When I first set about reading Anthony Breznican’s debut novel Brutal Youth last fall, I have to admit that I was skeptical. A book about freshmen attending a Catholic high school? Really? I’m a high school teacher. I spend all day with teenagers. Did I really want to read about them as well? The book came so highly recommended, though, that I thought I’d give it a try. What the hell? It had a cool cover, which included a blurb from Stephen King. The title came from an Elvis Costello song. I’d see what it was all about. I cracked it open one night and within two days, stunned, I had turned the last page.
I was consumed. I was floored. This is not just a book about high school. Brutal Youth is a story about growing up, about good and evil, about love and friendship and, oh yeah, badassery. It’s about the bullies and the underdogs and the monsters and the heroes. It’s about right and wrong and the gaping gray space in between, the space that we move within, teenagers and adults alike.
I’ve been lucky enough to meet a lot of authors over the past year, but I’m proud to say that Anthony Breznican quickly moved from fellow writer to sage advice giver to good friend. Brutal Youth came out in paperback earlier this month and so if you haven’t read it yet, now is the time. I interviewed Breznican for my personal blog right after I fell in love with his book and I’m thrilled to bring you a second interview for Writer’s Bone to celebrate his success and future.
Steph Post: Brutal Youth landed in the hands of readers almost exactly a year ago and is now available in "bendy form."
Anthony Breznican: I love that. “Bendy form.” I think Caroline Kepnes, the author of You (which is out in paperback soon) coined that one.
SP: As I am very aware, having gone through a debut release myself this past year, having your book arrive on the scene is just the beginning of a whirlwind of emotions.
AB: Yes, and I’m going to turn this interview around for a moment and say everyone should go find your novel A Tree Born Crooked if they want a crime thriller with smarts and nerve. Richard Price better watch his ass, because you are coming for him.
SP: Well, thank you! Is there any one book-related moment from the past year that stands out for you? A moment that you'll never forget, that you may be able to look back on one day and say "damn, that was good..."?
AB: My favorite thing in the world is when somebody reads it and comes back with a reaction that has exclamation points on it. A reader named Marna Moore sent this tweet at me:
I’ve gotten a lot like that from readers, and I just want to hug them.
As far as single moments go, meeting a 12-year-old girl at Comic-Con who went through a lot of the teasing that’s described in Brutal Youth made it my turn on the emotional roller coaster. She also turned to the adults at her school for help and was told “boys will be boys” or some nonsense. I’ve met and heard from many, many people—both kids and teachers—who have witnessed first-hand that this kind of social Darwinism is real.
SP: I can read my share of books in a year but Brutal Youth has stuck with me all this time. I couldn't tell you the character names of half the books I've read in the past, but I don't know that I'll ever be able to forget Peter, Noah, and Lorelei. In so many ways, I felt like I knew these characters, that they could be students walking down the halls of the high school where I work.
AB: That means a lot to me, Steph, because I know you’re a teacher who invests a lot in her students (and having you care about my troublemakers makes me feel like they’d be in good hands in your classroom.)
I tried hard to make sure everyone had a distinct presence. I was recently asked to come up with a list of books these characters would love, and it was a fun exercise because it gave me a chance to revisit these kids and tell five new little micro stories about them. It was like … when you know someone really well, it’s not hard to pick out a birthday present for them. Do you know what I mean? I’m happy when a reader feels they’re distinctive, too.
SP: I've known teachers, too, who could easily be Mr. Zimmers and Ms. Bromines, but thankfully never a Father Mercedes. Have you had any readers tell you the same thing? Have you connected with any readers who felt the pull and the weight of your characters as I did?
AB: That’s funny because Father Mercedes is based on a real priest from my town who was embezzling money. The real guy’s name was Father Benz, so I didn’t even change him that much except to reduce his larceny to about a tenth of what the real guy stole.
I’ve known a lot of Mr. Zimmmers—the teacher who sticks his or her neck out for students in trouble, even if they end up absorbing some of that drama and difficulty as a result. And Ms. Bromine…I love when a reader says, “You know people like this…” She’s the little Napoleon who wields whatever power she has like a weapon.
