Author Interview: Steve Brezenoff

Steve BrezenoffSteve Brezenoff is the author of the brilliant book, Brooklyn, Burning, which I reviewed here yesterday.  He also has written The Absolute Value of -1, as well as many chapter books for younger children.  When I worked in an elementary school library, one of his chapter books, I Dare You, was a favorite among my students, so I frequently saw that book going in and out of my library.  When I learned that he was a local author here in the Twin Cities, and that we had mutual friends, I decided to reach out and ask for an interview, and Steve was gracious enough to agree.

His third YA novel, Guy in Real Life, will be out from Balzer + Bray in 2014. He grew up on Long Island, spent his twenties in Brooklyn, and now lives in Minneapolis with his wife, Beth, who is also a writer for children, and their son Sam.

It’s obvious while reading Brooklyn, Burning that New York City has a special place in your heart.  Having moved away from there, what do you miss about the city?

If I’m entirely honest, I most miss the food. There’s loads of great food here in the Twin Cities—No really, Mom. There is. But when it comes to some New York staples—like pizza on every corner and kind of sketchy-looking Chinese takeout and Dunkin Donuts and old-school favorites like egg creams and hot pastrami on rye with mustard and no one would even think of asking what kind of cheese on that sandwich!—it’s pretty much impossible to find the same thing out here.

Then again, back east, how many places are serving up hot dish? None.

How did you research the book, particularly the issue of homeless teens? 

The only research I did for Brooklyn, Burning—aside from living in Greenpoint for a year, but I was doing that anyway—was reading some blogs and newspaper articles about the warehouse fire and looking at lots and lots of amateur photography of the warehouse before, during, and after the fire. As far as how teens live on the streets, I admit I wasn’t going for the harsh realism here. I’ve read a little and seen plenty of photos of actual homeless teens—which is to say nothing of having grown up so close to New York City and having seen homeless teens in person many times. Sometimes I think I did something of a disservice to actual homeless youth by magicalizing (it’s a word if I say it’s a word) their experience: I gave Kid and Scout and Konny all the support they needed, places to sleep, safety, caring adults around every corner. In truth, the life of a homeless teen is far more harrowing, dangerous, and unpleasant.

Early on in writing Brooklyn, Burning, though, I decided the story would be something of a gritty urban fairy tale, and I wanted to maintain an air of quasimagic throughout Kid and Scout’s story.

(Note: Steve has a link on his website to donate to a local organization that provides assistance to homeless teens. Consider donating here.)

Brooklyn Burning has been described as “a rock and roll love story”. What kind of music do you listen to, and who are some of your favorite musicians?

I listen to all genres, from opera to hip-hop to bebop to Kraut-rock. More relevant when it comes to Brooklyn, Burning is the playlist I leaned on constantly during the year or so that I worked on the book. Quite a bit of it—and a link to a Spotify playlist—can be found here: Largehearted Boy Book Notes music playlist

Both Kid and Scout are written as gender-neutral characters.  It was welcomingly challenging as a reader, but how difficult was it to write them in that fashion?

It was surprisingly easy, and usually fun, too. Some readers have been frustrated by what they saw as a lack in physical detail for Kid and Scout, but in my experience—as a reader and writer—the difference in physical description of characters of different genders is pretty much nil. We want eye color, hair color, hair length, maybe a note about the physique. None of these require much in the way of gender details. If we as writers choose to use them, or as readers choose to find them, we might be imagining a difference exists. For example, in my next novel, Guy in Real Life, I describe a character as having broad but lean shoulders. The same character has long hair, and is sleekly muscled. Is that a boy or a girl?

Point, made.

I’ll admit, not for the first time, that it was at first by-the-way-no-big-deal a total accident. I wrote a couple of scenes—only one is in the final book—and since it was in this epistolary-like format, the genders remained ambiguous. I lay awake one night considering whether that was something I wanted to try for a novel length piece. I decided it was.

What YA authors do you admire?

You’re not asking me to pick favorites among my contemporaries, are you? That might put me in an awkward position. I’ll list some recent favorite titles:

I just finished Jaclyn Moriarty’s A Corner of White. It’s the sort of book that when I finish it, I need to read nothing for a couple of days so that the next thing I read will receive the attention it deserves. Moriarty’s writing is so elegant and surprising and magical and lovely.

I have to mention A.S. King’s Please Ignore Vera Dietz and Everybody Sees the Ants. I’ll read her new one soon, and I expect it will then enter this list.

I also loved Nova Ren Suma’s Imaginary Girls, because it’s creepy and lurid and beautifully written.

Sara Zarr’s How to Save a Life, which I felt is Zarr’s best realized novel thus far, is perfectly constructed and moving, with two genuine and distinct voices.

Finally, I admire the frequency with which YA authors Pete Hautman and Angela Johnson—two drastically different writers—create such tight, deep, emotionally complex stories and characters, and often win awards in the process.

How do you pick out a book to read? Are you a browser, a judge-by-the-cover guy, or do you read reviews/hear word of mouth testimonials/something else altogether?

It’s usually a combination of all these things. If a favorite author has a new book out, I’ll grab it first—it gets priority. But if my wife has read something—she’s a speed-reader; I’m the slowest reader ever—and she thinks I’ll love it, that gets moved to the top of the TBR pile too. Of course, I spend an unhealthy amount of time on Twitter and Facebook, so if some or other YA title is getting discussed a lot, I’ll look into it for sure. Sadly, since I’m such a slow reader, I often won’t give a book past page 20 or 30 to get me interested. I just don’t have time to read a book I don’t love.

What do you like to do when you are not writing?

I’m a stay-at-home dad for most of the week, so that takes up the bulk of my time. But otherwise, I like cycling and gaming. Look for me in Pandaria.

What is next for you? More YA stuff, elementary stuff, both?

My next YA novel, Guy in Real Life, will be coming from Balzer + Bray in 2014. It’s about gaming and gender and love and admiration and figuring out why we act the way we act, and what we can do about it. Of course, I’ve also always got a slew of chapter books coming out. Look for a handful of Field Trip Mystery titles and Ravens Pass thrillers from Stone Arch Books.

Thanks so much for doing this interview!  Final question:

Mackin always uses a flower on its website and marketing materials.  If you were a flower, which would you like to be?

Rather than a flower, I shall choose a houseplant: the wandering Jew.

RyanBlogger: Ryan H.