Professor Gabriel Brownstein’s first memories of writing are from as far back as elementary school in the ’70’s, when he and his friends would spend most of their time dreaming up material for play scripts and patching together comic books out of construction paper. Far before he knew of any definitive roles he would fill in life, he knew of his passionate and unquestionably fulfilling relationship with writing.
After having grown up in Manhattan during a decade of fervid social change, which he believes was a major influence on much of his earlier writing, Brownstein attended Oberlin College, a highly selective liberal arts school in Oberlin, Ohio. Although he graduated with an undergraduate degree in English, Brownstein hadn’t always intended on teaching or becoming a novelist, for that matter.
“There were times when I thought I’d be a doctor, a critic, a scholar,” he said. “Then after getting out of college and going through a series of really crazy jobs, I learned that, other than writing, there was not much else I could do very well.”
Immediately preceding graduation, Brownstein slipped into numerous different roles, ranging from pre-school teacher to security guard, literary agent to carpenter’s assistant. After two years of wavering employment, he entered Columbia University’s graduate program, after which he began to teach at the undergraduate level at schools like Stonybrook University, Barnard College and Parsons School of Design. Of all the prestigious places he’s taught, Brownstein has taken a particular liking to our very own St. John’s University.
“It’s a lot of fun here, because there is a lot more room for me to choose what I want to focus on in my classes,” said Brownstein. “Now that I’m in my third year, I’m beginning to feel that I understand both my students and my place here a bit better.”
As a professor, Brownstein is afforded enough time to dedicate to both his teaching and his writing, a perk that has proven favorable in his career. In 2003, he was announced the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award Winner for his novelistic debut entitled, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Apt. 3W, a collection of short stories that consists of the re-imaginings of classic works transpiring in the same Manhattan apartment complex. Through inventively replaying famous stories and borrowing characters from other novels, these stories blend the real with the imaginary. The PEN Hemingway award is given once a year to the best first novel of an American writer, and Brownstein’s joining the esteemed list of novelists who have received it is a surefire testament to his creative genius.
“I believe that inspiration comes from what you’ve read, and what you’ve lived,” said Brownstein. “Flannery O’Connor once said, ‘Anybody who has survived adolescence has enough material to write a novel,’ and I think that’s true for the most part. Every apartment building is an anthology of lives, and one of the things that’s allowed me to write this was my upbringing in New York City.”
Brownstein’s most recent work, entitled The Man from Beyond, focuses on the spiritualist movement as it relates to two men– Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini– and paints the world as they imagined it to be. Although an undeniably successful experiment of mixing the dramatic with the historical, Brownstein remains modest about his considerable gifts.
“Joan Didion’s advice to writers about words applies to novelists and their subjects. You don’t choose them; they choose you. And when I get invited to do readings, I notice things that I’d like to change, a lot like how musicians listen to their own music and only hear the flaws.”Brownstein also admits that no matter how long he’s been writing, he struggles with every new literary venture, and this is a universal truth for every author. This fact comes into play in his teaching techniques, as he is able to relate to his student’s struggles and therefore more effectively facilitate the advancement of their skills. “When talking to students, I often realize I am actually talking to myself,” said Brownstein. “Writers always begin from zero with every new endeavor. Through re-stating first principles about writing in class, certain things become clearer in my own writing.”
Because he has remained faithful and steadfast in bringing forth his inborn talent, Brownstein’s literary feats have proven triumphant. He hopes to be able to continue his balancing act of writing and teaching, which he says has been made possible through St. John’s encouragement. “The University has been really supportive of me, so I’ve been able to truly devote myself to my writing and my classes equally,” he said. “I enjoy working with my all of my colleagues, and my students help probably more than they know. It’s been wonderful.”