#92: R.L. STINE – “Someone who’s written a novel.”

In honor of Halloween, 100 Interviews presents the man, the myth, the legend: R.L. STINE.  At this point, I’d like to be able to say that the brilliant, twisted mind behind the ‘Goosebumps’ series and I are friends. (I think I can say that.) I’d also like to be able to say that I first […]

In honor of Halloween, 100 Interviews presents the man, the myth, the legend: R.L. STINE. 

At this point, I’d like to be able to say that the brilliant, twisted mind behind the ‘Goosebumps’ series and I are friends. (I think I can say that.)

I’d also like to be able to say that I first met R.L. Stine at a haunted book shop or while a ghoulish barista brewed monster blood coffee but alas, it’s in a much creepier way.

I met R.L. Stine because of Twitter.

Specifically, because of a cheesy joke. The thing people forget about celebrity Twitters is that if you @reply their name, they can see what you’ve said. I wrote: “Celebrity #FF @RL_Stine Goal: Meet him, take a picture together, tag it “Say Cheese …and Die!” on Facebook, laugh at my own joke for days.“

I nearly pooped my pants when he replied:  @RL_Stine @gabydunn Gaby, I’ll be back in the city in September. Maybe we can take the picture then?“

And thus, a beautiful Twitter/subsequent real-life friendship was born.

Though known for his bone-chilling children’s books series ‘Fear Street’ and ‘Goosebumps,’ Stine actually got his start as – wait for it – “Jovial Bob Stine.” (The “R” stands for “Robert.”) He was a comedy writer, churning out joke books for kids. He also worked for a “celebrity” magazine in New York City, faking entire interviews with stars like Diana Ross and the Beatles – a skill he cites as helpful for his eventual fiction career. It was while he was working at Scholastic that the idea for ‘Goosebumps’ fell into his lap. The editors were looking for someone to compete with teen writer Christopher Pike and commissioned Stine to write horror books for teenagers.

“They were originally skeptical about my idea to then write horror books for younger kids because no body had done it,” he says. Their reluctance makes sense; who could have predicted there’d be much of a market for terrorizing kids? Oh, but there was.

In the ’90s, Stine was a fiction superstar – writing constantly to feed a horde of voracious readers, an entire generation consuming his simple yet captivatingly spooky ‘Goosebumps’ stories.

“I was churning out two novels a month,” he says, keeping a mixed tone of pride and nostalgia when he talks about that hectic time.

The series became an international phenomenon that sparked a TV show (which he helped with) and persistent rumors of a film (which Stine doubts will ever happen). As of now, Stine hasn’t just “written a novel,” he’s written 330 novels that have sold over 300 million copies worldwide. The guy was 40 years old before ‘Goosebumps’ became a hit in 1992. The “R.L. Stine” name was born.

My own experience with Stine’s books goes back to 1998. I was about 10 years old and had finished every ‘Babysitter’s Club’ and ‘Nancy Drew’ book I’d been handed. My school’s library had an entire row of ‘Goosebumps’ fare that I was, truthfully, too scared to peruse. Even the covers, with wide-eyed evil dolls and fanged hamsters, made me peek through my fingers. My peers were fanatical and the ‘Goosebumps’ shelves were often empty, the help desk line full of sticky-fingered youngens wondering when their classmates were going to finally bring back the book they wanted.

Before ‘Harry Potter,’ and before ‘Twilight,’ Stine was getting elementary schoolers to read.

I had my scared-y cat trepidations. Once, I didn’t sleep for weeks because of an alien on an episode of ‘Star Trek’ (Thanks, older brother). The only way I’d gotten through it was to convince myself it wasn’t real. But ‘Goosebumps’ whole appeal hinged on how accessible the horror became. Stine’s protagonists were unexceptional kids my own age living in normal places. His villains were also commonplace – masks, snowmen, amusement parks, rabbits. Rather than using what was already frightful (like vampires and ghosts), Stine made the everyday terrifying. When I finally worked up the courage to peek between the pages, I was captivated by my own fear and breezed through the series. For me, as for most of my generation, ‘Goosebumps’ remains beloved nostalgia; In college, a few friends and I would gather to marathon the TV show the week before Halloween.

When we meet for the first time, I tell him I think most people believe “R.L. Stine” isn’t a real person or that he’s a team of people, but Stine says not so. He travels and makes enough appearances now that people should be able to put a face to his name but back in his heyday, he added to the shroud of mystery by wisely laying low.

