Private Schools, Medication, and Gossip Magazines: A Conversation with “Accelerated” Author Bronwen Hruska

If you’ve ever been told that your C in 3rd grade Social Studies isn’t going to look good on a college application, you probably have some sense of how accelerated the private school world can be. Yet, in New York City, where everything is inherently accelerated, the private school system can be even worse. Bronwen Hruska’s novel Accelerated (Pegasus) follows a newly single father, Sean Benning as he juggles his kid’s private school, his job at a gossip rag, and his aspirations as an artist. Sean must fit in with the parental elite, get in the good graces of the teachers, and resist the school’s tendency to overmedicate their students. However, when the schools “recommendations” that Sean medicate his son Toby turn aggressive, a dark and ominous picture comes into focus.

What made you decide to write from a male perspective for your first novel?

The private school culture on the Upper East Side of Manhattan can be a strange and insular one. My goal was to put Sean as far on the outside of that culture as possible so readers could identify with him and find a way into the story. His wife has recently left him, and for the first time he’s taking care of his eight-year-old son, Toby, alone. Since Ellie left, Sean has had to face an estrogen-heavy sea of mothers every morning when he drops Toby off and picks him up from school. But honestly, after I understood who Sean was, his voice came very easily to me. I’ve always thought of him more as a parent than as a man, and as a mother of two sons, I understood where he was coming from. For the manly bits, I did some in-depth research I just can’t go into here.

Toby, your protagonist’s son, is this young, somewhat precocious kid in a super-precocious environment, yet he’s still very much a kid, was it hard to write in this voice ?

If you’ve raised two boys who’ve been eight, you can’t help but be impressed and highly entertained at the way their minds work. They’re very young at that age, but they also know a lot more than you’d imagine. Which leads to some interesting conversations. Over the course of the book, as Sean takes a much more proactive role in Toby’s life, he gets to know his son in a way he might never have if his wife hadn’t left him.

The world of Manhattan private schools is well-illuminated in this book.  In writing about this very powerful world, to which you’ve been exposed, was there any real concern about making the fictional school in this book seem too much like a real school?

The Bradley School is not based on any one school. While the story was inspired by an experience I had with my son’s previous school pressuring me to have him evaluated for ADHD when he was in third grade, the problem is certainly not limited to that school, nor is it a Manhattan problem or a private school problem. Kids are being overmedicated for ADHD all over the country across a wide range of socioeconomic landscapes. As of 2007, the CDC reported that 9.5% children ages 4-17 had been diagnosed with ADHD. That’s 5.4 million children. A low of  5.6% of children in Nevada have been diagnosed and a high of 15.6% of kids in North Carolina. It’s just too many kids for this to be a disorder. You’ve got to start to wonder what the barometer for normal is.

Do you have a resounding opinion on medicating kids or Attention Deficit Disorder?

When my son’s school suggested that, “just a little bit of medication could really turn things around for him,” I was shocked. He didn’t strike me as an ADD kid. He was funny, smart, socially engaged and not particularly antsy. He had what seemed to be a normal amount of eight-year-old-boy energy, and not nearly as much as some of his friends had. But he was having trouble lining up quietly to “transition” between classes and would sometimes laugh at a girl who made funny faces at him during music class. While my husband was quite vehemently against the idea of medication from the beginning, I was ultimately swayed by the school, and the psychiatrist who diagnosed him with Inattentive-type ADHD, that he needed the medication. I was the one who really pushed to give it a try and see if it helped him in any way. Would I take the school’s advice again? Not without a whole lot more evidence, and not after learning that boys are 2.8 times more likely to be diagnosed than girls. After taking a hard look at the issue, I’d argue that boys, in many cases, are being medicated for being defective girls. That said, I’m not anti-medication. In fact, I believe that medication really can make a life-changing difference for children (or adults) who suffer from ADHD. I’m just staggered by the number of kids who are being put on medication as a way to enhance their focus and performance in the classroom. It’s much too close to what’s happening in professional athletics with performance enhancing drugs. It’s a sad bi-product of this accelerated society that students don’t need to simply keep up anymore, they need to get ahead. And we’re juicing our kids in order for them to be able to do that.

In the book, the protagonist, Sean works at a gossip magazine.  This aspect of his life made for some extremely interesting and entertaining moments in the novel, almost a reprieve from the high stakes private school world. The verisimilitude regarding the gossip rag world seemed on point. Do you have any experience in that world?

I was a staff writer at Entertainment Weekly for a year (about a million years ago), so I understand the culture of working at an entertainment magazine, and I get what the concerns tend to be. That being said, Buzz is a trashy celebrity rag, while EW is a pretty amazing publication that doesn’t pander and is always well written. But the Buzz scenes were fun to write, especially because for Sean, who’s a struggling artist, his job as photo editor for Buzz is pure torture.

Tell me the story of how Accelerated got published.

I wrote a first draft of the book pretty quickly, in about a year. But it was terrible. I spent the next four years re-writing—the last couple in novelist Jennifer Belle’s writing workshop, which was invaluable. Along the way I cut other characters’ POVs along the way, and couldn’t figure out where to start the book for the longest time. At one point, the book included a big conspiracy plot, which I finally cut when I realized that the scariest part of this story is the truth at the heart of it. The over-the-top conspiracy pushed it into the realm of fantasy. I wanted to write a novel that was firmly rooted in reality. This could, and does, happen all the time, and when I focused on the characters at the heart of the book, making it a father-son story, it all finally came together. I was lucky that one of the first agents I went to, Stephanie Abou at Foundry, fell in love with the story and took me on right away. Finding a publisher proved more difficult. I was very close with one big house, and even met with the editor who wanted to buy it. But she was told by her marketing department that stories set in Manhattan private schools don’t sell. There was a lot of resistance across the board along the lines of, oh, it’s set in Manhattan, that’s already been done. Just when I’d pretty much lost all hope, an editor at Pegasus Books came to the table with a huge amount of enthusiasm and no marketing department to rain on her parade. I’ve continued to be impressed with the independent spirit of Pegasus and the dedication of its owners to publishing books they love. I could never have anticipated the publication path Accelerated has taken, but I couldn’t be happier with the way it’s turned out.

Is it strange being put in a position where you are expected to be an expert on ADD and medication?

I never meant to be a spokesperson. And I didn’t set out to write a book about an issue. I set out to write a novel about a parent having to make the impossible decision of whether to put his son on medication with either very little—or, if you’re on the internet, way too much—information to go on. As parents we just want to do the right thing to help our children, but it’s often impossible to know what the right thing is. I’m hoping that people will enjoy the book on a novelistic level, and care about Sean and Toby and root for Sean as he falls in love again after his marriage breaks up. But I also hope that it will spark a dialogue among parents who find themselves in the same position of having to decide whether to trust the experts or their gut. If people share information and create a community, maybe, hopefully, we’ll be able to make more informed, better decisions.

What’s next for you, writing-wise?

I’m itching to start a new book, but I don’t feel quite done with this one yet. I have some ideas banging around in my head, and as soon as things quiet down a little, I’m hoping to start something new. Because as we know, the first draft is going to be crap, so I might as well just get that out of the way as quickly as possible.

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