Rand is the author of the “Michigan Chillers” series of books that feature pre-teens taking on all manner of creepy things in various Michigan communities…poltergeists in Petoskey, aliens in Alpena, gargoyles in Gaylord (you get the picture). Since Rand published his first book, “Mayhem on Mackinac Island,” in 2000, the series has exploded in popularity, and now fills the shelves of bookstores across the state. “Michigan Chillers” has become so popular that it led Rand to create another series, “American Chillers,” that will eventually feature kids tackling weird goings-on in every state in the union. As if Rand isn’t busy enough, he also writes books for adult readers, and is the author of two additional children’s book series, “Freddie Fernortner, Fearless First Grader,” and “Adventure Club.” I recently spoke to Rand by phone while he was at Chillermania!, his store in Indian River that sells all of Rand's children’s books, as well as other products.
How did you start writing "Michigan Chillers"?“It happened in a roundabout way. I had written adult fiction under the name ‘Christopher Knight,’ and while I was working on the second book, I was trying to come up with a metaphor for everything that was wonderful about northern Michigan. Like, if you put everything that’s wonderful in a bottle, and sold it on the shelf as a beverage, what would you call it? One of the names I came up with was a ‘Michigan Chiller.’ I kept thinking about that during the summer, about some of the scary books I had read as a kid, and how I could write scary stories about different cities in Michigan.”
|Book 2, "Terror Stalks Traverse City"|
Describe what the “Michigan Chillers” are about.
“They’re spooky stories for kids ages seven to thirteen. They all have different main characters and they stand alone, so they don’t have to be read in any particular order. The kids in these books are pretty much on their own, having their own adventures and solving their own problems. They have to find their own way to get out of scary situations. There’s no blood, nobody dies. I write books like that for adults, but, again, those are for adults. Second graders are already exposed to too much of that stuff as-is. I want to make these books an enjoyable reading experience for them."
You publish the books yourself, right?
“Yes. I had pitched the idea to publishers, but I was pretty much rejected. One of the largest publishers in the world told me it was a good idea, but that kids aren’t reading that kind of thing anymore. And of course, now I’ve sold a million copies.”
Do you prefer publishing the books yourself?“I do, especially after talking to other authors in the business. I’ve spoken to bestselling authors who can’t quit their day jobs because they don’t make enough money. [Self-publishing] is a lot of work because you’re responsible for all aspects of the product, but I’m glad I took that route. Early on I could handle everything myself, but now I have editors, an international events coordinator, an IT guy, an array of people to fill various shoes.”
|Book 11, "Great Lakes Ghost Ship"|
How did you know the books were becoming a hit?
“I didn’t know exactly what was going to happen, but right away the response was great. At the end of Book One, kids could read the first four chapters of Book Two. At the time, only Book One was available, so kids were coming into bookstores looking for Book Two. We started getting calls from bookstores asking for the next book, and it wasn’t even printed yet. That was an indication things were looking good. When we received our first order from a distributor for an entire case (65 books), my wife and I popped open a bottle of champagne. Now we get orders of 100 cases from a single customer.”
When you write your books, do you pick the “monster” first, then figure out the location, or is it the other way around?
“I start by picking a place. In most cases, it’s a place I’ve actually visited. Then I come up with several titles, and pick the title that I think is the best. If I know I have a good title, that gets me excited. Then I build the story around the title.”
What is one of your favorite “Michigan Chillers”?“That would be one of the more recent ones, ‘Catastrophe in Caseville.’ Last year, I was looking at a website that advertised this huge cheeseburger festival that Caseville holds. It’s a ten-day festival that brings thousands upon thousands of people from around the country. Basically, it’s a big Jimmy Buffett bash. The pictures looked great, and I could imagine this giant cheeseburger destroying the city. The idea of a sandwich wrecking a town was fun.”
|Book 16, "Catastrophe in Caseville"|
What made you decide to write the “American Chillers” series?
“All along, I had been planning to write “American Chillers” if the “Michigan Chillers” series worked. I started getting letters from kids saying the same thing. It was like the kids were urging me on with an idea I already had.”
How many books do you write in a year?“Typically around eight to ten, sometimes more or less. I could probably get more done in a year, but I travel from mid-September to May. It’s pretty extensive; I’m on the road for a week, home for the weekend, then on the road for two weeks. I can actually write on the road, though. I get up at 3:00 a.m., write until 6:00 or 7:00, then speak at colleges and schools, usually two or three a day. By 4:00 or 5:00 I’m back at the hotel and I hit the sack around 7:00 so that I can get up early again. It’s a magical time early in the morning; everybody’s quiet, and I can concentrate and focus.”
What’s in the future for you?
“As far as the ‘American Chillers’ go, I know I’m going to write one for every single state. I’ll continue writing the ‘Michigan Chillers’ series. I’ve had people ask me, ‘Will you write ‘International Chillers,’ but I don’t know about that.”
What do you read when you’re not writing?“I will read just about anything and everything. I like scary stuff, but I also read autobiographies, kids’ books, just about everything.”
What is one of your favorite places to visit, or your favorite things to do, in Michigan?“I grew up fly fishing the Au Sable River in Grayling, and I love going to the U.P. once a year to rent a cabin in as remote of an area as I can find. I spend two weeks writing, hiking, fly fishing. It’s so desolate, it’s like a whole different country.”
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For more information:
Johnathan Rand's website