Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Brutality at its Best: An Interview with Brutal Youth author Anthony Breznican

If there is ever a book to burn itself into your mind, Anthony Breznican’s Brutal Youth is it. The story of St. Michael’s- a Catholic school falling to pieces in every sense of the word- and the students and teachers roaming, prowling, at times cowering in its hallways will seduce you, startle you and ultimately burrow its way into your psyche. There’s a reason Stephen King calls Brutal Youth “an unputdownable tour-de-force:” because it’s true. I devoured this book in a matter of days and was thrilled and honored to be able to interview Breznican, a stunning new author I am proud to add to my idol list. Please enjoy our conversation and then go buy and read the book. Seriously. Brutal Youth will rock your world.   

Steph Post: I usually read books only from the perspective of a reader and writer, but in reading Brutal Youth I also found myself responding to the story as a high school teacher. This added lens helped me to understand- from an adult point of view- the trials Stein, Davidek, Lorelei and the other teenage students faced. One of the central themes to the story is the division and complete lack of mutual understanding between children (mainly teenagers) and adults. In the beginning of the story, Lorelei frankly admits that “adults never wanted to hear about the heartaches of children. They tended to doubt there was any such thing.” As the characters mature throughout the story, the acceptance of this becomes even more blatant. After a particularly traumatic experience, “Davidek didn’t need his parents to understand anymore” and that chasm between the generations widens. As a teacher, I often find myself in the “twilight zone” between teenager and adult, student and parent, and I can’t tell you how many times I have heard these exact sentiments from my own students. Why was it important to you to emphasis this disparity and, more importantly, how teenagers feel about it?

Anthony Breznican: You’ve picked out two lines that are the crux of the whole story. Kids that age are just becoming adults, just learning how to deal with extremely intense situations: love, heartbreak, betrayal, cruelty, injustice. They don’t know what to do, they’re clumsy with the tools necessary to manage these things. Plus, everything feels amped up and very serious – and sometimes it IS serious. Meanwhile, adults can be more jaded – and frankly, busy and distracted with their own lives –minimizing or dismissing the tribulations of kids. “Oh, just don’t hang out with those boys who are teasing you and beating you up …” I’ve read some criticism of the book in which readers say, “Surely some adult would step in and stop this …” And that’s fine, except the news is full of stories about kids who thought the same thing.

Kids that age are just becoming adults, just learning how to deal with extremely intense
 situations: love, heartbreak, betrayal, cruelty, injustice. 

In Brutal Youth, some adults DO try to step in a stop the worst behavior … when they see it. And that’s what I remember about growing up: you were safe as long as someone was watching, but sometimes you’re on your own. Some of the adults in the story are clearly twisted in their own hang-ups and malice, but others like Mr. Zimmer and Sister Maria are trying to do the right thing by compromising – which is how adults often deal with things. We try to make it a little better if we can’t fix it.

I wanted to emphasize the disparity not just between parents and kids, and teachers and students, but the disparity from one person to the next. If it’s not our problem … who cares? It’s easy to be self-absorbed and turn away. Then WE are the ones in trouble, and wonder why no one is there to help. This novel pulled up a lot of painful memories for me – but not of being picked on myself, though that certainly happened. The ones that hurt are the times when I remember someone else being tormented, and I did nothing because I was just grateful it wasn’t me in the crosshairs.
Throughout Brutal Youth, the main kids are constantly trying to get help and guidance from the teachers, parents, and upperclassmen they hope they can trust. But they are often stymied or ignored – or simply have no one that they CAN trust. Davidek’s mother doesn’t listen to him when he tells her about the violent scene during the open house, she shrugs off his worries about the clip-on tie, she ignores him when he begs her to take him to his missing friend’s house … And in the end, she lets him down so often that he stops needing and wanting her help. He has a chance to tell her everything, and decides he doesn’t need to anymore. He has managed without her, and figured out how to use those tools himself. But the consequence of that is there’s no love between them, and to me that’s heartbreaking.

