I Am the Cheese was written in the 1970s, and many of the ideas in it, as in Cormier's other work, were especially relevant to the time. Unprecedented social upheaval occurred in the United States during the '60s and '70s. Unlike the '50s, where people tended to conform to social norms, individualism was celebrated in the '60s, and single individuals, such as Rosa Parks, could help galvanize an entire movement. Cormier takes a darker view of individualism. In his novel The Chocolate War, an individual takes a principled stand against his evil school—and loses. The school, or society, is too powerful for a single person, and in I Am the Cheese, Cormier takes this idea to even greater levels. The Vietnam War in the '60s and '70s, and President Richard Nixon's involvement in the Watergate scandal in the early '70s, disillusioned many Americans and made them distrust their government more deeply than before. Cormier, a journalist until he made enough money as a novelist, was already disillusioned, and I Am the Cheese directly targets the corrupt government that betrays those it is supposed to protect.
Robert Cormier was born on January 17, 1925, in a French-Canadian neighborhood of Leominster, Massachusetts, the town he fictionalized as Monument in many of his books. An outsider who read and wrote to escape everyday life, Cormier attended Catholic school, where a nun encouraged him to become a writer. At nearby Fitchburg State College, a teacher submitted one of Cormier's stories to a magazine, and it became his published debut. Soon after college he became a reporter for local newspapers and garnered several prestigious awards. Cormier worked as a journalist for thirty years, publishing short stories in national magazines, until his profits from novels allowed him to focus full time on writing books. It was not until The Chocolate War, his fourth book, that Cormier found a large audience. The novel incited protests from parents and teachers, who disapproved of the mature language and themes of a book that was supposed to be for teenagers. The book was often banned in schools, and Cormier spent much of the remainder of his career defending the work. Still, he continued to produce great books for both adolescents and adults, such as 1979's After the First Death and 1999's Frenchtown Summer.
That Cormier wrote for both children and adults should not be understated. He maintained that he wrote realistic stories intended for intelligent people of any age. Young, sensitive readers connected to his themes of alienation and individualism. Cormier counted Graham Greene and Ernest Hemingway among his major influences, and had a special affinity for the work of J.D. Salinger, another writer who focused on childhood and adolescence. Unlike the reclusive Salinger, Cormier embraced his audience. In I Am the Cheese, Amy Hertz's phone number was Cormier's actual number in Leominster. Thousands of teenagers picked up on the clue and have called Cormier over the years—he says he even counseled a few in distress. Unfortunately, you cannot call him anymore, as Cormier passed away on November 2, 2000. He left behind him a new brand of adolescent literature.