Riffle Backstory: Q&A with Anthony Breznican, author of 'BRUTAL YOUTH'

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From Anthony Breznican comes a thought-provoking and darkly rich coming of age tale of three freshman at St. Michaels--a disintegrating Catholic High School in Western Pennsylvania in the 90's. As the school's reputation, building and structure of the institution is crumbling, its students unleash their aggression on its newcomers. In the midst of violent acts and bullying, parents and teachers offer little support, caught up in the drama and failures of their own lives. 'Brutal Youth,' which, was released YESTERDAY-- JUNE 10th, 2014, has already received early praise from best selling authors such as Stephen King, Gillian Flynn and Stephen Chbosky. It is the story of "good kids going bad and best friends willing to do anything to protect each other."

I was lucky to have the opportunity to have Anthony Breznican answer my questions about his compelling new novel as well as his writing process and where he draws his inspiration from. Check it out!

RIFFLE FICTION: When did you first encounter the plot for ‘BRUTAL YOUTH’? Was it something that had been stirring in your brain for quite some time or did it emerge from kind of a nostalgic recollection or haunting memory of your experiences?

ANTHONY BREZNICAN: We’ve all been pushed around in our lives. But I had some amazing friends as a kid, both classmates and a few teachers who stuck their necks out for me in bad situations. Those are things you never forget -- the people who come to your rescue when you are helpless. Brutal Youth evolved from those old war stories. It’s about fighting back against bullies of all stripes. Sometimes you lose those battles, but they’re always worth it. Especially when you’re fighting for someone besides yourself.

RF: Describe your daily writing routine. How is your writing process as a journalist different from that of a novelist—or is it similar?

AB: Working as an entertainment reporter is a lot more chaotic than you would expect. Your schedule is all over the place, mostly based on other people’s schedules. When I write fiction, it’s a lot more structured. Cup of coffee, read a little, then dive in for several hours of writing – whether I feel “inspiration” or not. If it’s not there initially, that inspiration always hits around hour two. Then you just keep going until the battery in your head is depleted.

RF: What is the strangest source of inspiration you used for ‘BRUTAL YOUTH’?

AB: The book is set in my hometown, but the school and the characters are all fictional – with one exception. There was this priest who oversaw the parish where my Catholic high school was located. He was a big-shot, charismatic, and forceful – which some people liked and some people didn’t. I heard he always trashed our school, blaming it for the church’s budget woes. Then about four years after I left, the news came out that Father Benz had been literally stealing from the collection plate, nabbing more than a million dollars over the years. He spent it on guns, and gambling, and living large. How could you not use a character like that?

RF: What book do you remember reading that had the biggest impact on you?

AB: My grandmother bought me a copy of Pet Sematary when I was 12, because no one would take me to go see the movie. I was so disappointed! The book …? I wanted the movie. But then I started turning the pages of that paperback and I was thunderstruck. This guy King created a mesmerizing world, terrifying, heartbreaking … and all he had were words on a page. I loved the power of that. So I started writing my own scary tales in spiral notebooks. From that moment on, all I wanted to do was tell stories – putting them down on the page so they can become real for someone else.

RF: Where do you meet your characters? Are they more often versions of people you’ve known or more often figments from your own imagination?

AB: I meet a lot of them in my own head. There’s plenty of bad behavior in Brutal Youth, but if a character is doing something good or noble, that’s what I hope I would do in that situation. If they’re doing something cruel or selfish, it’s usually what I hope I wouldn’t do, but that’s still a part of me. There are three main kids: Davidek, who’s a nice guy, but just wants to keep his head down and stay out of trouble; Stein, who’s combative as hell, and ready to create trouble as long as it’s for a good cause; and Lorelei, who is desperate to be loved, but makes one too many bad choices to achieve that. Each one of them is a side of me. Even the priest, who was a real person, I can relate to his feeling of entitlement and arrogance and loneliness. This story is a battle royale between a lot of different parts of my psyche.

RF: As a senior staff writer at Entertainment Weekly, you cover a lot of ground. What’s a film/piece of music/artwork that you would most like your writing to emulate?

AB: I’m a huge fan of Jason Reitman’s filmmaking, and he has become a friend over the years. I love how he takes characters who should be completely unlikable – a tobacco lobbyist, a guy who fires people for a living, a self-destructive YA author – and makes you care for them, see the human beneath the façade. To me, those are the best characters – the ones you like in spite of themselves. Much more interesting than characters who are all good or all evil.

RF: When you were writing your book, what kept you up at night?

AB: The fear that this was a story no one would care about, that it wouldn’t connect with anyone. I imagine that’s what every writer fears: you’ve created a world, and no one wants to visit.

RF: ‘BRUTAL YOUTH’ is so much a coming of age story—the title in itself sums up perfectly the painful experience of adolescence. If you could give your younger self one piece of advice what would it be?

AB: Be braver. And be sneakier. There’s a lot of ways to live your way while making other people think you’re following orders.

RF: What’s your favorite scene from your book—or rather, what do you feel is the biggest revelation in it?

AB:I don’t want to spoil it! But the school principal, Sister Maria, is much like the main character, Davidek – she knows the status quo is broken, but doesn’t want to make waves. She’s too passive and weak-willed to do the right thing. Then something happens that she can’t ignore, and to protect one of the kids she has to fake a crime – some vandalism in the school bathroom. (This makes sense when you read it.) I loved putting a crowbar and a can of spray paint into this 60-something nun’s hands and sending her in to beat up the bathroom. It’s an absurd situation, which is fun to write, but I also loved that it was a character saving not only another person, but herself, too.

RF: What is your greatest fear as a writer?

AB: That I won’t get to do it again.

Pick up a copy of 'BRUTAL YOUTH' by Anthony Breznican in your favorite local bookstore today!

  • Brutal Youth: A Novel