Central Minnesota author has a knack for finding the humor in everyday life
Author Chuck Brown of Olivia creates rural Minnesota characters and places that seem all too real, and are also funny, thanks to his knack for satire and humor. His hometown might be grateful that the Coen brothers had not discovered his writings when they created a movie which takes its name from a different locale.
OLIVIA, Minnesota — Had the Coen brothers discovered the writings of Chuck Brown, their movie “Fargo” might just have been named after a different town, but it would definitely have kept all of the satire and humor, if not the dark comedy.
And without a doubt, a Brown-inspired movie would also be populated by rural Minnesota characters we feel as if we know firsthand, and who never fail to tickle our funny bones.
“He’s funny, and it’s local humor; making fun of us in a lighthearted, not vicious way,” said Paul Heyl of Bird Island. Heyl is a member of a writer’s group at the Bird Island Cultural Centre, and an avid reader who sometimes serves as a sounding board for Brown and his writings.
Brown, 75, of Olivia, took up writing as a self-described “corporate refugee” after retiring in 1996 from his role as the manager of the Olivia Canning Company.
He’s now the author of four novels based in rural Minnesota settings, as well as a nonfiction work.
An Olivia native, Brown completed a degree in economics at Macalester College in 1968. He served in the U.S. Navy before starting a corporate career that included work in the Twin Cities before stints with Trojan Seeds of Olivia and his role as third-generation manager of the Olivia Cannery.
Brown and his wife, Pat, married right after he graduated from college and headed off to the Navy's Officer Candidate School in Newport, Rhode Island. They raised three daughters in Olivia. It’s more than home; it’s the community that gave him opportunities in life, Brown said. He served for 12 years on the City Council.
He likes to think of his public service as good preparation for being a writer.
“From time to time, everybody around the block would tell us how stupid we were. I got accustomed to the rejection a writer has to face,” he explained.
This is a hint at the humor to be found in his works, including his latest novel, “The Forgotten Lake Secession.” It’s set on a fictitious northern Minnesota lake.
His preceding three novels — "Barn Dance," "The Lake Hayes Regatta" and "Dunn Days" — have all been set in fictitious rural Minnesota communities. He hears from readers who suspect they are real places and ask where they are. His depictions of life in them ring so true, readers say.
He also authored a nonfiction book, “Letters from the Attic,” based on the letters his grandparents exchanged when his grandmother, Clara, took a steamer to Europe, and his grandfather, Ben, stayed home to take care of business in Olivia.
He began his years of writing by penning short stories. At least 11 of them found their way into print in literary magazines. He authored his first novel, “Barn Dance,” in 2006.
His works are self-published, though readers like Heyl consider it a travesty that his works have not been discovered by publishers or those who create movies. The late Bill Holm, and the very much alive Brent Olson of Big Stone County , are among the regional authors who have discovered his works and penned accolades for them.
Holm credited Brown with capturing all 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’ll make you laugh and forget shoveling for a while,” he wrote.
Brown said the writing bug probably struck him as early as his high school days. It stayed in the back of his mind, but he began "messing around with it" during his corporate days at the cannery. He writes in longhand, scratching away on a yellow legal pad to produce not one, but two drafts of his works before he will type the final version into a computer.
He said he starts with only an inkling of what his storyline might be, and focuses on character development. He lets his characters guide the story as they come to life on paper. “I don’t worry too much about where it is going to end,” he said of his approach to writing. “If I tried to imagine the end at the beginning, I’d probably get it wrong,” he said.
While the characters seem so familiar, Brown insists and often reassures his neighbors that none of them are being directly portrayed. To be sure, some familiar characters of our modern times, say politicians like Michelle Bachman, inspire some of those found in his pages.
The beauty of satire is that “it’s equal opportunity,” Brown said.
“Offending anybody is fair game,” he explained. “The only people to not get the humor are the ones it is aimed directly at.”
The storylines in his books take aim — and help us laugh at — the many modern topics that can otherwise be the cause of so much angst. Brown starts his day reading three different newspapers. Rather than wringing his hands in worry about the trials of our times, he turns to satire to help us both laugh and see the absurdity.
“His humor brings a lot of clarity to the way we are,” said Heyl. He compares Brown’s abilities to use characters to tell us about ourselves to that of authors like Mark Twain. He also compares his social insights to the works of the late Kent Heruf, who was celebrated as a novelist of small-town life.
Brown said all he wants to do is entertain readers and bring some humor to life. “Always felt that there is humor in everything,” he explained. “It’s just a matter of digging it out.”
There might be one exception to the claim that humor can be found everywhere. Though he led the Olivia Canning Company for many years, his experiences there have yet to make their way into his stories. “If there is something that does lack humor it is probably canned corn,” he said with a smile.
But make no mistake, he appreciates his time in the corporate world. It paid the bills.
As for making a living by writing, he said: “I decided fairly on, this was not going to be a big moneymaker for me. It’s the joy of writing. The satisfaction.”
Brown is currently completing his fifth novel, which he expects to publish in the spring. All of his books are available for purchase at the Bird Island Cultural Centre, or can be purchased online at birdislandculture.com/thestore.