The author is donating $1 from every soft cover sale of this book to the Elyssa’s Mission, a Northbrook, Illinois-based not-for-profit foundation that provides help, support and suicide prevention programs to prevent teen suicide. Donations will help to fund the Mission's Signs of Suicide Program, which they currently provide to junior and high schools in Illinois.

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In good company

I've no idea how these students from UNC Chapel Hill stumbled upon my book. As part of a class project this past fall, they created a Coming of Age website, designed to be an educational resource about rites of passage. It has all sorts of books, movies, websites, and organizations that can help you learn more about various rites of passage.

The Books section breaks down the coming of age genre into sub-genres such as cultural, realistic, historical and philosophical. They include Cheeseland in the realistic category, right next to books like Jeffrey Eugenides' The Virgin Suicides and Stephen Chblosky's The Perks of Being a Wallflower.

Now that is my kind of class project. My grade: A+.


The. Next. Big. Thing.

The. Next. Big. Thing.

Sounds like a promo for a B horror flick, does it not? So it seems only fitting that Brian Pinkerton, a brilliant thriller-suspense-horror-mystery author, would be the one to invite me to participate in “The Next Big Thing” blog tour.  Fitting because Pinkerton’s last work, Rough Cut, is a terrifying read into the darkest depths of the low-budget horror movie industry. If you haven’t read Pinkerton’s books, you’re missing out. I met Brian at the Love is Murder Mystery Conference and later picked up a copy of one of his earlier releases, Vengeance. I’ve been hooked ever since. His latest book is How I Started the Apocalypse, a zombie thriller that I’m going to pick up right now.

My mission, as I've chosen to accept it, is to answer ten questions (and only ten questions) and to then pass those ten questions on to five other authors. The fate of the world might just rest on my responses…

Ten Interview Questions for The Next Big Thing:

1. What is your working title of your book?


2. Where did the idea come from for the book?

I love coming-of-age novels, and I was intrigued by the idea of creating a coming-of-age novel of my own, built upon my own experiences growing up as a teen in the south suburbs of Chicago.

3. What genre does your book fall under?

Realistic coming of age

4. Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

Samuel L. Jackson would have to play the role of Buck. Period. End of story.

I’m not hip enough to know who could play the teen-age roles of Danny and Lance, but I’d pick John Cusack to play the adult role of Danny and Sean Penn (think Spicoli from “Fast Times at Ridgemont High”) to play the ‘grown-up’ Lance. 

5. What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Cheeseland: a wild road trip that takes three decades to end.

6.Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

Cheeseland was published earlier this year by Eckhartz Press, a small indie publisher out of Chicago.

7. How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

About three years. I wrote the first draft entirely through a critique group, so each chapter was being reviewed as the manuscript was being developed.

8. What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River and Larry McMurtry’s The Last Picture Show.

9. Who or what inspired you to write this book?

Cheeseland, as you may have guessed, refers to Wisconsin, the nation’s leading cheese producer. When you cross the border from Illinois on Interstate 94, this is immediately brought home to you when you are met by the Mars Cheese Castle, a landmark tourist destination. Hence, the state’s nickname, Cheeseland. But for me Cheeseland is really a place that no longer exists. When I was a teen growing up in the suburbs of Chicago, back in the late ’70s, the drinking age in Wisconsin was 18. So I, and many other teens like me, would trek to Wisconsin to lead a life that blurred the line between adolescence and adulthood. Not surprisingly, this oftentimes led us to get in trouble.   

The book is inspired one of those real life road trips across the border, when I joined two friends for a rock concert at Alpine Valley. After the concert, we returned to our campsite at Big Foot Beach in Lake Geneva. The night should have ended there but it didn’t because one of my two buddies wanted to get a bite to eat. I handed him the keys to my car, and that was the last thing I remember until I found myself lying on a curb outside of a late-night tavern in Kenosha, blood trickling out of my forehead. My friend had crashed the car into a parked car and I have these hazy memories of the owner of the other car yelling at him for hitting his car while I lay there bleeding and my friend trying to tell this guy that I needed help. I was very fortunate in that the only physical injuries I incurred were some minor cuts and abrasions to my forehead, which had struck the windshield when the car collided with the parked car. That entire scene gnawed at my for thirty years and developed into Cheeseland.

