Friday, June 25, 2010

Friday Feature: Journeys Toward Publication and Beyond: Steve Brezenoff

Welcome everyone to another Friday Feature.  I'm very excited to kick off the summer session of blog interviews with the fantastic Steve Brezenoff.  Steve has a great blog, awesome website and entertaining book trailer.  Make sure to check them out on your way out today!

Here's a little bit about Steve: Steve Brezenoff has written several chapter books for young readers, and The Absolute Value of -1 is his first novel for teens. Though Steve grew up in a suburb on Long Island, he now lives with his wife, their son, and their terrier in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Thanks so much for being here today, Steve.  Your book, The Absolute Value of -1, is coming out in September 2010.  Tell us a little about it.  

I'm taking this straight from the jacket copy: 
Noah, Lily, and Simon have been a trio forever. But as they enter high school, their relationships shift and their world starts to fall apart. Privately, each is dealing with a family crisis—divorce, abuse, and a parent’s illness. Yet as they try to escape the pain and reach out for the connections they once counted on, they slip—like soap in a shower. Noah’s got it bad for Lily, but he knows too well Lily sees only Simon. Simon is indifferent, suddenly inscrutable to his friends. All stand alone in their heartache and grief.
In his luminous YA novel, Steve Brezenoff explores the changing value of relationships as the characters realize that the distances between them are far greater than they knew.

What is your writing process like?  How did The Absolute Value of -1 come about?

It's kind of a long story. During my senior year of college, I think the fall semester, I took a class on creative writing for children (which included writing for young adults). The final project for that class was to be a picture book, or a short story. I wrote a short story (called "Looking Down on Havoc"; ten points to whoever finds that as a line in the new book), about a boy obsessed with death and very close with his big sister. I always really liked that story, so over the next 14 years, I expanded it, wrote more scenes, and eventually had it at novella length, I'd say. The kid got older, the story bolder, and the cast of characters larger. Finally I decided I'd submit it to publishers. After some interest with a caveat, I fleshed out two characters in particular (Lily and Noah, naturally) and gave them each their own voice. That's when the novel was complete, nearly 15 years after I created the protagonist.

Thanks for the insight, Steve--I love knowing the roots of a story.  Fifteen years is impressive. How did you end up connecting with your agent?  

I actually contacted several agents after I was expecting an offer on the book. So, I switched up the normal process a bit. Anyway, my agent and I met over the phone, discussed JD Salinger and the Grateful Dead, and that was all I needed to know.

What was the submission process like/how did you connect with your publisher?

Some details are above, but I'll add that I met my editor at the local SCBWI conference in 2008, where he gave a seminar on YA voice. As a presenter, he's obligated to review queries from conference goers for several months, and he kept his end of that bargain.

How did life change for you (or didn't change) after connecting with your agent?

It didn't much change at that point. I mean, a lot was happening at once: an agent, an incoming offer on |-1| . . . the real possibility of becoming a career author. So, ya know. That was nice. 

What are you currently working on?

A few things. My current "backburner" project is a YA with slight paranormal leanings, but more importantly features a protagonist addicted to online gaming. So that's fun. Yesterday I started something new, and immediately got down 5000 words, which felt great. It had been ages since I did any free writing like that. Anyway, it's a YA too, naturally, and 100% realistic fiction, based very loosely on the Squeeze song "Vicky Verky," which is on Argy Bargy. You can listen to it here, if you like:

What made you start to write seriously?

It's been so long since I wanted to do anything else! I didn't really act on my ambitions much at all, though, until my son was born in 2008. I was already writing a lot of work-for-hire stuff, but my novel ideas sat collecting dust. Something about having a child got me to really make an effort, though, and soon after he was born I attended that SCBWI conference I mentioned above.

What, if anything, has surprised you about your journey toward publication and beyond?

My biggest surprise was getting an email from Sara Zarr, a real YA literary hero of mine, in which she complimented my book and my prose. I could hardly breathe for two days.

What type of publicity have you done to get the word out about your book?

Hm. I hope I've done some. I'll be showing up on a few blogs as we get closer to release date, and I made a trailer, which you can see on the front page of my website.  That trailer got a little attention, I suppose. And of course we're having a release party for |-1| at Magers & Quinn in Minneapolis on September 23. I'm sure I'll be promoting that event as well.

If you had to pick one favorite blog, what would it be?

Well, I'll tell you, but it's not remotely literary. is my favorite, hands down. I read it religiously and comment with some regularity. It's about pizza.

What online resource have you found most helpful? 

This is going to sound obvious, but Google. I use it constantly when writing fiction, and it takes me where I need to be. I'm not talking about really intense research, but when i can't remember which Lemonheads album came out in 1992 (It's a Shame About Ray, by the way), it will tell me.

Ah, google!  Essential for writing research and even the occasional blogging game... but I digress.  Steve, what has been your biggest trial in writing?

WAITING. Or maybe that's my biggest trial in publishing. Whatever. It's waiting. I freaking hate waiting, and there is so much of it in publishing.

What tricks have you acquired to make you write or create when you don’t feel up to writing?

Thankfully, I often have work-for-hire stuff to do, and the people who give me such work aren't interested in whether I feel up to writing. They instead are interested in deadlines, which I have to meet. So, feeling it or not, I write. Then, after a few sentences or paragraphs or pages, I'm usually back in the swing of things. And if not? Tough noogies. It's like writing through mud, but ya gotta keep going.

Tough noogies.  That takes me back to childhood.  Although, I think that the full phrase is: 'tough noogies, as they say in France.'  That's the way I always heard it.  Steve, share with us a favorite blog post that you have written.

