Los Angeles Review of Books caught up with the famous writer (and his playful dog, Lucky), who infuses all his work with terror and talent (and always a little humor), to talk about three decades of Goosebumps, his approach to craft, and how his 42-year-old son has still never read any of his dad’s books.
DANIELLE HAYDEN: So, could you please tell me a little more about the upcoming comic series, Stuff of Nightmares? And I know some of your earliest work was comics. So how does that feel?
R. L. STINE: Well, yeah, when I was nine, I did comics.
Well, yes, I just mean, like, kind of, full circle now.
You know, I’m having a lot of fun. I’m working with BOOM! Studios in Los Angeles. And I did a series of comic books for them called Just Beyond, which was sort of Twilight Zone for kids. And it became a Disney+ series. We had eight episodes. That was fun. Now I’m doing this for adults; I’m actually writing something for grown-ups. And it’s really gruesome stuff. It’s like my version of Frankenstein. And so, I’m having fun with it. Comic books are fun to write. Forces me to be more visual, you know?
That’s great. And although you’re most famous for Goosebumps, obviously, you have a really robust [body of] work outside of that: you know, Fear Street stuff, Man-Thing, you’ve written for television. I was wondering how you approach each project and kind of balance all these different works, past and present?
Yeah, they’re different. Writing for my main audience these days, really, is seven- to 12-year-olds, the Goosebumps audience. That is the best audience in the world. They’re wonderful. I get them the last time in their lives they’ll ever be enthusiastic. Think about it. They turn 12, right?
But I get them right before that. And so, that’s really fun. That’s my biggest audience right now. The Fear Street movies last summer on Netflix brought me a lot of sales back to Fear Street books, my teen series back then. I think they’re planning more Fear Street movies. That’s a rumor I heard.
I read that also. The Fear Street Saga was actually my favorite [work of yours], going back to Massachusetts [in the 1600s], with the witches. Those are my favorites.
They’re mine, too. I was freer going back in the past. And they were more gruesome. They were.
Yes, more gruesome. Knitting needle plunged in the heart. I remember. The amulet.
Yeah. No, it was good. I like gruesome.
You bring to your readers great talent, of course, but also trust. So, in what ways do you think other people might underestimate younger readers?
Well, this is what I’ve learned in all these years of writing for kids. Kids are really smart. And I think they’re underestimated all the time. For example, kids know if they want to read scary books or not. They always know. People say, “Oh, you’ll scare them.” But, you know, I have a lot of kids who come to me and say, “I’m too scared to read your books,” or, “I’m ready to read them now.” Kids are smart. They know that. And back in the day, I had two nephews — I still do — but they were six or seven years old, Dan and Sam. And one of them, Dan, loved Goosebumps. He thought they were hilarious. He was only seven, thought they were just hilarious. And Sam was terrified of them. And every once — he lived in New Jersey — every once in a while, I would mail him a book and say, “Sam, I think you’ll like this one. It’s not too scary.” And he called me up, and he said, “Bob, you know where this book is going? It goes in the garbage.”
I read that, too [about nephew Sam].
Yeah. He had no respect.
What do you find fulfilling about writing scary books? You mentioned the age group and the last time they’ll be enthusiastic. Is there anything else you want to add?
It’s a great audience. No, I don’t know why anyone would want to write for adults. I don’t get the point. We had all these people your age and older who said on Twitter, they kept saying, “Why don’t you write something for us? We’re your original reader. Why don’t you write?” I did an adult book, and where’d they go? No one bought it. Suddenly, they disappeared.
I did! My dad and I used to go to the bookstore most weeks, and I urged him to buy Superstitious, and he read it and liked it. But I would sneak and read it while he wasn’t around.
That’s my best adult book. That’s the best one I did. I did four. Red Rain was such a flop. Red Rain was a horrible flop. They wouldn’t even answer my calls at Simon & Schuster.
Oh, my goodness.
