Arrow” is anything but linear.

Set to be published next month, Brewer’s debut novel follows a narrator on his train journey to Italy to find a physicist. As the Red Arrow barrels through the Italian countryside, the narrator simultaneously traverses his memories, and what follows is an explosion of psychedelic experiences and self-exploration.

Inspiration strikes in the most unlikely of places. Brewer’s concept for “The Red Arrow” struck in the car, on his way to pick up his mother-in-law. 

“I said to my wife, ‘Would you read something where a guy is on a train, going to talk to a physicist?’ ” Brewer said in an interview with The Daily Californian. “She was probably like, ‘Yeah, whatever, you know, we need to go and get my mom from the airport!’ But something about it kind of hung in the mind.”

Also aboard the train was another concept Brewer wanted to explore: time’s erraticness.

“Time itself is often misperceived as this arrow moving in a single direction, which is, it turns out, not the case at all,” Brewer explained.  

This is evident in the narrative structure of “The Red Arrow.” The narrator’s recounting of his life — from his career as a writer, his struggle with suicidal depression to his life-changing treatment with psychedelic mushrooms — is arranged not in chronological order but according to thematic stages of his life. 

This arbitrariness is what makes great art, according to Brewer. Ultimately, he believes “The Red Arrow” has manifested in the form of a happy accident.

“I believe fundamentally, that art is more of a thing that emerges than a thing that we force into being,” Brewer said. 

While this novel seems to be a sum of happy coincidences, it is, on a deeper level, Brewer’s medium of self-reexploration. The fictional narrator’s experiences of suicidal depression and psychedelic therapy were directly influenced by Brewer’s own struggles with his mental health. 

“I was a severely depressed person my whole life, and I was very, very unwell — to the point where it was clear I was definitely gonna die from this disease,” Brewer said.

In the novel, suicidal depression takes the form of the Mist, an ominous and deathly entity that suffocates the narrator’s every experience. Happiness and self-worth become an impossibility, the Mist being responsible for the narrator’s pattern of self-destruction. 

After descending into insurmountable debt, the narrator is presented with a Hail Mary: to ghostwrite a memoir for an unnamable physicist to have all charges to his name removed. Haunted by his Mist-rendered incompetence as a writer, this opportunity only seemed like yet another impossible obstacle. It wasn’t until he discovered a psychedelic treatment that an end to his depression was even feasible. 

Paralleling his own experiences with psychedelic therapy, Brewer describes the narrator’s own healing, vivid with self-reflection and hope.“In my case, I blew up into a million pieces and died. I died hundreds, if not thousands of times over the period of a day. And yes, that’s the real flashy stuff but a lot of the healing comes after. 

“There’s this thing, they call it integration. The idea is that you take these Noetic lessons instilled in you through this vast experience (of psychedelic therapy) and you integrate those truths into your life,” Brewer explained. “I think of the novel as this integration — an engine for me as a writer. 

Once the idea was clear in his head, it only took about 14 weeks for “The Red Arrow” to materialize. “This sounds very ridiculous!” Brewer knowingly laughed. In those 14 weeks, Brewer wasted no time in meticulously crafting his novel.

“I have these huge piles of language and then I start sifting through and finding what’s real, what’s emerging,” Brewer described his writing process. “Then as I start to give it form, it tends to teach me what to do as I go forward.” 

Brewer insists that though he was the conductor of the Red Arrow, the book took on a life of its own. The narrator became an entity of his own — once Brewer put his protagonist on the train and started his journey, the rest took care of itself.

There’s a sense of surrender to his art as Brewer speaks of his novel, trusting that it was written the way it was meant to be.

This surrender is precisely what Brewer hopes “The Red Arrow” will achieve for readers. “There is simply much more to reality and consciousness than it seems,” Brewer said. “That can be a liberating truth.” 

Contact Vicky Chong at [email protected].