In This Interview…
Learn his favorite horror story, what he dreams about, and more
An interview with the world’s best-selling children’s author, R.L. Stine…
Q. From what we have heard, everyone who reads and/or writes horror has one — THE book — the one that introduced them to the genre and made them seek out everything they could in the field. What was your first introduction to horror literature?
A. Believe it or not, my introduction to scary literature was Pinocchio. My mother read it to me every day before naptime when I was three or four. The original Pinocchio is terrifying. First he smashes Jiminy Cricket to death with a wooden mallet. Then he goes to sleep with his feet up on the stove and burns his feet off! I never forgot it!
Q. It’s easy to scare other people; jumping out from behind a door, a black rubber spider in a running shoe, the list goes on and on. You have made a living by scaring people who encounter you on a page of print. Do you ever come up with anything so wild that you scare yourself, that leaves you wondering where that came from?
A. I always wonder where every idea comes from. It’s such a mysterious process. They seem to appear from out of nowhere (thank goodness!). I’ve made myself laugh from some ideas — but I’ve never scared myself.
Q. Beyond your own work (of course), what is your all-time favorite horror book and why? And what is your favorite book outside of the horror genre?
A. Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury. I grew up in the Midwest, and the story of a Midwestern boy who sneaks out of his house late at night and encounters an evil carnival really gave me chills. Besides Ray Bradbury, my favorite author — and I know this is bad for my scary image — is P.G. Wodehouse.
Q. Do you look to your own phobias to find subject matter? Are your stories the products of nightmares, childhood experiences, fantasies, or do they come straight from the headlines of contemporary events or other experiences?
A. I’ve never dreamed of a story idea. I have such boring dreams. One night I dreamed I was making a bologna sandwich. That was a really exciting dream for me. I was a very fearful child, and when I write I try to remember that feeling of panic. I try to remember what it was like being a kid afraid of the dark, afraid something is lurking in the basement, etc . When I write my Nightmare room books.
Q. How will the genre be affected, if at all, by the events of Sept. 11? With the nation struggling with terror, do you feel horror novels may be in more — or less — demand?
A. I feel that good fantasy will always be in demand. I think children especially need literature that helps them escape from the real world, which is very scary to them right now.
Q. What draws people to horror novels? Why do we, as readers, like to be scared?
A. Everyone enjoys a good scare — if he or she is safe at the same time. Reading horror novels is like riding a rollercoaster. It’s thrilling and frightening — but you know you’re okay the whole while.
Q. Where do you as an author draw the line on gory descriptions?
A. Since I write for kids, I have to be very careful. I have to make sure that my stories are pure fantasy — nothing real. I have to give the kids shivers — but not nightmares.
Q. Do you feel any competitive pressure from horror films? If so, does the increasingly graphic nature of horror in films make your job more difficult? If not, why not?
A. Most of my audience can’t be admitted to R-rated films. I don’t really see them as competition for my audience. My stories, The Nightmare Room books and TV show are so much gentler than most movies.
Q. Many of the situations and scenarios in horror novels are so, well, horrible, it seems impossible they could all be products of pure imagination. Do you ever research real events to get ideas? Does the Internet ever come in handy?
A. I have to admit I do almost no research. Almost everything comes from my twisted imagination.
Q. The perception of the horror writer is that he/she is maybe just a little bit odder than most. Do you find yourself — and other horror writers — to be more idiosyncratic than the average person? What one stereotype about horror writers is absolutely wrong? What one stereotype is dead on?
A. I’ve met a few horror writers and movie directors, and they seem to be shy, quiet, normal people. I think the one thing they have in common is a good sense of humor — because there’s a very close tie between humor and horror.
In this interview…
What he was like in school
His only rule for a book
How Goosebumps became popular
Tales to Drive You Batty
I don’t know why I began writing. I started when I was nine years old. I was a weird kid. I would just stay in my room, typing. I found this old typewriter up in the attic. I dragged it down to my room and started typing little, funny magazines, like Tales to Drive You Insane and Tales to Drive You Batty – just funny magazines, and short stories. My mother would be outside my room, saying, “Go outside and play. What’s the matter with you?”
I’m in there, typing. “I can’t. I’m writing a novel.”
I’m nine years old. I don’t know why I thought it was so interesting…
So, I’d do these little magazines, and I was a very shy kid – very shy – and not social at all. Maybe this is one reason I just stayed in my room, writing this stuff. I would bring it in to school and try to get attention from the other kids. I’d bring these little magazines, and I would pass them around to my friends. The teachers would always grab them and say, “Bob, please. Please stop.”