SP: Another reoccurring theme in the novel is a sense of generational inevitability. Everyone seems to believe that it is, in the musings of Sister Maria, “our turn.” The upperclassmen feel that they are entitled to haze the freshmen because they experienced the same when they were freshmen. Likewise, the parents and teachers feel that it is acceptable because they too were tormented as freshmen at St. Michael’s. A senior, Hannah Kraut, points out that the tradition seems to have only one rule, “You can’t hurt anyone who can hurt you back.” While many novels focus on the theme of karma or revenge, you acknowledge a more devious reasoning for hurting people. How did this theme come about and why is it so central to Brutal Youth?

AB: Human beings love to dump their pain on each other. We think that will free us from it, when really it just makes more. I’m fascinated by this dark side of our natures. A boy is treated cruelly by his father, beaten and berated. He grows up angry and afraid, and vows to be different with his own kids. Does he break the cycle, or does he turn out even worse and perpetuate it? We see a lot of examples of both, so I wanted to explore the difference. What factors make a boy go from someone who runs out into danger to save a total stranger to wanting to be the kid on the roof unleashing the hurt? Obviously, pain is a part of that. But then why are some abused people so gentle, so opposite their upbringing?

My theory is that we all experience brutality and suffering, but those who are lucky enough to experience some measure of kindness and generosity are steered back on a path of decency and empathy. I don’t know if I believe in karma – sometimes bad things happen to bad people, but more often I see the ruthless benefiting and thriving. They’re willing to do things that decent people won’t. Decent people sacrifice, and the nature of sacrifice is loss. In Brutal Youth, the surprises come when vulnerable characters get a little power. Do they immediately use it to help someone else? Or do they use it to protect themselves? If there’s a theme in the novel, it’s the message that doing the right thing comes with a cost – but I believe it’s worth paying.

In Brutal Youth, the surprises come when vulnerable characters get a little power. Do they immediately use it to help someone else? Or do they use it to protect themselves?

There are characters in the novel who do very bad things, and seem to get away with it – may even appear to thrive. But I wouldn’t want to be them. I’d rather be one of the people who fought the good fight, even if they lost. When someone fights for you, that’s great. But when someone loses for you … you never forget that. It makes you want to be better, to have earned that sacrifice.

There’s a reason the book begins with saints being shoved off the roof. Saints always suffer the worst. That’s what makes them saints.

SP: Clearly one of the more prominent issues in Brutal Youth is what Sister Maria calls “sanctioned bullying.” This stems from the sense of entitlement mentioned above and is presented graphically and mercilessly throughout the novel. This topic is obviously an extremely relevant issue, especially with the development of cyber-bullying, and I’ve never seen it exposed as brutally as I have in the pages of your novel. What inspired you to write a novel that essentially centers on acts of bullying? Were you trying to send a message or construct a social commentary?

AB: Believe it or not, I wasn’t trying to write an anti-bullying message. I think it’s important to teach those lessons to kids, but a part of me thinks that if you’re old enough to read an R-rated book like Brutal Youth, you should be old enough to know better than to be a thug. I wanted to write a war story – a tale of foxhole friendships, and the people who stick by you in the worst of times (and yeah, the ones who abandon you, too.) But if this story makes a reader think twice about how he or she treats others, I think that’s wonderful. It’s very easy to be casually cruel – sometimes without even knowing it.

The commentary I was interested in was simply exploring how far we will go in an environment of fear – especially as a group. Mob mentality takes over, and suddenly people are doing things that no individual person would do alone. Human beings are capable of great kindness and warmth, but we can also work ourselves up like a pack of jackals. The fuel for this sort of thing is fear. We do whatever we can to avoid being at the bottom of the pile.

The commentary I was interested in was simply 
exploring how far we will go in an environment of fear – especially as a group.

In this story, the school has financial problems, it’s literally crumbling from the inside out, the priest is in a desperate situation and is putting pressure on the principal, she’s pressuring the teachers, the teachers are cracking down on the students, and the students are angry and afraid and eager to foist that unhappiness on anyone they can find who can’t push it back on them. It’s a strange situation, but it happens. Whole countries go mad sometimes with rage and fear. In Ferguson right now, we see an entire city tearing itself apart because the police themselves are behaving in a reckless and out-of-control fashion. Then the protestors lash back, and it all boils over into chaos. It’s very difficult to stop one of these chain reactions, and I wanted to explore the small mercies that play out in the midst of such a storm.

