R.L. Stine: "I started off killing teenagers"
If you were a child in the 90s, it's a pretty safe bet you
were reading R.L. Stine's Goosebumps series and, later, Fear Street. I
personally consumed those paperbacks like they were crack cocaine, toting a
teetering pile of ‘em home with me from school on the days the Scholastic book
order (oh man, remember those?) was delivered. So it's safe to say I was pretty stoked to talk to the man responsible
for the likes of Night of the Living Dummy and One Evil Summer in advance of
his speaking engagement at this year's Vericon at Harvard. Stine filled me in
on killing teenagers for a living, the unlikely but incredible success of Goosebumps,
writing for Eureka's Castle, the changing face of YA lit (good news: he says
the kids are still reading!) and more.
So where am I talking to you from?
I'm in New York City
in my apartment, where I seldom leave. I'm chained here to my desk
What are you working on right now?
I'm working on a Goosebumps for this year called Son of
Is this the first new Goosebumps book in a while?
No, no I've been
doing a new set of Goosebumps for about the past three years. The new series is
called Goosebumps: Horrorland.
Is it similar to the original?
Oh it's the same. I did nine of them that had a continuing
story in the back so that was a little different. But I'm doing a whole new
set, I think I've done about 25 new ones. And I'm doing 6 a year.
How long does it take you to write one book?
Well its kind of deceptive because I spend a lot of time
planning them before I write them. So I do a complete chapter by chapter
outline of every book first and do all the thinking before I actually sit down
and write. And so I'll do maybe a 10 to 15 page outline of each book, and then when
I've done all the thinking and I know everything that's going to happen in the
book it takes about two weeks to write one.
Wow, that's not very long at all
(Laughs) No, it's pretty sad. But they're short! You know,
they're 120 manuscript pages so if I write ten a day, which I normally do, it
takes twelve days. But then there's a lot of time revising and reworking stuff.
Where do you get ideas for the stories?
That I don't know. That's an impossible question. It's
impossible! I have a trick though. What I do is, I think of a title first, and
then I work from the title. I think that's backwards for most authors, right?
Most get an idea for a book and then work on it and later they think of the
title? I always think of the title first.
Well, with Goosebumps, the titles are so descriptive that
you could do that
It sort of leads me to the story. I was walking my dog in Riverside Park one day and these words just popped
into my head: say Cheese and Die.
Oh yeah, I remember that one very well
Yeah, where'd that come from? I don't know. But there it was
and I thought, well, what if there's this evil camera and what if some boys discover
it, and that led me to the story. In this new Goosebumps series I had another
great title I loved: "Little Shop of Hamsters". It's good right? And then I had
to think, well what could possibly be scary about hamsters? And then I had to
think of a story, but I loved the title so much that I had to do it.
Oh, no, they're not. There's just a lot of them. A lot of
hamsters might get scary. So anyway, this is sort of a big year for Goosebumps,
it's the 20th anniversary year. I've been doing them for 20 years.
Does it feel like you've been doing them for that long?
(Laughs) Uh, yeah!
Well, yes, I don't know, it's like I'm on to the next generation and the
next. It's so funny, I'm on Twitter and there are no kids on Twitter, it's all
people your age, 20-somethings. It's really wonderful for me because those are
my original readers back from the 90s and it's a great way to keep in touch
with that original generation.
Do you find that the books are as successful now as they
were when I was reading them?
No....no. Because back then it was like this amazing thing. It
was this amazing phenomenon. No one had ever seen anything like it. There'd
been some big children's series before but Goosebumps just took off all over
the world. And I got very spoiled, we were selling at one point 4 million books
a month. The only thing that's outsold Goosebumps is Harry Potter. So I'm #2.
Oh, I know. And I'd been writing for 20 years and nobody
noticed and then all of a sudden I had this huge hit and it was just popular
everywhere. It was really incredible, we sold over 250 million of them. In the
90s. Now, it does fine. It does ok. We've got a lot of fans and it does very
well, but no, it's nothing like that.
So what made you decide to start writing scary novels?
