Recently I reviewed Brutal Youth here on the blog, and yes I really enjoyed it. Today I have the pleasure of sharing my interview with the author, Anthony Breznican. I hope you enjoy.
Thank you so much for your time Anthony and joining me here on my blog.
Happy to be here, Anita. You’re site is awesome, and I get a kick out of reading your take on books.
As you’ve been a journalist and a entertainment reporter for Entertainment Weekly, how did you decide to make the leap from journalist to novelist?
I think I’ve always wanted to write fiction. That was my first love all through my teenage years, writing short stories and such. I gravitated toward journalism in college because it was a chance to write and get published, but most importantly get better and become more disciplined. It’s fantastic work, but also all-consuming. It took me a long time to get back to it.
Can you tell me about your writing process? Do you outline or begin with an idea or a main character?
My wife is a librarian, and while she was studying to get her master’s in library science, I found I had a lot of time to myself. So while she sat at the desk reading, studying, and writing papers, I sat at the kitchen table and wrote this novel. Finally she has a book written just for her to put on the shelf. I never outlined, although maybe that would have been a speedier process. I wrote with the story in my head, and occasionally the characters would surprise me. I loved when that happened. Sometimes they were big surprises.
Brutal Youth was at times shocking, can you share your research and how you began putting together the events and characters for the book?
Some of it is drawn from my own life. The priest at my old high school was busted for stealing $1.35 million, literally ripping open envelopes from the collection basket. He lived large, spent most of it on cars and gambling and antiques, and even had a girlfriend. Shortly after he was discovered, he was murdered. (I actually toned him WAY down for the novel.) My school also had sanctioned hazing, which it doesn’t anymore. Adults thought it was just fun and games, a bonding exercise for the newbies, and it often was — when adults were looking. But that’s far from a constant protection. I was pushed around a lot, like most kids in life, and I learned to have a strong distrust for authority — parents, teachers, cops … I think my work as a general news reporter showed me the tragedy of what happens when people you trust are untrustworthy.
So I had a lifetime of that research in hand, but I also spent a lot of time researching present-day bullying dynamics and studying mental disorders — depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, antisocial behavior. I think a lot of these fuel the worst behavior in our society. I was also fascinated by herd mentality, sometimes called mob mentality. People behave very differently in a group, and commit acts they would never do as an individual. Whole countries go mad like this sometimes. I wanted to see what happened when you put all these combustible elements in one little school.
You and I personally have discussed my thoughts on the adults who seemed to turn their heads to the bullying in your book. How do you defend their blindness?
My answer to that is: type “bullied” into Google News and look at what comes up today — let alone weeks, months, and years in the past. The news is full of stories about tormented kids who also thought: “Some adult will step in and stop this before it goes too far.” The sad truth is, some kids don’t tell their parents or teachers exactly what’s going on. They’re ashamed, or they simply don’t have that trust. Other times, they do speak up, and nothing changes. I’ve met so many kids and parents who tell me about going to the school to complain about a bullying problem, and finding the school does nothing. They end up switching schools, and hoping the horrible nickname or beat-downs don’t follow them. All of the worst things in the world happen because someone with the power to stop it turns his or her head.
In Brutal Youth, there ARE teachers who try to change things, but it’s hard to push back against a cultural norm. Mr. Zimmer works on a grass-roots level, trying to save individual kids on the edge; the principal, Sister Maria, is troubled by what she sees, but is like one of those old politicians who thinks the best she can do is reach a compromise. Some of the adults are definitely a part of the problem — the embittered guidance counselor, Ms. Bromine, the corrupt priest, Father Mercedes — but that’s also true to life.
In my hometown, the same place Brutal Youth is set, an autistic kid was found duct taped to the goal posts on the soccer field. They suspended the coach and two players, but only for a couple days. Right before the book came out I saw news story about an Ohio teacher who was caught on camera physically assaulting a grade-school kid. I thought, “There’s Ms. Bromine.”There are wonderful schools and teachers out there, but these kinds of things take place more often than we’d like to know … often because we ourselves prefer to think, “That can’t really happen.”
Thank you Anthony for also sending these links to read more about these recent instances of abuse.
What would you like readers to take away from Brutal Youth?
Mostly I want them to take away that it’s an exciting war story, only the battlefield is high school instead of the beaches of Normandy. I wanted to write about hard times, but also the good friends who help you through. It’s meant to be a thriller, with a satiric edge and a twisted sense of humor. I wanted to capture the absurdity that often arises in the midst of very serious trouble. I hope people look at Peter Davidek, a kid who just wants to be good, Noah Stein, a kid who just wants to fight for something, anything, and Lorelei Paskal, a girl who is desperate to escape her life, and see three people they’d like to have in their own corner when the going gets rough.
Can you share any of what you’re working on next?
I just started a new novel, and it’s something in the horror genre. I think I have a dark imagination, and Brutal Youth is something of a horror story itself. The new one has supernatural elements, and it has been fun letting my imagination wander through those mists.
Who are your favorite authors and how have they influenced your work as a novelist?
Stephen King is one of my main influences. Not only is he a wildly imaginative storyteller, but he is the master of shifting focalization — the ability to tell a story from the omniscient perspective, but also glide in and out of characters’ thoughts (which is true omniscience, when you get right down to it.) I was also influenced by Carson McCullers and The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, which is a novel that tells the story of cruelty, kindness, and heartbreak in one small town by creating a mosaic through the eyes of many different characters. I also liked Hunter S. Thompson’s crazy, anti-authoritarian style. That’s rocket fuel in print form.
What books are on your nightstand now?
I just started A Tree Born Crooked, the debut novel of a Florida writer named Steph Post. It’s a gritty, steamy crime saga with a nice literary edge. Next up will be Wiley Cash’s A Land More Kind Than Home.
Thank you so much for your time, your book gave me much to think about, it was about so much more than bullying, and thank you for sharing it with us!!
I’m glad to hear you say that. To me, it was a story about high school, but a lot of the things we learn there shape (or warp) us for years to come. I hoped it would be about MORE than high school, and if it makes people think twice about how we treat each other, I’m awfully glad for that.
Anthony Breznican was born and raised in Western Pennsylvania and graduated from the University of Pittsburgh in 1998. He has worked as a reporter for The Arizona Republic, Associated Press, and USA Today, and is currently a senior staff writer for Entertainment Weekly.
Thanks to Be Books Consulting and St. Martin’s Press I have one copy to Brutal Youth to share with my readers. Open to US addresses only. Just fill in the information in the form. All information will be deleted after the winner is chosen by Random.org. Giveaway is open until midnight Sunday November 9.