The one criticism that truly irritates me is when I see a teacher on Goodreads say, “This kind of bullying would never happen. Not at my school.” All I can think is, “Yeah, right. You’d fit in great at the school in the book, where the teachers have convinced themselves of the same thing.” Whenever I see a news article about a kid who was bullied mercilessly I know there are teachers like this in that kid’s orbit.
SP: Which is despicable, but I agree with you, true. This is why we need students like your character Noah Stein, who aren’t afraid to stand up to these types of teachers. And though Noah will always be my hero from in Brutal Youth, the one character who I know I will never be able to forget is Colin Vickler. Perhaps because of the striking opening scene with Vickler standing on the roof of St. Michael's High School, threatening to take his life, or perhaps because of the pathos surrounding him, an outcast boy misunderstood and bullied mercilessly, "Clink" is a character that I found particularly moving.
AB: I’m glad about that, too! Colin Vickler is introduced mainly as the worst-case scenario for the new kids coming into the school. He flips out in catastrophic fashion and starts pushing stone statues off the roof onto his classmates below. Then he disappears—or, rather, is disappeared by the school. The main question is whether Peter, Noah, or Lorelei will become like him, but I hoped the reader would still wonder and worry about him a little. He has a dangerous meltdown, but I wanted him to be sympathetic when you realize what led to it.
SP: I know you've mentioned before that one of the main characters of the novel, Lorelei, is a favorite. But are there any minor characters who hold a special place for you? Do you ever wish that you could have given these characters a more prominent role in story?
AB: There’s a character named Hector Greenwill, who is overweight, a great guitarist proficient in everything from punk to classical, and also the only black student at this all-white Catholic school. He has a prominent role in the Brutal Youth, but I’m eager to explore him more in the sequel. He’s one of the few main characters who come from a happy home, although it’s got its own challenges, for sure. His mother, whom we don’t meet in Brutal Youth, is really awesome—engaged and smart about when to let her kid fend for himself and when it’s appropriate for Mama Bear to intercede. His father’s more aloof, a tough-guy steelworker who has had to deal with a lot worse discrimination than his kid has faced…yet. Green also has a partially deaf brother, who, like Peter Davidek, is a good kid who is very susceptible to crossing over into a bad place. None of this is in the current book, but it was in my head and I can’t wait to explore his dimensions more in another story. Meanwhile, I hope Green’s arc in Brutal Youth is one people like, too.
SP: I’m pretty sure I just heard the word “sequel” there… but I’ll let that go for the moment. Brutal Youth is most certainly a book to be read and enjoyed by adults, but in the past year it seems that you've made a definite connection with young adult readers.
AB: I was surprised by that. Brutal Youth is set in the early 1990s, and the publisher felt it was too dark and too long ago to connect with YA readers. That has proven to be wildly off-mark. Young readers have written some of the most passionate reviews and been the biggest supporters of it.
SP: And this makes sense, given the high school setting of the novel, but also shows the sophistication of your younger readers.
AB: They are vastly more sophisticated than most grown-ups assume. It’s funny, because Brutal Youth is partly about how adults lose touch with the intensity of that age, and forget how emotional and significant it can be.
SP: I know that genre classification can be tricky, and a pain in the ass most of the time, but would you consider Brutal Youth to be a "young adult" novel or an adult novel accessible to teenagers as well?
AB: I always just thought of it as a novel, same as I did for The Catcher in the Rye, which was never described as a “YA book” even though it definitely appeals to kids who are Holden Caulfield’s age. But now, I embrace the YA designation. I wrote this book for people who are still growing and changing, regardless of their age. That’s what YA means to me, and it’s a vibrant, lively place on the book world.
SP: With this in mind, who do you think has responded more strongly to Brutal Youth, adults or young adults? Does this have any impact on the novel's perceived genre?
AB: Young readers are definitely more intense about it. I think they are a little more big-hearted and forgiving of the mistakes the characters make, and they understand complexity, the mix of happiness and sadness, in ways they amaze me. Adults tend to want escapism, and they’re the ones who get angry when the bad go unpunished and the good pay a price for doing the right thing. I think that’s funny. Adults want the fantasy. Kids get bittersweet a little better.
