Today marks the paperback release of Anthony Breznican’s Brutal Youth, which received a starred review from Library Journal and extraordinary blurbs from such heavy hitters as Stephen King and Gillian Flynn. Youth is an emotionally devastating book that centers on bullying at a Catholic High School in the 1990s, and the heartbreaking friendships forged out of that fire. A Entertainment Weekly who reports behind-the-scenes film news, Mr. Breznican graciously found time to chat about his writing process and some of the more controversial elements of his debut novel.
Brutal Youth contains the best prologue I’ve read since Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. I especially liked the way you relayed the main sequence—which is batsh*t in the best, most amazing way—through various characters’ POVs, going back and forth briefly in time.
The high school in Brutal Youth is kind of a wasp nest, so I wanted to open the story by throwing a rock into the center of it. The story begins with a horribly bullied boy who finally snaps and seizes control of the roof of his Catholic school, where he starts throwing things at the classmates below and shoving stone statues over at them. Pandemonium ensues.
How did you decide on that format, which provides an almost epic, sweeping overview of the main characters (adults and teens alike) during one pivotal moment?
I wanted the reader to meet all the major characters and see what they stand for: The boy who runs out to save a fallen student, the guidance counselor who’s so rule-obsessed she won’t let anyone flee school grounds, the defiant upperclassman girl who fights back against that lady, the nice-guy teacher who risks his life climbing the side of the building to stop this chaos…. The meltdown helped me set the chess board.
The book’s title is not misleading. The kid-on-kid cruelty, inflicted not just at St. Mike’s but also in various character’s pasts, is upsetting yet also impressively creative.
I hope the title doesn’t scare people off! I wanted it to conjure the intensity and turmoil of being a teenager. Every emotion is in bold and italics. And the characters definitely cause a lot of havoc for one another. Their phasers are set to “destroy” not “stun.”
Some of the nicknames, such as Seven-Eighths, Halloween Decoration, Señor Gargoyle, were these based in reality?
The kids also call the crooked, thieving priest Father Pimp. (That’s my favorite.) A nickname can be a term of endearment, or it can be a horrifying weapon. These were made up, but I knew kids in real life who left their schools to escape revolting name-calling. They just hoped it wouldn’t follow them. Sometimes they got away.
Were there any scenes when you (or your editor) wondered if you’d gone too far?
There’s a girl in the book named Hannah. She’s the rebellious upperclassman. Smart, calculating, mysterious. She was once nightmarishly tormented but…did something to make it stop. The teachers and freshmen aren’t sure what. She was the victim of a humiliating sexual rumor and ended up with a truly repellent nickname. I hate reading it, hated typing it. And once the book was out, I started to regret it. Maybe it was too harsh.
Do you wish you could cut it or tone it down for those reasons?
I did, for a while. But really…it had to be harsh. It had to be something intolerable that motivates her effort to hit back. The name had to hurt. And talking to readers, I’ve met a lot of women and girls who say they went through ordeals like Hannah’s. After talking to a 12-year-old who left school because a group of boys wouldn’t stop calling her a similar nickname, I was glad I didn’t gloss over the real-life cruelties some kids face.
Brutal Youth also contains moments of absolute hilarity. Was the humor always tied to the darkness, or did you find yourself adding it to contrast the brutality?
I always wanted it to have a lot of guilty laughs. There’s always absurdity in the throes of very serious trouble. I always loved the grim comedy in Breaking Bad or the books of Chuck Palahniuk. Sometimes when people are at their worst, it comes around full circle, and all you can do is laugh. So I reassure people that it’s okay if parts of Brutal Youth seem funny. (If you laugh, it’s just a black mark on your soul.)
What made you decide to set the book in 1991? (I shudder to think what those kids would do if they’d had access to the Internet for their hazing rituals.)
It was easier for a kid to lead a secret life back then. Also, I think parents and teachers are far more engaged now because of the Internet. Back then, you’d be teased and tormented at school, but if nobody in charge saw it, then it didn’t really happen. Now, with texts and Facebook, the bullying is just as bad—and it follows you home—but there’s also a record of it. Some adults still ignore it, but it used to be more common for them to look the other way.
The cast of characters is large, but each and every person remains distinct. Did you write character sketches before you started?
I didn’t do character sketches, but keeping them distinct for the reader was extremely important to me. I hate reading a book and losing track of who is who. I tried to make sure every introduction of a major character gave them some action, a look, a name that would stick out.
How’d you come up with so many evocative first and last names?
The main character’s name is Davidek, an influence I stole from Catch-22‘s lead character Yossarian. His full name is Peter Davidek, but where I went to school, boys were frequently called by their last names, while girls were called by their first. Where I grew up outside Pittsburgh, there are lots of Polish, Italian, Slovak, Syrian, Irish, and German people. So that’s how I populated my school.