Yeah, that’s bad, you know? I’m sticking to kids, except for the comic book.
Yeah. So, I know many of the books in your great body of work were written in first person, but then some are in third person. I was wondering what made you choose one or the other?
That’s a good question. First person is much scarier. The whole point of Goosebumps is [that] the reader has to assume the role of the protagonist. The reader has to think they’re the ones telling the story and they’re the ones in such trouble. And the easiest way to do that is to tell the stories [in] first person. I did this, I did that, and then the reader identifies much more quickly. It’s not the author telling a story. It’s the kid that’s actually telling it. Almost every Goosebumps book is first person. Almost all of them. I get criticized a lot for having no character description. No characters.
But that I like, because you can imagine.
That’s right. That’s the point. If you described someone, then they have to see. They have to see someone else. And they don’t really want that.
Right, right. So, I’ve read that you come up with — you have so many ideas — that you kind of come up with titles first now, sometimes, and sort of let the ideas sprout from there. I was wondering when you would say that switch took place. And what sparked that shift?
It’s pretty much been in place. I’ve been doing it for a long time; I can’t tell you how long. It’s a trick, I think. I just — I don’t try to think of ideas. I just try to think of a good title. I had, like, “Fifth-Grade Zombies.” Okay, that’s a good title. And that actually leads you to what’s the story gonna be about. Be about a fifth-grade class and — right? And it’s a trick. I think that’s backwards for most authors. Most authors get the idea, they start writing. Later on, they think of the title. I always have to have the title first. Sometimes I’ll have an idea for a book, and I can’t think of a good title. I throw out the idea.
Can’t work like that. What’s something commonly misunderstood about you, or an assumption that you’d like to clear up?
I know something I have to clear up: When you write horror, your readers think that everything in your life has to be hard. They think you have to be a horror guy. Because yes, you write the scary stuff. And so, you know, I live in New York. I live a few blocks from Lincoln Center. I go to the ballet. We have an opera subscription, but I can’t talk about that. That’s all wrong. I can’t say, “Oh, yes, I’m a big ballet fan.” You can’t do that. It all has to be about horror.
About the image, yeah.
And the truth is — and of course I shouldn’t say this — I’m not really into horror that much. I’m really not. I don’t read that much horror. I watch some horror movies if they’re, like, clever.
Well, that’s a testament, you know, to your imagination, too, if you’re not even into it but you’ve created these worlds.
There were people who — along the way, you know — who really did inspire me, and it would help — you know, like Ray Bradbury and Rod Serling, of course, The Twilight Zone. Other writers help other writers. You steal from them.
Certainly. I love opera, too. Sorry, as an aside, but I have a tattoo from [Puccini’s opera] Tosca. Yeah.
That’s interesting. I wouldn’t go that far to get any tattoos. It’s a generational thing.
I’m a Puccini guy. I’m very middlebrow. I love Puccini.
I can’t imagine how busy you are, so you probably don’t have as much time as you like to read for pleasure, but when you do grab a book …
I read all the time. I read every day. I have no hobbies. I don’t have any hobbies. No, I work in the morning and then I have the rest of the day with no hobbies. So, I have a lot of time to read. Yeah, mysteries and thrillers.
I’m in the International Thriller Writers, this group with thriller writers. We meet every summer. And so, I know all the people I read. Harlan Coben and Michael Connelly and Lee Child. I know all these people. And that’s the kind of books I love. I like old British mysteries. And I’ve been reading this guy Richard Osman. He’s writing this series called The Thursday Murder Club. A couple of books, they’re very entertaining. Very good books. The second one’s called The Man Who Died Twice. It’s even better than the first one.
I’m an avid reader, also, so I’m going to check these out.
They’re both very entertaining.
I know you’re not that into horror, but what book scares you the most that you’ve read?
