Anthony Breznican’s debut novel, Brutal Youth, was released in June, and has already garnered starred reviews from School Library Journal and Library Journal. Adult Books 4 Teens (AB4T) blogger Mark Flowers noted that it “follows in the footsteps of such great, pessimistic boarding school novels as The Chocolate War, A Separate Peace, and The Lord of the Flies.” Coming from a film perspective, Breznican told NPR reporter Arun Rath that Brutal Youth is ”… kinda like Fight Club meets The Breakfast Club.”
The book follows the transformation of three students in their first year at St. Michael the Archangel, a Catholic high school with an almost completely dysfunctional family of students and faculty. SLJ reviewer and AB4T contributor Diane Colson caught up with Breznican to find out what his inspiration and intention was for Brutal Youth.
Brutal Youth is an incredible debut novel. It seizes readers from the first sentence and does not relinquish its hold, even after the final pages. Where did you get your first inspiration for the story?
It all started with old tales of teenage troublemaking and smart-aleckry. My wife jokes that my theme music should be that John Mellencamp song that goes, “I fight authority, authority always wins.” I liked high school as a setting because, as a kid, you’re at the absolute low point in your ability to stand up for yourself. There’s always someone trying to boss or push you around, and then—surprise, surprise—life goes on like that. So, I was interested in the question: how do you defend yourself without becoming one of the jerks? One way is to not just stand up for yourself, but to stand up for others. I was blessed to have friends like that. The memory of them is what got the wheels of this book turning.
Crumbling statues of saints plummet to the ground. Walls seep with “blood.” A red bow tie takes on deep significance. Could this book have been set anywhere other than a Catholic high school?
Not with those details! But I think similar stories play out all the time anywhere there is an intimidating hierarchy: classrooms for sure, certain unhappy workplaces, even at home among unhealthy families. A crumbling Catholic school is the setting for Brutal Youth, but I don’t see it as a critique of faith or parochial schools. I just wanted a place where you weren’t supposed to speak up or step out of line, and if you did there were multiple tiers of people ready to shove you back where they think you belong.
The hazing tortures described in the book seem outrageous, but thousands of kids across America are terrified to go to school each day. Were you intending to make an anti-bullying statement with this novel?
I’m happy if Brutal Youth makes anyone think twice about how they treat other people, but I didn’t set out to sermonize—even though I think it’s vital to teach children not to bully. In many ways, if you’re old enough to read Brutal Youth you should already be old enough to know better. (That’s optimistic, maybe naive.) What I really wanted to explore was the roots of cruelty. Bullying is wrong, but what compels someone to hurt others? Is it their own pain? Maybe, but some of the most tender and empathetic individuals I know have suffered so much, but refuse to pass that on. Is it lack of power that motivates mistreatment? Then why are the powerful so thuggish sometimes? It’s a very complicated equation that hardens the human heart. I wanted to show how friendship and someone sticking their neck out for you can make the difference. Rather than be an anti-bullying book, I think of Brutal Youth as pro-mercy.
I really loved the character development in your novel. So many of characters started as stereotypes—deranged teachers, chronic losers, timid wallflowers—but gradually revealed themselves as people the reader could really care about. Did this evolve naturally as you wrote? Do you have a secret favorite character?
I guess we all fit a type when you first meet us, right? There’s always much more going on below the surface—or else we’re shocked to discover, wow, there’s not—when someone is astoundingly shallow. I tried to find something touching about even the worst of the worst. For instance, the priest who is stealing from the church funds … I believe narcissism can be a side effect of extreme isolation and loneliness. Other times we see characters join sides with an angry mob just so they don’t have to face off against it.
My favorite character is Lorelei, a freshman girl who just wants to start over because her home life and past school experience is so miserable. She makes several very poor decisions for the sake of protecting herself, and readers sometimes end up disliking her. She breaks my heart, but I love her. Have you ever broken something valuable at someone’s house, and desperately want them to say, “It’s okay” even if it’s not? That’s Lorelei. Sometimes you can’t take back what you’ve done, and you can’t make amends. I find that tragic, not unlikable.
About the title: I liked that it could be taken more than one way. It could refer to this particular group of youths and their brutality against each other, or it could be that the experience of youth is brutal in itself. Or it could refer to an old Elvis Costello album. How did you choose the title? Were you thinking multiple meanings?
You nailed it on all counts! I liked that versatility, too. Some of the kids are tough, but mostly it’s about that age being tough. And Elvis Costello definitely provided the inspiration. That’s the title of his 1994 album, but it comes from a lyric in the song “Favourite Hour:” “Now, there’s a tragic waste of brutal youth…” I think that perfectly captures the sound and fury of being a kid on the volatile verge of adulthood. That song is achingly beautiful, from an album that is one of my favorites.
In the prologue you write about Vickler, “He began to climb, terrified, thinking maybe he could hide, and realizing too late he was trapping himself.” This seems to occur, metaphorically at least, to many of the characters in the story. In a desperate scramble for self-preservation, they find themselves lonely and isolated. Could you comment on this?
I’m impressed you caught that. A lot of what Vickler does in that opening scene is echoed later in the book. He was my example of the worst-case-scenario: his story is not the one we follow throughout Brutal Youth, but he is the cautionary tale for what our main characters could become. Many of them start out as very good little humans, eager to run out and help, but the events that follow warp and twist them. You’re right, though. Sometimes our enemies aren’t just external, and we trap ourselves. Amid all the battling in this book, the question I’m trying to explore is can we protect ourselves without losing who we are?
Please tell us that there will be more Breznican novels in the future! Are you working on anything currently?
I hope people like this world and these characters enough to want to know more. Brutal Youth follows approximately one year at St. Michael the Archangel High School, but there are three more to go. I’d like to see what happens to these kids as they may their way to Senior year. That is … if they make it.
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. Click here to find the prologue to Brutal Youth, “The Boy on the Roof.”
Diane Colson is a Library Associate at Nashville Public Library.
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