Karen Tucker: Bewilderness  |  Catapult; June 2021

In 2019, author and creative writing professor Karen Tucker began going for long walks around Asheville, collecting a kind of debris most pedestrians would avoid: used syringe caps.

That habit ended with the pandemic and a move to the Triangle, but by that point, Tucker had already collected three jars of abandoned syringe caps. As she wrote her first novel, Bewilderness, the jars served as a reminder of both the story she was writing, and the people she wanted to reach with it.

Bewilderness, which came out June 2021 from Catapult, follows two young North Carolina women fighting substance use disorder alongside, and occasionally despite, each other. Tucker started writing the novel a month into Trump’s presidency.

In writing the novel, her goals were clear: she wanted it to be explicitly political and to highlight scant-covered issues like abuses in the restaurant industry, access to education and health care, and stigmas surrounding substance use disorder.

It was that last topic that took the majority of the research.

“People say ‘write what you know,’ and I did that to a degree,” Tucker says, over iced coffee at Cocoa Cinnamon. “But I think it’s also ‘write what you want to know’ or ‘what you dare know.’”

Bewilderness isn’t exactly autofiction, though Tucker, who grew up in Greensboro, did put plenty of her own experiences into the novel. Her 20-year career in the restaurant industry began when she dropped out of college, unable to afford tuition.

Though she never went back for her undergrad, she now has an MFA in creative writing from Warren Wilson College and a doctorate in creative writing from Florida State University.

As she enters her second year as an instructor at UNC-Chapel Hill, Tucker says that she loves her colleagues and teaching creative writing, even though accepting the coveted instructor position did mean taking a pay cut from her career serving in fine dining.

Some of the more disturbing elements of the novel, including the abuse that servers face, as well as a father dying of a misdiagnosis in a North Carolina VA hospital, are part of Tucker’s lived experiences.

But it was thanks to the opioid research she did for this novel that Tucker knew what to do when she heard a close friend hit the floor last winter. When EMS arrived, she knew exactly what to tell them.

“You write something,” she says, “and it shows up in your life.”

She also knew how to respond to the situation with empathy instead of judgment.

“I think if I hadn’t written the book it might have cost me a relationship,” Tucker says.

Bewilderness is Tucker’s first published novel, but her third written one. She says setting it in central North Carolina’s Uwharrie Mountains, where her father grew up and where she often visited her grandmother on long summer trips, was a balm during a challenging writing process.

“To have it set in a place that you love, where at least you get to spend time there in your imagination . . . it made it easier to open a laptop every day,” Tucker says. “At least I could go hang out in these rickety old mountains for a couple hours.”

That Appalachian setting is integral to the novel. Narrator Irene is a 19-year-old waitress who dreams (sometimes) of getting into school and getting out of her rural town. But she also waxes poetic about the region’s beauty in some of the novel’s most poignant passages. She loves the area for its wildness but feels trapped by the poverty that surrounds it.

Irene feels similarly about waitressing. It’s fun and flexible, but she knows from experience that she’s vulnerable to exploitation. That double-edged affection defines her relationship (or obsession) with her best friend, Luce, and their shared struggle with opioids.

Researching the novel prompted Tucker to be both an outspoken advocate for those struggling with substance use disorder and someone ready to help. Now she always carries Narcan—a prescription nasal spray that cost her $125—which can help bring someone out of an overdose.

“I could have gotten it before, but I always needed that $125 for something pressing,” Tucker says. “We have such a tool that saves lives, and people can’t get access.”

And, unfortunately, Tucker’s ‘what if’ dose of Narcan is more necessary than ever.

North Carolina has long been on the list of opioid hot spots, but the pandemic pushed more of our neighbors into instability. In 2020, North Carolina saw as much as a 23 percent annual increase in opioid overdose-related emergency room visits.

People have lost jobs, homes, and health insurance—all situations that can trigger substance use. And that instability is hitting while “the street drug supply has become more contaminated and more dangerous,” as North Carolina Health News reports. And in a state where legislators have refused to expand Medicaid for years, appropriate help is often hard to find.

“If a doctor finds out you have been abusing your prescription, they’ll immediately cut you off,” Tucker says. “If you’re cut off after you’ve been abusing, it’s too late. So then you go where it’s not safe.”

Bewilderness was a different style of novel for Tucker. Her first two were quieter, focused on interiority and intricate prose. She took this novel, though, in a different direction, with a “lean and mean” voice that she hopes will make people think.

“I wrote this book for people who are going through this experience of substance use disorder, but I also wrote it so people who aren’t maybe understand it a little more,” Tucker says. “I don’t think it’s going to do anything like change policy, as much as I would like it to. I just hope people continue to interrogate their biases and judgments. [Substance use disorder] is a medical disorder. I want everybody to live.”

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