Hey there! It’s James, and I’m joined today by the wonderful Brendan Kiely! You might know Brendan as one of the people behind the bestselling All American Boys. His new book, Tradition, just came out earlier this year and tells a powerful story about teens standing up to toxic masculinity at their prestigious prep school. It's perfect for fans of Moxie by Jennifer Mathieu and will surely connect with anyone who's been frustrated by the pervasive presence of sexism in school. Let’s get to the interview!
Hey Brendan! Welcome to #BeyondTheBio! Your new book, Tradition, is one of the most powerful books of 2018. Can you tell our readers a little bit about it?
Hey! Thanks so much for inviting me to participate. Love the work the whole team at Pick My YA does! And thanks, too, for the kind words about Tradition. It wasn’t easy to write, but I felt it was necessary to dive into.
Tradition is about two teens, Jules Devereux and James Baxter, who are trying to navigate the deeply misogynistic culture at their school—behavior that, disturbingly, is too often brushed off in schools, work environments, and parties all across our country as “normal” or “boys being boys.” I started writing this book before #MeToo blew up to the extent it did last year, but I think Tradition talks about the kind of behavior too many people let slide, behavior that too often harms people, girls in particular—behavior that ignores, excuses, or worse, enables the kinds of horrors we’re seeing exposed in the #MeToo movement.
You write from two different perspectives in this book. Which voice came easier to you: Bax or Jules?
I really love reading stories told in multiple points of view, and I knew I needed multiple points of view in Tradition and because the story had to tackle all the subtle attitudes and behaviors that fuel and enable toxic male behavior and its effects on women in the community. So I had to try to write from both a young woman and a young man's perspective. But as a man, I was extremely nervous that when writing Jules's narrative, I would have no idea and I'd screw it up. But because I thought the story demanded Jules's voice, I had to try. I felt like I finally found her voice when I landed on her first lines: “I once heard another girl put it like this: This is boys’ school and they accept girls here too. At Fullbrook, they told us to be ready to take on the world, but then they told us to do it quietly. What if I wanted to be loud? What if I needed to be?” I threw everything else out and started from scratch. As I wrote I sought feedback from many women in my life, other writers, my editor, other readers, and I'm extremely grateful they all took the time to help me consider more deeply Jules's perspective and life circumstances.
But what’s interesting is that I spent all this time concentrating on Jules, so when I was writing Bax, I realized, hey, this voice doesn’t sound like anyone real—what the heck am I doing? I had assumed I’d just “know” his voice better. But I didn’t. Then I landed on his first lines: “Most people don’t get second chances. I wasn’t sure I deserved one. I wasn’t sure I even wanted one. But I got one: Fullbrook Academy. This is what I did with it.” And again, I threw everything else out I’d written in his voice and started from scratch.
This book really highlights the importance of the word "No." Can you talk about that?
Absolutely. We talk a lot about violence in our culture. We allow for so much of it in our movies and books and music. But I wish we spoke about love as much. And I don’t even mean the romantic kind (though I like that too!), I mean the kind of love any two people can share between each other in which they provide each other with the space and care to be vulnerable. If we can’t practice ways to be vulnerable with each other, there’s no way for us to talk honestly about love or sex or any kind of intimacy.
To foster spaces in which we can be vulnerable with each other, we have to be better listeners. No means no. If someone says no, they are not giving you their consent. In fact, I wish that more of us would shift the conversation away from “no means no” to “yes means yes.” Why put someone in the position to have to say no, especially repeatedly? Why not instead give each other the agency to say yes first? This was important to me in one of my previous books, The Last True Love Story. The word “yes” is repeated over and over for a reason. You can ask someone if it’s ok to kiss them—that doesn’t ruin the moment. We should be willing to be vulnerable with each other, to listen to each other, if we are going to be intimate with each other.
All this is essential in Tradition too.
When did you first begin to unpack toxic masculinity in your own life? Or is that something you're still learning?
I think this is a great question. In short, I think it is something I’m still learning to do and that I will have to continue to do for the rest of my life—as long as I’m a man, I’m going to have to put in the work to unpack toxic masculinity in my life. I think of it in the same way I think of my whiteness. I began to think of my whiteness and my masculinity when I was in high school, but that was just a start. I have to keep thinking about it every single day, work against the ways in which my whiteness and masculinity can do harm. (If you want to read more about what Brendan's own continuing journey of unpacking toxic masculinity, be sure to check out his essays in The Good Men Project and The Rumpus.)
