Later this week I’m flying out to Los Angeles. While there I’ll get to see the author I’m interviewing today, Steve Brezenoff, and tell him (yet again) how much I love his upcoming novel BROOKLYN, BURNING. As I’ve said before—like in this post recommending novels I’ve read recently—I want everyone, absolutely everyone, to read this book. It comes out September 1 from Carolrhoda Lab, and you have to get it. You just have to. I’m going to share an interview I did with Steve and… AND… I’m giving away an ARC of his novel now, so one of you can win it before it releases. Steve’ll even sign it too.
But first, before I attack Steve with questions, and before I tell you how to enter the giveaway, here’s more about this brilliant book. From the book summary:
When you’re sixteen and no one understands who you are, sometimes the only choice left is to run. If you’re lucky, you find a place that accepts you, no questions asked. And if you’re really lucky, that place has a drum set, a place to practice, and a place to sleep. For Kid, the streets of Greenpoint, Brooklyn, are that place. Over the course of two scorching summers, Kid falls hopelessly in love and then loses nearly everything and everyone worth caring about. But as summer draws to a close, Kid finally finds someone who can last beyond the sunset.
Brooklyn, Burning is the story of two summers in Brooklyn, two summers of fires, music, loss, and ultimately, love.
(Just a little aside to mention that, so far, it’s garnered starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and Kirkus! I am not the only one who wants everyone to read this book.)
Here’s what I asked Steve—and keep reading till the end for a chance to win an ARC!
BROOKLYN, BURNING isn’t the first novel you wrote—your debut YA novel THE ABSOLUTE VALUE OF -1 wove together intersecting voices and completely transported me back to high school, and you also wrote chapter books for younger readers, and maybe you have some trunk novels I don’t know about—but with your new novel BROOKLYN, BURNING you’ve created a story that, let’s be honest here, absolutely blew me away. To put it bluntly, I loved it and I feel like it changed me as a reader and as a person. Was BROOKLYN, BURNING a story you wanted to tell all along? Or do you think everything you wrote before it led you here? As someone who wrote many hundreds of pages before IMAGINARY GIRLS—which, in my heart, is the novel I always wanted to be writing—I know it was a long time coming and couldn’t have come first out of the gate for me. Was this similar for you?
Steve Brezenoff: Brooklyn, Burning has kind of a funny origin story. Get comfortable.
For many years in NYC, I considered myself something of a songwriter. I won’t get into it anymore, but the point is I had this one line that I’d wanted to use in a song, but never did. It was “I almost kissed you once.” It’s hardly genius. But anyway, fast forward about ten years, and I sat down at my dining room table here in St. Paul and typed it out, and I was immediately like, “Woah, I am not going down this road. I am not going to write an epistolary or something. No way.” But I kept going, and wrote one pretty strong scene off that first line. (It’s not in the finished book, but a slightly edited version is. The whole scene is similarly preserved. Dare you to find it.) I liked the scene. I decided I wanted to write the story of these two street kids in Greenpoint. It started to pour out of me pretty easily, at least at first.
At the same time, I was involved in a heated debate on a certain listserve, one that was related very directly to YA literature. I won’t get into that anymore, either, except to say that the subject of the debate was gender expectations, particularly with regard to dress codes at graduation ceremonies. You can guess how that influenced the novel.
But I have to say, to maybe return to your prompt, |-1| was more—in my heart—the novel I absolutely had to write. It was cathartic. Writing Brooklyn, Burning was exciting, and I felt really confident as I worked on it, which is quite rare for me. But it was not cathartic, and it’s not even particularly personal.
A real event in Brooklyn inspired an important piece of the plot for BROOKLYN, BURNING. Was there a moment when you knew this would spark a novel? Did you find that writing about something real confined you or freed you up even more to reimagining?
And then there’s the fire, which I didn’t even mention in the origin story above. I was a good chunk into the story—in fact, my (deceased) online writing group the Otters had already read 20k words or so—before the fire appeared. In doing my research/gathering inspiration, I came across loads of photos and news stories about the fire (which happened, like you see, for real, and pretty soon after I left Greenpoint in 2006). It then became obvious that Kid, a street teen in Greenpoint, would have to be involved somehow. Then I spent a good few months wallowing in the revisions and research it would take to make that happen in the story. It was not a productive period in my writing life. So, in a sense, it confined me, for sure. But at the same time, I knew it would also be my way out of a thinly-plotted character study.
When I was writing IMAGINARY GIRLS, I was writing about a place where I once lived but hadn’t visited in many years, and for some reason this distance—having to rely only on memory—brought the setting to life so much more than if I’d been surrounded by it every day. Where were you living when you wrote BROOKLYN, BURNING? The place is so vivid and alive in the pages of your book that I can picture you sitting on a Brooklyn street curb with your notebook scribbling out scenes… even though I know you live in Minnesota now. Do you find it easier or harder to write a place when you’re not in it?
Yeah, that was tough, and I wanted to make Greenpoint a character in itself. Here’s what helped, maybe: the year I spent living in Greenpoint was a solitary year. I’d just been through something difficult—and was still dealing with it—so I spent a lot of time alone, wandering around, really observing the place. That might have made the feeling of being there a little easier to recall. Also, like I mentioned above, I looked at loads of pictures and relied on Google Maps for some details. That said, I also gave myself a lot of freedom to, um, magicalize my old neighborhood. By that I mean that I wanted Greenpoint to appear quasi-magical, at least from my narrator’s point of view, so I let myself turn Greenpoint and Williamsburg into something like magical urban summer getaways. I wanted readers to feel like an elf might pop by at any moment, or a star might land on a roof, or someone might turn into a cat, and it would somehow fit. Of course, none of those things actually happen. Have you read How I Live Now? I think Meg Rosoff pulls off that vibe gorgeously in that book.
