Interview: Bestselling author Cody McClain Brown has mastered the fine art of turning stumbling blocks into stepping stones

Cody McClain Brown, the bestselling author of Chasing A Croatian Girl: A Survivor’s Tale and Croatia Strikes Back: The Unnecessary Sequel, was accommodating enough to spend some time with us discussing his newest book, A Hard Case in Holiday City, which is tentatively scheduled for release this autumn. He also offered his perspectives on some holiday traditions in Croatia and his latest adventures as a stand-up comic.

Objectively speaking, one of Cody’s greatest strengths is his ability to thrive under virtually any conditions. He has an uncanny way of transforming what many people would consider a stumbling block into a stepping stone. Born and raised in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Cody worked as a book seller for a publishing company during his early twenties. After being antagonized into a physical confrontation with a co-worker, which Cody describes as “… probably the best dumbest thing I’ve ever done, because I got fired – and I think if I hadn’t gotten fired, I would still be at that bookstore, still living at home in Oklahoma, still wanting to be a writer…”, he set out on a circuitous path leading from the American heartlands to Istanbul, Turkey, and ultimately to Zagreb, Croatia, where he currently lives with his wife and daughter. He has a PhD in Political Science, and teaches at the University of Zagreb Political Science Faculty. For four years he wrote a popular weekly blog for Croatian Radio Television’s Voice of Croatia. Occasionally you can catch him on stage making wisecracks.

CSN: So, Cody, tell us about your new book.

Cody Brown: It’s a tale of a young milk maid… No –  it’s the first work of long-form fiction that I’ve ever completed. It has nothing to do with Croatia – I’m really selling it here, right? – but it’s a crime novel set in a city where all of the characters from holidays are real: Santa Claus is real, the Easter Bunny is real, there’s Easter eggs that walk around, there’s Christmas elves… and their relative strength and number and size and importance all depend on how much they’re celebrated. And so they’re a bit jealous and very nervous, which over time resulted in this pathology where basically they act like gangs and the mafia. So they’re territorial and have to protect their interests. And so in this city where the holidays are kind of like rival gangs, the main character is a homicide detective who has to investigate murders of people, or murders of holiday characters.

CSN: So there’s this gang warfare where the turf is basically how popular the holiday is, and the aim is to decrease rival gangs’ popularity by any means necessary?

Cody: Yeah, right. And at the opening of the book, there’s a kind of stable peace because, basically, all of the power is divided up between the Big Three: Christmas, Easter, and Valentine’s Day… Halloween is around, but it is too chaotic to form into a coherent Mafia that can compete with the others – it is more like a few smaller gangs all by itself. And then Thanksgiving has just been consumed by Easter, and so they have really no stake in anything anymore.

CSN: Can you give us a general plot outline, or would you prefer to keep it under wraps until the book release?

Cody: No, it isn’t a secret. I’ll tell you about how the first chapter opens. The story begins in the week right before Thanksgiving – although they just refer to it as Black Friday week, since now that week is actually all about Black Friday and Christmas. So, a detective named Max Martin gets called to a crime scene – and it is an Easter egg biker bar that has been shot up, and there’s all this, like, ooze and eggshell scattered all over the place. Of course they have got to figure out who did it. Here it is, the beginning of the holiday season, and to have this huge hit on a major holiday is setting off all kinds of alarm bells around town. They are going over the crime scene trying to figure out who did it, and Max Martin notices, under a pool table in a puddle of slime… a twinkle of a sleigh bell. And that indicates the Fat Man, right? Meaning that Santa might have been behind the hit. So that sets up the action.

It has a very “noir” sort of feel to it, you know – it’s not set in a specific era, but in my mind the setting is in the 1940s, okay, and it has some Dashiel Hammet-type influences, a little bit of Raymond Chandler – even Roger Rabbit, actually. After I finished writing it, I was like wait, this has some common ground with Roger Rabbit, with almost a Dick Tracy aesthetic: fedoras, trench coats, tommy guns.

CSN: This is going to be published in Croatia, so here’s one thing I’m curious about: Do you think there will be some kind a disconnect between your perspective on the holidays as an American versus the way people in Croatia think about the holidays?