I did a book called Blind Date for Scholastic, a YA novel, and it was an immediate number
one best seller. And I'd never had one before, and I thought well what's going
on here? So I wrote another horror one called Twisted, and it was another
number one best seller and I thought wait a minute, I‘ve struck a chord here. I
found something kids like! And I've been scary ever since.
You weren't scary before?
No, I was funny, I was always funny. I never really wanted
to be scary. I was Jovial Bob Stine, and I wrote about one hundred joke books
for kids. 101 monster jokes, 101 school cafeteria jokes, I did all those. And a
whole bunch of humor books for kids. And I did, in the 70s and 80s, I did a
humor magazine for kids called Bananas. It was like Mad magazine except it was
all in color and I wrote almost all of it. We had great cartoonists and it was
just fun. And that's all I really ever wanted to do, was be funny. And so I was
Jovial Bob and I did all this funny stuff but it never did as well, you know?
And then we discovered kids liked to be scared. And that was that.
Do you watch a lot of horror movies?
Yeah, I do, but I'm always looking for clever horror movies.
I'm always looking for ones that are kind of witty. It's hard to find them.
What's your favorite?
Oh, I don't know. Well, I guess The Shining. That's a great
horror film. And there's a great film with Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie
back in the 70s set in Venice
called Don't Look Now. Which is terrifying. It's about Venice, mainly, which can be really scary,
and trying to find a lost child. A terrifying film. I also like things like Arachnophobia.
Yes! That movie terrified me as a kid
Right? With all the spiders? I love that film. Yeah, I don't
like the slasher stuff, it's just not clever at all.
Which series did you write first, Goosebumps or Fear Street?
Fear Street. I started off killing teenagers.
I have to say, I'm 27 years old and I still have, I think,
the majority of my collection at home in my childhood bedroom
Oh, you do? And they're all turning yellow with age, right?
All the pages are wrinkled from reading them in the
That's funny. Yeah that was a lot of fun, I did about 100 of
those. I think.
Yeah, loved those
Well, we killed people! I killed off teenagers. Every month
I was killing off teenagers! It was fun. In Goosebumps, nobody every died. Goosebumps
is not YA, it's basically ages 7 to 11. And then I lose them at 12. Fear Street
was pretty much ages 10 to 14, I think.
And 27 year olds, I guess.
So, this is your first year at Vericon?
Yeah, I didn't know anything about it. Someone wrote to me,
someone from the thing, and asked if Id like to come down, and it sounded like
It looks like you're the only "horror" writer speaking
Yeah, it's mostly fantasy people and anime people, right?
Yup. Do you consider yourself to be a horror writer?
Yeah, I guess so.
Who's your favorite horror writer?
Well, Stephen King. I think he's a hell of a story teller.
He is. I think I like
his collections of short stories the most
There's one novella, Hearts in Atlantis - have you read it? -
it's brilliant, a brilliant story.
I think a lot of people who haven't read his books don't
actually give him the credit he deserves, as a writer.
Yeah, it's funny to say it because he's so huge, but I think
he's underrated. When you think of some of the incredible-and just really scary-books
he's done. I think Misery is the best book ever written about writers and
editors. Right? The poor guy is trapped by his editor, chained to the bed.
Would you ever consider bringing the Fear Street books back?
We think about it. On Twitter all the people are always
saying I love Fear Street
why aren't you doing Fear Street?
But it's hard now, the YA market is very different. Booksellers and publishers
don't really want monthly series anymore. And they pretty much don't want
paperback for YA, they want hardcovers. And publishing has changed quite a bit.
But I'm thinking about it.
Why don't they want paperbacks anymore?
Because the bookstore doesn't make as much money on them.
You know the mass-market, the little tiny airport paperbacks that everyone used
to read? The little ones? That's dying out. Try to go into a Barnes & Noble
and find a mass-market paperback. They're hidden because they don't make any
money on them. But a hardcover children's book for 17 bucks, that's a lot more
money for everybody. I think it's a shame, I've always been a paperback guy.
Yeah, and who wants to carry around a hardcover?
Also, kids can go into a bookstore and buy four or five
paperbacks and they can afford them. If they go into the store and the book
they want is 17 bucks, that's the only one they're going to buy. They're not
going to buy three or four others.
