In an early chapter from Karen Tucker’s debut novel Bewilderness, the narrator, Irene, and her friend Luce come upon a stash of opioids. “I peered down at the jumbled blue tablets,” Irene tells us. “They really did look about as harmless as breath mints, and yet even I knew I was at the edge of a strange, enchanted forest.” Tucker’s novel is a taut, moving portrait of their resulting struggle with opioid abuse. The setting is the mountains of North Carolina, where Irene and Luce meet as servers at a “shady little pool hall.” Soon they find themselves shuttling between jobs and running small-time scams to fuel their burgeoning addiction. When the magnetic Luce acquires a clean-cut soldier for a boyfriend, she starts talking about quitting. Bewilderness charts Irene’s and Luce’s friendship and their drug habit with sensitivity, humor and a deep sense of loss. “We were both in on the same inside joke together,” Irene tells us late in the novel, when she and Luce are at a recovery meeting. “We always would be, no matter what happened. Only problem was the joke hardly ever seemed funny anymore.”
Karen and I studied together in the PhD program at Florida State University, where I was lucky enough to read chapters from an early draft of Bewilderness. We talked via email about the opioid epidemic, her novel’s departures in form, Irene and Luce’s friendship and workshopping a novel.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Can you talk a bit about what inspired this novel and/or why you chose to write about the opioid epidemic?
There’s an Alexander Chee essay titled “Which Story Will You Tell?” that I often read and share with students, and the line that zings me every time is this: “I think fiction is the thing you invent to fit the shape of what you learned…”
You ask what inspired this novel, and to that I would say loss. Had I not learned loss under surprising, painful circumstances, Bewilderness wouldn’t exist––and certainly not in its current shape.
Unlike the rest of the novel, a chapter from the middle is addressed explicitly to a “you.” The first paragraph reads:
First things first: Don’t do it. Maybe you think you have the willpower to be a tourist, to chip on weekends, on payday, when you’re stressed out because your mom phoned you up asking you to send her another MoneyGram so she can buy groceries or because your manager keeps following you around the restaurant saying you might not have such a crap schedule if you’d just go out for drinks with him once in a while—but guess what? That gray glob of fat riding around in your skull works like every other human brain on the planet. It won’t be long before that staff owns you. Seriously, don’t start.
The narrator goes on to describe various do’s and don’ts related to using opioids. Do you see the novel as having a responsibility in relation to opioid use (or the abuse epidemic)?
I don’t know if the novel as a genre has any sort of responsibility to anything––I’m inclined to believe it doesn’t––but I did try to write the fullest version of this story I could.
What I mean is, people use painkillers because they’re in pain. Maybe it’s from a set of busted ribs or a wrecked spinal column. Maybe it’s from the agony of watching a parent experience a slow unhappy death. Childhood trauma, financial distress, sexual violence. Living in a country run by white supremacy. Trapped on a dying planet. It’s surprising more people don’t use.
And while treating pain with an illicit substance can bring relief and pleasure, I also wanted to include the tedium, stress, guilt, deception. The moments when consequences swoop down out of nowhere and snatch you up with razor-sharp talons. It’s no coincidence that the do’s and don’ts chapter follows a moment of great happiness for Irene, the narrator. It’s no coincidence that her advice––aimed at herself as much as anyone––does little good.
Bewilderness has many tense moments, such as when Irene and Luce are roofied, or when a dealer pulls a gun on Luce’s boyfriend. But the novel is also filled with humor. One chapter that had me laughing is written in the form of a Reddit post asking for advice about overcoming addiction. Various unhelpful comments follow. How did you decide on that chapter’s particular form? And what would you say the novel’s departures in form (this chapter and the chapter addressed to a “you”) bring to the book?
Yay, I’m glad that chapter made you laugh! Even though the content is serious, it was pretty fun to write.
Back when I was drafting I was spending a good deal of time on Reddit––as lonely people sometimes do. Which is probably why it felt natural for Irene’s character to turn to an anonymous online community for help in a time of crisis, and equally natural for her to resist their comments, a few of which are right on.
Along with honoring Irene’s character, I wanted to find a way to introduce other voices into the novel. One challenge of first-person narration is you’ve got a single loudmouth refusing to share the mic. The conventions of Reddit allowed me to include a range of perspectives. Some are messed up and ridiculous, and some offer real wisdom. It’s up to readers to determine which is which.
The friendship between the novel’s narrator and Luce sits at the heart of the novel. This friendship is described, at times, as a positive force. After the narrator meets Luce, she tells us, “Only then did it strike me that—for the first time in a long time—I was happy. Or no, not happy. Not exactly. It was more like Luce had introduced me to my own mysterious power.” But it’s also evident that the narrator and Luce enable each other’s drug use. How do you see their friendship?
It’s a perfect friendship in almost every way, at least from Irene’s point-of-view. Sure it’s flawed, as is my own most perfect friendship, but as far as enabling goes, well, I’m not completely sure about that.
