It’s war story, a resistance story, and a friendship story about a group of kids starting their first year at a corrupt, crumbling private school that has become a dumping ground for delinquents, zealots, and the unlucky. The main character, Peter Davidek, just wants to stay out of trouble, his best friend, Noah Stein, is fearless and ready to fight anyone who crosses him, and Lorelei Paskal is a girl who is desperate to fit in — no matter the cost.
They face down a kind of demented guidance counselor, a former student who resents the kids who’ve replaced her, a priest who is literally stealing from the collection plate each Sunday, and a whole horde of threatening individuals as they try to survive in this place without becoming what they fear.
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.
My full review of Brutal Youth
Listen to AUDIO clip of Brutal Youth
1-Is bullying more prevalent now or are we just taking notice due to social media?
I think it’s just as common now as it was 20 years ago, and as it was 20 years before that. Social media just leaves a record, whereas we used to just hear whispered name-calling in the halls, so I think adults are paying more attention to it. That’s a good thing, at least.
2-Looking back on Brutal Youth, anything you would do over, change, revise?
I actually did change something for the paperback. A character named Lorelei does something in the book that’s really upsetting, and I planted a lot of clues around the story that indicate her motivation. I hoped to leave it open to interpretation, but then enough readers didn’t connect the dots and felt her decision wasn’t properly spelled out. So … now on page 215 there are a few sentences that clarify it. I’m sad to lose the mystery, but I’d be sadder if people misunderstood the character.
3-One piece of advice for aspiring writers?
Write for one person in your life. Don’t write just to please yourself. Write thinking of a reader. But… you can’t make everybody happy, so try to craft a story with one particular person in mind. That’s how I wrote Brutal Youth, thinking of my wife and hoping this weird twisted story would mean something special to her – the way her weird, twisted husband does.
4-Do you believe writing is a gift or learned, perhaps both?
I think it’s both. My grandfather was a great storyteller, and when he would start telling an anecdote at a party, he’d easily capture the whole room’s attention. He also loved history and documented his experience as a soldier in World War II in handwritten journals. But the door to being a writer wasn’t open to him. He was a housepainter – and he was a great housepainter, too. Still, he might have made a wonderful reporter, or historian, or novelist. I think the love of stories is innate, but the ability to tell them is what we learn.
5-What aspects do you hope a blogger touches upon when reviewing your work?
I love when critics read Brutal Youth and feel that it was a wild, crazy ride. There are some sad things in the book. It’s a tragedy layered with very dark comedy. But I wanted it to be exciting and suspenseful – not something punishing. I love a story that breaks the heart. That’s how we find out what’s inside.
Sour Patch Kids.
7-Challenging – writing or promoting?
Promoting. Writing isn’t easy, but at least it’s within your control. A lot of the marketing and publicity for a first novel is left up to the writer. It’s scary enough just putting your book out there. Then you have to reach out and try to wave your flag and bang your drum. I’m not too proud to do that, but it can be awkward – especially if you happen upon someone who is not-so-nice. Luckily that hasn’t happened very often.
8-Writing your first book – was is what you envisioned? Exceeded expectations? Disappoint?
A first book is like a first job. You work your hardest, try to get noticed, and hope it leads to more opportunities. It comes with some truly wonderful things and it comes with some awful lows, too. Overall, it’s a dream come true. I lived with this story in my head for a long time and now it’s out there in the world. Any disappointments evaporate the moment you see a 15-year-old has made a piece of fan-art inspired by your book.
9-How much of a learning experience was Brutal Youth? Lots to carry over for next project?
Tons. There’s a lot to learn about the business, and I’ve been lucky to get to know a lot of writers who’ve offered tremendous advice and guidance. As far as the writing, yes, you learn a lot in that regard, too. The main thing is developing discipline necessary to do your best. You can’t write a novel in fits and starts.
10-How would you react if your children were bullied or were the bullies themselves?
Any dad would meet with the teachers or other parents to figure out the problem, but if it’s one we can’t solve the advice I’d give my kids if they were being picked on would be simple: find someone else who is also being bullied and become a friend to them. Don’t just stand up for yourself, but stand up for other people, too. Suddenly they won’t feel so alone, and you won’t either.
If they were the ones doing the bullying … I’d be heartsick. I’d do my best to make them see and feel the pain they’re causing. It’s something my wife and I struggle with: how do you teach empathy? I think you just have to show them the value of kindness and hope that when the time comes they’ll deploy some of their own instead of venting their anger.
11-How do you balance accolades and criticism?
