March 2015 | by Carl Marsh
it's great that you can spare me a few moments of your time by being on the receiving end of an interview for a change!
Hey Carl, nice to talk to you. And thanks for your interest in Brutal Youth. Whenever anyone picks up my demented coming-of-age story about good kids trying to stay that way in a very bad private school, I just pray they will react as you did. Your review was one of my favourites!
As a writer, it will be obvious that you love and have read a many, many books! As the successful senior writer for Entertainment Weekly that you are (and also now as an author with Brutal Youth), so why should people read more?
I think stories are how we find each other. The world is full of anger, misunderstanding, and vengeance (which are the primary ingredients in my novel, ironically!), but storytelling is a way to see through another person’s eyes, experiencing life the way the writer or character does. That makes us more empathetic.
I joke about the darker side of Brutal Youth, but one thing I tried to do was show a dysfunctional place – in this case, a corrupt and broken school – and let the omniscient view reveal the intentions and hopes and fears of the characters in ways they can’t express to each other. Tragedy is most powerful if you understand why it didn’t have to be that way. (Hopefully there is some dark humour in the book to make this crazy journey entertaining, too.)
You must have plenty of favourite books, so what are they and why?
My favourite novel is Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men, which shows what happens when a politician sells his soul to do the right thing – and only makes things worse. I’m also a big fan of Stephen King and think his stories have a lot more in them than just scares. Pet Sematary, for instance, is a remarkable exploration of grief and loss – merged with a pop-culture horror tale. I’m also obsessed with John Searles after reading his Help For the Haunted, which similarly takes the supernatural suspense genre and uses it as a way to tell a heartbreaking story about the closest thing in the world – a family – and how it collapses.
Have you read anything good recently, and was it any good?
I have to urge you to find Steph Post’s A Tree Born Crooked. It’s this gritty contemporary noir story about a man trying to save his screw-up brother from a group of Florida swampland gangsters. It’s another one of those page-turners that also has deep soulfulness. Her talent makes me envious.
Of course, and I will read this book and let you know how I get on with it. With your career as a senior writer for Entertainment Weekly, and your book Brutal Youth just coming out in 2014, how did you find the time to write it, since you write all the time for your job?
If you have a story in you, its like that chest-popping creature from the movie Alien. It’s going to come out one way or another, or else it eats you alive from the inside. (There’s a metaphor from a guy who watches too many movies!) Yes, when you’re burned out from writing all day for one job, it’s hard to find motivation to do it creatively for a personal project. Doing so leaves you hollowed out – but then your little alien of a book is out in the world! So at least you’ve accomplished something. And that feels good, even if it hurts.
Of the characters in the book, which one would you say was closest to how you were in school, and did you model any of these characters on yourself?
I’ve come to see that the three main characters are all parts of myself. The main kid, Peter Davidek, is a freshman who just wants to keep his head down, find a little happiness, and stay out of trouble. Noah Stein, another newcomer to this crumbling school, loves trouble, loves to confront bullies and thugs (whether they’re students or teachers) – and is eager to fight every battle that crosses his path. Lorelei, the girl in their class they both fall for, is the side of me that is fearful, hurt … and a little selfish. I like to say she is determined to make friends, no matter how many enemies she makes along the way. Add them up, and you get me.
Would you say your High School was similar to the School in the book, and why?
Yes, it was in many ways. We had a priest overseeing our Catholic school who was later caught embezzling money, literally ripping open envelopes from the collection plate and stealing cash for his gambling addiction. He was a true-life scoundrel! My school also had sanctioned hazing, which the adults regarded as “fun and games,” meant to bond the younger kids and relieve pressure on the older ones. It was terrifying, and a lot of deeply nasty behaviour was excused under the guise of “initiation.” Many of the incidents in the book really happened, and others are documented behaviours that happened elsewhere. But some of the crazier things are the true things.
You must have some stories to tell, care to share one here with me that most people might not know?
When I was a boy I loved birds and wanted to be an ornithologist. My grandparents had a large backyard that sloped into a small patch of woods, and they would eat dinner on their back porch every night during the summer. The birds were their entertainment. While Nunie prepared our meal in the kitchen, I’d help my Pap fill about a half-dozen feeders, which dangled here and there through the trees like forgotten Christmas ornaments. Often I’d find beautiful feathers in the yard – scarlet tail feathers from cardinals, tiny wingtips from hummingbirds, the speckled brown and white of a red-tailed hawk – and I’d gather them inside a photo book, preserving them behind the plastic sheeting on each page. That book was beautiful, and I wish I still had it. Somewhere along the line, I lost it … along with the desire to be an ornithologist. But to this day, I can still look at almost any North American bird and name it on site.