When I speak at schools now, kids always ask me, “Did your teachers encourage you to write when you were a kid?”
If I’m being honest, I just say they tried to get me to stop.
Well, I was. I was afraid of lots of things – all the basic kinds of fears – afraid of the dark, afraid of going down to the basement. I had this one fear. I’d have to park my bike in the garage after dark, and I always thought something would be lurking in the garage. I used to take my bike and just throw it in so I wouldn’t have to go in there.
That’s a painful way to go through childhood, I think, having all these fears and being very shy. That was hard. But in a way, it’s kind of lucky. It helped me out later, because now, when I write these scary books for kids, I can think back to that feeling of panic. I can remember what it felt like, and then I can bring that feeling to my books.
On the safe side of scary
I have one rule, and I’ve been doing this a long time, so I pretty much know what’s too scary – and what’s not scary enough. My editors usually are asking me to make things scarier. I’m pretty conservative, because you don’t really want to terrify kids. You want to creep them out a little bit, but you don’t really want to terrify them. I try to make sure that the kids know that these books are fantasies. I keep the real world out. So, I don’t do real serious subjects. I don’t even have divorced parents. I wouldn’t do child abuse, or drugs. I wouldn’t do anything in the real world. They have to know that these are just fantasies and that they’re not really happening. Once you’ve established that, you can get pretty scary.
Yes, I was a funny guy for a long time. When I started out, I just wanted to write humor. I wrote humor for kids. My very first book was called How to be Funny. It was about how to get big laughs at the dinner table and how to get laughs in school. Parents hated this book. I wrote joke books, like A Hundred and One Monster Jokes, and other joke books for years. I did maybe a hundred of them. I had a great time, and I did this humor magazine called Bananas for ten years. It was sort of Mad Magazine, but it was all in color, and it was great. That was all I ever wanted to do. I couldn’t believe it.
When that ended, I figured I would just coast for the rest of my career. That was it. I’d already done what I wanted to do. I had no idea what was coming up.
Giving kids the Goosebumps
I wrote 87 Goosebumps books. That’s a lot of books for a human, isn’t it? None of us expected what happened with Goosebumps. We started it in 1992, and by 1994, I was turning out a Goosebumps a month, and it was doing okay for a while. And then it just took off like nothing we’d ever seen. It took off all over the world – not through advertising, hype, or promotions – but just kids telling kids. There’s some kind of secret kids network out there. Just kids telling kids about it, and this thing grew everywhere. It was in 28 languages. At one point, after a couple years, we were selling 4 million Goosebumps books a month.
As scary as an optometrist
Well, I think kids maybe are a little disappointed when I come visit their school and they’re expecting some scary guy wearing a cape. Then I walk in. I try to look a little scary, but I’m not too scary. I went back to my hometown, Columbus, Ohio, and did some appearances. The local newspaper wrote, “In person, R.L. Stine is about as scary as an optometrist.” That’s bad – right? I’m not too scary.
It’s just my dog
Mostly Ghostly has all these funny elements, with poor Max and these ghosts who are always embarrassing him. There’s a lot of funny stuff, but then there are some really terrifying moments. There is a ghost named Fears, who really wants to capture the two ghosts that Max is protecting and will do anything to Max. In the very first book, he’s going to show Max what he can do. Max is out walking his dog; and Fears, in a really disgusting scene, turns Max’s dog inside out. The dog is just there with his organs out. He’s just inside out. That’s kind of creepy. So, it has a lot of stuff like that. Mostly Ghostly is pretty scary. A neighbor drives by and sees Max there, and she says, “Max, did you drop your garbage? Can I help you pick up your garbage?”
He says, “No. It’s just my dog.”
Well, Rotten School is just zany; it’s just crazy. You just try to come up with really funny characters and put them in horrible situations and see what happens. I have this kid Bernie Bridges, who’s this conman who’s always out to win; and he has an arch–enemy in the school – this spoiled, rich kid, Sherman Oaks. Bernie and his buddies live in a dorm called Rotten House, and they pick the third floor because it’s good for dropping things out of the window on people.
Sherman lives across the lawn on this campus in Nice House. I don’t know who would want to live in Nice House. But Sherman Oaks and his pals live in Nice House, so it’s a constant battle between the two groups. Sherman is always showing off his new things. In one of the early books, Sherman’s parents have bought him a new digital watch that has 42 different functions. It has a keyboard on it and a CD player and a movie thing, and it’s got a small George Foreman grill – all on his watch.
Bernie sees this watch, and says, “Oh! I have to have it. I have to have that watch.” And the book is about how Bernie goes about taking that watch away from Sherman Oaks.
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