Let’s talk about voice. I mean VOICE. I love a strong, distinct first-person voice in fiction. Voice is what makes me connect to and admire a book, and sure I can enjoy books with fast-moving plots that make me want to find out what happens, but if the voice is flat or just functional I can’t ever love these books the way I do books with strong voices that cut through me. Kid’s voice cuts through me. I feel so deeply connected to the story because of it. How did you find Kid’s voice? Since your first novel is written from four intersecting POVs, did you ever want to tell this story from multiple characters’ perspectives, or did you always know it had to be told solely through Kid?
I toyed with the idea, yeah. I toyed with giving, specifically, Konny and Jonny their own voices, but only very briefly. Perhaps I dismissed the idea quickly because, like you say, I’d just done that with |-1|, and I didn’t like the idea of repeating myself.
How did I find Kid’s voice? I have no idea, I’m afraid. It came pretty naturally from that first line and first scene I wrote, and it didn’t change much right through to the last revision. I think Kid cursed less as I wrote—much of the early cursing was probably residual Noah cursing, since I wrote him last in |-1|.
That’s a terrible answer, isn’t it? I just don’t know where characters’ voices come from. I just know when they’re working. I once saw Swati Avasthi read, and she talked about voice a little—I think she teaches a class on voice, actually—and she said it was somewhat akin to the Method school of acting. Maybe that’s a bit much, but it does seem to fit. Kid, Konny, and Felix—and Scout, to a lesser degree—were my whole world while I was working hard on Brooklyn, Burning. I spent my days looking for them in the real world, imagining what they’d be doing in my environment—at the grocery store, on the street, in a diner, whatever. It got so I felt like I was hanging out with them and studying them all the time.
You and I, we both have a publishing background, don’t we? We both worked as production editors (for those who don’t know, that’s the in-house person at a publishing house who manages the copyediting side of things for a book) at different children’s publishers. Maybe you had other jobs, too. I do know that being a production editor is a completely non-creative job that, at least for me, made me long even more to go home on my off hours and write. It made me hunger to be creative. Desperately. Did your experience working on the other side of the desk affect your writing in any way? Did being in publishing give you any knowledge that helped you get published, as it did for me?
This is going to sound so, so petty, but I’ll tell you how working as a production editor at a young-adult imprint influenced me creatively. I did a lot of moaning to anyone who would listen, to the tune of, “If all these people can sell their manuscripts, why the hell can’t I?” It got me off my lazy, unproductive butt. Of course, I was also living on my own in NYC, an expensive town, so most of my free time went to paying freelance copyediting work. Hence, I didn’t really get productive till I moved out here, to cheap-as-chips St. Paul.
As for the practical aspect of getting published, I learned enough so that I shouldn’t have made so many mistakes when it came to submitting. I did everything wrong. Luckily, I also submitted to the coolest editor in YA, who happens to live in St. Paul too. Score.
Part of the great beauty of BROOKLYN, BURNING is how the characters’ definition of gender and sexual identity are left open, never labeled. Kid can’t be put into a box. Neither can Scout. As I read, again and again I found myself reimagining what Kid and Scout looked like, until finally I realized it didn’t matter. Whatever conclusion I was left with I will keep to myself as I think it’s important for each reader to decide this alone. I do wonder about you, though. In leaving this open for your readers, was it also open for you as you wrote? Do you have your own images of Kid and Scout that you keep secret, or were you writing without forcing yourself to answer that question and attach any labels?
Ooh, I don’t know how to answer this! I think I wavered a lot, to be honest. I think sometimes things were one way in my mind, and sometimes another, and sometimes a third way, but most of the time, things were just no way: most of the time, they were just Kid and Scout, and I knew them and their voices—and even how they looked, especially to each other.
This is a book I want to give out to kids on street corners, on subway platforms. To homeless kids. To LGBTQ kids. To anyone questioning or unsure of how they fit. Congratulations on writing such an important, stunning novel that inspires such passion. Did you write this with a certain audience in mind? Do you have an ideal reader who you’d like to hand this book over to on subway platforms?
Thank you for such kind words, first of all. Second of all, and I hope this doesn’t sound terrible, but I don’t give much thought to who will be reading what I’m writing as I write it. In fact, if I think too much about it, I go back and forth between wanting every single person on earth to read this right now, and wanting absolutely no one to read it ever. It’s probably a neurosis.
Now that the book is done, and it’s going to be out in the world probably any day now, I have a similar issue happening. Sure, I want this book to be read and loved by kids . . . which is to say Kids. But at the same time, I don’t want anyone who might see themselves in it to get too close to the book, because they’ll undoubtedly see something I got wrong.
I’m really excited that I got to ask Steve all those writing questions, and thrilled he was patient enough to answer them.
And now, do you want to win a signed ARC of BROOKLYN, BURNING? (I will answer that for you. Yes. Yes, you do.) To enter, just leave a comment on this post. That’s it. Your comment can be anything. But this is US only, sorry!
(I’m closing this giveaway this Monday, August 8, while I’m still in LA, so let’s say at 9pm PST, and I’ll reveal the winner soon after!)