The way I see it, Irene and Luce aren’t using in an attempt to harm themselves, they use in an effort to stay alive and on the planet. If they enable/help each other stick around a while longer, that seems pretty great. Harm reduction principles save lives.
Don’t get me wrong, substance use disorder can be deadly, and with fent-pressed pills and powder flooding the market, fatal overdoses continue to climb. Three months ago, I came extremely close to losing a loved one because of a single pressed M-box––the same pill described in Chapter 2 of Bewilderness. Thank god for the quick response of the EMTs and the paramedic. Thank god for Narcan.
The novel has dual timelines. Some chapters portray the beginning of the narrator’s and Luce’s friendship. Others show us a later period, after they have quit opioids. Did you have any models for the structure? How does the structure suit the novel’s thematic preoccupations (such as friendship and addiction)?
The shared DNA might not be evident––certainly it evolved as I drafted––but the structure was initially inspired by Graham Greene’s The Quiet American. Like Bewilderness, it jumps around in time and features a love triangle. A man is found dead in the earliest pages. The narrator smokes opium.
I don’t know if this particular structure supports any themes or not, but I did think a lot about the nature of oral storytelling when I was drafting. Sitting on a barstool talking to your neighbor, sharing at twelve-step meetings. This drove the back-and-forth timeline, a common feature of stories about past events and the attempt to understand them. It also affected certain rhetorical moves, such the use of ‘you,’ and the less-formal voice.
Bewilderness is set in a fictional town in North Carolina’s Uwharrie Mountains. How did the setting and your background influence the writing?
I fail all day long at following advice I give myself, except in the rarest of cases. One of these outlier examples involves the setting of Bewilderness. Having already written two unpublishable novels, I knew when I committed to this one that I’d be working on it for years. To help seduce myself into opening the document on a regular basis, I decided to set it in a place I’d want to return to, over and over.
Anklewood––where most of the novel unfolds––is based on Black Ankle, the small North Carolina community where my father was born and raised, and Troy, a somewhat larger town several miles away. Growing up, I spent a considerable amount of time there, visiting my grandma.
Never will I forget the extraordinary pleasures of hiking all over those woods with my sister, of listening to our dad’s childhood stories, of following Grandma Tucker out to the pond behind her house with a thawed-out grocery store chicken in one hand. She’d call out “Pete, Pete!” and soon a six-foot alligator would come crawling out of the water. She’d hurl that chicken at him and he’d chow down while we watched. He only had three legs, after a turtle bit one off when he was a baby. Of course, Pete grew up to eat that turtle. An early lesson for me in cause and effect, and how stories work.
I had the pleasure of taking a workshop with you (taught by Elizabeth Stuckey-French) where you submitted early drafts of sections of this novel. Was workshopping a novel—as opposed to a story—difficult? How did the novel evolve in and after workshop?
Bewilderness first began in Mark Winegardner’s novel-writing course at Florida State in January 2017. Along with drafting and workshopping, each student was asked to analyze the structure of other novels we admired, focusing on the first 100 pages, and to write down our specific aims for our novel-in-progress, bearing in mind these would likely change. That semester, I wrote the first five chapters of Bewilderness, and the support of my writing colleagues gave me the foundation I needed to keep going.
Another less-successful workshop followed, where my typical food server nightmares were temporarily replaced by writing nightmares after being advised to put my novel in a drawer. After that came Elizabeth Stuckey-French’s excellent workshop, during which I eked out a few more chapters. At the end of that semester I moved back to North Carolina, where a year later, I finished the manuscript.
Writing workshops typically ask students to focus on shorter, standalone pieces, and I’m exceedingly grateful for the encouragement I received on my rough little novel draft. In my view, students would benefit a great deal from workshops designed to help them launch longer projects. I hope the current shift toward more expansive and inclusive workshops also makes room for stories that exist outside the typical 10-20 page range, including novels, novellas, and flash.
What’s next for you?
Like so many people, the pandemic has altered my relationship with writing, slowing me down and giving me additional burdens. Right now, my partner and I are caretakers for an ailing parent with significant needs. It’s hard.
But on good days, I’m able to write a few sentences, sometimes a page or two. My current novel-in-progress is narrated by a woman who earns her living as a full-service sex worker, and although her occupation doesn’t dictate her story, the marginalization and criminalization of her community plays a sizable role. I’m eager to find out what happens next with her.
By Karen Tucker
Published June 1, 2021
Clancy McGilligan is the author of History of an Executioner, winner of the Miami University Press Novella Prize. His fiction, nonfiction and interviews have appeared in publications such as Cimarron Review, Slice Magazine, Columbia Journal, Santa Monica Review, Sycamore Review, Wigleaf, USA Today, The Christian Science Monitor, the Ploughshares blog, Kenyon Review and Kirkus Reviews. He is online at www.clancymcgilligan.com.