EW Staff
June 06, 2014 AT 04:00 AM EDT

In Anthony Breznican’s debut, freshman Peter Davidek and his pals navigate the moldy halls of St. Michael’s, a Catholic school where seniors haze freshmen, teachers savage students, and the priest overseeing it all skims cash from church coffers. It’s like Hogwarts, except nothing is magical and almost everyone is either Snape or Malfoy.

At its core, Brutal Youth explores the reasons that good people hurt others. ”I’m an optimist in that I think people are born basically good,” says Breznican. ”I’m a pessimist in that I think other people warp those good kids and turn them bad.”

Though he drew details from his adolescence to create St. Michael’s and its working-class Pennsylvania town, Breznican’s own high school experience wasn’t nearly as perilous. ”What I remember from growing up are deep friendships — guys and girls who were my best friends and knew me even before I knew myself,” he says. ”Those are friendships forged in fire — foxhole friendships — and I wanted to tell a war story. I wanted to tell a story about friends who are in a fight for survival.” He adds, ”Even though my tale is a bit exaggerated, it captures what it feels like to be scared.”

Breznican, an experienced journalist, relished the chance to write fiction. ”You get to turn your brain loose,” he says. ”It’s like taking the leash off your dog and letting him run around the park.”

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