Who has been the nicest star you have met?
Jessica Chastain. She’s just a total sweetheart. Intelligent, savvy, and kind. I’ve interviewed her several times, and when I bumped into her backstage at the Oscars a few year ago I showed her a text from my wife, who was watching at home with our daughter, who was 3 years old at the time. My little girl spotted Jessica on the red carpet and said, “Look, a real princess! A real princess!” I thought Jessica would get a smile out of that, and her response was: “Turn on your phone and make a video.” She then recorded a little message to my daughter, thanking her for saying she looked like a princess, and telling her to keep being a good girl and dreaming big dreams. How sweet is that?
Who was the rudest, and why?
The rudest? Oh, Tommy Lee Jones is very brusque, but I would actually count him as one of my favourite interviews. He’s also fiercely intelligent, and when you can break through the ice he actually has very thoughtful things to say about storytelling and how his particular roles and films connect with the world. He’s like a sheer granite cliff – if you can survive the climb, the view is spectacular.
I have to commend you with your novel, which most people will know is probably in my top three books of 2014, how are you going to follow that one?
I would love to write a sequel, because I have more stories I’d like to tell from this perilous, crumbling high school as the characters grow older. But for now, I’m going to try something different and put that darker, twisted side of my imagination to use on something more clearly in the suspense genre. With luck, it will also have heart – but I want to write something that gets that heart beating very fast.
What will the next 12 months be like for you, what have you got lined up?
The paperback for Brutal Youth comes out in June, so I will be working hard to get the word out on that. And I’ll be trying to squeeze in time to write the new book. When I wrote Brutal Youth, my wife was studying to get her degree in Library Science, so while she was busy reading and writing papers, I spent my alone time typing the novel. In the acknowledgements for Brutal Youth, I say that I wanted to give this new librarian a book to shelve that was written just for her. Now, however, we have kids. So free time is much harder to find.
But … that alien squirms in my chest ….
How did you actually get your book deal, was it quite difficult, especially as being in the industry of writing, does not always mean it is any easier?
Being a reporter did not make it any easier. I had to send the manuscript around to many places, and face many rejections, just like anyone else. An editor at St. Martin’s Press named Brendan Deneen eventually found it, liked it, and made a small offer, and I used that to entice an agent to represent me. But it was a long process. It took several years – much longer than it took to actually write the thing.
And lastly, as I always like to end with a literary theme, so if you can give me your answer as if you were writing it in a book or perhaps Entertainment Weekly, “If you were an animal, what would it be and why?”
Nobody likes a blue jay. At least, not in the bird world. That’s because nobody likes shouting and discord, a noisy fellow who kicks seeds and makes a racket while hanging out with the rest of the feathered community, cracking nuts and nudging for position at the feeder. For a long time, humans believed the other birds fled and hid when the blue jay drew near because it preyed on their eggs – but ornithologists now know that jays seldom do that (and most birds aren’t hurrying back to protect their nests anyway.) What’s really happening …?
The blue jay is a slow flier. It flaps and struggles through the air, which makes it a prime target for hawks, owls, and other raptors. So the hearty blue jay defence is to make a helluva lot of trouble. It confronts a dangerous world with fierceness and aggression, remaining far more watchful on both the skies and ground than other birds. So why do their winged brethren race away and take shelter when the blue jay starts getting rambunctious? It’s because the jay’s scream warns of predators in the area. It announces to the others that danger is near, and they all know to dive for cover.
Still … why would the blue jay do this? Given that they are larger and slower than other birds, wouldn’t it make evolutionary sense to simply nestle quietly against the tree trunk and let the goldfinch or the cardinal disappear in a dandelion-burst of feathers instead? The jay actually puts itself at greater risk by screaming its alarm. Yet, it does, drawing attention to itself to protect the others … even if they want nothing to do with him. I admire that. So, if I could be an animal, I would choose to be that annoying one, streaking between the trees like a little azure arrow.