By Daniel Ford
I included Anthony Breznican’s terrific debut novel Brutal Youth in our January book recommendations, and I still think you should buy it immediately (if nothing else, that cover brings class and style to every bookshelf).
Breznican kindly agree to an interview and talked to me about his writing process, the state of the magazine business, the origins of Brutal Youth, and his love and admiration for badass writer Stephen King.
Daniel Ford: When did you decide you wanted to be a writer?
Anthony Breznican: When I was 12 years old, I tried to talk every adult I knew into taking me to see a horror movie called "Pet Sematary." My grandmother, who was always encouraging me to read more, said, “You know, that’s based on a book by a guy named Stephen King. How about if I buy you the book?” I was bummed beyond belief. A stupid book? Well …that ratty paperback, which I still have on my desk shelf, was terrifying, shocking, and surprisingly beautiful in its emotion. I was hooked. I wanted to write scary stories like Stephen King, so I set about filling spiral-bound notebooks with ghost stories and monster tales. I loved the power of writing. When you’re a kid, everybody tells you what to do. Your day-to-day life isn’t really your own. But when you write, anything is possible. You just have to make it convincing.
DF: Who were some of your early influences?
AB: King, obviously, was a huge influence. I see his fingerprints all over Brutal Youth. I love his twisted sense of humor, as well as the love he has for his characters, even the angry, destructive ones. I was also deeply influenced by Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. He is telling a story about man’s inhumanity to man, but he underlined the tragedy with absurdity. With Brutal Youth, I also wanted to tell a war story, three freshmen trying to survive at a perilous and crumbling Catholic high school, but I tried to infuse it with the kind of humor you sometimes find in the midst of deep dark trouble. Michael Chabon was also a writer whose ink I would like to mainline; he’s a fellow Pittsburgh kid who found a way to harness words into stories that simultaneously make you laugh, make you cry, and make you mad.
DF: What is your writing process like? Do you listen to music? Outline?
AB: I don’t outline. I daydream a lot, get the story in my head, and then I set down to write it. Sometimes I go wandering on the page and get lost, necessitating some rewrite backtracking later; other times I hit upon happy surprises that I wouldn’t have found if I’d stuck to a map.
Music is important. I shift perspectives between a lot of different characters in Brutal Youth, to show the reader what they are thinking and intending, even if the other characters don’t know, so I tend to have a few songs that put me in the mood of those individuals. For the thieving priest, it was Bob Seger’s “Still the Same,” for the main character, a freshman named Peter Davidek, it was Elvis Costello’s mournful “Favourite Hour,” which gives the book it’s title (“Now there’s a tragic waste of brutal youth…”). For Davidek’s combative, wounded friend Noah Stein, it was Nirvana’s “Even In His Youth.” Music was how I found their moods.
DF: As someone who was trained as a journalist and made a living at it for a couple of years, I have to ask what you think of the current state of journalism, and why was it something you pursued when you first started out?
AB: I grew up wanting to write fiction, but I also loved storytelling of all kinds. In college, the school newspaper was a place to get published, and I hoped it would provide some useful discipline. It was exciting to be part of a breaking news operation, and the University of Pittsburgh’s student paper was a daily operation that actually covered some heavy and important topics. I was a news reporter (later editor, because everyone at a school paper gets promoted fast as the leadership changes year to year) but never dabbled much in entertainment coverage. That was also helpful later because I think it made me try to find deeper topics in pop culture reporting. When I started my career with the Associated Press, it was in general news—wildfires, plane crashes, politics, protests, etc .—but I was also working in Los Angeles, which is a company town for the entertainment industry, so I ended up doing a few actor profiles and covering things like the Emmys and Oscars. It was fun, and I think I was drawn to creative people so that became the main event. After all those years telling the stories of other storytellers, Brutal Youth is a chance to tell one of my own.
DF: Related to those questions, how’s the magazine biz?!
AB: It’s in flux. We’re trying to figure out the future, which is hard for the journalism industry because we’re used to reporting what we know for sure, not making predictions. The good news is that more people are reading than ever before. I hope the advertising finds a way to shift to digital and the audience makes the leap to tablets instead of paper. I like the tactile feel of a magazine, but if we didn’t have to print and ship all those pages we could reduce a lot of expense that could be spent on the journalism. I look forward to the day when publishing means pushing a button, not running a press and sending out an army of trucks.