Do you think kids are still buying books?
Oh, definitely. Everyone talks about how "oh kids don't
read, kids are too distracted" but when I started in children's books it was a
tiny business. And now it's billions of dollars, children's books are a huge
business. In many cases they run the publishing companies. They make all the
money for the publishers. So somebody is reading them! You look at, you know,
the Hunger Games and kids are reading those things.
Do you think that eReaders have also changed publishing quite a bit?
Well, no one knows what they're doing now, is what's
happened. No one knows what's happened, how popular they will be, what's going
to happen to actual books. Everyone is just in a quandary, nobody really knows.
It's a really transitional time.
I prefer having a book in my hands
Right, I'm a real book person, too. But for traveling, the Kindle
is a great thing. If you go on a long trip and you can put eight or ten books
on this skinny little thing. It's very convenient. I don't use it at home but I
do use it for traveling.
So, Shadyside, the town in Fear Street, I'm sure you get asked about
it all the time.
Is that based on a real place?
No. Well I just made up the name! I thought, well, that's a
good creepy name for a town. And then I started hearing from people in Shadyside, Pennsylvania
and Shadyside, Ohio and it turned out they were real places
and I didn't even know! I never even looked it up.
I was going to compare it Stephen King's Derry
or Castle Rock, which seem like real places...
All those Maine
locations seem real, right?
I think I always thought Derry
was a real place, until pretty recently.
But, no I just made it up. People said there'd never been a monthly
horror series for teenagers. There'd been individual titles, people like Lois
Duncan had written individual titles. And Christopher Pike. But we wanted to do
a series, and we couldn't figure out, how do you do it? Because if it's the same kids every month it would be
ludicrous. To have all these horrifying things happen to the same kids month
after month after month. It would be ridiculous. And then we thought, oh, well
what if it's the place? What if the place is scary? And then I thought well
what if it's a normal place but just one street is scary? And that's how we
came up with Fear Street.
So, in the end, what did you enjoy writing more? Fear Street or Goosebumps?
Well, I enjoyed them both. Well, the middle grade readers, I
love these kids. The 7 to 12 year olds. Because they're enthusiastic. It might
be the last time in their lives that they're ever enthusiastic. Because you get
into 8th grade and you have to be cool. And then it's over, that's it. And so
these 7 to 12 year olds, if they like you they write to you, and they want to
have a lunch box, they want to wear the shirts. I hear from them on my website
all the time. They send me messages, it's just great. I'm really very close in
touch with my readers, that age group. So I love writing for them.
It's good to hear that kids are still in love with reading,
what with all the gadgets and technology they have now, that we didn't have growing up.
It's not true though. [That kids no longer read]. There just
wouldn't be so many hundreds of children's books every year if they weren't
Has anyone ever written any fan fiction for either series?
Not that I know of. But I'd like to see it, if someone did.
Well, kids write stories all the time. They always send them, and they're much
more scary than my stuff. Always really grotesque and gruesome. The stuff I
would never do.
On that note, I was going to mention that, in the Fear Street books, I remember there you were always describing teenage couples "kissing passionately" but there was never any overt
sexuality. Was it tough walking that line?
No, that was my decision. Because Christopher Pike was
writing similar teen books, and he went much further.
I know, I remember there was this one book of his, Monster, that
I read as a kid and in it there was a scene with two kids having sex and there
was somehow blood involved.... it was really graphic, and I remember being totally
One of his books, I don't remember which one, but they feed
somebody heroin and cocaine until they die. That kind of thing. He was already
writing these books when I got started. My first book was called Blind Date.
And then The Babysitter and all those. And I thought what can I do that's
different? I don't want to copy him. So I decided to be younger, and have humor
in it, and not go as far. And keep it cleaner. That way it would be approved by
school book clubs and parents wouldn't object and I'd be different from him. So
that was a conscious decision. Not to go as a far.
So, I didn't realize that you were you were a producer of Nickelodeon's
Yes, and a head writer.
I loved that show.
Did you? Oh, that's good to hear.
I feel like they don't make kids shows like that anymore.
