PHOENIX magazine recently had the opportunity to chat with Brown about transitioning from acting to writing and what it’s like to set her tall tales in Phoenix.
PHOENIX: You live in Portland but your books are often set in Phoenix. Where are you from?
Cindy Brown: I grew up in the Pacific Northwest, went to college in Washington and Montana, but (after a short stint in the Midwest) lived in Arizona for over 20 years. My husband and I moved to Portland in 2007. I missed the rain.
PM: You were an actress here in the Valley for many years before you took up writing seriously. What were some of the highlights of your stage career?
CB: Fav roles included Nellie In South Pacific at Theater Works, Billie in Born Yesterday at Phoenix Theatre and Annie in Annie Get your Tub or Mime the Musical for Aurora Mime Theater, which was a fabulous abusurdist musical where a coyote stole my bathtub. And I loved my time with the Courtyard Players, which presented and toured abbreviated Shakespeare productions. I played Lady Macbeth for months. I’m sure that had something to do with the reason I began my mystery series with Macdeath [set in an avant-garde production of Shakespeare’s “Scottish Play”].
PM: How did you start writing, and how did you settle on mysteries?
CB: I was teaching theater for Scottsdale Parks and Rec and wasn’t happy with the plays available for kids so I wrote my own. That started the ball rolling. I wrote several plays that were produced by the Herberger Lunch Time Theatre and also completed the Screenwriting Program at Scottsdale Community College. I’ve had two short films produced too. I’ve been a mystery fan since I was little. Like most girls my age, I cut my teeth on Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden, but really became a fan the day my dad handed me a John D. MacDonald mystery, and said, “Don’t tell your mother I let you read this.” My biggest influence, though, was definitely Sue Grafton. I loved reading about a female West Coast PI. And when I later won third place in a contest she judged, I was so excited I got my husband out of bed.
PM: What made you decide on The Orpheum theater as a setting?
CB: All of my books have some sort of theatrical setting, though they are as varied as cruise ships and Wild West Theme town shows, and they’re all humorous mysteries, though I like to play around with sub-genres. For The Phantom of Oz, I knew I wanted to work on a gothic mystery. To me that meant including a ghost, of course, but also an atmospheric setting, a big space with lots of mysterious nooks and crannies and character. The Orpheum was an obvious choice, plus it has an opulent beauty and checkered history that made it a great gothic setting. And of course, there are the ghosts, which I didn’t know about until I took a tour.
I’ve fictionalized the setting by adding creepy corridors and a well in the basement, plus I mashed the Orpheum’s history with that of the Hotel San Carlos, which is also haunted.
PM: If they made a movie or TV show about your main character Ivy, who (other than yourself) would you pick to play her?
CB: Zooey Deschanel. She has the same sweet silliness as Ivy.