In that way, Brutal Youth is definitely anti-bullying. It says that there’s enough heartache in the world, we should be careful not to create more. Instead of anti-bullying, I hope it comes off as pro-empathy. 

SP: There were so many lines in Brutal Youth that struck me to the core, but one that I have to bring up is part of an exchange between St. Michael’s principal, Sister Maria, and Father Mercedes. In describing Hannah Kraut, one of the most disturbed and disturbing students at the school, Mercedes remarks that she is “Just one more wreck of a student.” Colin “Clink” Vickler and Noah Stein (among many other students) are also written off, condemned to a fate of lost souls. For me, it was this theme- the complacency of giving up on students- that hit the hardest.  Were there any themes, or scenes, that you found difficult to include or write because of how they affected you? Did you ever find yourself as disgusted or frustrated with your characters as you knew your readers would be?

AB: In that scene, Father Mercedes is lamenting another lost student, but it’s an act. He wants more wreckage because he’s desperate to close the school for his own selfish reasons. So he’s pretending to care about the downtrodden, when really he’s the one responsible for the environment that creates their pain and suffering. A lot of politicians and CEOs are the same way, crying crocodile tears over catastrophes of their own making.

Probably the hardest scene to write was one in which a character attempts suicide, because I’ve known people who have taken their own lives, or attempted to. And I’ve grappled with depression and anxiety, and felt that pull myself. It’s terrifying. There’s a song by Elvis Costello called “Favourite Hour,” which gives the book its title. It’s beautiful and heartbreaking, and has a line that goes, “Now there’s a tragic waste of brutal youth…” There’s another lyric that goes, “Put out my eyes so I may never spy…” I find that so haunting: essentially, “hurt me so that I don’t hurt anyone else.”

“Now there’s a tragic waste of brutal youth…”

That was a difficult scene to put on paper, and I think it’s no accident that I followed it with my absolute favorite scene from the novel, and one I hope is darkly comic: the elderly nun who has to vandalize a bathroom at the school to cover up the reason for the suicidal boy’s absence. I loved making this prim and proper woman have to ruminate about what kind of profane graffiti she should spray-paint on the wall. I hope that scene offers a little relief and makes people laugh.

I knew readers would be disgusted or frustrated with all of the characters at one point or another. That was deliberate. I didn’t want clear heroes and villains, although it’s clear some of them fall on different ends of the spectrum. At times, I wanted the reader to be very unhappy with our heroes, and maybe even angry at them for the choices they make. In other instances, I wanted the villains of the story to surprise the reader with little revelations about their past, about the humanity within them – even if it was buried deep.

The nasty guidance counselor, Ms. Bromine, for instance, is a monster, but she did everything she was told to in her life, she followed orders, she obeyed the rules … and that led her to a very unhappy and angry place. Even Father Mercedes, who is based on a real priest who was caught stealing money from the church that oversaw my high school, makes me feel a bit of sympathy – and he is perhaps the most unapologetic character in the story. Still, I tried to show the utter loneliness and self-hatred that would motivate someone like him. He’s already in hell, and his only way out is to keep digging.

At the end of the book, there are two upperclassmen who have been total bastards – and of all the villains in the story, they’re the ones who truly get a comeuppance. My wife was recently re-reading the book and said, “Right before you bring the hammer down, you make me feel sorry for them.” I did that by flashing forward to a little of what their futures held, and flashing back to what their odd, dysfunctional friendship meant to each of them. It denies the reader the pleasure of their suffering, but that was the point.

I want you to see the dirty spots on the wings of the angels; and I want you to feel a little sympathy for the devils.

SP: By the end of the novel, every single character has had their dark side exposed. I can’t think of any character who in some way doesn’t hurt or betray another person in the story. Even Mr. Zimmer fails someone in the end. No one is pure, no one is a hero. Your characters are so complex, so authentic because of their flaws, and so I have to ask- do you have a favorite character from Brutal Youth?

AB: I love all the characters, but my favorite is probably Lorelei. That surprises people because she’s far from the most likable of the bunch. I love this poor girl, who is trapped in a very abusive and hostile home, and sees her life at school as her only hope at happiness. So, she tries too hard. This is what I do – I come on too strong, and step on my own dreams. She makes some bad decisions, partly because abused people often feel they don’t deserve any happiness that comes their way. They find a way to undermine it, even if they never admit this to themselves. They can’t admit it, because they never want to believe it.

