Author Interviews
5:07 pm
Sat June 14, 2014

'Brutal Youth': Three High Schoolers Fight To Survive Bullying

Originally published on Mon June 16, 2014 12:20 pm

Anthony Breznican reports on Hollywood for Entertainment Weekly. Turns out he's got a story to tell, too.

His debut novel, Brutal Youth, was just released and he's even got a Hollywood pitch for it. "It's kinda like Fight Club meets The Breakfast Club," Breznican tells NPR's Arun Rath.

It's about bullying at a Catholic high school called St. Michael the Archangel. Students have to choose to go along, to stand their ground, and in some cases, to lash out in order to survive.

The book follows the transformation of three students in their first year of high school.

"As the story goes on, you see how a kid goes from someone who will run out in the middle of danger to save somebody he doesn't even know, to possibly becoming the one who's trying to cause the pain," he says.


Interview Highlights

On the culture of hazing in the novel

They've institutionalized it, it's sanctioned hazing and this comes from my experience as a high school student. Coming in as a little, tiny freshman, 14 years old and you're told, "Ok, well, there's this thing called initiation and you are going to be, you know, picked-on-slash-protected by some senior," and you don't know who you get. You get some sadist and you're in really bad shape. And this was in the early 90s and they saw it as a harmless thing. It had been a tradition for as far back as anyone could remember, but at the time it was terrifying.

There is a lot of ways that people who are powerless assert dominance over each other. It's a way of saying, "I am not at the bottom of the totem pole, I am able to climb up because I am putting a foot on your neck."

On powerful bonds between victims of bullying

The people who are with you when you are kind of in that embryonic stage of being a teenager, figuring out who you are, I think those are the people who make a difference for you and you never forget them. Those are like foxhole friendships. You know? And the friend who takes the punch, who takes the blame, who absorbs the insult when they know you can't take anymore — those are priceless friendships and I wanted to sort of pay tribute to that in this story and to do that I had to put the kids through some really bad stuff.

On bullying in the social media era

The story is set in 1991 and I wanted that to be a little bit representative of what we face today with kids being bullied and called names on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, you know any kind of social media that could be used as a blunt instrument in the wrong hands and I think this is the analog version of that ... I think the same kind of bullying and manipulation happens now with kids that happened back when you and I were teenagers. The difference is adults now have a record of it ... it's no longer some whispered thing in the hallway, it has a permanence, there's a trail. ...

Kids they are especially vulnerable ... you're like this newly hatched chick you don't have any guard up, you don't have any armor and I think what I try to explore with the book is how that armor forms and how if you are not careful it can go so deep that it hardens you right to your core.

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Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath. Anthony Breznican reports on Hollywood for Entertainment Weekly. And, like many people in Hollywood, he's got a story to tell. What's very un-Hollywood is that he's doing it in a novel. But he does have a Hollywood pitch.

ANTHONY BREZNICAN: It's kind of like "Fight Club" meets "The Breakfast Club."

RATH: It's called "Brutal Youth," a story of life at a Catholic high school, where students cope with bullying by laying low, taking the punishment or becoming bullies themselves. You might say, you can find bullying, in one form or another, in just about every high school. But things are a little different at St. Michael the Archangel.

BREZNICAN: They've institutionalized - it's sanctioned hazing. And this comes from my experience as a high school student, coming in as a little many freshmen, 14 years old. And you're told, OK, well, there's this thing called initiation. And you're going to be, you know, picked on/protected by some senior. And you don't know who you get. You get some sadist, and you're in really bad shape, you know? And this was the early '90s and they saw it as sort of a harmless thing. It had been a tradition for as far back as anyone remembers. But at the time, it was terrifying.

There's a lot of ways that people in - who are powerless, assert dominance over each other. It's a way of saying I'm not the bottom of the totem pole. I'm able to climb up because I'm putting a foot on your neck. And the only rule in the school really is, you can't pick on anybody who can actually hurt you back.

RATH: (Laughing) Let's talk about the characters in this book. The three main characters, they're kind of introduction to this school, as they're freshmen - it's one of the upperclassman, who's, basically, kind of lost his mind.

BREZNICAN: He snapped, yeah. The book begins with, what I hoped would be, kind of an exciting, perilous action sequence. You know, I remember in high school, studying Shakespeare and my English teachers said notice how often he starts with an argument or a fight. That's how you get the attention of the audience. So I wanted to start with something kind of intense. And also, thematically, I wanted to show, we're going to follow these three freshmen through their first year in high school. They're good kids. What happens to make a kid like that turn hard, turn sour, turn bitter? And I wanted to show the worst-case scenario.