Cody: Yeah, I mean it’s definitely tricky because, for example, here no one really celebrates Halloween, right? Croatians also celebrate Christmas differently – like, there’s no “bakalar” references in this story. But at the same time I think the people are quite aware of how Americans celebrate holidays, so I don’t think they’ll be at a loss. I enjoy the differences between how Croatians and Americans celebrate the holidays. One thing that I like about Croatians is they have this great ability to take one holiday and turn it into, like, four holidays. I teach at the University of Zagreb, and if a holiday falls on a Wednesday, well, that means no one’s coming to class on Monday or Tuesday – in which case they decide that they might as well not come on Thursday or Friday, either… so we get an entire week off. Croatian Christmas is ideal. You start celebrating at midnight on Christmas Eve, unlike America where everybody goes to bed at like 10:30. I think Christmas here is exactly what I always wanted Christmas to be when I was a little kid. On the other hand, it’s also different when you’re with a Dalmatian family because, you know, there’s all this bakalar, and it stinks. I want the house to smell like cinnamon and cookies, not dried fish that reeks like old sweaty socks. So this year, my wife kind of adapted it to a more American style. She baked tons of cookies for everybody. And then my mother-in-law took them and hid them in a closet and was like, “They’re better when they’re older.” It was hard for me to understand, I’d had some Bailey’s and I was like, “I don’t care, I just want to eat them!”

Anyway, I hope that we have a decent translator so that they can find the right way to express some of the quirks in the story. For example, when I let a friend read the first draft, he advised me to edit the cursing out, and I did. So then, instead of saying like, “motherfucker”, the characters say “stocking-stuffer”, and that kind of thing. I hope that somehow the translator can find a way to capture the ironic humor in those kinds of puns in Croatian.

CNS: Do you have any expectations about how it will be received by the reading public?

Cody: Well, I think the biggest challenge is that it’s a pretty sharp pivot from my first two books, and I have to get the right message out. I know there’s definitely an audience for this kind of stuff in Croatia. Fantasy and science fiction are huge sellers here, as well as crime novels, and this kind of hits on all of those in some ways. I think there’s a base of a lot of dedicated readers, and there’s no shortage of bookstores in this country. Last year at the “Interliber” book fair in Zagreb, my publisher was talking about how great it was to see so many young people buying books. There is definitely a core group of readers who are interested in a little bit of everything, and I think that they’ll be receptive.

CNS: When did you decide you wanted to be a writer?

Cody: I started out trying to write comic books as a teenager, and while I’m not a bad artist, I’m not that good either. And I used to try to make short films – but getting your high school friends together to make a bad film is difficult. So I learned that it’s actually a lot easier to just write, rather than draw or try to get people to act in films. When I was about 18, I read Henry Miller and he made the life of a writer sound like a lot of fun. Nobody was poor in Paris in a more enticing way than Henry Miller. And that’s when I decided to be a writer.

CSN: Yeah, Henry Miller’s description of the process of becoming a writer – for him it was a long and miserable experience, and he was basically starving to death, but he still managed to prevail against some pretty serious odds to achieve success.

Cody: And he prevailed against censorship in the courts. There’s a funny incident he wrote about, I think it’s in Black Spring, where he goes to France and he’s in Europe for 10 years, then he comes back to America right before World War II, and it’s right when Gone With the Wind has come out. So his books – Tropic of Cancer, Tropic of Capricorn – had been banned in America. And his mom points at Gone with the Wind and says “Why can’t you write a book like that?”

CSN: Moving on to a completely different subject – you recently started performing as a stand-up comic. I caught one of your sets, and I have to say, you looked like a natural up there.

Cody: One of the things that happens with me is, every major turning point in my life… I just fall into it. So a few months ago, I was meeting with some American tourists and they asked if I had ever done stand-up and I said no, but I had thought about it, (everyone who watches stand-up comedy thinks “I could do that, I want to try it…”), and there was a Croatian guy there who said, “Well if you really want to, you can stop by the Vintage Industrial bar tomorrow night and try it.” This was random enough that it seemed like it couldn’t possibly fail, right? Exactly. So I went… and then the slate of performers was full, but they said, we can give you five minutes. I did a set kind of just off the top of my head and it went over pretty well and I enjoyed it. Since then, I’ve done it two more times and the audience reaction was great. I think one of the reasons why I can do stand-up without a big problem is because as a college professor I’m used to standing up in front of a bunch of people who don’t really want to hear me talk all that much, and don’t want to be there, but the audience comes to the bar willingly – and they’re drunk.

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