It’s a muggy early August day in Northern Michigan at the height of the tourist season, when Johnathan Rand, author of the children’s book series Michigan Chillers sets up shop at on the outskirts of Indian River.
The scene along North Straits Highway is idyllic, Queen Anne’s lace and sunburned grasses fill vacant fields. Cattails rise from lowlands. Two miles north of town, a forest stands tall and dark and cool. But then, abruptly, a clearing opens in the woods, and travelers see that something might be amiss. Two large gray stone gargoyles forebodingly mark the entrance to a paved driveway that leads to a shop. Clearly this store sells something other than smoked fish, fresh pasties, fudge or Petoskey stones.
Campers, two vans covered with spooky symbols and scraggly writing, and half a dozen cars with license plates from all across the country fill the parking lot. Black silhouettes of tarantulas, bats, the grim reaper, and cemetery headstones line the front of a small building next to a warehouse. Above the front door, a sign says “CHILLERMANIA! WORLD HEADQUARTERS. JOHNATHAN RAND’S MICHIGAN CHILLERS.”
Inside the store, under a ceiling covered with plastic bats hanging from elastic bands are dozens of shelves filled withhundreds of brightly colored paperback books. Crowds of kids are fingering the covers, turning pages as they sit in corners, or looking at CHILLERMANIA! Tshirts, sunglasses and backpacks. Some of the children are tugging on their parents’ sleeves, begging for more books.
Suddenly, a hush descends. The shadow of a 6-foot-4 man fills the doorway. Author Johnathan Rand (a k a Chris Wright, his real name; a k a Chris Knight, his adult fiction penname) has arrived. He wears his signature long dark hair in a ponytail, has piercing blue eyes and sports unusually sculpted facial hair. He’s buff—clearly, he’s an exercise freak—and he’s wearing khaki shorts, a buttondown short-sleeved shirt and Asics running shoes.
“There he is!” shouts a 10-year-old red-haired boy as he runs to Rand to shake his hand and ask him to sign a book. Another child—maybe 6 years old—is so overcome by Rand’s presence he hides behind a bookcase. But the rest of the kids swarm Rand like a flock of sea gulls, jumping up and down and asking him for his autograph. He smiles. He asks each of them their names, where they’re from, and where they’re headed. He listens as the kids explain they have summer places nearby, they’re on camping trips, or they’re staying in local hotels. At one point, pen in hand, he says, “You know it’s a true story! They’re all true!” There’s a pause. Then everybody laughs.
The shy kid? Rand doesn’t miss a beat. After he signs all the other kids’ books, he approaches the boy, introduces himself,and offers to give him his autograph. The parents stand back, watching. Some of the moms and dads look as starstruck as the kids. Rand is charming and handsome—in a slightly diabolical way. Clearly, it isn’t just the kids that have crushes on him. They want Rand to sign their books, too.
Next to a corner decorated with fake tarantulas and an inflatable skeleton, a boy who has just had his book signed shrieks. A plastic bat dropped from the ceiling and landed on his head, wings flapping. Then it retracts back in to its place. Rand ducks behind the counter with a sheepish grin. His hand is on a button by the cash register. He’s clearly delighted by allthis. And so are his fans.
Most of Johnathan Rand’s earliest stories for children begin with a scary premise set somewhere in Michigan. His own story—also set in Michigan—begins with fly-fishing, roadkill, muskrat hairs, and a determination that has propelled him to a kind of success most authors never achieve.
Rand has written 68 books (using three different pen names): Michigan Chillers, American Chillers, the Freddie Fernortner First Grader series, The Adventure Club series, and several novels for adults. He won’t say the exact amount he’s made from his career as an author and speaker, but it’s likely in the millions. BTW, he never studied writing in school and almost flunked out of college.
So how did Rand mastermind a plan to scare his way to success? We have to go back to a moment many years ago on the Au Sable River at 3 a.m.; Rand is 9, and he has only one name, Chris Wright, the name his parents gave him. He has just moved from Waterford, Michigan, to Grayling. He is fly-fishing and developing his overactive imagination as he casts by moonlight and makes out dark shapes in the forests that line the shore. This is when he begins to fall in love with the night woods in Northern Michigan and when he begins to create the palette to become a prolific writer of adventure stories and thrillers. Another factor: “I had a sister I tried to torment relentlessly. I scared her with snakes and spiders,” Rand says.
“I’m very comfortable being alone by myself in the woods,” Rand says. “As a result, my parents gave me many liberties a lot of kids my age wouldn’t have. Then a neighbor taught me to tie flies when I was 9 and I started fly-fishing. I quickly found out the best time to fish was at night. I would routinely fish until 3 a.m.” It was on these night adventures that he started writing scary stories in his head.
Rand’s passion for fly-fishing and tying flies soon became more than a hobby. He started guiding people on fishing trips,and he started selling his flies to friends and neighbors and making a handsome profit. “I had so many orders, I would
take my fly-tying equipment into the library during school so I could meet my orders for spring. I earned a pile of money. Iwould often tie flies until midnight.”
Even at a very young age, he seemed to have a keen business sense and looked for ways to cut corners to save cash. “I used my money sparingly. There were a lot of dead animals on the side of the road that I considered prize trophies for tying flies. I was always telling my mom and dad, ‘Stop! I want that raccoon!’ I would find different furs and feathers from birds …anything I could find. I looked at that as a resource that I didn’t have to pay for. I was always cutting the hair off the neighbor’s dog and tying flies with it.”