It’s tricky. At first, I looked at every review. But every writer I’ve met since says that’s a bad idea (even though they all did it, too.) Now, I feel like I’ve heard a pretty wide reaction, and I’m thrilled that most people love it and are moved by it. I do take criticism seriously, though, since I made a change to clarify that plot point some found confusing.
But not all bad reviews are good criticism. You know what I mean? Some are misguided or get the basic facts of the story wrong. So you just have to shrug those off. The only criticism that I find deeply ignorant is when someone says, “This would never happen,” because everything in the book has happened to real kids out there – who probably had adult in their lives who didn’t believe them.
12-Being employed in the entertainment world, is it what you expected? the people? Culture? What one star gave you a case of awestruck?
I love working for Entertainment Weekly. I was a lifelong reader and it’s fascinating to see how creative people work and get to tell their stories. I’ve gotten to talk to great directors, actors, musicians, authors. I’ve never met Stephen King in person, but I’d probably have a hard time not geeking out if we ever crossed paths. King’s work occupies a big chunk of my heart and the profound weight of that would crush my ability to play it cool.
13-What one celebrity encounter changed your opinion of that particular celebrity in a good way?
Clint Eastwood is not the guy you think he is. I had a poster of him as The Outlaw Josey Wales hanging in my dorm room, a badass look in his eyes. I only wished I could be half as fearsome. In real life, Clint’s a very sweet man. He’d probably shoot me the Dirty Harry squint if he heard me say that, but it’s true. I’ve loved writing about that quiet, gentle side of him. He’s an animal lover, a softspoken fellow whose quiet nature intimidates people because they’re used to seeing him onscreen, grimacing with contempt for punks. He’s no gun nut, and he’s very anti-war. People are always trying to gauge his politics, but he’s neither as right nor as left wing as people on either side think.
In his office, he has this little bowl of peanuts, and he told me they’re for the squirrel who lives outside. We went for a drive around the Warner Bros. lot, and when we came back there were some empty shells on the floor. “The squirrel was here,” he said, sweeping them up. I thought the peanuts were there for him to scatter outside, but no – Clint leaves the door open for the squirrel. “He comes in and gets the nuts when he wants them.”
14-When tabloids negatively comment on a celebrity, isn’t this a form of bullying?
It absolutely is. We saw a lot of that with Bruce Jenner’s transition. Some publications and TV shows treated it like a joke and mocked him in cruel ways. Nevermind that they’re indirectly mocking countless people who are struggling through the same experience. Tabloids often harass and ridicule the children of celebrities. All of that is disgusting to me. It happens in the book world, too. It’s one thing to write critically about someone. It’s another to twist their words and belittle them relentlessly, as if they’re not human beings. It’s bullying, and it’s dehumanizing – for everyone involved. Journalists ought to be better than that. We all should.
Praise for Brutal Youth
“Every bully who stalked you, every sadistic teacher who ever terrified you, every stupid prank, every hopeless crush and false friend: they’re all here, along with a few kids who hang together and try to do the right thing in a brutal environment. By turns funny and terrifying, Brutal Youth is an unputdownable tour-de-force, a Rebel Without a Cause for the 21st century.”
“With Brutal Youth, Anthony Breznican has captured high-school life in all its gruesome, wild, survival-of-the-fittest lunacy. By turns, painfully funny and painfully painful, but always sharp as a well-carved stick.”
—Gillian Flynn, author of Gone Girl
“I found Brutal Youth to read like a jagged edge, both dangerous and strangely exciting. I kept digging into this book every chance I had to see the outcome. It is a crazy, wild book that is great for discussion. … There are many lessons within these pages and I don’t think it matters what your age is to appreciate them.”
—Sheila DeChantal, BOOK JOURNEY
“Crackling good entertainment: arresting from the first page to the last, full of plot twists, characters to root for (or against) and plenty of suspense about how the various story lines will resolve themselves. … The stuff that page-turners are made of.”
— Kevin Nance, USA TODAY
“The author molds real characters out of high school stereotypes, most notably the misfits, all struggling for a humble slice of dignity within St. Michael’s wretched, bleeding walls. The satiric narrative is as brilliantly hilarious as it is poignant and heartrending.”
— Diane Colson, SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL, *Starred Review
“Like mythic heroes, they must journey through their own fears and leave in their wake broken bodies and exposed truths. Breznican captures a perfect balance of horror, heartbreak, and resilience and takes the high school novel into deeper places.”
— Jan Blodgett, LIBRARY JOURNAL, *Starred Review
Anthony Breznican was born and raised in Western Pennsylvania and has worked as a reporter for The Arizona Republic, Associated Press, and USA Today. Now a senior staff writer for Entertainment Weekly, he currently lives in Los Angeles with his wife and their two children. Brutal Youth is his first novel.