OLIVIA – If the Coen brothers had discovered the writings of Chuck Brown, their movie “Fargo” might have been named after a different city, but it would certainly have retained all the satire and humor, if not the dark comedy.
And no doubt, a Brown-inspired film would also be populated by rural Minnesota characters that we feel like we know first-hand and never fail to tickle our funny bones.
“He’s funny and it’s local humor; make fun of us in a light-hearted, non-vicious way,” said Paul Heyl of Bird Island. Heyl is a member of a writers’ group at the Bird Island Cultural Center and an avid reader who sometimes serves as a sounding board for Brown and his writings.
Brown, 75, of Olivia, began writing as a self-proclaimed “corporate refugee” after retiring in 1996 from his role as director of the Olivia Canning Company.
He is now the author of four novels based on rural Minnesota settings, as well as one non-fiction.
A native of Olivia, Brown graduated with a degree in economics from Macalester College in 1968. He served in the United States Navy before beginning a corporate career that included work in the Twin Cities before moving to Trojan Seeds of Olivia and his role as third generation manager of the Olivia Cannery.
Brown and his wife, Pat, married right after graduating from college and headed to Naval Officer Candidate School in Newport, Rhode Island. They raised three daughters to Olivia. It’s more than a home; it was the community that gave him opportunities in life, Brown said. He served for 12 years on the municipal council.
He likes to think that his public service is a good preparation to become a writer.
“Once in a while, everyone in the neighborhood would tell us how stupid we were. I got used to the rejection that a writer has to face,” he explained.
It’s a hint of the humor found in his works, including his latest novel, “The Forgotten Lake Secession.” It takes place on a fictional lake in northern Minnesota.
Her previous three novels – “Barn Dance”, “The Lake Hayes Regatta” and “Dunn Days” – were all set in fictional rural Minnesota communities. He hears from readers who suspect these are real places and ask where they are. His portrayals of the life in them ring so true, readers say.
He is also the author of a non-fiction book, “Letters from the Attic”, based on the letters his grandparents exchanged when his grandmother, Clara, took a steamer to Europe. , and her grandfather, Ben, stayed home to take care of Olivia’s business.
He began his writing years by writing short stories. At least 11 of them were printed in literary magazines. He wrote his first novel, “Barn Dance”, in 2006.
His works are self-published, although readers like Heyl consider it a travesty that his works have not been discovered by publishers or those who create films. The late Bill Holm and the very much alive Brent Olson of Big Stone County are among the regional authors who discovered his works and wrote accolades for them.
Holm credits Brown with capturing all of the great themes of American humor in his second novel, “The Lake Hayes Regatta.” Holm recommended reading it during a howling blizzard at 20 below. “It will make you laugh and forget to shovel for a while,” he wrote.
Brown said the writing bug likely hit him as early as his high school days. It stuck in his mind, but he started “having fun with it” during his corporate days at the cannery. He writes by hand, scratching on a yellow pad to produce not one, but two drafts of his works before typing the final version on a computer.
He said he started with only an idea of what his script might be and focused on developing the character. He lets his characters guide the story as they come to life on paper. “I’m not too worried about where it ends up,” he said of his approach to writing. “If I was trying to imagine the ending at the beginning, I’d probably be wrong,” he said.
While the characters seem so familiar, Brown often insists and reassures his neighbors that none of them are directly depicted. Certainly, certain characters familiar to our modern times, say politicians like Michelle Bachman, inspire some of those found in its pages.
The beauty of satire is that “it’s equal opportunity,” Brown said.
“Offending anyone is fair game,” he explained. “The only people who don’t understand humor are those for whom it is directly intended.”
The plots of his books take aim – and help us laugh – at the many modern topics that might otherwise be the cause of so much angst. Brown starts her day by reading three different newspapers. Rather than wringing its hands worrying about the trials of our times, it turns to satire to help us both laugh and see the absurdity.
“His humor brings a lot of clarity to our way of being,” Heyl said. He compares Brown’s ability to use characters to tell us about ourselves to that of authors like Mark Twain. He also compares his social ideas to the works of the late Kent Heruf, famous as a novelist of small town life.
Brown said all he wanted to do was entertain readers and bring the humor to life. “Always felt there was humor in everything,” he explained. “It’s just a matter of digging.”
There might be an exception to the claim that humor can be found everywhere. Although he ran the Olivia Canning Company for many years, his experiences there have yet to make their way into his stories. “If there’s anything lacking in humor, it’s probably canned corn,” he said with a smile.
But make no mistake, he’s enjoying his time in the corporate world. He paid the bills.
As for earning a living from writing, he said, “I decided fairly, it wasn’t going to be a big source of income for me. It is the pleasure of writing. Satisfaction.
Brown is currently finishing his fifth novel, which he plans to publish in the spring. All of his books are available for purchase at the Bird Island Cultural Center, or can be purchased online at birdislandculture.com/thestore.