The Absolute Value of -1

I almost forgot! I have a copy of Steve’s book to give away. Leave a comment below to enter. It doesn’t have to be witty or insightful. You can just say “I exist!” or “An otter is nothing like an elephant shrew.” It all counts.

Most Minnesota authors get published in New York. Steve Brezenoff did it backwards, sending himself from New York to the Twin Cities and now actively publishing with Carolrhoda Lab and Stone Arch Books, both local publishers. He’s a good guy, despite the Yankees cap, and a great writer. I read his debut young adult novel last weekend, and then discovered it was unofficially released and shipping from Amazon.com.

The Absolute Value of -1 is somewhat but not dauntingly experimental, with four young adults (three high-schoolers, one college student) relating events, each with his or her own skew and bias. The college student is a secondary (but integral) character who provides brief bracketing passages, but the bulk of the book is three longer bits by high school sophomores who comprise a love triangle, each of the three dealing with personal and family issues (addiction, divorce, abuse, and death) and focusing on their own story while being there and not there for the other two. The pacing of the four narrations is done really well, the voices are distinct, the characters each flawed, authentic, honest, and evoking a lot of sympathy. All of the sections are excellent on their own, but the whole is more than the sum of its parts, the characters’ different takes on things at times humorous, poignant, and illuminating.

Here’s Steve’s book trailer, featuring his own art work and music.

I asked Steve to answer a few questions, which follow.

As a kid growing up in New York, did you dream of one day having a Minneapolis publisher?

I don’t think I knew what a publisher was growing up in NY. I didn’t harbor any thoughts regarding Minneapolis at all, actually, until I heard Hüsker Dü and The Replacements. That’s when I started wishing very quietly in my own head to live here some day.

I love those bands too. Taking friends and family out of it, what do you miss most about New York? And what do you like most about the Twin Cities?

We don’t really need to take friends and family out of it at all (ha!), because what I miss most about New York is the food. You should see my mental schedule any time I’m about to take a trip back east. It’s generally which restaurants I need to get to, and when I’ll squeeze them in. Beyond that, I miss the ability to live so easily, year round, with no car, and I miss Brooklyn.

I think my favorite things about the Twin Cities are a bit more pragmatic, like the relatively high quality of life, and the fact that this is where my family started. The cycling is great, too, and honestly much of the food isn’t that bad. Oh, and beers. So many great local beers.

Good music, great beer, and not-that-bad food… I think that’s the Twin Cities unofficial motto! (Note: neither Steve or myself endorses consumption of beer by those under age 21.)

Tell the MudMambas readers your story about how you got your first YA book deal, because it’ll give people false hopes that it really ever happens that way.

I know, right? I almost feel guilty spreading this around, but I met Andrew Karre at our local SCBWI conference in the fall of 2008. I handed him my resume, which I should probably explain. On the front was my relevant experience (mostly the chapter books I’d written for a different local publisher), and on the back was a collection of two or three . . . well, let’s call them queryettes. It was the least rule-following way of approaching an editor in the history of the world, maybe. But perhaps my biggest foul: none of the projects I listed on the back were actually finished! Seriously, don’t try this at home. Andrew contacted me soon after the conference and asked for a full on whichever projects I wanted to submit, so I banged out the last thousand or so words of the YA project and sent it to him.

As far as he was concerned, though, it still wasn’t finished.

I hear a lot of good things about Andrew as an editor. What’s the biggest contribution he made to the finished book? How much changed in editing?

Quite a lot was added, but very little was changed. After Andrew saw the novella, though he liked it, he found it felt half-baked. He was right. I wrote the additional two major sections, and then we were both pretty satisfied. There was some scene shuffling in our final revisions, and a word choice here or there that we quibbled over, but not much heavy changing went on after that.

You’ve written a bunch of books for much younger kids, some as Steve Brezenoff and some under the name Eric Stevens, who’s been on the bestseller list. The differences are obvious for content and style, so I’ll ask the less obvious question — how do the chapter books help you write non-linear YA?

I think to some degree I rebel against those chapter books when I start a YA novel. That is, those books, though I love them, follow a pretty clear formula. They have fairly simple plots, settings, and characters. They never use flashbacks. That’s because they are planned, written, and designed specifically for kids who strive to read better, but are tripped up by some of the more complicated literary tools we enjoy using as writers. So in a sense, I let myself be a little more experimental and, yes, non-linear when I’m working on something that is NOT work-for-hire.