Yeah, well they try. But they mostly do animated stuff now.
Yes, so I wrote all the puppet segments for Eureka. We did four years of that show, I
think we did one hundred episodes.
I feel like now kids shows, and basically everything geared
towards kids, are so over-the-top and in your face. Overstimulation.
Mmm hmm. It's true.
Have you had to change your writing style at all for the new
Nope. No, not at all. The whole point always in Goosebumps,
has been to make it really easy to read, short sentences, short chapters, put a
cliff hanger at the end of every chapter that forces them to go on to the next
chapter so they read a whole book without realizing it. It's just totally
reader motivation. Getting kids to read. And I get criticized a lot, they say "oh,
you don't have any characterization, you know" and that's all deliberate. I
want the kid to identify with the main character. And I want them to be able to
get through it fast. I love it when kids say, you know, "I read your book in
four hours!" That's a great thing because they read other stuff then.
So you don't think kids today are more jaded, or harder to
write for, because they're just exposed to so much more?
I don't know. My stuff is basically the same. You know, the
technology changes, but when you're writing horror, I mean, fears don't change.
It's all the same. I could have written this stuff when I was kid. You're still
afraid of the dark, and afraid there's something in you closet, or something
under your bed that's going to grab you when you step off. The fears never
Now you just have to incorporate iPhones.
Yeah, but I have to be really careful about that because
it'll be different in six months. They'll all be using something else in six
months and then you're totally dated. It's kind of a problem how much
technology to put in.
So what do you plan to talk about during your panel at
I don't know. I just found out about the panel yesterday.
The panel is about settings. How authors use settings, the tools each writer
uses to make his world or mythology. What kind of responses they try to invoke
in the reader with their settings.
And, for you, that is....
Well I'd have to think about it.
Seems like a good topic for you, since, as you said, the
entire Fear Street
series was based upon a setting...
Yes, that's right. And also, I mean the Goosebumps books, they're all in someone's back yard. I grew up in Ohio,
and they're all pretty much in someone's backyard in Columbus, Ohio.
I always think it's much scarier to have something really creepy going on in
your kitchen then in some castle in the middle of Europe
Right. Finding fear in the mundane.
Yes, so I'll probably talk about that. And then I'm going to give a talk where I'll
probably just talk about myself for a half hour or something. It's not
scheduled yet. I only have one subject really. And then there's a book signing,
and then I don't know, a reading or something.
What are you going read?
Well, these are college kids right? I might read something a
On that note, have you ever considered writing for adults?
Oh, on that note! Thank you, on that note, I have a hardcover
horror novel for adults coming out October 16. For Simon and Schuster, a 400
page novel called Red Rain. Horrifying. It's about a woman, a travel writer,
who gets caught in a dreadful hurricane on an island off the coast of the Carolinas, and everything is devastated, and she finds
these two blonde twin boys who've lost their family. And she's wanted a bigger
family, so she adopts them and brings them back to her family in Sag Harbor, Long Island. We have a house out in Sag
Harbor, so that's why I set it there. And so she brings these two
beautiful boys, very sweet boys, back to her family and she doesn't know that
they are psycho killers. The reader knows it, but she doesn't. And they have
supernatural powers, that are horrible, and they're just horrible killers.
Yes! I've always loved movies and books about evil children
Did you see Orphan?
I did, yes.
That was really good. She turns out to be 35 years old!
Yup. I think the tagline for that movie was "You'll Never Guess
Esther's Secret" or something. And you never would, that's the one thing you'd
never have guessed.
Yeah, so I thought that was really good.
I also always really liked that movie Village
of the Damned, with Kirstie Alley..
Oh, you're so funny. Red Rain was actually inspired by Village
of the Damned, Island of the Damned, and Children
of the Damned. Those three movies, they're the inspiration for my book.
Those were the kids I was picturing when you were describing
Yeah, that's right. That's exactly where the book idea came
That's exciting, your first adult novel..
Well, it's not my first. I did one ten years ago called Superstitious.
But not too many people noticed. But now so many of my readers are in their 20s
and 30s I thought it might be the right time to write a book for them.
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