Nothing. I’ve said this before. I don’t get scared from horror. It makes me laugh. I think horror is funny. And I do think the scariest Stephen King book I’ve ever read was Pet Sematary. That’s the scariest book by far. That’s just a great premise, too. Definitely. I’ve stolen that three or four times. Too good not to, you know?
Yeah, because the cat was just creepy. But then the little boy …
Oh yeah, I know. It’s a very scary book.
Yeah. What do you do to enjoy yourself? You said you don’t have hobbies, but …
No, my wife always says I need a hobby. I don’t have a hobby.
What do you find fulfilling outside of authorship? I just thought it might be nice for people to know. Also, I didn’t want to ask all of the same questions; I know you’ve been asked the same things a million times, so I was trying to think of …
I only like questions I’ve already been asked. I hate new questions. I’m not real spontaneous. My son, Matt, works on Broadway musicals. He’s a music producer, a sound designer. So we go to the theater a lot as well. Hey, he won a Tony Award.
Oh, that’s wonderful!
Yeah, I know, for Moulin Rouge! on Broadway. Yeah.
Great music in that, too.
He and his friend picked the songs. There’s 70 songs in it — 70 songs. Can you believe that? It’s, like, dizzying, you know? You’re dizzy. You walk out, you can’t walk straight.
With the rise of social media, it’s easier than ever for authors to interact with fans. Have you embraced your online presence? I know you use Twitter.
A lot. I’m on Twitter all the time. I actually love it. It’s just such a nice way to stay in touch with my original readers. You know, there aren’t any kids on Twitter. It’s all twenty- and thirtysomethings, you know, and I hear from them all day. I love it. And they’re all so nice. You know: “I wouldn’t be a librarian today if it wasn’t for your books.” “I wouldn’t be a writer today.” “You inspired me,” or “Thank you for getting me through a hard childhood,” that kind of thing. It’s really very touching for me.
What changes have you observed in publishing since you got started?
Well, children’s publishing is such a bigger business. It’s so huge now. When I started out in 1969, 1970, in children’s publishing, it was like a few women in the back of the office putting out children’s books. And now it’s this billion-dollar, two-billion-dollar industry. You know? When I started working — I started at Scholastic — they made like 100,000 dollars a year, 200,000 dollars. And now they’re a two-billion-dollar company. That’s why I’m so optimistic about kids reading. Everyone’s always complaining, “Oh, they’re just watching their screens. It’s so hard to get kids reading these days.” Who’s buying all these children’s books? So I’m very optimistic. I mean, kids read, and they like to read. If they read on a screen, you know, that’s fine too.
My grandson, Dylan, learned to read playing Minecraft, taught him how to read.
Yeah, it doesn’t have to be, you know — they don’t have to be a mutually exclusive thing. So, I wager that your longevity can be attributed to, obviously, talent and motivation, but how do you stay passionate about what you do?
You have to include luck. You have to include luck. It’s really lucky. And I just — to give you a serious answer, the most thrilling part of all of this for me is the millions of kids who got into reading from Goosebumps and my other books. That’s really what they’re about. I mean, I don’t really want to terrify kids. And really, it’s all reading motivation. So easy to read. I keep them at a fourth-grade reading level. There are no vocabulary words. There’s nothing hard about them. I don’t teach them anything. There are no morals, nothing. I think they lose a few IQ points when they’re reading Goosebumps. But it’s, you know, it’s very easy reading and fun reading, and it keeps them going from chapter to chapter. And that’s really what it’s all about.
Yeah. Some of them probably inspire them, too — like I was saying about A Night in Terror Tower. Like, maybe they got interested in, you know, historical England.
Yeah. It’s possible. Yeah, it’s possible. That’s one of the best ones by the way.
Oh, yeah. I really liked that one.
It’s really one of the best Goosebumps books.
I know you’ve talked a lot [in previous interviews] about the balance between horror and humor, so I didn’t want to ask the same. But what I will ask is what’s one thing that scares you? And one thing that that you find really humorous?