One of my favorite lines in Brutal Youth occurs in chapter two: “Adults never wanted to hear about the heartaches of children. They tended to doubt there was any such thing.” Is that you how you felt when you were a child?
Definitely. Adults often assume any problem a kid has is always fixable. “No big deal. You’ve got your whole life ahead of you.” But really, the troubles we have as kids shape who we are. They harden us. Other times, maybe they make us more empathetic. Sometimes they warp and break us in ways that can never be healed. I’m happy this line stuck out to you, because the final line in the novel is a call-back to this idea. When you tell a kid his or her problems aren’t serious, they decide to hide them and stop trusting you with them.
The line quoted above made me think of Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye (“Little girls are cute and small only to adults. To one another they are not cute. They are life sized.”), as well as Stephen King’s IT, wherein the longer the characters stay away from Derry, the more they forget about the terrifying experiences they had there as children. Were there any books about bullying that inspired you as you wrote?
It’s not a book about bullying, but my wife is a J.M. Barrie collector and Brutal Youth is haunted by the closing lines of Peter Pan. It ends with Peter never changing, even as Wendy grows old, and her children grow old, and their children. The final line is: “… and thus it will go on, so long as children are gay and innocent and heartless.” Heartless! It’s so chilling. What the hell does that mean? I’m not sure, but some of my adults never grow up either.
Speaking of King, how’d it feel to get that amazing blurb from him?
That was like being a street busker and having Bob Dylan walk by and drop a couple bucks in my guitar case. I’ve never met Stephen King, and he doesn’t owe me a damn thing, but I’ve read and loved almost everything he has written. So I wrote him a letter, told him how much he influenced me and this novel. He’s very supportive of new writers and let me send him a galley. No promises. Then…nothing. Silence. One day, out of nowhere, he tweeted about it. And a few weeks later he wrote and offered me this killer blurb. A lot of Brutal Youth readers say they picked up the hardcover just because of that. I’ve certainly discovered many writers through him: Bentley Little, Sarah Lotz, even Clive Barker back in the day.
As a senior writer for Entertainment Weekly, as well as a husband and father, how’d you approach carving out the time to write a novel? Did you wake up at 4 a.m. to squeeze it in?
I didn’t work for EW when I wrote most of it, and I didn’t have kids then, either! Now, it’s tough. It’s hard to find time to squeeze in anything with two little munchkins and a job that’s only getting more intense. I’m working on a new book now, a supernatural thriller, and I’m thinking 4 a.m. might not be a bad time to visit that world.
What was the process like and how long did it take to write the first draft?
The process was slow. I got serious about it in 2006, and gave a first draft of it to my wife for her birthday in 2007. She was studying to get her master’s degree in library science, and while she sat at the desk studying, reading, and writing papers, I sat at the kitchen table typing out a book for her to put on the shelf. Then we had our daughter, and everything went on hold. But that was also the catalyst I needed.
One night, I was rocking the baby to sleep, and I thought about how someday this little peanut will grow up–and the only other thing I was just as proud of was this book. A voice in my head said, “Oh, yeah? She going to read your binder? Or are you going to make this a real book?” I hate that voice. But I needed to hear it. I was scared of being rejected, so I hadn’t been sending it out, wasn’t trying to get an agent or publisher. A couple of years had gone by. Wasted. After that I got serious about getting published, which is harder than writing the damn thing. But now…here we are.
Since you’re often on the other side of the interview fence, what’s a question you wish you’d be asked? (Here’s your chance. And answer it, too, of course.)
You’ve asked great questions! But I love to talk about my favorite character—because she’s one who does some things a lot of readers don’t like. But I love her precisely because she makes those mistakes. I’m a fan of flawed souls. Maybe that’s because I am one.
Her name is Lorelei Paskal, and she’s a freshman at this troubled school, trying to make a safe place for herself there because she comes from a truly wretched home life. We meet her getting ready on her first day of high school, overthinking everything. She’s all alone, and her family is messed up in the extreme. Nobody bothers to see her off. She wants to look her best and ends up overplucking her eyebrows and then trying to cover it up with bangs, but she cuts those crooked, too. Then she’s late for the bus.
Everything Lorelei does in the book echoes that—she always goes too far, and ends up regretting it. She hurts some true friends that way. Like a lot of people from abusive backgrounds, she doesn’t think she deserves happiness and sabotages it when it finds her. I think Lorelei wouldn’t need others to like her so much if only she liked herself a little more.
Brutal Youth is out in paperback today.