A Walk Down Fear Street: A Phoenix writer fanboys out all over R.L. Stine [Q&A]

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 Slappy.

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.

Mutant hamsters?

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? 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, wow.

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 bathroom...

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.

(Laughs) Yes.

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 fun.

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.

(Laughs) Yeah.....

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 reading.

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 scandalized.

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 Eureka's Castle?

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 Goosebumps?

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 change.

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 Vericon?

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 or something.

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 little older.

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 them.

Yeah, that's right. That's exactly where the book idea came from.

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.

R.L. Stine speaks at Vericon at Harvard University March 16-18. Visit for more information.

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