Rape culture is everywhere, from the brick walkways of Fullbrook to real-life high schools across the country. How can your teen readers challenge the toxic traditions of their own schools?
When Jason and I were visiting schools and talking about All American Boys, went visited two schools engaged in a protest. At one school in Brooklyn, the students wouldn’t let us enter the school until they read us their list of demands and asked us if we agreed with them. If we agreed with them, we could enter and link arms to help block other people from coming into the school. It was remarkable. We stood there listening and cheering them on as they rallied for more racial justice in their school. These are kids who never got on the news but they changed their school and the culture at their school forever.
They did so by acting together, not alone (just like in Tradition, too!). They started with a handful of students upset about some of the attitudes and behaviors at the school and slowly grew their group, asking others to join them. They invited a few teachers, and then a few more. When they knew they had a large and significant group of people who supported them, that’s when they did their action and shut down the school. They were organized. They listed clear examples of what they found harmful in the school community, and they suggested ways to change that harmful behavior.
Rape culture is a problem all over this country, and in the ways I’ve seen people marching about gun control, and in the ways I’ve seen people marching in support of Black Lives Matter—both of which I support and advocate for every day—I’d love to see people organizing, just like those courageous students in Brooklyn, to speak out about rape culture in their community. All three movements share something in common, anti-violence—especially violence that is used, excused, ignored, and too often protected, against marginalized people everywhere in our country. We can bring all three of these movements together while also supporting each one individually.
I love Jules and her fierce commitment to activism and justice. Who are some real-life teen activists who inspire you?
Thanks! I love Jules—she’s one of my favorite characters I’ve ever written, and I do see her in many of the real life teens out there.
The teens leading walkouts across the country, the teens leading marches in DC this year, the teens who take a quiet moment out of the day to check in on a friend who is having a rough day or week, all know empathy as a way of life. Empathy shouldn’t be a lesson we do our homework for and then forget about later; it should be a practice, a way of being, the bedrock from which we act in the world. I think stories like TRADITION speak to this instinct—an instinct I believe all those real life teens know and practice.
A story like TRADITION isn’t about lessons or props for a conversation; it’s about characters (whole people) who feel like they’re up against insurmountable odds, but overcome them by working together. I think all writing begins and ends with the whole life of the characters.
I do want to write about how people cope with, witness, and experience large social problems, but it is always first and foremost about people. I have to do my best to create fully dimensional characters, not reductions. No one can be reduced to one aspect of their identity or one kind of experience in their life. It’s always about the whole person.
I know you've also worked as a high school teacher. What was your favorite book to teach?
I loved teaching Salvage the Bones and A Handmaid’s Tale, both of which generated tons of interesting conversation in class. Jesmyn Ward and Margaret Atwood are two of my favorite authors!
Do you have any advice for teens who are hoping to one day write books of their own?
I’m someone who often feels stuck trying to get my ideas down on the page. I feel stuck all the time!!! I feel stuck almost every time I sit down to write—too often because I have the idea in my head but can’t get it onto the page in the way it feels in my head, but sometimes it’s worse, sometimes it feels like there is a giant emptiness on the page AND in my head.
Whenever I’m stuck, I try to find a book I love, and I copy the words from a random section in the book. I literally copy the scene word for word and as I’m doing that it usually jump starts some idea in my head that I can bring back to my own work. Then I just slip into what’s in my head and write (and remember to delete the other writer’s work later!).
I have a feeling a lot of our readers are going to be heading to the bookstore after this interview to grab their own copy of Tradition. What are other some new releases they should add to their book bag?
Yes! Emily X. R. Pan's The Astonishing Color of After (so good!), but also Samira Ahmed's Love, Hate & Other Filters, Ashley Woodfolk's The Beauty That Remains, Kit Frick's See All The Stars, Arvin Ahmadi's Down and Across, Tiffany Jackson's (I love her work so much!) Monday's Not Coming--all these books are available now. Buy them all!
Are you working on any other projects at the moment?
Dangerous question! Stories, like people need a chance to breathe and evolve and figure themselves out, before we tell them what they are about. Sorry to be coy, but I want the projects I’m working on to develop more before I start talking about them. But as soon as I can make an announcement about any of them, I will let you know!
That’s it for today’s interview with Brendan. If you haven’t already, be sure to order a copy of Tradition before you leave. And we’ll be back again with another interview next week, when Julie Anne will be chatting Ally Carter about her new thriller Not If I Save You First.