The Absolute Value of -1 has four narrators. Did you conceive of the book that way from the start, or did it evolve as you tried different voices and perspectives? Did the characters of Lily, Noah, and Simon come to you separately or did you always think of them as a triad?

The book started out with only Simon narrating. Lily and Noah were much flatter (ahem) characters then. When my editor and I realized something had to be done to make Simon’s novella into a true novel, some brainstorming with my wife produced the idea of writing the sophomore year from the other two angles. It came pretty naturally once I got started, aside from perfecting Lily’s first-person voice. I hadn’t written much in the way of female narrators before then, so I conducted a little exercise: I free-wrote about a hundred pages from a girl’s POV, then felt I’d finally gotten to a good voice for Lily. It turned out being a lot of fun, getting to know Noah and Lily (and even Suzanne) much better.

Are there a real-world Lily and Noah back in New York? Do you think they know about the book?

Between you, me, and the web? Both characters are loosely based on real-life friends. However, as their characters developed, and then as Lily and Noah’s own sections developed, they really left their real-life inspiration somewhere else and became people of their own. Yes, both real-life inspirers know about the book, but I don’t think either of them knows a character is based on them. I have a feeling they will figure it out. Well, the Lily one might. The Noah one most likely won’t read it. I think. Hmm. Uh-oh.

Did you notice I assumed you’re Simon? How accurate is that?

Yes, very subtle. In truth, I wasn’t much like Simon in high school at all. I didn’t even start wearing a baseball cap till college, and that was a Toronto Blue Jays hat my father bought for me when he and my mom vacationed up there in 1993. But I digress. Some of Simon’s internal stuff is very much the internal snark I would have had as an adolescent. Some of his home life is similar to mine as well. (I do not have and never have had a sister, rest assured.) But most poignantly, while I was first working on Simon’s story, my father did get sick and, within a year, die of pancreatic cancer. I was in my twenties, but I felt I had to write about it. Simon’s already existent obsession with death became a stronger focus.

It was that connection that made me see you in Simon, and I thought that section was powerful and well-done. Was writing about that loss therapeutic?

It definitely was therapeutic. It helped me to process a lot of what had happened during the six months or so he was fighting the disease, and since I used Simon and his voice to do so, it let me channel a much more raw version of myself. By that I mean that an adolescent mind—my adolescent mind, maybe—was a lot more honest about many things than I could have been as an adult, who is more practiced in niceties and tact. To fully get what I mean, you’ll probably have to read the book.

What are you working on now?

I have two projects, one which is a headache and one which is still fun. The former is a YA about an anti-social girl who is addicted to an MMORPG, something I know a little about. She may or may not have super powers. I’ve finished a first draft of that one, and I hate much of it, so I’ve begun the long and arduous work of fixing it. The latter is a true WIP. I’ve got about 15,000 words down on a YA based very loosely on the Squeeze song “Vicky Verky.”

Of course, I’m also waiting for word about my second YA, which I finished a few months ago. I expect there will be some news on that soon.

I know the answer to this but always wrap up interviews with the question —  what’s the pet situation over at Brezenoff HQ?

We have a scrappy, smelly rough-coat JRT called Harry. I never would have guessed this when we got him and named him (that was back in Brooklyn), but his name has caused a few problems. As you probably know, Minnesotans believe his name sounds exactly like the word “hairy”; among civilized people it does not, but instead has a much flatter “A” sound. I am on the edge of my seat waiting to see how Sam eventually says it. Right now his version sounds mainly like “He-ee,” which settles nothing but is probably my favorite pronunciation anyway.

I’m sure there’s no difference the way I say it… and I wonder if Sam wasn’t trying to ask about “Hermione”?

Steve, thanks for answering these questions, and congratulations on your new book. I hope Steve Brezenoff becomes even more successful than New York Times bestselling author Eric Stevens.

7 thoughts on “The Absolute Value of -1

  1. That book trailer does everything it should do. I’m impressed–and intrigued. Great interview, Kurtis. If only Harry were a cat…

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