“Everyone asks ‘Where do you get your ideas?’" Rand said. "But no one has ever asked, ‘Why? Why do you get your ideas?’ That should be the root question.”
Rand’s own roots are firmly planted in Michigan soil, the fertile ground for the bountiful ideas found in his Michigan Chillers and American Chillers series. It’s also the response to the why question, the why behind his ghoulish and but lively tales for children, with titles like “Kreepy Klowns of Kalamazoo” and “Bionic Bats of Bay City,” which play out on the stages of Michigan’s pine tree forests and dark lakes.
“My parents were the original 'helicopter parents,’” Rand joked. “In the morning, they gave me a helicopter, told me to fly off into the woods. ‘Come home for lunch and dinner. Don't bring home another raccoon. Clean the trout outside and put them in the freezer. Stop scaring your sister with snakes.’ Today, I can trace every creative idea I've ever had from the fact that my parents let me run free, unsupervised, in and around the Au Sable River outside of Grayling.”
After graduating from the timberlands of his youth, Rand took to the airwaves, working in radio from 1983 to 1995 while authoring adult novels. Born Christopher Wright, he did his radio and writing work under the pseudonym Christopher Knight. But Rand knew he needed a cleaner, punchier alias for his venture into the world of juvenile fright-fiction.
“When I came up with the idea for the “Michigan Chillers” series, I knew that the stories would be very different, so I wanted a pen name that was simple,” Rand said. “I'd jotted down about a dozen first and last names, but nothing really struck me.”
Then, he looked to his reading list for inspiration.
“At the time, I was re-reading a book by Ayn Rand called “Atlas Shrugged.” Her last name was simple, and that appealed to me. The hero of the book is named John, so I lengthened it to Johnathan. I liked the way it sounded, and I never really thought too much more about it.”
With a fresh pseudonym, Rand struck out into the realm of the entrepreneurial, self-published author – with an unfussy, Michigan twist. Rand started selling his “Michigan Chillers” at gas stations, restaurants, and gift shops in the Upper Peninsula. It worked.
When did he know the books were becoming successful?
“I think when we received a fax order for a full case from a distributor. My wife and I were really excited,” he said. “But it was also a great thrill to stop by our vendors and find our books gone. And it was great to have the support of the local businesses. It was a lot of work, hauling books around the north. But it worked, and I wouldn't trade the experience for anything.”
Now Rand is a youth literature phenom, but he still bounds between juvenile and adult literature. The author can quickly switch gears to write books like “Bestseller,” an adult fiction book-within-a-book thriller.
“I find it easy to leap from one field to the next, within seconds. While I was writing ‘Bestseller’ at a cabin in the Upper Peninsula, I was also outlining the first book in the ‘American Chillers’ series,” Rand said. “I'd switch back and forth without any trouble at all.
“I think people find this odd, being that the content of ‘Bestseller’ is very graphic and very adult in nature, while the ‘American Chillers’ are very, very tame. Personally, I've never had any trouble confusing the audience.”
A seasoned writer, Rand is happy to dole out advice to aspiring authors.
“Persistence is one (important thing), but there's more to it than that,” he said. “You've really got to find your own niche, your own unique market and marketing angle. I'm always willing to share my story of how we made things happen. I was once asked: ‘Don't you worry about someone doing the same thing as you? Becoming your competition?’ The answer is, ‘No.’” Rand takes a rising-tide-lifts-all-boats approach to helping other authors.
“Another author does exactly what I do and they're successful. Because of their efforts, people are reading. Who loses? Not me,” Rand said. “I love to see anyone of any age with an open book in front of them.”
Although he has dozens of “Michigan Chillers” under his belt, one city that has not yet been featured in his chilling tales is Lansing. Does he have plans to write about our city in the future?
“I do get asked that a lot, being that Lansing is our state capital. So, yes, it's quite possible. I'd really like to finish the ‘American Chillers’ series— one for every state — first. Then, I'll probably focus on a few more ‘Michigan Chillers.’”
Eli Klein is online content/social media and PR coordinator at Capital Area District Libraries.
Friday Fright Night with Johnathan Ran
Presentation, book sale and signing 6:30-8 p.m. Friday, Sept. 25 FREE (registration required) Holt Junior High School Auditorium 1784 Aurelius Road, Holt (517) 367-6355, cadl.org