DF: What made you start writing Brutal Youth? Was it an idea you've been thinking about for a long time, or did the story and structure strike you like a bolt of literary lightening?
AB: It was something I ruminated on for a long time. It’s about good kids trying to stay that way in a corrupt place, and some adults who got lost making the same journey, but I was really inspired by experiences I had as an adult. As a kid, you expect to get pushed around, and you develop your scorn for authority there. Then you grow up and realize that bullying and manipulation never fully go away. It’s a part of human nature. So I thought a high school setting would be a great place to explore the forces that shape and warp us for the rest of our lives. Everyone feels heartbreak, everyone feels betrayed, and everyone also feels tremendous, overwhelming loyalty to the people who stick by the in hard times. So why do some people take their pain and dump it on others while some take their pain and say, “It stops with me?” Those were ideas that got me interested in going back to high school in this novel.
DF: How much of yourself—and the people you have daily interactions with—did you put into your main characters? How did your high school experiences shape the events your main characters go through (both painful and funny)?
AB: A lot of the trials and tribulations in the book were taken from real life at my actual Catholic high school in Western Pennsylvania. We had a priest who was later discovered to have stolen nearly $1.5 million from the church, and I couldn’t resist making use of a real-life villain like that. We also had sanctioned hazing, and the bigger kids tormented the younger kids mercilessly. In front of the adults, it tended to take the form of sing-songy fun and games, but on the bus ride home and in the halls when no one was looking it was a terrifying and sometimes ridiculous survival game. Even some of the teachers were afraid of the students, but we all wore blazers and ties or plaid skirts and cardigans, so we looked like little angels. What I wanted Brutal Youth to reflect was the intense friendships I had at that time, foxhole friendships, the kind you share with someone when the whole world is against you. Emotions at that age are turned up to full volume, but I think the love you have for your friends rings the loudest.
DF: When you finished Brutal Youth, did you know you had something good right away, and how did you go about getting it published?
AB: I still don’t know! I don’t think a writer ever does. Whenever people on social media send out a message that they've picked it up, I feel like a stage-parent: “Someone is reading you! Be a good book! Be good!!” I look at it sometimes and feel overwhelming affection and pride, and hope the parts I love mean something to someone else. Other times I look at the book and feel shame and anger, wishing I could write it again. I got it published the usual way with lots of queries, lots of rejections. The only thing I know for sure is that I poured my heart into the story and did the best I could. It makes me happy when other people find it an exciting and worthwhile adventure.
DF: Brutal Youth has gotten some great reviews, including quite the endorsement from Stephen King. Now that you have your first novel under your belt, what’s next?
AB: Given what I’ve already told you about King and what he means to me as a reader, you can imagine what a happy-dance day it was when he 1.) agreed to let me send him the galley, and 2.) wrote back to say he liked it and would be willing to offer a vouch for the front and back. I’ve never met him, but if I ever do he better watch out because a gigantic bear-hug is coming. Now that I have one book out, the dream of every first-timer is the same: please, let me do this again. Writing a book is like riding a roller coaster, and I’m one of those people who is eager to get back in line.
DF: What advice would you give to up-and-coming writers?
AB: Don’t be afraid of sucking. There will be plenty of time for that fretting later. Get your first draft done, and don’t look back until you type “the end.” Make it as good as you can, of course, and repair and adjust as needed along the way, but don’t despair over it. Once you get a first draft finished, you have something to fix. Until then, you have nothing.
DF: What is one random fact about yourself?
AB: Jesus, this is the hardest question of the bunch. A random fact…? Hm. Okay, I have a silver frog ring that I’ve worn since I was 16 years old. It’s not worth anything, but it’s kind of cool. I change all the time, but it stays mostly the same. I’ve lost it several times—it slipped off my finger once while throwing a snowball and another time playing beach volleyball, and another time when I gave it to a girl I was crazy about—but it always finds its way back to me. It only has three legs because of a casting error, but I like that. I’m not altogether there either.