To millions of kids and teens, R.L. Stine is synonymous with a good – but still totally fun – scare. The author of beloved franchises like Goosebumps, Fear Street and others, Stine is has been called “the Stephen King of children’s literature.” But Stine is anything but scary in person. As he showed at his recent presentation at the 2017 San Diego State University Writers Conference, he is in fact quite funny and very gracious. I sat down with him afterward to talk about his career and the state of the industry.
Open Mic: This is fabulous – I’m sitting here with R.L. Stine, my daughter’s favorite author when she was a little girl.
Stine: Now I’m nostalgia to her. It’s a very weird thing. I do a book signing now and I’ll get seven year olds and ten year olds and fifteen and twenty-five year olds and I always ask [the older ones] “what are you doing here?” And they say “we loved you when we were kids.” So I’m nostalgia to them. It’s very hard to get used to being nostalgia.
Open Mic: But you have so much beyond Goosebumps, which my daughter loved. I mean you’re still one of the most relevant writers in the world today for doing what you do.
Open Mic: Is that the right word, relevant?
Stine: No one ever used that word to me. Honestly, no one ever said relevant to me.
Open Mic: Oh well, on occasion I hit something unique.
Stine: Keep going. I still get the seven-year-olds, that’s what counts. If it was all 30-year-olds I’d be in trouble. I complain because it took them 23 years to do the Goosebumps movie, but it worked out because the 30-year-olds came for nostalgia and they brought their kids and that’s why the movie did so well.
Open Mic: Were you happy with how the movie came out?
Stine: Yes, very. I got really lucky because I had almost no input into it at all.
Open Mic: Some authors I’ve talked to whose books have been made into movies were very unhappy with how they came out.
Stine: Yes. You know, you don’t know what you’re going to get. It can be horrible. Some Stephen King movies are really good and some of them are awful. Usually you get to be what’s called a “consultant,” which means they don’t have to pay any attention to you at all. So you just have to be lucky and somehow I got lucky with the Goosebumps film. Jack Black was great and the whole idea was really nice.
Open Mic: Your presentation today was great. So much of your story was in essence celebrating the unexpected things that happened during your career.
Stine: Well in my case it’s been really true. Everything that happened to me was pretty much by accident. I wasn’t responsible for any of it. It’s embarrassing because you know when I came to New York I was going to be an adult novelist and I ended up writing for kids. I always wanted to be funny, and I ended up being scary. None of this was my idea. It was all luck. And the whole Goosebumps thing was just really amazing luck. We actually we put out three books the first time and they sat on the shelves for six months and no one knew about them, no one bought them. If it was today the stores would have pulled them and they’d have been gone. But somehow after six months kids discovered them. I don’t know how. There was no hype, no advertising, no one really knew me. It was a secret kids’ network. Kids started getting them and telling other kids and it just spread by word of mouth all over the world.
Open Mic: Speaking of how different things are now from when you first started putting out the Goosebumps books, what is your perspective on the business today? How is the industry today different than it was maybe twenty years ago? Is it better or worse?
Stine: Well I’m much more optimistic than most people. I think kids are really reading. I’ve been in children’s publishing for forty years and when I started out you would go to a publisher and there would be some women working in cubicles in back and they were doing the children’s books. Now it’s a billion-dollar industry and children’s books are the cash cow for many publishers. You’ve got all the movies based on children’s books, the Hunger Games series, Harry Potter and all these things. It’s a huge business now and that has to mean the kids are reading the books, right? And the whole e-book thing hasn’t really trickled down to kids yet. The kids and the teenagers prefer an actual book. Teenagers love reading stuff and doing stuff on the screen, but they still buy books.
Open Mic: There are so many genres and sub-genres these days. When you sit down to write, do you have these parceled out by age group?
Stine: Yes. If I’m writing my Fear Street series, which is read by 12-15 year olds, I picture a teenager while I’m writing it. I have to try to keep the audience in my head. And Goosebumps is for 7-11 year olds, so it’s for younger kids. And I always decide first what I’m doing. I’m totally a commercial author. I would never write a book where I didn’t know what the audience was. I tell young or beginning authors to go the bookstore and look what’s there. Don’t try to do something that won’t fit on the shelf because they won’t know where to put it. You don’t necessarily have to follow a trend or copy someone else, but make sure there’s a place for your book on the shelf. Know what the market is before you write the book.
Open Mic: Some other really great thriller writers, people like Peter Abrahams and John Mayberry, also do young adult series now. Are you surprised that you have competition now coming from areas like that?
