Interview with Gabriel Brownstein, 2003 PEN/Hemingway Winner

Gabriel Brownstein, 2003 PEN/Hemingway Award Winner for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Apt. 3W


Q:  What inspired you to rework the title story and the other stories in you debut collection?

A:  I was working on a bunch of autobiographical stories about the apartment building where I grew up, and more specifically a dear friend who had a hard life. At the time, I had a baby at home, so I worked on my projects at a writer’s space in New York. My project was not taking off, so I began taking books off the shelves at the writer’s space and reading them, and then—almost as a joke, I began reworking my autobiographical stories as revisions of famous stories.  The first one I did was Hawthorne’s “Wakefield.”  I think the second had to do with Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony.”  The dark, spooky, magical stories seemed appropriate to the spookiness and magic of childhood.  I stumbled on a copy of Fitzgerald’s “Tales of the Jazz Age” and discovered “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” which at the time was a pretty obscure story—it’s not in the standard selected Fitzgerald stories, and this was about a decade before the movie. It’s a weird story, a brilliant premise, but unusually clumsy for a Fitzgerald story, not at all the gemlike perfection I associate with him.

I think the time-going-backward theme of the title story fit with a lot of things I was thinking about:  urban decay and New York City in the 1970s, remembering childhood.  It just worked.  So the book ended up being an anthology of lives, set in a magical version of the apartment building where I grew up.  The apartment building felt like that when I was a kid:  all these lives, behind all these secret doors, all of them weird and spooky and magical.


Q: Since Fitzgerald and Hemingway are kindred spirits, did you ever think about re-working a Hemingway story?

A:  I didn’t.  The stories I chose have a kind of overt magical element to them.  I love Hemingway, and I think I’m profoundly influenced by him in certain ways, but I can’t think of a Hemingway story that offers the kind of whacked-out premise I was looking for back then.


Q:  Why did you choose to matriculate to Oberlin?

A:  I had a really cool camp counselor when I was a kid. I thought he went to Oberlin. I thought it was the place to go.  I didn’t apply anywhere else.  Turns out he went to Wesleyan.


Q: Was there anyone instrumental there in shaping your writing career? 

A:  Definitely.  I didn’t take any creative writing classes when I was an undergraduate, but I had professors who encouraged me, and friends, and people who taught me a lot about writing and literature.  I knew I wanted to be a writer.  I don’t ever remember ever not wanting to be a writer.  I wanted to be a writer when I was in elementary school. I found connection in books, and magic, and authority. Reading was revelatory for me.


Q: Was there a professor or classmate at Columbia (Brownstein holds an MFA in Fiction from CU) who guided you to a life as a writer and professor? 

A:  Yes. Robert Towers and Richard Locke. Towers, who was a novelist and critic, has passed away; Locke is also a notable critic and essayist.


Q: Do you remember the first Ernest Hemingway book that you read?

A:  Yes, In Our Time. It is a great book.


Q: Do you have a favorite Hemingway book or story?

A:  I love “Indian Camp” is such a brutal story.  I like the Nick Adams stories a lot.  My favorite Hemingway stories are about children and about war.


Q:  Do you remember where you were when you received the phone call about winning the PEN/Hemingway Award?

A:  I was on the Long Island Railroad coming home from work at SUNY Stony Brook. My editor called me with the news.  The train was going from Hicksville to Jamaica.  I called my wife, then my mother, and finally my agent. There was a guy with whom I worked sitting in front of me, when we got off at Jamaica together to change to the Brooklyn train, and I just blurted it out, “I just won the PEN/Hemingway Award.”  He was nice about it.  He said “It did sound like something big was going on back there.” 


Q:  Are you working on anything now?

A:  Yes. A lot of things. I’ve published a bunch of short stories, and have some new ones, and there’s a longer work of fiction that I’ve been working on for a while, and now I’m writing a non-fiction book too. 


Q: Where can fans read about your latest projects?

A:  I try to keep up on Facebook and Twitter, and am always available through my St. John’s address. 

Wayne Catan, Brophy College Preparatory, December 7, 2017

How to cite this blog in MLA 8: 

Author's Last Name, Author's First Name. "Title of Post."  THR Blog, The Hemingway Foundation and Society, Date blog was published, Link to blog entry (omit http:// or https://).