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'I never wanted to be scary': an interview with R. L. Stine

Photography by Scholastic

R. L. Stine is best known as the author of Goosebumps, the children's horror-book series that in the 1990s morphed into video games, plastic toys, a Taco Bell sponsorship, a television show, and even its own land within a Disney theme park. Over the past couple decades the initial Goosebumps audience have grown into adults, but Stine has continued writing both his best known series, along with Fear Street, Rotten School and other books, selling over 400 million copies over his career.

This week Goosebump gets a film adaptation that its producers hope will bridge the gap of new, young readers and their parents, raised on the likes of Say Cheese and Die and Monster Blood 3. We took the opportunity to speak with Stine about his life as a writer, from reporting on heated soda-pop industry debates and penning fake celebrity interviews to becoming one of the most successful children's authors of all time.

Chris Plante: What was your life like as a writer before Fear Street and Goosebumps?

R. L. Stine: I knew when I was nine that I wanted to be a writer. I don't know why it sounded so interesting, but it did. I lived in Columbus, Ohio and went to college at Ohio State. At that time, every college had a humor magazine. Very few few of them are left. They all pretty much died out in the '60s and were replaced by underground newspapers. Ohio State had this humor magazine called The Sundial, and I was the editor for three years.

That's basically all I did in college. I did this magazine, you know, I never went to class. And I, as editor, was entitled to 22 percent of the profits, so it paid my way to New York. I always knew I wanted to move to New York from Ohio. Actually, I thought, at the time, if you wanted to be a writer, you had to live in New York. You had no choice. Right?

My very first job in New York was making up interviews for fan magazines. This woman, she had six movie magazines that came out every month that she had to fill. She worked out of a brownstone up on 96th Street. I never saw her dressed. She was always in this brown bathrobe. She never went to the movies or anything. She just did these magazines.

I would come in, in the morning, and she'd say, "Do an interview with Diana Ross." So I'd sit down — type, type, type, type, type — and I'd write an interview with Diana Ross. And she'd say, "Do an interview with The Beatles." Fine — type, type, type — and we made it all up. It was a great job.

You know, it was very creative, for one thing. And I had to write three or four of them a day, so it taught me to write really fast. It didn't last very long.

From there, I got a job at a trade magazine. This was the worst year of my life: writing for the soft drink industry. I was like assistant editor of soft drinks. I would write about new syrups and flip-top cans, and there was a big debate back then over whether soda could come in plastic bottles.

How heated did the plastic bottle debate get?

Pretty heated! You know, but well, plastic won. Now people mostly drink out of plastic. The problem is ... this is more than you want to know, but the problem is that plastic is porous so the carbonation escapes.

You’re proving your pro-glass knowledge of the soda industry.

Weird, right? Anyways, it was a horrible year, but I was making $140 a week, and I was rich. I was riding around in taxis and going out for dinner. I was living in New York, and writing for a living. You know.

I've heard that you really enjoy opera. Did you pick up your taste for the classics while writing about soda pop?

No, actually, when Jane and I got married, one of the couples gave us, as a wedding gift, a subscription to City Opera, and that's the first time I ever ... We didn't have that in Ohio.

That's the first time that we ever saw [a performance]. That's, that's a weird question. [Laughs.]

[After that], I went to Scholastic. I answered an ad in the Times and got a job as assistant editor of Junior Scholastic, writing history and geography. That's the first time I wrote for kids. I never planned to be a kids' writer. I always wrote these funny novels for adults, but no one ever wanted them. I never wanted to be scary, either. I only wanted to be funny.

Maybe the best way to be scary is to be funny.

They’re very closely related, humor and horror.

I was a kid when Goosebumps became a phenomenon, and at the time, it seemed inescapable, but actually there was little initial promotion for the books. You didn't do interviews. How did the series go from a handful of overlooked books to selling almost 4 million copies a month?

It's a great mystery, isn't it? Because there wasn't any advertising or anything. [The books] sat around on the shelves for about three months. We signed up to do four of them. A couple of them came out and they did nothing. They sat there. If this was today — with the computers and everything — I think the stores would have pulled them off the shelves and that would've been it. It would've been considered a failure.

But the bookstores were more patient in those days, and after about three or four months, I think it was discovered by kids. And the whole thing happened by word of mouth. It was just kids telling kids. I really think there's this secret kids' network. The difference is they’re in school, they’re together, and they talk — not like adults.

Kids told kids. I think that's how all the big book crazes started, not by advertising. You can't really force kids to read something they don't want. Harry Potter started the same way, I think. Kids telling kids, all over the world. That's the amazing part.