Stine: Well, it’s kind of interesting. So many adults are now reading Young Adult books. It’s huge. Something like forty percent of the Twilight books were bought by adults. And of course the Harry Potter audience was a huge adult audience. So you have adults reading it too. Harlan Coben is a friend of mine and a number one bestselling thriller writer, and he tried a teen series. He said he thinks it didn’t reach any kids, it was only bought by his adult fans. They bought the YA books too and so it’s kind of an interesting phenomenon. John Grisham also did a kids series, with mixed success. So I don’t worry about the competition.
Open Mic: That’s a good perspective.
Stine: Authors really don’t feel like they’re competing with other authors. I’ve been surprised here to hear people saying authors resent other authors success or that an author put someone down. I’ve never experienced that at all. I’m on the board of directors of the International Thriller Writers association, and we have this ThrillerFest event every summer in New York and 400 thriller writers come together and they’re all so supportive of each other. I’ve always felt writers know how tough the business is and are just very supportive of each other. I’ve never felt that I’m competing or that I have to do better than somebody else
Open Mic: We all get older. Do you ever find yourself struggling to relate to the age group that you’re talking about?
Stine: That’s the hard part. You have to work at that kind of stuff. I have nephews and nieces, and I go to schools and I try to keep up with music they listen to and what other things they read. I spy on them. I always spy on kids and see what they’re wearing and what kind of scooters they like and all this kind of thing. It’s a hard part of the job but it’s really important because you don’t want to sound like some old geezer who is trying to sound hip. At the same time, when I write a Goosebumps or a Fear Street book I try not to make it real current. I don’t put in a lot of current slang or a lot of current music groups or anything because they’ll be gone in two years and then the book is terribly dated.
Open Mic: Have you ever had somebody come up to you and say “I was an adult before I discovered your books and I really like them.”
Stine: I’ve had grandparents come up and say “I’m a big fan of this kind of thing.” Not that often, but so many of my readers are in their 30’s now that grew up with the books. But no, I don’t hear that too often. And I have written some adult novels with extremely mixed success.
Open Mic: You’re such a funny guy. Have you thought about maybe taking more cracks at humor?
Stine: No. I love what I’m doing and people expect me to be there. But I’ve done some funny books. My Christmas book this year was called “Young Scrooge.” It was about Scrooge as a twelve-year-old, and it’s mostly funny. It was me stealing the Dickens plot and turning it into a kids book. So I get to do funny stuff, but it doesn’t sell as well.
Open Mic: Would you ever do a young Trump?
Stine: Young Trump? I don’t do anything political. I’m scared. I need all the readers I can get. But I do comedy nights in New York. I’ve done comedy clubs. I had my own late night comedy show in the Upright Citizens Brigade a few months ago. It was really fun and it filled up the theatre.
Open Mic: Do you get people who are not aware that you are that same R.L. Stine?
Stine: They grew up with it. They know.
Open Mic: What do you say to people who come up to you and ask “What’s the one thing I have to know if I’m getting into this business?”
Stine: I’m not good at advice, I almost never give advice. When people ask what advice I give to young writers I always say “they don’t need advice.” They’re like me. I started writing when I was nine. I’m this weird kid sitting in my room typing and typing all day and my mother at the door saying “go outside and play! What’s wrong with you? Go outside!” Worst advice I ever got, right? And I think that people who are going to be writers and who are really going to be successful know when they’re kids that that’s what they’re going to do. They start young, they have it, they’re not going to stop and they don’t need advice. They don’t need someone to say “oh read a lot, read a lot.” They don’t need that. They don’t need somebody to say “keep a journal, write something every day” because they’re already doing that. So I don’t really have advice. That said there is practical advice. Now it’s hard to get anything read without an agent. I never had an agent, but …
Open Mic: You didn’t have an agent?
Open Mic: And you don’t have one now?
Stine: No. I worked in publishing. That’s how I started out, in publishing. I was an editor with Scholastic for 16 years and I met all these people. They went to all different publishing houses all over New York. They were all friends of mine and they’d call me up and say “could you do a funny book about this, could you do a book?” I never had to go through the whole thing of submitting books or anything because I was already in publishing and I had all these editor friends.
Open Mic: That’s astounding.
Stine: So it was sort of a strange way to get around all that
Open Mic: So, very last thing, what is maybe the one or two things you absolutely have to have when you sit down to write? Is it a particular kind of coffee? Silence?
Stine: I have no rituals. I did a thing on a panel once that asked “what are your writing rituals?” There was another young adult horror writer who she had to write on a haunted coffin and she had to have candlelight and she had to have organ music playing. I don’t have any rituals. I sit down every morning and I’m like a machine. It’s like factory work. I just sit down and do my 2000 words a day, and then I get up.
Open Mic: Regardless of whatever?
Stine: Wherever I am: 2000 words, I’m out of there, I’m usually brain dead by then. Take the dog for a walk and so I have no rituals. So there’s nothing I need.