R.L. Stine: The Lost Interview


Sometimes in the nonstop world of blogging you do something that takes a little more time, and which you’re very excited about. But because of the nonstop world of blogging, and because you want to do it right, and because it takes more time to do that, the idea or scoop or interview you were so excited about gets pushed to the side, to do at night or on weekends, or in the rare blogging breaks. And sometimes by the time you get around to it, the peg — and occasionally, the enthusiasm — has been lost. Such pieces have been sacrificed for the greater good of “feeding the beast.” They never get their day in the sun, and that is sad.

Today is my last day at the Voice (thank you, readers, coworkers, Tony Ortega, who hired me and set the last two crazy/wonderful years in motion, and everyone who supported and/or stayed friends with me throughout). And thank you to everyone I ever spoke to whose words didn’t make it onto the published page. This one is for you.

On Thursday, January 13, 2011, I left my blog-shackles and my computer and trekked from Voice HQ to the Upper West Side to meet R.L. Stine at a Mexican restaurant for lunch and, presumably, what would become a published interview. He had been the inspiration, on the basis of a tweet, for my first viral blog post, “50 Reasons to Be Pretty Damn Euphoric You Live in New York City.” I wanted to thank him for that (I think/hope I picked up the tab!), and also, I mean, it’s R.L. Stine, a name I’d seen on bookshelves since childhood, a writing success story, an inspiration. He had a cranberry juice and his usual choice from the lunch menu; I drank Diet Coke and then coffee and, too nervous to eat, picked at whatever lunch I ordered. Three hours later we parted ways, me with a signed copy of one of his books from the Goosebumps stories; him with my promise to send him the link to the piece, “as soon as it was up.”

That promise comes due today. Here is the lost (and, now, found) interview with R.L. Stine.

I should admit that I follow you on Twitter. You’re very tech-savvy.
R.L.: It’s a great time waster. There are no kids on Twitter, only twentysomethings who grew up on Goosebumps. It’s great for my ego because they say things like “you were my childhood,” “I learned to read/write because of you,” “Yours were the first books that I ever read.” That’s really fun for me — up to a point. Every once in a while I have to say, “Please do not call me a ‘blast from the past.'”

It is funny, though; when I do a book signing, I get 7-year-olds, and 10-year-olds, and 20-year-olds, and 25-year-olds, and 30-year-olds bringing their kids. I was speaking at a college in Pennsylvania and there were seven babies in the audience. I thought, “What the hell? Seven babies.” It doesn’t make you feel young, but I can’t really complain about that.

People are actually being born into your audience — that’s a good thing!
The thing about writing for kids is there’s a new generation about every two weeks.

How do you keep up with that?
I have to spy on them! I do a lot of school visits to see where they are, what they’re talking about, what games they’re playing, what they’re doing. I also do a lot of book festivals where I get to talk to kids.

Tell me about starting out in New York City.
Every university had a humor magazine when I was in college, and that’s all I did; I was the editor of the humor magazine, for three years…I never went to class! [Laughs.] It actually paid my way to New York.

When I graduated from Ohio State, I thought, if you wanted to be a writer, you had to live in Greenwich Village. I didn’t know a single person. I lived alone on Waverly Place at the bottom of a shaft. I’d have to call out to get the weather forecast because I couldn’t see out the window. My parents would send me news clippings of bad things that happened in New York — “3 killed in bars” — and say, “How can you live in that jungle?”

Did you always want to be a writer?
I always knew I could make a living as a writer; it’s only thing that I’m really competent at. I wanted to be a cartoonist but I really can’t draw at all. I started bringing in comics I made to school and kids would say, “This stinks!” and it did! So I had to write.

My first job in New York was a magazine job. This woman had 6 movie magazines, fan magazines, and my job was to make up interviews with the stars. She never left her apartment and dressed in a brown robe. That’s what I thought being a freelancer was like. I was terrified. She never went to the movies and she had six movie magazines! She was nuts.

I’d come in in the morning and she’d say, do a [made up] interview with Diana Ross. I’d say okay and type type type. She’d then say, do an interview with The Beatles. They were sold as real interviews. No one ever complained in those days. You learned to write really fast. I had to write 5 or 6 interviews a day.

Then I worked for a trade magazine called “Soft Drink Industry.” I wrote about bottles and bottle caps and flip-top cans. I had to cover bottlers’ conventions. I was living in New York and getting paid to write, making $125 a week riding around in taxis and going out to dinner. Also, right across from us were candy industry journals. It was ’69.

Then I answered this ad in the Times for Scholastic. I started doing Junior Scholastic, writing history and geography, and after four years they gave me my own humor magazine, Bananas, and after 10 years of that they fired me. And that was that. My wife, Jane, left to form her own publishing company, and I went home.