Goosebumps' success has lasted decades now. You have the books, the spinoffs, the TV shows, and this movie. Was there one moment that stood out from the rest, one crowning achievement?

I've had a lot. In '93, '94, ’95 — the height of Goosebumps — the USA Today "top 50 books" list was usually 20 to 25 Goosebumps books. That was really exciting. My other big thrill was having our own attraction at Disney World.

I'm a big Disney person. We had Goosebumps Horror Land at MGM Studios at Disney World for a year. We had a live show that went on eight times a day with puppets and special effects. And we had a huge store behind it with a hall of mirrors. We sold T-shirts and masks. To have my own land, that was amazing.

"We used every Canadian kid there was."

Unfortunately, it came sort of late in the Goosebumps cycle. We didn't sell enough T-shirts, so Disney closed it down. That's all they care about. When you come out, you go in the gift shop. Did they buy enough T-shirts? We didn't.

And having the number one kids' show. Goosebumps was the number one kids' show for three years. That was also a real thrill.

And it launched the careers of a few young actors.

Yeah, every Canadian! We used every Canadian kid there was. It was a totally Canadian production. We shot in an old Molson brewery plant in Toronto.

I would do book signings here in the United States. Kids would be in line and they'd say, "I'm an actor. How can I be on the Goosebumps show?" And I would say, "You have to be Canadian," and every time the kid would say, "What's that?"

Truly the most horrific thing they can imagine.

That’s really a tribute to our schools, right? They didn't know what a Canadian was.

I've read that your wife is your editor.

Yes. For real. Not just, you know … she gets paid to be my editor.

And you've been working together essentially from the very beginning.

Yeah, pretty much. We were both at Scholastic for many years. She was actually my boss for four years there. That was not great.

Sounds risqué.

Well, I got lousy raises. She'd be embarrassed to give me a really good raise since we were married. So I got very bad raises. Yeah, being married to your editor is basically a nightmare. [Laughs.]

We fight about plots all the time.

I have to have the outline [for every story] approved. I do a chapter-by-chapter outline of every book I write, and I really can't work any other way now. Everyone hates to outline but I need it.

I do Chapter 1: This is what happens and this is the chapter ending. Chapter 2: What happens and this is the ending. I do all the thinking. I do all the hard part in the outline and it has to be approved by Jane, and then by the editor at Scholastic if it's Goosebumps or at St. Martin's if it's Fear Street.

What’s the harshest criticism she’s put on an outline?

I don't even have to think about that. I got a manuscript back once and up at the top were two words. It said, "Psychotic ramblings." That was it. Psychotic ramblings.

I guess it's good that she's honest?

That's cruel. That is really cruel. She's a very tough editor. She's really smart and she's just too good, too good an editor. You don't want an editor that good. I don't get away with anything. I always say she's like a hockey goalie. Nothing gets past her.

A couple of months ago, Stephen King published an op-ed in The New York Times and the question at the top was, "Can a novelist be too productive?"

Yes, of course I read that, yes.

You have been compared to Mr. King many times. You’ve also published hundreds of books. I think at one point you were doing two a month. How do you feel about your productivity? Do you think it informs what you create?

Oh, that's interesting. I always think of Joyce Carol Oates. She writes so many books, right? And every time somebody reviews Joyce Carol Oates, they have to talk about how many books she writes. No one can ignore that. And you know, forget the quality of her writing. It’s always about how prolific she is, and there is a certain prejudice against that. I think if I would write one book a year it wouldn't be any better than, you know, the ones I [already] do. Some people write at different speeds. That's all. That wasn't your question though. I don't know what your, what was your question?

I think you answered it. I’m curious if you think being so productive has any impact on the quality of an author’s writing. Like, have you had a story that you felt needed extra time and attention?

Every once in awhile. When we were doing 12 a year it was a little — that's, that's very rushed. Now I do four a year of Goosebumps and two Fear Streets. But no, I think writers just have their own speed, and I don't think slowing down or speeding up or changing the process would really change the quality of the writing. I really don't.

You know, I’ve been called Stephen King for kids. And I finally met him last April. For 30 years I've been telling people I've never met Stephen King. So I finally met him at the Edgar Awards in April, you know the mystery writers awards and we had a nice talk. I said, "You know Steve, one magazine once called me a literary training bra for you." And he said, "Yes, I know." [Laughs.]

It was a good moment. You don't want to be called a training bra, you know?

When you have your success, does something like that even get to you?

No. I think it's funny. I think it's all funny.

Of all the books you've published, is there one that you're most proud of. Or one that you’re most surprised you put to paper?

That’s two different things.

