Monday, November 8, 2010

R.L. Stine on being the man behind the boogie man

R.L. Stine, photo by Dan Nelken
When one enters the lair of a master of fear, it’s reasonable to expect a skeleton, perhaps an evil ventriloquist dummy or even posters of creature feature giants like Bela Lugosi. But probably not a cute little pup.

Yet the “lair” of Robert Lawrence Stine - more famously known as children’s author and Goosebumps creator R.L. Stine - is actually a sunny Upper West Side home in New York City with a gatekeeper in the form of his King Charles Spaniel, Minnie.

Instead of haunting, mauling or tormenting, she yips, licks and cuddles in decidedly non-frightening manner. But to get to Stine in his inviting home office filled with books and memorabilia, one must befriend the Minnie beast, which it turns out isn’t all that difficult if you’re any good at petting.

Stine himself is even less frightening than Minnie. A 67-year-old Columbus, OH, native with a relaxed demeanor who laughs easily and readily shares anecdotes, and earned his other pseudonym of Jovial Bob Stine, he is not what you might expect from a guy who spooked out an entire generation and sold more than 300 million books in the process.

“As you can see, I’m not too scary a guy,” says Stine. “Everyone’s disappointed! I go to schools and they go, ‘umm, wait a minute. He’s not scary, that’s somebody’s dad.’”

Yet despite his mild-mannered scribe personality, Stine became a ghoulish story-telling cryptkeeper to middle-school readers - and incidentally the best-selling children’s author of perhaps all time - 18 years ago when he published the first Goosebumps book, Welcome to Dead House, in 1992.

Reminded of that milestone and he jokes he needs “to go take a nap.” But sleeping doesn’t seem to be a priority for Stine who began writing at age nine, and hasn’t stopped since.

“I wanted to be a comic strip artist – and I had no talent,” he says. “I was horrible, so I knew I would be a writer.”

With that career track in mind, for two decades after he graduated from the Ohio State University in 1965, Stine worked as a writer and “nobody had noticed.” As Jovial Bob, he wrote kids joke books and created the humor magazine Bananas, which he worked on for 10 years. As "Eric Affabee," and under his own name, he wrote “Find Your Fate” choose-your-own-adventure type series with Indiana Jones and G.I. Joe characters as heroes.

“I was a freelance writer and never said no to anything … You’re afraid to,” says Stine, who adds he would take every project he could, including bubblegum cards and coloring books. Then, in 1986, Stine turned to horror with the teen book, Blind Date. The book’s success, and his subsequent titles in the Point Horror young-adult series, led Stine to creating the teen series Fear Street with his wife Jane’s publishing company, Parachute Press.

The horror genre was a natural for Stine, who counts The Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling and author Ray Bradbury as heroes, and says he still reads Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine every year. But Stine also credits EC Comics from the 1950s as an inspiration, and even wrote the foreword for a 2007 hardcover The Vault of Horror collection.

“All those stories are really ghastly and hideous, and they all have a funny ending,” he says. “That was a major influence on me.”

“Once Fear Street took off, we knew we had something that was going to last for a long time,” and Stine says he found he could start rejecting projects. “That’s a big thing in your career when you can say, ‘Gee no, I don’t want to do that.’”

Fear Street led to Goosebumps, which made Stine an international celebrity. The books followed a formula of scaring kids out, but not terrifying them. No one died in Goosebumps, even though in Fear Street, Stine killed off teens all the time.

Plus, the author had a rule to never make it “too real,” which included avoiding topics like divorce, child abuse, drug abuse, kidnapping or suicide. While he acknowledges those topics would be good for horror, he didn’t want to “ruin the fun of it.”

“You’re reading it, you’re having this adventure, it’s very creepy,” he explains. “There are ghosts, there’s monsters and you don’t know who the monster is, but you know you’re safe in your own room reading it.”

Stine shares that his favorite description of the book series came from a parent who said Goosebumps “give my kids shivers but not nightmares.” As far as happy endings, Stine followed the Rod Serling example and always wrote happy endings followed by a weird, question-mark teaser at the end of the tale.

The Goosebumps popularity was carried over into the Fox Kids hit television show, and while still writing the teen monthly series, Stine also wrote a new Goosebumps installment each month, which were then translated into 32 languages.

“Back in those days, when Goosebumps was the biggest thing … I don’t honestly know how I did it. I had no life, of course; I didn’t get out much.” But Stine adds the exhilaration of having people notice his work kept him going.

“It got so big all over the world. At one point we were selling four million Goosebumps books a month,” he says. “I think we knew that couldn’t last.” But not unlike his recurring villain Slappy the Dummy, Stine’s popularity wouldn’t die and his creative output could not be stopped.

After writing what he estimates to be approximately 330 books, Stine says he prefers the fast pace of writing for a series and hates working on individual books because “it’s too slow; it doesn’t come out fast enough.”

In addition to stand-alone books and new series Dangerous Girls, Mostly Ghostly, The Nightmare Room and the non-horror Rotten School, Fear Street beget spin-offs New Fear Street, Fear Street Super-Chillers, 99 Fear Street and seven other related series. Meanwhile, Goosebumps spawned Goosebumps Series 2000 and Give Yourself Goosebumps.

The Wizard Of Ooze (Goosebumps Horrorland)Following an eight-year break from Goosebumps, Stine is currently writing 25 installments of his massive crossover serial, Goosebumps Horrorland, which is spun off two earlier books. Part 16 is a special edition title called Weirdo Halloween, and Part 17, The Wizard of Ooze, was released in September. Horrorland even has a Wii video game counterpart and there’s a Goosebumps photograph app on iTunes.