I want you to see the dirty spots on the wings of the angels; and I want you to feel a little sympathy for the devils.

Lorelei is beautiful in this way, at least to me. She’s one of the few characters who gets exactly what she wants, and it’s not what she wants at all. At that point, there’s no going back. She makes everyone like her, but she doesn’t like herself very much by that point. There’s a story about Abraham Lincoln looking through pardon requests for deserters during the Civil War. This was a crime punishable by death, and many of them came with letters from supporters begging the president to show mercy. One request had no letters, and Lincoln was told the man was disliked, and had no friends. “Then I will be his friend,” Lincoln said, and approved the pardon.

That’s how I feel about Lorelei.

As for Mr. Zimmer, yes, we see that he fails someone in the end, but … in his defense, it’s more of a misunderstanding than a deliberate act of neglect on his part. We’re seeing things from an omniscient view, but we don’t see anything like that in real life. There are always other factors at work that we can’t even fathom, and many friendships and loves have disintegrated due to simple misunderstanding. I’ve already mentioned how influential Elvis Costello is to me, and he has another song called “Accidents Will Happen” that goes: “It’s the damage that we do, and never know / It’s the words that we don’t say that scare me so …” Mr. Zimmer and Hannah were good for each other, but the machinery of their relationship was always a mess. He wanted a surrogate father/daughter thing, and she was so hungry for companionship and trust that she perceived something romantic between them. They loved each other, for sure, but they were both too lost and broken for a relationship to endure. If they trusted each other more, or understood each other better, they would have had a conversation that fixed everything.

  There are always other factors at work that we can’t even  fathom, and many friendships and loves 
have disintegrated due to simple misunderstanding.

Instead, I think of them as being like Romeo and Juliet, and in the end I hope I give the reader a tiny bit of that same star-crossed, tragic irony. If Shakespeare’s crazy kids had just been a little less impetuous, they might still be alive. (Well, not anymore, obviously.)

So, although I work very hard to make the reader see the flaws in all of these characters, I hope it makes them empathize instead of hate them. A funny thing I’ve noticed is that readers I expect to love Brutal Youth, those with a bit of edge and darkness to them, sometimes don’t. They get angry at the characters, they judge them, and get pissed off if justice isn’t meted out. Meanwhile, readers who are very sweet and sensitive – people I would expect to recoil from the sharp teeth of this story – write these astoundingly beautiful assessments of it. I think if you have a more forgiving, generous nature, you forgive these characters. You feel for them. You understand them.

SP: Finally, despite (or perhaps because of) all of the heartache, the rawness, and the ruthlessness, I had a hard time putting Brutal Youth down. It kept me up at night- just one more chapter, one more page- and occupied my thoughts throughout the day. I found myself at one point watching a group of students in the hallway and thinking about Davidek, Stein and Lorelei. This is the sort of story that burrows deep into a reader and is difficult to shake off. What do you hope readers will take away from Brutal Youth?

AB: I love hearing that it’s hard to put down because, in addition to all these highfalutin ideas I wanted it to be an exciting story, full of peril and emotion. Some people have called it a horror story, albeit one without any supernatural element. I suppose that’s right. It’s meant to be harrowing and keep you on the edge.

       I think if you have a more forgiving, generous
      nature, you forgive these characters. 

All I hope readers take away from Brutal Youth is a feeling that their time was well spent, that the story was compelling, and the characters were interesting. It has a tragic element, but I don’t want people to read it and think the world is an ugly place. I want them to read it and know that, as over-the-top as it may seem, people can be staggeringly cruel to one another. We often minimize that, or shrug it off as uncommon, because we don’t want to believe it. But when we acknowledge it, when we see it, that’s what stops it. I don’t want them to think human beings are horrible; I want them to think about how much better we can be, if we try. 

Thank you so much to Anthony Breznican for a true conversation. I hope that you found his words as enlightening and insightful as I did. Now, get moving. Buy the book. Read it. Share it. Write a review. Trust me, once you start reading, you are not going to be able to stop.....

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