Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Spotlight & Interview: Brutal Youth (Anthony Breznican)

Paperback, 432 pages
Published June 2nd 2015 

Publisher: St. Martin's Griffin

Three freshmen must join forces to survive at a troubled, working-class Catholic high school with a student body full of bullies and zealots, and a faculty that's even worse in Anthony Breznican's Brutal Youth
With a plunging reputation and enrollment rate, Saint Michael’s has become a crumbling dumping ground for expelled delinquents and a haven for the stridently religious when incoming freshman Peter Davidek signs up. On his first day, tensions are clearly on the rise as a picked-upon upperclassmen finally snaps, unleashing a violent attack on both the students who tormented him for so long, and the corrupt, petty faculty that let it happen. But within this desperate place, Peter befriends fellow freshmen Noah Stein, a volatile classmate whose face bears the scars of a hard-fighting past, and the beautiful but lonely Lorelei Paskal —so eager to become popular, she makes only enemies.
To even stand a chance at surviving their freshmen year, the trio must join forces as they navigate a bullying culture dominated by administrators like the once popular Ms. Bromine, their embittered guidance counselor, and Father Mercedes, the parish priest who plans to scapegoat the students as he makes off with church finances. A coming-of-age tale reversed, Brutal Youth follows these students as they discover that instead of growing older and wiser, going bad may be the only way to survive. 

Anthony Breznican is a reporter who has worked for The Arizona Republic, the Associated Press, USA Today, and is currently on staff at Entertainment Weekly.

What gave you the inspiration to write this book?

Friendship. I wanted to tell a war story about growing up that captures those unbreakable bonds we forge when we’re still figuring out who we are. The book is called “Brutal Youth” because of the roiling emotion and intensity of high school, but our close friends are the ones who guide us through. They risk everything for us, even if it ends up hurting them in the long run.

Coincidentally, that’s also the age when others would easily destroy us to aggrandize themselves, when bullying runs amok, and when no one believes you when you say an adult treated you unfairly or cruelly. So … we need those friends, the ones who fight for us. And we also need the ones we still love even when they let us down, because maybe they’ll do the same for us when we fall short.

Who is your favorite character in the book?

One of the main characters is a girl named Lorelei Paskal, a freshmen at this troubled private school where bullying is sanctioned and even the teachers are beaten down and embittered. Some readers hate her, because she makes a few really bad decisions, but that only makes me love her more. She’s sweet, she’s funny … but she’s also desperate and lonely, and she comes from a horrible home – the kind of angry, loveless place no kid should inhabit, although many do.

Lorelei is trying to fit in, to make friends, but she doesn’t know how to be a friend. And she has been so mistreated she doesn’t trust true friendship when it finds her. She has a good heart, though. Others see it, even if she doesn’t. For me, she represents that part of ourselves that is hardened, that is cold, that lashes out and sabotages us because we don’t believe we deserve the good things that are happening in our lives. She’s the part of us that could really use a hug … and so, I wish I could hug Lorelei.

Which came first, the title or the novel?

I stole the title from an Elvis Costello song, so I guess that came first! “Favourite Hour” has a line that goes, “Now there’s a tragic waste of brutal youth …,” which I thought summed up the drama and joy and demented energy of being a teenager.
So, as I set about building this story about good kids trying like hell to stay that way in a bad, bad place, that title always seemed to fit. I hope it doesn’t scare people away.

What scene in the book are you most proud of, and why?

I’ll avoid spoiling the specifics, but the final scene in the book is one of my favorites. It’s between the main character, a boy named Peter Davidek, and his mother, who remains an aloof presence in his life, despite all the trouble he’s been going through. She’s more of a disgruntled older sister saddled with babysitter duties than a nurturing, caring mom.

Some readers wonder why the adults in the story don’t do more to stop the destructive behaviors the kids perpetrate on each other, but my experience is that grown-ups who don’t have good relationships with the kids they’re supposed to care for often have no idea what’s really happening. Or they think it’s not a big deal.

Kids also hide the measure of their heartaches, until they can’t anymore. But in Davidek’s case, he has been begging his mom for help throughout the story and she never listens or takes his problems seriously. The final line in the novel came late in the writing process, and it’s a very sad one, but it shows what happens when a he decides he no longer needs her to understand.

Thinking way back to the beginning, what’s the most important thing you've learned as a writer from then to now?

Be succinct.

What do you like most about the cover of the book?

It’s abstract. No one sets a schoolboy jacket and clip-on tie on fire in the novel, but the designer, Rob Grom, came up with a striking image that represents all the simmering emotion in the story.

But the thing I love most …? Believe it or not, when I was in high school, I actually did set fire to a school uniform! My friend and I were writing an article for the teen section of the local newspaper and we decided to put our Catholic school uniforms through some endurance tests to figure out if they really were more durable than other clothes. So we burned a tie, strapped a shirt to his car tire, played tug-of-war with a pair of pants … Here’s where I should probably say “Don’t try this at home, kids,” but we sure did.

What new release book are you looking most forward to in 2015?

Stephen King has Finders Keepers coming out soon and a new collection of short stories called The Bazaar of Bad Dreams. He’s my favorite novelist, hands down, and I’m a little backlogged. Need to read Revival, too.

An arc of Adam Silvera’s More Happy Than Not has been taunting me from the shelf, too. I’m currently reading Kelly Loy Gilbert’s Conviction, which is the story of a religious radio host accused of a hit-and-run crime, and A.S. King’s I Crawl Through It sounds like a mind-trip and then some. Looking forward to getting my mitts on that.

What was your favorite book in 2014?

I had a few. Loved Steph Post’s swampland noir A Tree Born Crooked, and Andrew Smith’s coming-of-age road trip 100 Sideways Miles hit me in the solar plexus. And I was crazy about Sarah Skilton’s Bruised, about a martial arts student dealing with the aftermath of a crime she thinks she could have stopped, and John Searles’ Help For the Haunted, which is a fantastic blend of literary family drama and otherworldly creepiness.

What’s up next for you?

I’m working on a supernatural YA thriller. There’s an old house. A troubled family. And some secrets they’re hiding that don’t play nicely with secrets the house is hiding. I love this genre and can’t wait to spend more time there.

Is there anything that you would like to add?

This is the hardest question of all! Here’s what I’ll add … The adults in this book drive me crazy, too. Now that I’m older, I have even less patience for parents or teachers who are careless about their responsibilities to the kids they’re supposed to care for. But those people exist. We’ve all encountered them. They probably came from the kind of harsh environment readers will discover in Brutal Youth, but they also perpetuate it. It takes a rare person to say, “This stops with me. I’m going to be different.” So, if the grown-ups make you mad, that means you see the world the right way. Brutal Youth is a coming-of-age story, but not everyone in it grows up.

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