He remembers a moment that crystallizes his skills for being frugal, independent, stubborn, and resourceful. “My parentsrefused to stop one time when I saw a dead muskrat by the side of the road. I really wanted that fur to tie my flies. So when we got home, I got on my dirt bike and rode back to town and picked up that dead muskrat and brought it back.”
The business world and the natural world have always been a comfortable place for Rand. But school? Not so much. Rand admits that even though he was an avid reader, he didn’t have great grades in elementary and high school. He went to Kirtland Community College in Roscommon to pursue Natural Resources Technology. It didn’t go so well, and he decidedto drop out.
“A guy by the name of Don Fenton was one of my instructors,” says Rand. “I took a form to him so I could withdraw with apassing grade. He took the form and he signed it. But he said, ‘Whatever you do, kick ass.’ I always remembered that. But I didn’t know what it was going to be.”
Rand landed a DJ job at a nearby radio station and started writing, producing and voicing commercials. His skills jettisonedhim to one of Northern Michigan’s top radio stations, KHQ. But it was copywriting and production work he loved most. Eventually, Rand built a studio near Cheboygan where he created commercials that were used on radio stations all across the country.
Cut to the year 2000. Rand decides to try his hand at writing novels. “I was working on a book called Ferocity, which was about a giant muskie that eats people in Mullet Lake—kind of like a knock off of Jaws. The fictitious town is called Courville. I was trying to think of metaphors for the town—everything that was really great about Courville. I thought, Whatif it was a beverage … what would you call it if you put it in a bottle and sold it? And I thought, A Courville Cooler. One of the names I jotted down was a ‘Michigan Chiller.’
"And I started thinking about that more and more," Rand continues. "I thought, You know, thatsounds like a series of kids books. Wouldn’t that be fun? Scary stories in different cities around the state. So I wrote one.”
His first Michigan Chiller was Mayhem on Mackinac Island, a story about two summer residents who are swallowed by an old tree and become surrounded by bizarre creatures. He asked his niece to read it. “She really liked it,” says Rand. “I thought, Let’s publish it and see what happens.”
And this is when Rand used his stubborn independence and resourcefulness to create a whole new way to sell books. “I looked around at the publishing industry, and I didn’t really like what I saw. I sent the idea to a couple of publishers, just to see what they thought about it. One of the major publishers sent a letter back, saying, ‘It’s a neat idea but kids aren’treading books like that anymore.’ I thought, What’s not being done? Where is there a need? So I printed the first book myself. I printed 5,000.”
He sent free copies to hundreds of bookstores. “After I sent them, I started making phone calls. Literally less than five percent were interested in the book, though many Northern Michigan bookstores were supportive,” Rand says.
He started thinking about how to get his books into the hands of tourists who come to the area. “People who visit Northern Michigan—they don’t come here to go to a bookstore. They go to beaches. But they have to eat, they have to sleep, and they have to put gas into their car. So I thought, Okay, what if I could get books in restaurants, hotels and gas stations?”
He designed his own display case for his books, and he and his wife hit the road. “I wouldn’t take no for an answer. The manager of, say, a motel, would say, ‘Look, we don’t sell books here.’ I’d say ‘That’s exactly why I want to sell my books here. I don’t have any competition.’ Or they’d say, ‘I don’t have any money.’ I’d say, ‘I don’t want it. I don’t care. You just put the books on the desk in the lobby. If they don’t sell, I’ll take them away.’ Well, within a week they started calling us, saying, ‘We’re out of books. The shelves are empty. Could you bring us more?’ It just spiraled.”
What he hoped would happen occurred almost immediately. “I knew that if these kids like them, they’re going to take them back downstate and they’re going to go into the bookstore and say, ‘I need the next book in this series.’ And that’s exactly what happened.”
After the quick, sweet success of his first book, Rand started writing more Michigan Chillers with similar themes set in other cities across the state: Terror Strikes Traverse City, Poltergeists of Petoskey, followed by Aliens Attack Alpena. A friend who was an elementary school teacher told Rand his books were appearing in her students’ backpacks and on theirdesks in class. She also realized some kids who had never shown an interest in reading were enjoying his books. She asked him to speak at her school. He was a hit. Teachers started calling. Principals started calling. One speaking engagement led to the next, and a whole new and integral part of his book business was born.
“I went in, and I had a blast.” Rand realized that he was having an important impact. He was getting kids who might not otherwise read to pick up a book and enjoy it. And keep reading, and buying more books.
Soon Rand realized his Michigan Chiller concept could be expanded to every state in the nation. He wrote the first American Chiller in December of 2001. He has now published 28 American Chillers (for third to sixth graders), and four more are due out this coming December. He has written 14 Michigan Chillers (also for third to sixth graders), 10 Freddie Fernortner books (for first and second graders), three Adventure Club Series (for third to sixth graders), six adult books, one book specifi cally for teenagers, and a few that are not part of a series. Rand says more than four million of hisbooks are in print.
These days, Rand spends his summers in Northern Michigan, writing, stopping by the CHILLERMANIA! store, and runningthe Author Quest kids writing camp. He has hired a national events coordinator who books him at speaking engagements in warmer climates during the winter.
“My first trip this fall is to Tennessee. I’ll do 27 or 28 states this year” he says.
You can probably still find Rand fishing on a river at 3 a.m., thinking up wild ideas and scary stories. But this time, insteadof just the Au Sable, it’s on rivers in California, Florida, or Arizona, when he’s on his national tour. (He has, however, quit tying flies for good.)
And remember that major publisher who told Rand his books were a neat idea, but kids aren’t reading books like that anymore? He got a letter recently from that very same publisher, offering to buy his series. Rand’s answer?
“Let me think about it.”
Mary Ellen Geist writes from Petoskey. [email protected]