Now, Stine, who hails from Columbus, Ohio, lives in the Upper West Side with his wife, who serves as his editor. He says his house looks fairly normal (though it was on an episode of a TLC show about where scary people live) aside from a skeleton in his office. He still writes scary novels but he’s a real person too – he likes Mexican food! He loves updating Twitter with random, weird facts! His son has never read his books!

He just got back from China where ‘Goosebumps’ is blowing up under the translated title ‘Chicken Skin.’ He’s also tickled to live in the same apartment building as Tina Fey who asked him in the hallway when he thought her daughter would be old enough to read his books.

We meet up first at Santa Fe, a restaurant near his apartment, and I take my co-worker Alicia with me (Moviefone wants to work with Stine on some collaborative projects). I’m not sure what I was expecting (Gomez Addams?) but Stine is actually super friendly. He brings Alicia and I copies of his new ‘Goosebumps’ series books, with shiny, colorful covers, and signs them for us – “My Scary Best, R.L. Stine.”

My brain buzzes the entire meal. The man is a kid-lit legend! His name is synonymous with creepy, sometimes even gross, children’s tales of spooky masks, murderous ventriloquist dummies, killer cameras and of course, titular turns-of-phrase like ‘Bad Hare Day’ or ‘Night of the Living Dummy.’

“I usually start with the titles and then write the novels around that,” he says, recalling how he was walking his dog when he thought of the aforementioned ‘Say Cheese and Die.’

 

In appearance and demeanor, Stine is slightly silly, but gentlemanly – hardly the “Riff Raff” creeptastic guy you’d expect, but not totally out of character. (He insists on wearing black when photographed so he can maintain his image.) He laughs at your jokes and asks questions about you, always using your first name at the end of a sentence (ie: “Where did you go to school, Gaby?”) It’s sweet. I tell him I picture him writing by moonlight, in a darkened dungeon with a quill pen and gas lantern, scrolls of stories scattered about. He laughs.

“Hardly,” he says. “I write in the morning and I’m very organized.”

I have to ask what scares R.L. Stine but he insists he was never afraid of horror movies or books, even as a child.

“That stuff always made me laugh,” he shrugs.

He also gets starstruck by other authors, but speaks of them nonchalantly. For instance, I almost choke on my rice when he mentions having dinner at Kurt Vonnegut’s house.

“His daughter was a fan and he said to me, ‘Boy, you’ve really made an impact on a lot of people’s lives with your writing,’” he says, chuckling. “I couldn’t believe it. I said, ‘So have you!’”

He doesn’t begrudge but also doesn’t understand the “new horror genre” sprung from the ‘Twilight’ fandom. Turning what should be scary, like vampires, into something sexy doesn’t appeal to him. His only interaction with the saga’s author, Stephenie Meyer, also wasn’t so heartening. Stine sent her a message asking if she would like to contribute to a book of short stories he was compiling called “Fear” and Meyer never even gave him a courtesy reply.

“She never responded,” he says. “I mean, it was weird because it’s not like I’m nobody but even if I was, it’s weird to not reply at all.”

This attitude makes sense since Stine is very polite with his fans. For instance, I’m not the first Twitter friend he’s met up with in real life. He recalls one girl who tweeted him about making a cake she wanted him to try. Stine told her to come on over with it, giving out his address. The girl was bewildered but accepted.

“She came over with her friend and we had some cake and tea at my apartment,” he says like it’s the most normal thing in the world for a famous author to invite fans to his home. “It was a lovely afternoon.”

At the end of our meal, our petite waitress sneaks over, delicately interrupting our conversation.

“Excuse me, but are you R.L. Stine?” she timidly asks. Stine smiles, “I am.”

She freaks out, gushing, “I loved your books when I was a kid. Oh my god!”

He kindly asks her name and they chat for a bit. When we leave the restaurant, he says goodbye to her, using her name again. She looks like she might pass out into some queso.

Currently, Stine is working on another series of ‘Goosebumps’ books called “Horrorland” and makes appearances at book festivals and stores all over, with the same devoted fan base of days yore flocking to hear him read along with a new generation of readers ready to hide under their covers and give themselves ‘Goosebumps’ by flashlight. I mention how timeless the stories are and he smiles.

“My fans are all older now though,” he says, and it’s not without a hint of wistfulness.