How did you meet your wife?
I’d been in New York for two years when I met her, at a party in Brooklyn that I didn’t want to go to because it was raining and I thought How am I gonna get back from Brooklyn? I got a ride back and I was so happy. Anyway, that’s where I met Jane, and she wasn’t going to go to this party because she had a horrible cold. And, actually, my friend Chuck and I went to this party, and this woman [who hosted it] was guest editor at Mademoiselle or something, and had this party in Brooklyn. She actually was my art editor in college and then she was editor at Mademoiselle and it was amazing, it was a great party. The only thing I remember is that they were passing joints around on this silver tray. Jane was there with a friend, Lori, and I was there with my friend Chuck. Jane went off somewhere to blow her nose and Lori saw that Chuck and I were the only unattached guys at the party, so she came over. And since Chuck was shorter, Lori went over to him. Otherwise I could be married to Lori for 40 years!

You and Jane hit it off right away?
It turned out that she had a summer job copy editing some magazine, a block away from the soft drink magazine where I was working. So I said, “Oh, whoa! We should have lunch sometime.” Not an amazing story but…we were so young. When we got married, I was 25 and Jane was 22 years old. I don’t know what the hell she was doing. In those days, you got out of college and you got married.

What was New York like then?
Not as clean, not as nice. But it was exciting! Like, as a kid from Ohio, it was a little scarier and dangerous. Our first apartment when we got married was on 75th Street between Columbus and Amsterdam. You wouldn’t go to Amsterdam, because it was too dangerous. The neighborhood has really changed.

I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else! Could you? [I shake my head vehemently; he continues.]

The city’s endlessly entertaining. I do go to Sag Harbor for seven weeks in the summer. We have a water park in our backyard that looks like Disney World. It’s an enormous swimming pool that’s shaped like a pond, with a waterfall and a 60-foot slide. The neighborhood kids come over and pretend to be interested in me but really just want to use the pool. They say, “Wow, you must have a lot of kids.” But we only have one; he’s grown up and lives in the city.

Did your son like your books?
He never read them. A lot of authors I know have kids that never read their stuff just to drive them nuts. Now he does my website.

I’ve done a lot of teen stuff. I did about 100 Fear Street books. I killed a lot of teenagers and I wondered why I liked it so much. Then I realized it’s because I had one at home.

How do you keep scaring kids, year after year? I read that you like to separate “real fear” from “book fears.”
Especially for kids. You don’t want kids to think this is true. You want kids to say this is a fantasy. I try to make sure they know it’s all crazy and silly. I just get so scared when there’s a killer in the news and what would happen if the cops go back to his house and there are only Fear Street books on his shelves. That’s a huge fear of mine. Wouldn’t that be awful.

I’m always in favor of good violent things. I think violence is good for kids and good for people. It gets it out. I also think that even kids know the difference between real violence and fantasy violence.

People who go after violent things for kids just don’t like kids. People are always trying to punish kids, and if there’s something kids really like, people will find something bad about it. People resent kids. If there’s a hairstyle the kids like, the school bans it. Any music? It’s trash. It’s horrible. I was one of the most banned books of the ’90s from libraries! I do have to say though, reading teachers and librarians have been tremendously supportive [of Goosebumps] because it gets kids to read. They develop a reading habit they have for life.

Do you find it hard to be in this strange time of print vs. web?
No one in book production knows what to do, what to do with author contracts, rights to books that are already out, electronic rights. It’s complicated. People my son’s age think everything should be given away for free, and I’m like, “who’s paying for it?”

But…I love my Kindle. I take it everywhere. You can take 8 or 9 books with you on the beach.

What are you reading now?
A Rebus mystery. I just read a Ken Follett book; it was great — Fall of Giants, a WWI book. Really great stuff. 1,000 pages. A woman at the beach asked me what I brought to read; she said, “Oh, those are beach reads?” I said that’s what I read all year round. I read mysteries and thrillers.

Do you have a favorite thriller?
Rosemary’s Baby. It’s a perfect thriller. He [Ira Levin] did another book, A Kiss Before Dying — a fabulously creepy book. The book’s much better than the movie. Unfortunately, he was a lazy bum and never wrote that much.

Have you read the Stieg Larsson books?
I read the first one and wasn’t intrigued. I would’ve cut out 100 pages, all the coffee drinking. There should’ve been some editor saying, “You’ve done this scene too much, cut it.” No one ever cracks a joke or says everything funny. They’re so ponderous.

How about Agatha Christie?
I’ve read them all and I hate to tell you how many plots I’ve stolen. She invented all of these plot things that people use endlessly. I like that English stuff that’s slow and atmospheric…tea and smoky pubs, and it’s foggy and raining out.

I’m a huge P.G. Wodehouse fan. It’s such a wonderful world that he’s created. He wrote 93 funny novels and they’re all exactly alike. I love that. There’s a consistency in his work that’s just brilliant. My wife says I’m a “Pringles reader” — I just kind of read the same thing over and over, like eating Pringles.

There are also books by this guy Charles Todd about a sergeant named Rutledge who was shattered by World War One and now investigates these dark mysteries. It’s actually a mother/son writing team. I can’t even imagine how that works. Jane and I tried doing it and we didn’t like it: I like to do the first word and then the second and go on. She likes to start in the middle, then go to the beginning, then to the ending, and then change it. So it didn’t end. She locked me in a closet and left the apartment, that’s how bad it got. We didn’t collaborate after that.

