Interview: R. L. Stine on giving us goosebumps for the past four decades…
Popular children’s book author Roald Dahl once said that he would easily be welcomed instantly into the homes of any of his young fans anywhere in the world. No doubt the same would be true for R.L. Stine, who for the past 22 years has delighted millions of children around the globe with his novels about things that go bump in the night. The bestselling writer of young adult horror is so well known, in fact, that you’re as likely to find a doctor, lawyer, or editor who reveres his books as you are a 9-year-old child.
Stine crept onto the children’s horror scene in 1987 with his debut novel Blind Date. The book quickly became a bestseller and, in 1989, he began the hugely popular Fear Street series—set in the fictional town of Shadyside, where a threat always awaits the new girl in town. As a result of Fear Street’s popularity, Stine is often credited with inventing the teen horror genre.
Three years later, at the urging of his wife, Stine published the first Goosebumps novel. Whether pitting suburban kids against zombies, vampires, or other sinister things from dark corners, the series consistently draws children from the safety of their homes into an unpredictable world, where beneath bottomless canoes, shrunken heads, and werewolf petting zoos there always lurks a good laugh. In 1995, Goosebumps was adapted into a successful television series, which became the most highly watched kids show for three years in a row. The books have since been translated into 32 languages and sold more than 300 million copies—making Stine the bestselling children’s author in history.
Among his other endeavors, Stine has published two short story collections—The Nightmare Hour (1999) and The Haunting Hour (2002)—as well as the Rotten School series and three popular horror novels for older audiences: Superstitious (1995), The Sitter (2003) and Eye Candy (2004). In 2002, he edited Beware, a collection of poems, horror stories, and art by some his favorite authors and artists, among them Ray Bradbury and Roald Dahl. Stine’s work has garnered significant acclaim, including the Nickelodeon Kids’ Choice Award and the Disney Adventures Kids’ Choice award.
Photo: Tracy Van Straaten
Stine has always made sure to keep his novels on the light side. “I work very hard to keep these books from being too real,” the author once said. “The real world is much scarier than what I write about. My books are just meant to entertain … I don’t do drugs. I don’t do child abuse. I don’t really ever do divorce.”
The formula has certainly worked. Last year saw the re-release of the Goosebumps series, and last April, the first books in Stine’s new series—Goosebumps Horrorland—were released by Scholastic. It is a testament to Stine’s staying power that Goosebumps Horrorland has been greeted with excitement by fans and critics alike. In a starred review, Publishers Weekly described the new stories as “deliciously chilling.”
R.L. Stine lives in New York with his wife Jane.
AFG: So did you want to be a writer when you were a kid?
RLS: Very early on. I started writing when I was 9. I don’t know why I thought it was so interesting. I found this old typewriter up in the attic, I dragged it down, and I started typing little magazines, little joke books, typing little stories. I was 9 years old! I’d just be in my room, and my mother would try to get me to go outside: “Go outside and play! What’s wrong with you?” I’d say, “Oh it’s boring out there.” Type, type, type. It’s funny because I never really learned to type. I’m totally left-handed, and I just started typing with my pointer finger, nothing else, just one finger, not even two. And I’ve now written 300 books on this finger.
AFG: So you still do it that way?
RLS: Yeah, I never learned to type.
AFG: Have you tried any of the typing programs?
RLS: No, because it would slow me down.
AFG: If you learned to type you could probably write 300 books in one year.
RLS: [laughing] No thanks. My typing finger is totally bent, totally curved, from all these books.
AFG: That’s amazing!
RLS: I know, the finger goes, that’s the career. That’s it!
AFG: Oh no, don’t say that! [laughing] I know you are a huge fan of Ray Bradbury.
RLS: Well he really turned me into a reader. I was 9 or 10 years old, and all I was reading was EC horror comics—I just loved those. They were really a major influence on me. But when I was 10 or so, I discovered Ray Bradbury, and I couldn’t believe it, the stuff was so wonderful. It was so beautifully written—the surprise endings, the great shock, which I always loved. I started reading a lot of science fiction after that. Isaac Asimov, Robert Sheckley, all those people. A few years ago I got to meet Ray Bradbury for the first time, and it’s so hard to meet your heroes! I was so nervous. It was at the LA Times book festival at a campus near UCLA, and he was sitting in a booth eating a hot dog. And I thought, “I have to say something to him. I have to say how important he was to me.” When I went over, I was shaking. I was so nervous to meet him. I was like one of my kids, you know? And I went over and I shook hands and I said, “Mr. Bradbury, you’re my hero.” And he was so nice. We shook hands and he said, “Well, you’re a hero to a lot of other people!” It was such a nice thing to say.
AFG: He’s such a gracious man.
RLS: I was totally choked up. I couldn’t even talk. It was such a sweet thing.
AFG: It’s always nice to have those experiences and it’s so horrible when the person who’s your hero turns out to be a jerk.
RLS: [laughing] Yeah, I know. You never know.
AFG: Were you surprised by the success of Goosebumps?
RLS: Yes, amazed. No one expected it. I was doing a series for teenagers called Fear Street, and it was doing very well; it was teens and terror. It was coming out every month and I was enjoying it, and we were selling a lot of books. Actually, I have to tell you, I didn’t want to do Goosebumps. I was afraid it would mess up my Fear Street audience. It would be too young, no one had ever done a series of scary books for 7 to 12-year-olds, and I thought it was too risky. My wife and her partner have a company called Parachute Press—they’re independent book packagers—and they kept after me. And finally I said, “Well okay, if I can think of a good name for the series, maybe we can try a few of them.” And a few weeks later, I was reading TV Guide and I was flipping through the TV listings, and there was an ad at the bottom of the page and it said, “It’s ‘Goosebumps Week’ on Channel 11!” And there it was. I thought, God that’s perfect. It’s the perfect name, right? So we tried it, and I didn’t have high hopes—no one had done it before and none of us really expected much. Scholastic actually bought four of them to start, and they put a couple out. The books sort of sat there for six months, and I figured, well that didn’t work. And then they just took off! Just word of mouth from kids. That’s all it was, just word of mouth. And we were all amazed, all of us. There’d never been anything like it. Long before Harry Potter, there’d never been anything that sold anywhere near it. We had no advertising, no hype of any kind; there was no Internet stuff, no Website; I didn’t do any appearances, I didn’t do interviews. It was a secret kids’ network, of kids telling kids all over the world. And before long, we were selling four million copies a month.
AFG: What an incredible story. That’s such a large percentage of kids reading.
RLS: Oh, man, it was unbelievable. And it just caught us all by surprise. It was just a wonderful thing.
AFG: It’s a funny thing, I was at the theatre with my brother and sister and her friend about a month ago. It was too warm where we were sitting so I gave up on the play and went downstairs and sat in the lounge and got something to drink. And to give you an idea of how widespread your appeal is, there were these four guys sitting there, all in their late 20s, and I heard them talking about your books.
RLS: Those are my kids! My son is 27, and he was the right age. I get referenced in college newspapers just about every day because those are my kids. So many of my big Goosebumps fans are in college now and even older. This week I was mentioned in the Harvard Crimson.