Once again, it's not remotely literary, but this one has always been very popular.

Tell us about a book that has impacted your writing life.

People are probably sick of my saying this. It's cliched and sort of unpopular at the moment, I think, but the book that influenced my writing the most is The Catcher in the Rye. Holden's voice is a character in that book, and if you don't like it, you don't like the book. Take him or leave him. I think that's my attitude when I write. If you don't like my characters or the way they present themselves, you won't like my books. 

From a craft/instruction point of view, I haven't read much on craft. I recently have been close with John Gardner's The Art of Fiction, and I highly recommend it to writers who can handle being knocked around quite a bit.

What is your practical goal with your writing?  Do you have a reach-for-the-stars goal that you would like to share?

A Printz would be nice. :)

Indeed! Steve, if you could create the perfect writing space, what would it look like?

Ahhh. What a lovely question. There would be a nice big desk, and a comfy chair that fit in front of the desk. And a perfect little raised spot for my laptop so my right shoulder wouldn't go numb after 30 minutes. And there would be bookcases built right into the walls. And a very good sound system. Also a magical coffee machine. And also a wall-mounted high-def wide-screen monitor for video-gaming breaks. It could be hidden behind sliding bookcases! Coooool.

Oh, magical coffee machine.  So excellent!  So far, what has been the best part of your writing experience?

When my editor told me he'd be making an offer! We were at a local pizza chain, and he then left, and I got a huge brownie sundae and celebrated quietly and smiling.

Wow, a face to face offer!  Very cool.  Steve--if you could be a character in a book, and live within their world, what character would you be?

I'm just getting into this Mysterious Benedict Society series, by Trenton Lee Stewart, so I'd have to go with them. I'd hate to become one of the kids, though. Maybe I could be Milligan, the secret agent.

What other distractions do you have in your life? 

My number one distraction is Sam, my almost-two-year old. And really, with a toddler running around my house, do I really need ANOTHER distraction?

And, just because I’m curious, coffee or tea?

I have a huge mug of tea every morning, and often in the afternoon as well. But while I'm out writing (yes, I go to coffee shops to write; please refer to the second to last question), I drink lots and lots of coffee ... often decaf.

Steve, thanks so much for doing this interview.  Everyone, be sure to leave a question or a comment for Steve, since he'll check back to answer our questions!  And, be sure to look for his book, coming out September 1st, 2010. 

Edited to add:  We're going multimedia today, what Steve's video book trailer, and this link to a podcast where Steve talks about the title and characters of his book.  More to whet your appetite for the read in September!

Edited, edited to add: Want to read Steve's answers to your awesome questions?  He answered them in this post at his blog.  Isn't he a stand-up guy??


  1. Steve--That must have been amazing, getting such glowing feedback from Sara Zarr! Thanks again for doing the interview today! Tell me,do you write on a set schedule, or do you just find time throughout your day? It can be so hard to find extra hours when you have a young child.

  2. The book sounds great. It's now on my TBR pile. Loved the interview.

    Good luck, Steve, on the book!

  3. Thanks Steve and Heather, for a great interview.

    I've been hearing about your book in several places online. I can't remember where right now, but it has a very catchy title.

    I'd love to hear the story behind the title and how you came up with it?


  4. Steve,

    It's been great following your journey these past months and learning about your affinity for the color orange and receiving the awesome posters I received via your blog.

    I would love to be Milligan any day! He is my second favorite character from those books, my first being his double (you'll see).

    Also, I think it's awesome that your journey to publication seems so local. That would probably never happen in the backwoods where I live, but I'll dream a little.

    Also, also, a Printz would be nice, wouldn't it?

  5. Great interview! I think it's interesting that you did the whole agent/book deal backwards, because I am going through that same thing right now -- and it's just as nerve-wracking as doing it forwards!

    Like Paul, I'd be interested in hearing about the title and the cover!

  6. Yay, Steve! I am so looking forward to your book!

    As for a question: I know you have several manuscripts in various stages of done-ness and I wonder if your process is the same on them all. How has book writing changed for you after finishing the first?

  7. Awesome. I love hearing publishing journeys. Thanks to both of you! And congrats!

  8. writing through mud.

    Hahahaha! I know that feeling. Congrats on your book and thanks for the backstory on it. I never get tired of hearing how story ideas germinate.

  9. I love how you came about your story, Steve. It's great to hear how you saw something more in that short story and kept it alive. Kudos!! Looking forward to reading the full story.

  10. Hi everyone, thanks so much for stopping by and giving Steve some love. Paul and Dianne, I found this podcast of Steve talking about the title. I'll edit the post to include it, but here is the link:

  11. what an awesome interview. Steve's story is so inspiring! i can't wait to read the book :D :D

    it sounds fantastic!

    a big thank you to you both for sharing!!

  12. How great that this story has been gelling in your brain for 15 years! I'll be looking for it this fall :)

  13. Awesome interview!! I already added Steve's book to my goodreads... Now I'm just waiting, waiting, waiting till it comes out and I can read!

  14. Thanks Steve. Your story is really inspiring, especially since my book is also taking a LONG time to finish. Your book sounds great. Can't wait to read it.

  15. Thanks for all the great comments and questions, everyone! Keep them coming! Steve is actually going to answer them all in a post at his blog, early next week. Have a great weekend!

  16. Another very cool interview. Thanks Heather and Steve. Really interesting to hear how the book evolved over time. I'll be looking for this in September, too.