I have one book that I'm really proud of that I did for Harper Collins called Beware. It’s a collection of all my favorite authors and favorite comic artists and favorite poets. All the stuff I like I put in one big anthology. I've got Ray Bradbury in there, and Gahan Wilson, and Jack Davis. I’m very proud of that book. I love it.

And I’m proud of some of the Goosebumps books. Some stand out, I think, more than others. The Haunted Mask, that's one of my favorites. I think it's a really good Halloween story. The ones with Slappy the evil dummy: I like those. He's fun to write because he insults everybody. He has great insults. So he's really fun to write.

He always read to me like a good Catskills comedian.

Yes, exactly. That's what he is. Most people don't realize that.

You have been so successful. You've made a great deal of money. You could stop publishing. You could go hang out on the beach and order nice drinks …


... Why keep writing?

I don't, yeah ... I know that question. I don't know, I… I honestly wouldn't know what to do all day.

A friend of mine once asked me, "How long can you go without writing? Writers don't retire do they?" I said, "Well, maybe 10 days." I'm pretty good on vacations. I can do two weeks, but then I have to get back to it. And he said, "Well, you see it's an addiction." And I thought that was pretty smart. I start to feel uncomfortable if I'm not writing, after like two weeks.

All these thriller writers meet every summer here in New York [for the International Thriller Writers conference] and I was talking to Ian Rankin. He's a Scottish writer. He writes Inspector Rebus.

Anyway I said, "Ian, how long can you go without writing?" And he said, "Well, I am taking a year off." And I just sort of looked at him. "Taking a year off?" I said, "What are you going to do?" He said, "Oh, I'll go down to the pub. I'll read the paper." I was shocked.

That's not you.

No. I couldn't. No. But you see, I love the writing part. All these people that say writing is hard, I never know what they're talking about. Everyone says, "Oh, writing is so hard." I don't think it's hard. It's fun.

I just think it's fun, and I look forward to starting another one. Seriously.

You don't include things like divorce, drug use, abuse in your children and young adult books. Why is that? Is it not as enjoyable for you to write?

No, it's because I don't really want to terrify kids. People always say, "How far will you go to frighten kids?" I think if you make sure it's a fantasy world, and the kids know what they're reading is a fantasy and couldn't happen, then you can go pretty far and you won’t upset them that much.

You’ve said there’s good violence for kids and a bad kind of violence.

There is such a thing. I believe in violence. I love violence in movies and stories and everything. I think it's good for kids because it gets that out of them. Kids are very smart, and if they see a movie in which people are punching each other and it's very violent, they know it's movie violence. If they walk down the street and two people are fighting, punching each other, it's a totally different reaction from real violence.

So the whole thing about violence for kids is I’m on the other side. I think it's a really good thing for kids.

I just think that kids, people don't give kids credit enough to know they're smart enough to know the difference between real violence and real danger and fictional danger.

"[It's] hard to write a letter, so they deserve an answer."

Is it true that you respond to every piece of email you receive from fans?


Oh, no?

No, I don’t. Not the email. I don't have much email from kids. I save that for adults, but every kid who writes a letter, a snail mail letter, gets a reply. That's hard for kids. It's time consuming and hard to write a letter, so they deserve an answer. Every kid gets an answer.

Of all those snail mail letters you've received, has one most caught you off guard?

I've told this many times. This is one of my all-time favorite letters. I’ve gotten many sad letters and very moving letters and horrifying letters — for real — but this is my all-time favorite in all these years. From a boy. "Dear, R.L. Stine, I've read 40 of your books and I think they're really boring."

That's it?

Yeah. Isn't that perfect? Isn't that a perfect letter?

That’s exceptional.

[Laughs.] It's my all-time favorite.

In real life, does anything scare you as you get older?

Yeah, getting older.

It's horrible. It's horrible. I don't enjoy it at all. No, I think I have normal adult fears in the city. Normal New York City fears: bricks are going to fall off a building and land on my head, that kind of thing.

I just moved out of New York City after 10 years and I was always worried that I'd step on one of those basement hatches alongside the deli and fall through. I was sure it would happen.

[Laughs.] Yeah. Where'd you move to?

Austin, Texas.

That's pretty far off Broadway. I like Austin, Austin is fun.

After 10 of New York's winters I just couldn't do it anymore and I did find out that you could actually be a writer and not live in New York.

[Laughs.] You found out before I did.

You have so many books, so many different things that you've made. What do you want people to remember you by, either as a person or as an author?

That he got boys to read.

That's what it is. That was my big achievement. The interesting thing about Goosebumps is it really was 50 percent boys, 50 percent girls. Up until Goosebumps it was very hard to get boys to read anything. So that’s my big achievement, I think. He got boys to read.