EW's Anthony Breznican talks his debut novel, 'Brutal Youth'
You probably know Anthony Breznican as EW’s expert Oscar prognosticator and breaker of movie news, but now he’s writing about an entirely different world in his debut novel (see the exclusive cover above). Not your average coming-of-age story, Brutal Youth centers on Peter Davidek, an incoming freshman at Saint Michael’s, a shambolic Catholic school that attracts both delinquents and the dogmatically religious. Immediately faced with a violent episode at the school, Peter takes up allies against the bullies and corrupt faculty and learns that instead of growing older and wiser, going bad might be the only way to survive.
Keep reading for more from Breznican about Brutal Youth (coming June 10).
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: That’s a striking cover image. What does it signify?
ANTHONY BREZNICAN: It was tough to come up with a visual for the book, but an art director named Rob Grom really nailed it. What he created is a kind of abstract portrait of the frustration that burns beneath that seemingly innocent school uniform. Being a kid is an intense time, and it simmers inside you. Occasionally, it bursts out — and then there’s hell to pay … usually by the kid who does the bursting. Rob also added some specific details from the book that I love. There’s a clip-on tie that features prominently as a source of embarrassment for the main character, and if you notice here … you can see that little gold clip above the knot, clasped onto the hanger. God, I hated wearing those when I was little.
That brings us to an unavoidable question – did you go to Catholic school? Was it as terrible as Saint Michael’s?
I went to Catholic school for 13 years, kindergarten through 12th grade. And yeah, high school was terrifying, but not because of my particular school, which I’m very proud of. When you’re 14, you’re puny, and powerless, and insecure, and everyone is either your boss, or physically larger than you. That’s frightening no matter where you are. I remember some of the upperclassmen being these titans, who could crush you or torment you without being caught. They learned to do it well because it was done to them. That stuck with me. It wasn’t the so-called popular kids who would pick on you, it was usually the kids who felt the most pain. I remember my high school experience with a lot of love because of the lifelong friendships I made there, the kids and teachers who would stick up for you, even when it wasn’t easy. Even when it cost them. And even when you maybe didn’t deserve it. St. Mike’s is a place where there’s a lot more anger than empathy. It’s the nightmare version of where most of us grow up.
Is there a paranormal element to Brutal Youth?
I definitely wanted to create an ominous vibe, but there’s nothing outright supernatural in the story. It takes place at a very old, very dilapidated Catholic school — the kind of place built to suggest the otherworldly, with surreal stained-glass windows, watchful statues, and Gothic architecture that strains heavenward. When a place like that begins to crumble, it’s bound to have an eerie quality, and the kids in the story certainly feel that. I wanted St. Michael the Archangel High School to be like a once-noble soul that has become corrupted.
Is the tone realistic, absurdist, both, neither?
Both, I hope. I was aiming for that bizarre humor that sometimes crops up in the throes of very serious trouble. I wrote it thinking it was a dark comedy, but my wife read the first draft with a disturbed look on her face, and she informed me: it’s a tragedy. Stephen King very kindly read the book and gave me an astoundingly generous blurb. He’s very supportive of new writers. When he started Brutal Youth a few weeks ago, he surprised me with a tweet, saying he found the opening of the novel “hilarious, in a horrifying way.” I loved that. He is my hero, so I was happy to horrify him.
What writers and books influenced you?
Like I mentioned, my respect for Stephen King runs deep. I started writing at age 12 because I was amazed by the worlds he created using only words. We think of him as a horror writer, but his stories are especially scary because we care so much abut the people in them. He writes with a humanity that is too often taken for granted. My overall favorite novel is Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men, which is poetry in novel form, and a great cautionary portrait of what happens when the weak lose part of themselves while trying to become strong. Carson McCullers’ The Heart is a Lonely Hunter was also inspiring, because Brutal Youth is ultimately an ensemble tale. I love how she immerses you in this working-class town by weaving together the intimate stories of a handful of residents. And whenever I needed a dose of demented energy, I’d read a few pages of anything by Hunter S. Thompson. That’s a weird mix … but it’s a weird book.
Since you’re primarily a movies writer at EW, did you think about Brutal Youth visually as you were writing it?
Definitely. You always try to picture the scene, and add those little elements that might make someone else see it, too. But you’ve also got to make them smell it, and hear it, and feel it, and in some cases taste it. My high school English teacher, Mr. Carosella, would point those sensory things out in the stories and novels he taught, especially since he knew I wanted to write my own. It was good advice, and I think about it every day. I was lucky, a lot of writing teachers begin and end with: “Show, don’t tell.”
How would you describe the book in movie terms? (e.g., Heathers meets Tarantino, or something like that…)
My brother Greg came up with a good one after he read it: “Fight Club meets The Breakfast Club.” I couldn’t hope for any better than that.
As a journalist, you’ve interviewed a lot of creative people. Is there anything an interview subject has said to you about the creative process that stuck with you while you were writing?
Strangely enough, I had a cool interview with Kristen Stewart a few years ago when she was in a movie called Adventureland. It’s one of my favorite coming-of-age films, set at an amusement park in the late 1980s, and Brutal Youth begins in 1991. She would have been a baby then, but we talked a lot about the differences between growing up these days, and the kind of self-surveillance that goes on, with every aspect of your life monitored or shared, and growing up back then, which is the last time kids could truly lead secret lives. We didn’t talk about my book, but that conversation made me realize I was writing about a bygone era. There’s something magical about that, like an animal that has gone extinct and now seems mythological.
Also, Frank Langella and I hit it off during an interview for Frost/Nixon several years ago, and afterward we just sat and chatted. Once the recorder was off, he wanted to know about my work, whether I enjoyed it. I told him I love telling the stories of storytellers, which is true. But Frank asked if I had one of my own to tell, and of course I had a draft of this book just sitting in my computer, doing nothing. Inert. We talked about digging in, and not waiting for the muse to wake up. He said you can have “immortal longings,” but you need to have a day-to-day work ethic. We talked about the simple, roll-up-your-sleeves toil that goes into creativity. I left that interview feeling inspired, and with a new perspective. It lit a fire in me, and was one of the moments that helped me get across the finish line.
Is it hard switching from your journalist hat by day to fiction writer hat by night?
It was. Daydreaming was easy, but the work part is way too easy to put off. Then a few years ago, my wife went after her masters in library science, and I found myself hanging around the apartment while she was busy studying. While she studied and read and wrote papers at the desk, I tapped out this book on the kitchen table.
How long have you wanted to write this novel?
Since forever. This book has been kicking around since the late ‘90s, when I’d regale my wife — then my girlfriend — with crazy stories from high school. She encouraged me to try writing them down, and that quickly morphed into fiction. I started thinking about how lucky I was that things turned out the way they did. This book imagines a much more sinister outcome.
Where does the title come from?
One of Elvis Costello’s most beautiful songs is called “Favourite Hour,” which came out in 1994 — the year I graduated from high school. It’s a little enigmatic, but I always thought it was about the struggle of growing up, and kids who spiral, and what happens when you don’t recognize the things that can save you. There’s a line in it that goes, “Now there’s a tragic waste of brutal youth.” I was always in a lot of trouble back in those days and thought: Yeah, that sounds about right.
For more: find the book on Goodreads.