But she’s your editor now?
That’s the only thing we fight about — plots. Nothing gets past her. She finds holes in the plots and always thinks of better stuff. I’ve never been right. I’ve been married 40 years and have never won a bet. She’s always right.

Would you want her to be wrong?
Yes! Well, with these books out every month, I always say, “They don’t all have to make sense.” The next one will be good! It’s more fun to come up with new stories now that I’ve done everything. I’ve done 105 Goosebumps books. I’ve never started a book without a title. I did a book called “Guitar Lessons Could Be Murder.” My son said “What’s scary about guitar?” so I changed it to “Piano.”

“Little Shop of Hamsters” is something I’m really proud of. It was hard to write but I knew I had a great title and I had to do it.

What’s your favorite book you’ve written?
Kids ask that all of the time. I do have a favorite, but no one ever read it, no one ever liked it. It’s called “Brain Juice.” It has a brain on the cover. It’s about these kids that drink this purple liquid and get smarter and smarter and smarter. They get so smart they lose all their friends, they get kicked out of school, they know too much. Their whole lives are ruined because they’re so brilliant. I think it’s great, but no one ever liked it. There’s this alien from outer space that comes down and realizes that they’re smart enough to be slaves on his planet. As the ship takes them to his planet the liquid makes them get stupider and stupider. I don’t know how much it sold. It’s my favorite, but I never say it is.

Did you read the Twilight series?
I read half of the first book, but I didn’t finish it. Pale kids? We know they’re vampires, get on with the story. I’m obviously wrong.

You’re not a teenage girl.
It’s all about longing. 40 percent of the audience have been adults. It’s all about unfulfilled things. I like Harry Potter. Very clever. But these books for me ruined publishing. I’m a paperback guy, and they changed all of children’s publishing into hardcover publishing. All publishers want now are hardcover novels and not paperback series. The monthly book series are over.

What scares you?
I never get scared. I don’t know what the feeling is. Even as a kid. It’s something lacking up there or something. People say, “Your book keeps giving me chills,” but I don’t know what that feeling is. Horror always makes me laugh. Normal adult things scare me, but not things from a book or a movie.

I never intended to be scary; I only wanted to be funny. I can never lose myself or suspend reality. We have this waterslide and I’ll go on it once every 5 years. I don’t like losing control.

What are you working on now?
I just finished a Goosebumps yesterday. It’s called “Don’t Scream.” I’ll start the next one tomorrow, it’s called “The Birthday Party With No Return.”

At one point I was doing a novel every two weeks. I had two series going. I don’t know how I did it. Goosebumps and Fear Street, the teen novels: I did one a month of each of them. I never went out for lunch. I would do 20 pages a day. Now, I don’t know how I did that. The success was so exhilarating, it kept me going.

Now I do 7 Goosebumps a year, and that’s a lot. I feel like it’s a full-time job. I write every day from about 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.

You have a new TV show, too, right?
Yes, on Saturday at 8 p.m. It’s on this new weird channel, The Hub. We’re getting pretty good ratings. They just ordered four more shows, so we’re doing 22 episodes. It’s really fun. It’s just like the Goosebumps show, maybe a little bit darker.

I had been writing for 20 years and no one noticed. I did some Nickelodeon; I was an editor at Scholastic for 16 years; and I did educational magazines. I had my own humor magazine for 10 years called Bananas. That was fun. Then they fired me and I went home and thought, That was my ambition (to have my own national humor magazine), and I had done it. I was about your age and I was done. I thought I would just coast for the rest of my life, but I had no idea what was in store and I think the surprise of it all kept it going.

What do you still hope to accomplish?
I feel very lucky. I have a third TV show. That’s a lot for a children’s author. You think of all of the millions of kids who learned how to read from these books. I had my own ride at Disney World and a 3-D movie at Busch Gardens. It’s more than you ever dream of, really. And I just signed a contract yesterday to do an adult horror novel. I must be nuts, right? Just for a change of pace….

I caught up with R.L., who goes by Bob, today to get an update (and to alert him to the very, very, very delayed publication of this interview). Turns out, there’s a peg after all!

R.L.: This is a very special year for Goosebumps. It’s the 20th anniversary year. I have mixed feelings about it! The kids who were 10 in ’92 are 30 now. But we’re going to do some special things — the very first hardcover Goosebumps comes out in July.

Another thing this year is, I’ve written that horror novel for adults. It ruined my summer — writing for adults is hard! It’s called Red Rain and is coming out in October, a big, old-fashioned, hardcover horror novel published by Touchstone. It’s about evil children, these twins, which I thought would be a good subject for me, to deal with really evil kids.

The third thing is, my TV series, The Haunting Hour, on The Hub Network, has been renewed for a third season, which starts up next fall. Hub is also showing ’90s Goosebumps episodes. As for Goosebumps books, I just finished “Planet of the Lawn Gnomes” and am now working on “The Son of Slappy.”

Sometimes, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Thanks, everyone. This has been a wonderful run. See you on the Internet.