When you’re 13 years old, it behooves you to think in “we,” terms. There is something communal about your suffering and your obsessions; it is safer if you all hate the same person, or wear the same color of nail polish. Dizz Tate captures the sticky, grabby feeling of puberty in her addictive, haunting debut novel Brutes, which was inspired by her obsession with Florida, mid-aughts teen stardom, and puberty.
The novel is told from the perspective of a group of 13-year-old girls who speak like a Greek chorus, mimicking the brutal, obsessive, naive groupthink of being a teenager, when all you want is to be like everybody else.
“I think I was embarrassed the entire year when I was 13,” Tate says over the phone from her home in England, where she lives now after having spent much of her adolescence in Florida. “I remember 13 being just a lot of weird decisions and feeling completely so confused and trying to get through the day, and also being also in love with everything at the same time.”
The pack mentality serves the girls’ safety, too. They are always in danger of something: a dark lake, another father leaving, a girl’s leg getting chewed off by the alligator – and Brutes tells the story of a town upended when the preacher’s daughter Sammy, who is the sun of the girls’ obsessive orbit, goes missing.
“Our mothers call us brutes when they want us to feel bad. It is what they call men they do not like, like our dads,” Tate writes. “We tried to make ourselves small. We were coiled up but we were not broken. And we knew our mothers’ idea of goodness was not measured by morals but by how much noise we made. And we quickly grew tired of trying to be good in their way.”
The book is interspersed with the 13-year-olds’ narrative and the girls as they are older, all coming to terms with their own knowledge of the town’s dark secrets. Set in 2006, Falls Landing, Florida with all its “curled shells of dead roaches in the carpet borders,” “terracotta-colored outlet malls” air you can “squeeze like a street ball,” and “scored bougainvillea flowers,” is also fame-obsessed, the kind of fame that promises you a one-way ticket to a new life by signing up for dance classes from a place called Star Search held at a local mall.
“[I think] what every 13-year-old girl wants in a way is to wake up the next day and be someone else. There's something so tragic about that, but it also just feels very true,” Tate says. “I think the idea was that fame is always tied up with being loved…We didn't really see any other options for escape at that time that felt most accessible, even though it was probably the least accessible.”
NYLON spoke with Tate ahead of the book’s release about how the most embarrassing things we wore when we were teenagers, her obsession with Florida, and fame-obsessed mid-aughts culture.
I’d love to hear about the genesis for this book.
I started out only writing short stories. I was also fascinated with and wrote a lot about Florida and being 13. It felt almost like a scientific problem. I couldn't stop thinking about that age and how strange and specific it was for me. I also think it was the first age I really remember, because being a child to me feels almost like that could've been a stranger. But being 13, I really remember being in my body. I think it's how when you're embarrassed, that you really remember those embarrassing memories. I think I was just embarrassed the entire year when I was 13.
I wrote a little about that and then about five years ago started trying to write a novel. I'd been working as a waitress and I was working in schools as a teaching assistant, and then I would write on my own when I wasn't at work. I did a bunch of drafts; I did the thousand words a day thing, and just kept trying to write something that felt true to that age. I think it was going between voices, going from first person to third person. Ending up with that “we” voice was when things clicked a little bit and I was like, "Oh, this is great.” It's funny, it can be creepy and weird. They have their own language and that felt really true to me in the end.
It almost feels like there's no other way to tell this story because they are so tight-knit and they are so groupthink in their cruelty and in their obsessions, and that really does capture what it is to be that age.
I think that's a kind of needy, grabby expression of love felt for the first time. All your feelings are so strong, they need to be shared and to be expressed accurately, but you don't really have the awareness yet to process things as an individual. You're so aware of what social relationships mean and what you mean in terms to all the people, and so I think acting as a group just felt accurate to me for that age. It felt strong in a way that I remember and fearless and obnoxious. And then also it felt kind of panicky because you're scared of the group disbanding, as well, so it's those two things always acting at the same time.
“Grabby,” is such a good word, because it's so gross. Being that age is so disgusting! I would love to hear more about what being 13 was like for you and how you tapped back into some of those really gross feelings.
I find it so interesting because I also think it's something that's quite rarely portrayed. I feel like our image of the teenage experience, particularly in America, comes through films where often it's older actors playing younger parts and they look a bit more put together. But the reality of that age is you're so young, you're so uncomfortable in your skin for that age.
One thing I really remember so clearly is going to the YMCA pre-teen dance, and I feel like the outfit I chose really represents the feeling: I remember finding one of my brother's old big hoodies, sweatshirts that went down to my knees, and then cutting up a pair of jeans that were way too tight and cutting them off really high. And I was like, "Okay, this is a great outfit." It's that kind of weird dichotomy when it's like you want to dress in a sack, but you also feel this need to show your body, but you don't know how to, and it's just so confusing and yet difficult.
