Bryant Loney talks Nickelodeon, the 2000s and his new novel, “Sea Breeze Academy.”
Bryant Loney is a junior at TU with two published novels to his name — and a third on the way. This isn’t just remarkable for someone his age, or for the fact that he’s been balancing the pursuit of an education while he wrote his most recent novel, “Sea Breeze Academy”; it stands out to me as something pleasantly concrete in a field where writers, myself included, often do not follow up their ambitions with actual writing.
When I asked Loney how he developed such a passion for literature, he answered, “Only writing comes naturally to me. Fully dedicating myself to storytelling as a medium of self-expression has allowed me to channel my energy beyond the tortured artist rhetoric and into something more positive.” That something isn’t just an enthusiasm for fiction, but grammar as well: “Subject/verb agreement, parallel constructions, collocations, and so on,” he says.
Besides creative writing, Loney studies education policy and women & gender studies, something he can hardly keep from influencing his work. “Because of race, gender, age, class, sexuality and learning disabilities, no two people enter a room as equals, and it would be foolish to pretend as such,” he said. He voiced his desire that gender asymmetry and the lack of diversity be recognized in entertainment and media, and he stressed the importance of this in his work. “Writing is about truth, whether it be fiction or a school essay. Don’t give in and ‘fake it till you make it.’ Criticize what upsets you,” he said.
It’s interesting to hear how Loney has incorporated that search for truth in his novels no matter how strange their premise. His first published work, “Exodus in Confluence,” was meant to examine “school shooters under the guise of a post-apocalyptic confessional.” His first novel, “To Hear the Ocean Sigh,” examined the impact technology has had on contemporary teens and their friendships. Finally, “Take Me to the Cat” is about “nostalgia, sexuality, religious fanaticism, Michael Jackson and the right to privacy.”
Loney’s newest book, “Sea Breeze Academy,” continues to blend human truth with fictional absurdities. In it, the students of an elite boarding school on the California coast realize they are in a TV show; worse still, it’s their fifth and potentially last season. Loney’s search for truth here manifests in the characters’ reactions to this realization. Often in media, when this kind of self-awareness is addressed, “the tendency for writers is to have them crack a joke, to have them give a knowing wink to the audience.” That’s not how the students at Sea Breeze Academy react.
“If I discovered my life were staged,” Loney said, “I would feel angry, confused, devastated. No jokes. Such a realization would break a person, and likewise, I wanted to break the stock characters we grew up loving: the smart one, the pretty one, the jokester, the muscle, the quirk.”
Loney’s fetching these stereotypes from the same early 2000s shows he was raised by. Much of these are the mainstream successes of Nickelodeon, Disney Channel or Cartoon Network, anything from tween sitcoms like “Drake & Josh” to inventive animated shows like “Danny Phantom.” The most important part of looking back on these shows, for Loney, was to identify how the children’s shows of the ‘90s, 2000s and 2010s have addressed the maturation of characters and continuity in a medium that usually prefers “heartless humor and platitudes over legitimate life lessons.” Loney went on to cite Hannah Montana, a “guilty pleasure” but also, he argues, a “well-deserved success for Disney,” for its balancing of comedic misadventures and more sincere, dramatic moments.
“Sea Breeze Academy” is as much a meta-narrative of these shows as it is a parody of them, and the novel simultaneously operates as a part of Loney’s Honors Plan on education, protest culture, identity as performance and family values in children’s television. That such an unusual premise might even begin to address these lofty concepts sounds a lot more feasible when one hears him elaborate on his understanding of the shows “Sea Breeze Academy” mirrors.
“‘Hannah Montana,’ ‘Wizards of Waverly Place,’ ‘The Suite Life of Zack & Cody’ … these shows are based on wish fulfillment, saying kids can live these eccentric lives as a pop star in disguise, as a wizard in Manhattan or in a palace of a hotel,” he said. Loney, instead, commends the empowerment and legitimization of children as a viable audience, something Nickelodeon pioneered when it dedicated its programming entirely to children in 1984. The network, Loney explained, strayed from Disney and other family-friendly channels to forge its own path on television by showing not what parents approved but what kids wanted to see.
“Sea Breeze Academy,” in part, addresses where Nickelodeon went wrong. In his own words, “The network saw an increased focus on licensing and merchandising, mass-marketed feminism, formulaic structure, Cool with a capital C and perhaps patronizing exclusivity rather than genuine inclusivity.”
Life at Sea Breeze Academy is sure to resemble life at TU in some measure, this being the first novel Loney has written while attending the university. But students can also look out for more specific references, like Springfest, the 2016 ban on hoverboards or a whole slew of fictional campus buildings named after Loney’s own professors, such as Parssinen Hall, Dutton Suites and the G. M. Jenkins Administration Offices.
“TU students should feel right at home at Sea Breeze Academy,” Loney said. “Take a shot every time a character mentions their tuition.”
“Sea Breeze Academy” is due to release on Tuesday, June 26, 2018, in print, audiobook and ebook formats via Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iTunes and various other major retailers.