10. What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

If you came of age in the ’70s or early ’80s, no matter what part of the country you grew up in, you will probably relate the characters in Cheeseland. They are somewhat universal characters, I think. And if you are into the music of that era, then this is the book for you. Music constantly plays in the background of the first part of Cheeseland. The two main characters always seem to be battling for control of the 8-track player. That is how I remember my life as a teen. The music I listened to shaped me and defined me. When you're a teen-ager, music means more to you than at any other time in your life. Or at least that is true for me. The songs that I listened to then have stuck with me for the thirty-plus years that have followed. They take you back to a time and a place when life was so much simpler and so much more complex. You can check out the book’s Playlist, which I call Cheese Curds on this blog:


Now is the time to pass The Next Big Thing torch to five other esteemed writers, all friends.  Read them all. 

Frederick Lee Brooke is the author of  the Annie Ogden Mysteries, which blend Carl Hiassen’s comic touch with a pinch (and sometimes punch) of Chicago flavor into them. Like many of the authors I know, I met Fred through my involvement with the Chicago Writers Association. Unlike most of the CWAers I know, Fred is a Chicago expatriate, living in Switzerland. He gave a flattering review of Cheeseland, and you know those Swiss know a thing or two about cheese. Visit Fred at

Samantha Hoffman is the author of What More Could You Wish For, a coming-of-age-50 journey, written with wit, charm and tenderness. I met Samantha at a writers’ conference and haven’t been able to ditch her since then. Not that I would really want to ditch her. You can start following her at You won’t want to ditch her, either. 


Rick Kaempfer is the co-author of The Living Wills and the upcoming Records Truly Is My Middle Name, a memoir by Chicago radio legend John Landecker.  I met Rick through Cubbie Blues: 100 Years of Waiting Till Next Year, a book to which we both contributed.  So we are both writers and Cubs fans, proof that we are both gluttons for punishment. Full disclosure: Rick is also my publisher, so you know he’s got good taste in literature. Learn more about Rick at

Kevin Koperski is the author of Amontillado, an Edgar Allen Poe-inspired murder mystery about love, trust and betrayal. An elegant writer, Kevin masterfully constructs a puzzle that takes the reader into the darkest places of the human condition. Full disclosure: Kevin is in my writing critique group, so we each know the others work intimately. And we’ve still managed to be friends. Read more about Kevin at

David Stern is the author of The Balding Handbook, a comic self-help guide to coping with the loss of hair. Being a Fullhead, as Dave refers to me, I can’t fully relate to The Balding Handbook. But it is clearly a book a-head of its time. You’ll laugh and cry and rub your head all at the same time as you read it. Full disclosure: Dave is also my publisher. And a Sox fan. And, yes, we’ve still managed to become friends. Comb over with Dave at


The Art of Publishing

Last weekend Mother Nature treated Chicago to one of those fall marvels, a classic Indian summer day where you shed the jacket and took in the magic of the autumn colors.

Unless you were, like me, stuck in a rental car traveling back and forth along I-90 all weekend, counting construction cones. On Saturday, I trekked the 85 miles from Evanston to Rockford, to attend A World of Words, a book fair hosted by In Print, the Chicago Writers Association’s Rockford affiliate. Like déjà vu all over again, I found myself back on the same stretch of highway the next day, this time traveling to the Gail Borden Public Library in Elgin, where I and Samantha Hoffman, a friend and fellow author, gave a presentation titled “Turning Reality into Fiction.”

I would have been disappointed but not terribly surprised if no one came to listen to us talk about how real-life events inspired us to write our novels. As it turned out, seven people sprinkled a room with seating for 100. At least six of them, I am pretty sure, hadn’t just stumbled in there. I’m not so sure about an elderly man who stood in the back and asked a question that I think was calling into question the veracity of the Kennedy assassination report. The others all listened intently and asked good questions.

At the end of the presentation, one of the women asked Samantha and I if either of us had read a Vanity Fair article about the novel, The Art of Fielding. The two of us looked at each other, not because either of us were familiar with the article but because we had chatted before about our mutual disappointment with the Chad Harbach best-seller. Samantha disliked it so much that she rated it 1 star out of 5 on Goodreads. I was not quite so harsh, giving it a mediocre 3 star rating and noting in my review that perhaps I had come to it with expectations too high.