SP: So with the school year ending, and teachers slipping into summer mode, I think it's a good time to remember the impact teachers can have on their students. Most of my own high school teachers linger in a faceless cloud, but I still remember by fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Castle, who marked me as a writer from the start and nurtured my creativity.
AB: The best teachers don’t just teach the kid in front of them. They see the teenager or the adult that kid could become and teach them, too.
SP: In the acknowledgments of Brutal Youth you honor a former teacher of yours, John Carosella. Can you tell me a little more about him? Have there been any other teachers along the way who deserve a shout out for guiding you in the direction of becoming an author?
AB: Mr. C. started at my high school the same year I did, 1990, and he just retired after 25 years. Now he’s going to start his own school for creative arts, which I’m eager to support any way I can. Very early on, he figured out that all my anger and sarcasm and nervous energy could be put to good use in writing. I was a hopeless case in a lot of ways, but he cared about me like I was his own kid.
I was a rotten student. A smartass. Lazy, too. I never did the assigned reading, and when he asked me why, I said I didn’t care about any of these dumb old stories he was teaching. This surprised him because he knew that I liked to read Stephen King, so he said, “What if I teach a Stephen King story?” This caught me off guard, and caught my attention. All I had to do was read a month’s worth of short stories on the class schedule, and then we’d start the next month he would teach a Stephen King story of my choosing. I did it, and eventually the class read “The Reaper’s Image” from King’s short story collection Skeleton Crew. Carosella didn’t have to bribe me again. From that point on, we spoke each other’s language.
He did countless other things to help me too, and he rescued all sorts of other troubled kids who were on the edge. Many teachers are just as happy to let them fall off, but Mr. C…he made sure we never fell too far.
SP: Even though this has been your year to shine, you've been tremendously supportive of other authors. Sometimes the literary community can be a safe harbor for new writers and sometimes it can be a pool of vicious sharks, circling for blood.
AB: That’s true. It’s a lot like starting a new job or starting high school!
SP: Is there anything you've learned this past year that you'd most like to pass on to new authors before they dive into the world of publishing?
AB: If you’re just starting out, it’s okay to wave your own flag. When you get big and famous and rich, then you can be cool and coy and never tweet about your work. But…don’t only tweet about yourself. Use social media to talk about other things, and talk about other authors, too. There’s a Jewish proverb that I think encapsulates everything you need to know about life: “If I don’t stand for myself, who will stand for me? But if I stand only for myself … what am I?” Share the love. You’ll get more in return that way.
SP: I couldn’t agree more! Is there anything you wish that you had known ahead of time to prepare you for the world of a debut author?
AB: As far as the business goes, I learned eventually, but I did it the hard way, and I think that ignorance hurt me at times. Most new writers spend their time devoted to crafting the best story they can, but as you venture forth, be sure to talk to other scribes about the business, too—especially about how to tell a good agent from a bad agent. Agents are your Sherpa through this treacherous landscape, and a lousy one is worse than no guide at all. Be sure you are working with people who believe in you.
SP: And finally, of course, I have to ask what's next. With Brutal Youth just now arriving in paperback and “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” which you cover and write about for Entertainment Weekly, premiering this winter, you've got another busy year ahead of you. Still, I'm a selfish fan and already impatient to read more of your work. Can you whisper any details?
AB: About “Star Wars?” Hmm…Everything I know for sure, I write about ASAP. So I’m a little short of scoops here. I’ve heard some interesting things about the new actors and what their familial connection to some of the older characters may be. I can’t say anything yet, because I don’t know definitively, but if it pans out, I think people who love “Star Wars” will be very surprised. Sorry to be mysterious. I’m playing it a little safe because there is so much out there about these movies that is dead wrong.
As for fiction, I'm working on a new novel that's in the supernatural suspense/thriller genre. An old house. A troubled family. A secret history. Things that don't wait around for the night to go bumping around. I'm having a lot of fun playing around in this creepy place. No matter what else I'm doing, I want to go spend time in it. I hope readers feel the same when it's finished.