Neal Shusterman explores the joy after pain
What would it be like to assume another person’s pain? The author of more than 30 books, Neal Shusterman explores this question in Bruiser, his haunting new novel for teens.
“Bruiser” is the nickname of Brewster Rawlins, voted “Most Likely to Receive the Death Penalty” by his high school classmates. When twins Brontë and Tennyson befriend Brewster, they realize that the bruises on his body belong to other people; when someone he cares about is injured emotionally or physically, Brewster takes on the friend’s wounds. Though Shusterman tackles a heavy topic, his language is lyrical and even filled with occasional humor. Both teens—boys and girls—and adults will be moved by this story.
To get a behind-the-scenes look at the novel, BookPage talked to the award-winning author about his memorable characters and the joy that comes after pain.
Bruiser alternates among four points of view: Brontë, Tennyson, Brewster and Cody, Brewster’s brother. Why did you tell the story in this way?
I’m always looking for new ways of telling stories—or at least ways that I haven’t tried before. I liked the challenge of coming up with four distinct voices that combined into a coherent whole.
The chapters narrated by Brewster are in verse, mixing up the rhythm of the book and providing a strong visual shift on the page. What do you hope this style conveys about the character’s thoughts and personality?
I wanted to show the contrast between the way he’s perceived vs. who he really is—his outward vs. his inner life. I felt that the verse was a way of making his character not only unique, but rich in ways we never expected.
Brontë and Tennyson’s parents are literature professors—hence, the literary names. Of all authors and poets, why do you refer to two people from the 19th century? Do the names reflect on the characters?
Growing up, I knew a kid named Tennyson, and I always wanted to name a character that. Until now, there never seemed to be a character who felt like a “Tennyson.” When I began to write the book, and realized that this kid is an athlete from a very literary family, I knew I had to name him Tennyson. Almost instantaneously, I knew his sister would be Brontë. It just kind of felt natural. For once I didn’t have to struggle to name the characters!
Brewster has two unusual abilities: he has a remarkable memory, and he takes on the pain of people he cares about. Are these abilities related?
Yes, they are related. His ability to take on the pain of others is an extension of the ability to “take in” everything around him.
Your novel deals with serious issues such as domestic abuse and extreme pain, and Brontë refers to psychology to help her deal with Brewster’s difficult situation. While writing Bruiser, did you study any real-life cases of teens dealing with violence? You have a degree in psychology—did that inform your writing?
I think a degree in psychology always informs my writing . . . as does my degree in drama. My stories all tend to be psychological in nature, and fairly dramatic! I did do research on kids dealing with violence—but more than that, I really tried to get into the minds of the characters experiencing it. Research can only tell you facts—it’s putting yourself in the place of the characters that makes it real. I also really wanted to address divorce: the pain involved, and also the healing. Having gone through a divorce myself, and having seen my own children deal with it, I wanted to tell a story for the many, many kids out there who have had to face such a change in their family. And I use the word “change” very intentionally. In spite of the fact that 40% of all families will experience divorce, society tends to demonize it, with expressions like “broken family.” Divorced families aren’t broken, but they are changed, and with that change comes pain . . . but hopefully pain from which everyone, parents and kids alike, can grow.
Tennyson changes drastically over the course of the novel, from a bully to a sympathetic person. Does he change because he’s “addicted” to how he feels when Brewster assumes his pain? What else contributes to his shift?
The moment in which he has the epiphany that he’s been a bully all his life, it leaves him ripe for change. His change doesn’t come easy, because no matter how hard he tries to do the right thing, self-interest intrudes, as does his “addiction” to Brewster’s power. My goal with Tennyson was to have the reader really care about him, yet also be angry with him for the wrong decisions he makes along the way. . . . Hopefully that’s outweighed by all the right decisions he makes, though.
Tennyson notes that pain is “rightfully ours, because everyone must feel their own pain—and as awful as that is, it’s also wonderful.” Can you elaborate on that statement? Do you think teens recognize the truth in the oxymoron?
Things can only be defined in relation to their opposite. The idea of being “happy” 24/7 is ridiculous. How would we even know what “happy” is, if we haven’t experienced unhappiness? How would we ever be able to appreciate joy, if we’ve never been in emotional pain? Our society is so much about either hiding or denying emotional “bad stuff,” I wanted to point out that it is our experiencing of the full range of human emotions that makes us complete human beings. So often teenagers feel that, when they go through dark times, it’s the end of the world. I want to remind them that “this too shall pass,” and if there’s something that brings you pain, always remember that it is merely setting the stage for something else that will bring you joy.
Many of your books seem to take very real feelings—such as being ignored (The Schwa Was Here) or understanding others’ pain (Bruiser)—and elevating the concept to an extreme level. Are there other feelings or issues you plan to address in future novels? What are you working on now?
Thank you for pointing that out! Yes, I like to take feelings and explore them from as many different perspectives as possible. I have several projects in the works, and in the wings. In addition to the third book in the Everlost series (Everfound), a sequel to Unwind and a third “Antsy Bonano” book, I’m also working on a novel called Challenger Deep, which uses the unimaginable depths of the Marianas Trench as a metaphor for mental illness. (Anyone interested in keeping up with the various projects can always visit me on my website, www.storyman.com, and can sign up as a fan on my Facebook page.)
Review of Bruiser.