Now, I feel so sympathetic towards it, because I almost feel like when the girls are cruel and mean, to me, it doesn't even seem cruel, because you can tell the insecurity is so on the premise that it becomes kind of a joke. I remember 13 being a lot of weird decisions and feeling completely so confused and trying to get through the day, and also being also in love with everything at the same time, so a lot of emotions at the same time, which is a great place as a writer to write about because that's just endless opportunity.
Media representations really don’t emphasize how gross it is. I remember watching Gossip Girl and you think that that's what being a teenager is.
That's what we grew up with. When you were 13 you were like, "Oh, okay. Serena van der Woodsen is a normal teenager."
I feel like PEN15 is the only show that is really trying to show how gross being a teenager is.
Oh, my God, yes. I felt like that was so accurate and weird and yet true. I think [being 13] is so tacky and it's texture, as well. It's also because you don't have any money. When you're 13, you're counting up dollar bills, I don't know, wearing weird plastic. I remember all these plastic beads and all different colors. I thought that was a really cool look.
I feel like I wore so many extremely tight Abercrombie T-shirts that said things like "Brown-eyed girl" on them, really embarrassing stuff. I loved a really right graphic tee, which is so funny because you're pitting out, and sweating in it and it's so deeply unflattering.
It was so that combo between: it's slightly, flattering and always a little bit sweaty
A really great era. I would love to also hear a little bit more about the era of 2005-2006 especially, which is when the book is set. I felt like there was such a pervasive celebrity obsession happening. I remember Star Search entities sticking their claws into my city, too. It really felt like you could get discovered and change your whole life.
I think the idea of being discovered, it was so [a time when] models at the mall were being found in Forever 21, it was this great leveler. It was this idea that you don't have to come from money, it’s like “Oh, maybe I have something that'll mean that I get picked and I get to live a kind of fascinating new life." I think now there's a bit more knowledge about how systems work, how they favor some and don't favor for others. Looking back, I see it as a real tragedy because there was still this hope that if I make myself pretty enough, someone's going to kind of give me the chance to be famous and be loved. I think the idea was that fame is always tied up with being loved.
It seems very religious in how young girls sort of pursued it and I'm sure pursue it now in the same way, and there's something beautiful about it. There's something deeply sad about it to me, something that makes me feel very protective and maternal. I think I was kind of interested in it, but we didn't really see any other options for escape at that time that felt most accessible, even though it was probably the least accessible.
For me, wanting fame like that always felt like an above board way of running away from home.
It was complete escape. It was complete reinvention, which I think is what every 13-year-old girl wants in a way – is to wake up the next day and be someone else. There's something so tragic about that, but it also just feels very true. And I think it does go into adulthood as well. I think a lot of people kind of harbor that impulse in a way, and it's interesting how that can be manipulated, how that makes you vulnerable. It's sort of beautiful and tragic at the same time.
That's well said. The last kind of area I want to ask about is Florida, which is a muse for so many people. People love to hate on it, but it is a magical and very fertile place.
It was kind of an obsession, I think, because we lived there for 10 years, but [my family] was on temporary visas, so I was never kind of a permanent fix. I think when you get thrown into a situation where you are a stranger, I always felt almost like I was watching it. It felt incredibly cinematic to me from a really young age, like a movie that was playing, because it just seemed so extreme to me. I loved the sense of freedom in it. It made me feel free because it was different from my parents and where they had grown up. It kind of did feel like I was able to establish my own self or my own life there.
I made this group of friends when I was 13 and they all lived in an apartment complex nearby. I used to walk and go over there every weekend basically and we would just run around. Because we were still too young to drive, it was all very much like, "Okay, let's walk to the vending machine or let's walk down the highway to Walmart." I remember us walking miles in this sweltering heat to go and try on lip gloss and probably try and steal it from the Walmart, not wearing shoes and being kind of gross, but also very, very free and working in our own surroundings.
We would take loads and loads of pictures but not do anything with them because there wasn't anywhere to publish them. It was really creative and naive and beautiful, and I think the sun was shining every day. You get these huge storms, it all feels a little bit apocalyptic, but mainly I remember this sense of wildness and freedom that meant so much to me as a kid. When I look back now, you kind of are like, "Oh, that was dangerous." But at the time we felt sort of so in control and invincible. I see that in girls now as well. But with Florida, that kind of wildness, it's just always matched in the landscape. It's a really great place to write about because of that.
Do you feel like you had maybe an outsider's perspective of it in some ways that helped you realize what a special place it was?
For sure. I think I idealized it. Friends who still live there sometimes used to say, "You idealized the experience," because I saw it as somewhere that was such a place of extremes. It was so fascinating to me. I was also kind of attracted to the slightly strange even then, and I loved that. Every day felt like a story was playing out that you could go in your backyard and there’d be an alligator being pulled out of the lake, or a snake in someone's swimming pool, or you were being chased around your room by a flying cockroach. I think even as I was living those experiences, I was in my head being like, "Oh, this would make a good story. This is interesting to me."
Where in Florida did you live?
In Orlando. It could be one of the most extreme examples of putting lipstick on a swamp basically, and trying to make it look pretty – and the swamp kind of winning every time.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.