As if the Stine brand isn’t powerful enough, The Hub – a children’s network from Discovery Networks and Hasbro, Inc. that launched Oct. 10 and replaces Discovery Kids – is airing the original series, R.L. Stine’s Haunting Hour. And new collections of the Goosebumps TV show, The Blob That Ate Everyone and Go Eat Worms! are out on DVD.

Considering how much Stine is involved with, how does the guy continue to come up with more material?

After all this time, his trick is to come up with a title for a book first, even though most authors work the other way around, but admits “it’s a little more of a challenge” to come up with new ideas after hundreds of books.

“If you’ve written seven or eight mummy books, it’s a little harder to find another mummy story … somehow they always come.” Though Stine says it’s his audience who deserve sympathy for having to write so much.

“Kids have to write more than any living humans,” he points out. “No one else has to write reports, book reports, essays, and about their vacation and kids have to keep a journal.”

This connection with children is a frequent topic with Stine. But he says the hard part of his job – “especially the older you get” - is staying in touch with youth culture and putting himself in his readers’ minds.

“You don’t want to sound like some old guy trying to sound young; It has to be very real.”

At the height of the Goosebumps craze, he did this by keeping an eye on his son Matthew and his friends, who were at the right age for the books. He listened to their language, paid attention to what they wore and how they hung out. But Matthew is a married composer and sound engineer, so Stine has to look elsewhere.

“Now I have some nephews that are the right age, and do a lot of school visits and talk to kids and try to keep up with pop culture.”

He adds that when it comes to scares, the kids are the same even if their language changes.

“What they’re afraid of is the same; the fears are the same from when I was a kid - afraid of the dark, afraid someone’s waiting for you under your bed waiting to grab you, that kind of thing.”

Stine also says that while he always thought of himself as conservative when it came to the intensity of scares he wrote about – and that publishers always begged for him to turn it up a notch – he doesn’t think pop-culture violence and scares has much effect on kids.

“Kids are very smart, it’s the one thing I’ve learned all these years writing for kids … if they see a movie and people are having their heads blown off and horrible violence, that’s one thing. And if they go outside and see somebody beat up on the street, that’s a totally different experience ... It’s a totally different kind of violence, and kids know the difference.”

Although he does admit with a chuckle he has lots of 20-something Twitter followers who tell him, “I can’t go in a garage at night now, thanks to you; I’m terrified of ventriloquist dummies thanks to you … I get that all the time.”

This highlights an interesting aspect to Stine’s legacy. The kids who read Goosebumps in the early ’90s are now graduating college, beginning careers or starting families of their own. There is an entire generation of Stine’s readers who have entered adulthood.

Last May Stine gave his first commencement speech, at Macaulay Honors College of the City University of New York, to a group of students who grew up with Goosebumps – and he naturally entertained them with a ghost story.

“These are my kids,” he says, which is why he likes the microblog Twitter. Although he says he had to ask to stop being called a “blast from the past,” he enjoys continuing to communicate with the audience that made him so popular – an audience that includes a few famous faces, such as Late Night talk show host Jimmy Fallon who said he wanted to frame a tweet from Stine.

The scribe’s acceptance of new technology extends to e-books, and he doesn’t share the opinion of alarmists in the publishing industry who fear electronic media will be the downfall of books. He travels with a Kindle - on which he reads “beach reading” all year long - and also reads from his wife’s iPad.

Says Stine, “It’s the words that count, and not the way you get the words; a scary story is going to be just as scary on a Kindle.”

But Stine doesn’t necessarily think all is well with the book business, and is disappointed that inexpensive, monthly series have fallen out of favor.

“I think largely because of Harry Potter and the Twilight books and Lemony Snicket books, publishers would rather do hardcovers, and have them come out not as series [but] one a year. Bookstores would rather have hardcovers because they charge so much more.”

“That’s a very big change,” he adds, “I’m sorry to see the change from paperback to hardcover because I like for kids to be able to afford books … nice, cheap paperbacks kids can buy.”

Even Goosebumps is now a bi-monthly, Stine points out, but is still only $5.99 per title.

But if Stine is not particularly scared for the industry’s future, what is the spookmeister afraid of?

Aside from typical adult fears, he says his one irrational phobia isn’t that interesting: Stine can’t jump into a swimming pool.

“My nephews think that’s just hilarious; the scary guy can’t jump in the water.”

When it comes to the monsters and ghosts that lurk in his creative mind, Stine says he’s unsure about their existence. He hasn’t had any paranormal experience and lacks evidence. But he says he’s always looking, because “this is what I do.”

“Whenever I go to schools, I always ask, ‘Have any of you seen a real ghost? Not a TV ghost, but a real ghost,’” he says. “And at every single school, at least two, three, four kids raise their hands and have stories of things they’ve seen, which I think is pretty amazing.”

Despite Stine’s interest in the supernatural, it’s unlikely he’ll have much time to seek out evidence any time soon. With new projects arriving all the time, R.L. Stine will be haunted by deadlines and not the creatures at his disposal to spook kids with. He jokes that if you need to find him in the next year, he’ll be chained to his keyboard in his office. Thankfully, Minnie will be right there with him, guarding the lair and cuddling away any goosebumps that might arise.


Elizabeth. said...

GREAT article on Stine. So sorry that I just now came across it. Thanks for sharing. :)

p.s. important note: it's The Ohio State University (not university of ohio)