Since reading Harbach’s 544-page book about baseball and life on a small college campus I’d been curious to know what it was about his book that made it that one book that everyone talks about. I thought it was good – very good in parts – but never great.  Overall, I liked it and I am glad that I read it but I've read better baseball books ("The Natural") and better portrayals of small college life ("Wonder Boys").

As an author, I couldn’t help but wonder what it was about Harbach’s book that made it so special. Feeding my curiosity, that night I Googled “Vanity Fair and The Art of Fielding” which pointed me not to the original article, which is not online, but to an extended version of the article that was being sold, for $1.99, as an e-book, with the long-winded title “Vanity Fair's How a Book is Born: The Making of The Art of Fielding.”

Biting the bullet, I clicked “Buy” and then turned on my Kindle and waited for it to refresh. Moments later, I was reading my new e-article, which I finished in two sittings. To my mind, it was worth the $1.99 cover price, because it answered the question that had been nagging me since reading “The Art of Fielding,” which is why it had become what it had become.

The article, by Keith Gessen, a novelist himself (“All the Sad Young Literary Men”) and friend of Chad Harbach, details the stages that the book went through before it became what it became. Gessen might be a bit too close to the author to be impartial, but even he acknowledges that when he read the early drafts of his friend’s book, he though it a bit light. He came to change his view, however, as Harbach added more and more to the story. Harbach was hardly an overnight success story. He spent 10 long years writing The Art of Fielding, during which time he was struggling to keep creditors at bay. When the manuscript was finally done, a good number of literary agents passed on it before one read it and couldn’t believe that there weren’t agents crawling all over Harbach. There weren’t; there was one agent who saw the potential of the manuscript and carried it all the way to auction and then to runaway best-seller.

Gessen’s article is not just about his friend’s success story, it’s also about the dramatically changing world of the publishing industry, and he touches on the slow death of the traditional publishing model and the rise of the behemoth that is Amazon. It is with some irony that his own article could be a poster for this brave new digital world, turning it into a $1.99 e-book for purchase on Kindle.

It’s a fascinating read, giving insight into how Harbach’s book became what it did (don’t think it did it all on its own, there was a publishing promotional blitz behind it like few books have ever seen) but also how the publishing world has become what it has become.

At the end, Gessen writes, “Most writers, me among them, are by nature pretty cynical about publishing. It's hard not to be, considering all the crap they put out and call books.” Ultimately, however, he finds reason for hope, that being that there are a lot of people out there who still love books and will go to all lengths to share that love with others. 


Cheeseland Goes to UIC



Randy in 2012Randy in 1980When I posted this picture on the left to Facebook a couple weeks ago, it prompted a response from Lene, a friend whom I have known for 30 years. We met in 1982, when I was living in Watterson Towers, a dorm on the campus of Illinois State University, in Normal. Lene's question was this: "Why do you still look exactly like you did 30 years ago?"

I was flattered that she still saw me as when we first met, three decades ago. But then her question prompted questions of my own. I wonderered, Do I really still look exactly like I did 30 years ago, and, if so, is that a good thing?

Randy in 1981Randy in 1984So I dug up my old college IDs, which I've saved all these years. I found three of them from three different colleges (I was restless), taken in 1980, 1981 and 1984. I figured that these three photos provide a fair and representative sample of what I looked like 30 years ago. 

Looking at these old college photo IDs, a couple of things are obvious. One, my hair is much shorter than it was 30 years ago. And two, I smile a lot more now than I did 30 years ago.

The question is, have I really changed that much in 30 years? I hope I've matured mentally. I know I am not the same physically. Time has certainly taken its toll on my eyes and my knees. I need glasses to drive and I run only on a treadmill. There are other parts that might not work as well now, either, but we'll not discuss those here in public.

Randy as the Caveman Lawyer in 1993But I'll let you be the judge and answer Lene's question for yourself: Do I look exactly like I did 30 years ago? Have I been frozen for 30 years and thawed out in a strange world that only frightens and confuses me? 

I think David Bowie probably said it best in 1971, in his song, "Changes": "Time may change me. But I can't trace time."