Well, I’ve — as I say, not much scares. I have normal adult scares. I always tell about the scariest moment in my life: when I took my son Matt, when he was like four years old, to the [New York] Automobile Show at the convention center — and I lost him. I always tell that story. I mean, that was — that’s [a] real scare. And — but I know, a lot of things make me laugh. Do you ever watch Impractical Jokers?
No, no, I haven’t.
No, you don’t? That makes me laugh more than anything. These four guys who mostly try to embarrass each other. And it’s a hilarious show. Another thing that really makes me laugh: this guy Tim Robinson. He has a show on Netflix. It’s called I Think You Should Leave. And nothing makes me laugh harder. He’s just not like anyone else. He’s, like, really out of control. And he’s just really funny.
Thank you. So how does all this feel? Wonderful? Overwhelming?
No, it feels wonderful. It’s been, you know, it’s been very rewarding. I — as I say, I feel really lucky. You know, it’s been beyond my wildest dreams. I just wanted to write a few books.
Right. And look what it turned into.
It was a long time, and no one noticed, you know? So all this stuff with the movies and Jack [Black] playing me in the movies and just — oh, it’s all, it’s all crazy. It’s hard to believe.
Mm-hmm. What are you most looking forward to or most excited about right now? It doesn’t have to be work-related.
Right now, I’m looking forward to jumping in the swimming pool. Right after I talk to you. I’m really looking forward to it. It’s like 90 degrees.
I was gonna say, it’s like scorching over there.
Yeah, it’s real hot here. So that’s what I’m looking forward to. I have this enormous swimming pool in the backyard with three waterfalls and a 30-foot waterslide.
Oh, that sounds amazing.
My own waterpark. So I honestly, I never leave my — I never go to the ocean. I never leave.
There’s no need. I was gonna say you have everything right there.
Yeah. I’m looking forward to fall, you know. What, I have Stinetinglers coming out, and the comic book coming out, and Slappy. It’s gonna be a very big, fun fall.
Yes. What or who inspires you? And this also doesn’t have to be related to writing.
Oh, a million people, but as I said, Ray Bradbury was my big inspiration. And Rod Serling was another one. And just all these other mystery writers and people I read. Everyone you read is … is an inspiration, really.
When you think about your legacy as an author, what would you say you want it to be?
People didn’t use to ask me questions like that.
No, I’m sorry.
A kid raised their hand in school: “Do you plan to retire?” No one used to ask me that. I would say, what I want on my tombstone was, “He got boys to read.”
Your epigraph is right up there with John Keats’s epitaph.
That’s a good legacy.
And then do you have plans to write another adult novel? You said you’d stick to kids.
No, I’m done with adults. I’ve had it. I’ve had it. No. Sticking to kids. Except for the comics.
So, can you talk a little bit [about] new Slappy books?
The newest one is called Slappy in Dreamland. Oh, you mean Slappy, Beware! — Slappy, Beware! [came out] in August or September. It’s our first hardcover Goosebumps book. It’s illustrated. We’ve never done that before. And it’s got Slappy’s origin story. It’s got how he got to be evil and how he got to be. Maybe the fifth origin story we’ve done, and they’re all different. I’m never consistent. I don’t remember the old ones. So, every time he has a different origin.
And people can pick their favorites. Yeah, exactly.
Right. Whatever you like.
And then, last question, what else would be a dream come true for you?
A dream come true? Oh, I don’t know. I’ve done everything.
So you’re sated at this point.
A dream come true would be if my grandson would read my books. Because my son never did.
Right. I read that, too.
Yeah. He never read one. So if my — my grandson is eight now — so he’s the right age, right? If he would read one, I’d be — that would be a dream come true.
Hey, I really enjoyed talking with you, Danielle.
Likewise, I enjoyed it, too. This is a dream come true for me.
Danielle Hayden is a writer from Detroit. Her work has appeared in Seattle magazine, Ampersand, SELF, YES!, and elsewhere.