And so we begin with a kid who's been pushed around and finally breaks. He snaps. And he does something that he can't take back. And in that act of violence, he climbs up to the roof to get away from something he's done. And he ends up pushing over these Saints, these stone statues, trying to hit the people below. And I thought, that's pretty terrifying. So we can have our main characters kind of run out and try to be the heroes. And you see them trying to do the right thing. And, as the story goes on, you see how a kid goes from someone who'll run out in the middle of danger to save somebody he doesn't know, to possibly becoming the one who's trying to cause the pain.

RATH: Well, there is - I mean, the book is very dark.

BREZNICAN: Yeah.

RATH: But at the same time, there's this is bullying. You know, these two male characters, Peter Davidek and Noah Stein, they have a really powerful friendship.

BREZNICAN: Yeah, yeah. You know, the people who are with you, when you're kind of in that embryonic stage of being a teenager, figuring out who you are. I think, those are the people who make a difference for you. And you never forget them. Those are like foxhole friendships, you know. And the friend who takes the punch, who takes the blame, who absorbs the insult when they know you can't take any more, those are priceless friendships. And I wanted to sort of pay tribute to that, in this story. And to do that, I had to put the kids through some really bad stuff.

RATH: And in terms of the bad stuff, Peter and Noah have different ideas about how you survive high school. Could you talk about their approaches?

BREZNICAN: Yeah. You know, Peter Davidek he's, you know, a lot like me. I think, I - when I was that age, I just wanted to lay low. I wanted to do my thing and not make any waves. And Noah Stein is that side of this like, you know, you got to pick your battles. Let's pick every one. Let's pick every fight. He really means well, but he's - there's no fight he won't take, as long as it's for the right cause. He doesn't pick on anybody.

RATH: You have a character named Hannah, who - she's one of the older students there. And she's been so tormented. She's changed her hair color, multiple times, to try to...

BREZNICAN: To try to change her appearance, you know. She's a kind of a mysterious character, for about half of the book. Hannah was one of the most picked upon students at this school for four years. And to protect herself, she has been kind of like Madam Defarge in "A Tale Of Two Cities." She sits quietly and gathers everyone's secrets. She overhears a lot of things.

And so at the end of the year, there's this big picnic. And they have a little talent show. That was considered the end of your initiation, this kind of talent show. And her plan is to take her freshmen and force him to read, in front of the audience, her little collection of secrets. She's going to kind of throw a match over her shoulder, as she leaves this school. And she's going to use one of the freshmen to sort of strike that match or to be the match. And any kid who does that is doomed for the next three years. You're not going to make it out of your freshmen hazing. You're going to be the kid who embarrassed everyone.

RATH: You know, it's almost impossible to read this and be thinking about high school and bullying and not think about you, today, social media because the things that have this power in this book, like the secrets that say, Hannah has. I don't know if it's better or worse now that there is social media involved.

BREZNICAN: Yeah, that's a good question. You know, the diary, the handwritten diary, was my effort to kind of - this story's set in 1991. And I wanted that to be a little bit representative of what we face, today, with kids being bullied and called names on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr. You know, any kind of social media could be used as a blunt instrument, in the wrong hands. And I think, this is the analog version of that. The reason that's such a powerfully intimidating format is, whatever name you're being called, whatever rumor is being spread about you, it's now published. It's now permanent. And I think the same kind of bullying and manipulation happens now with kids that happened back when you and I were teenagers. The difference is that adults now have a record of it. They can look and see, oh, my God, this is what they're calling you? It's no longer some whispered thing, in the hallway. It has a permanence. There's a trail. And I don't know if that makes it better or worse. It makes a little harder to escape because a friend of mine, who's active with the anti-bullying group, GLSEN, said, now you can't go to your room and close the door and be safe. You fire up your computer, and there's somebody on Facebook mocking you.

Kids, they're especially vulnerable. And that's why we see, you know, these tragic cases of kids who commit suicide. It's like, why? You were - it's high school. You're almost out. Why would you give up like that? But we forget, when we get older, how painful that can be. You're like this newly-hatched chick. You don't - you don't have any guard up. You don't have any armor. And I think, what I tried to explore with the book is how that armor forms. And how, if you're not careful, it can go so deep that it hardens you right to your core.

RATH: That's Anthony Breznican. And his new novel, his first novel, is called "Brutal Youth." Anthony, thank you.

BREZNICAN: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.