Steve Brezenoff now lives in the Twin Cities of Minnesota with his wife, Beth, and 3-year-old son, Sam. But his heart belongs to Brooklyn. It’s the place where he cemented his relationship with Beth, and from the first chapters of Brooklyn Burning, it’s clear how intimately he knows its Greenpoint neighborhood.
Although Brezenoff has not written a song in more than 15 years, he plays the guitar and the trumpet and did a few turns with some Brooklyn bands. Maybe that’s why Kid, Scout and Felix—his three teen protagonists—seem to breathe and pulse to the music they make. Here he talks about the evolution of what our starred review called “a lyrical, understated punk-kid love song to Brooklyn and to chosen family.”
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What were the seeds of the idea for the book? Was it the mystery behind who set the May 2, 2006, warehouse fire that you mention in your author’s note?
I left Greenpoint in March of that year . I was about halfway through a manuscript about a group of street kids who lived in Greenpoint and trying to figure out what their story was. I did a callout on Facebook to my friends back East asking for pictures of my old neighborhood. A bunch of them sent pictures of the [Greenpoint Terminal Warehouse] fire and everything sort of fell into place.
The details you include—about the Greenpoint neighborhood in Brooklyn, about the adults in their lives and their friends—almost make readers forget how little you reveal about Kid and Scout, including their genders.
I cheated a little bit because I never talk about Kid or Scout. I got to use “I” and “you” for them. If you read it carefully, sometimes I’d avoid dialogue [by substituting] body language. There’s a moment when Kid asks Fish if she’s seen Scout, and she just shakes her head.
The first scene I wrote was when Scout and Kid were at Jonny’s summer party. I wrote this whole scene and realized I hadn’t chosen who would be the boy or the girl or if they’d both be boys or both be girls. If I chose a sexuality for a character, I let them be bisexual. The story lent itself to this freer state. I liked the sense that they were very open to love and to attraction wherever it may be. I tried to see them as they saw each other. I thought that was the most important thing.
Did you have someone in mind for the character of Fish? She and Jonny act as almost the joint conscience of the novel—the two adults that don’t judge Kid or Scout yet guide and look out for them.
I did model Fish’s bar on Max Fish on Ludlow, on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. I don’t know anything about the woman who runs Max Fish, but her name’s not Fish.
What about Jonny?
No, I didn’t really have a model. I could write a whole separate book about Jonny. It’s only hinted at, but he’s a male prostitute. His sexuality has been so warped. I wanted Jonny to be not exactly a Kid or Scout of the future, but to show that he’d been through what they’d been through. He’s not exactly fine, but he’s getting through it and he’s safe.
The longtime friendship between Konny and Kid is the one constant in Kid’s life. It’s so moving when Kid makes romantic overtures to her, and Konny wants to preserve its integrity when she says, “Be the one I don’t have to do that with, Kid, okay?”
I really love their friendship.
You set up an interesting contrast with the two scenes of Kid with Felix, and then Kid with Scout at sunset. Felix talks about how the sun keeps moving, and Scout talks about how it always comes back.
Felix was a manipulative guy. The sun isn’t really changing. It’s Felix using that to excuse himself for his way of being with Kid and his lifestyle.
Did you come in contact with many homeless youth while you were in Greenpoint?
I remember seeing homeless youth in [Greenwich] Village in the 1990s. I feel like, as I’ve been alive over the last 37 years, I’ve watched that issue become more and more and more central to our society and to our youth. I feel like we’re getting to a point where it’s going to explode, it’s going to become a big deal.
Just in the past six months, I look at how many stories have come up about youth and gender. There was a woman painting her son’s toenails pink, in a catalog. The kid was five. And Fox News went bananas about it, about what it was doing to his gender. It’s become such a prominent issue, and it’s not something we should be ignoring anymore.