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Author, R. L. Stine MAG
The number-one best-selling children's author of all time, R. L. Stine is most famous for the creepy Goosebumps series, and now The Nightmare Room series. Born in Ohio, Mr. Stine lives in New York City. Teen Ink thanks him for being part of the Interview Contest.
We've heard you get thousands of fan letters a week. What's the weirdest, or funniest, fan mail you've received?
Well, some of it's hilarious, but I've gotten horrible, sad letters.
My favorite is a weird one, from a girl early on in my career. She said, 'Dear R. L. Stine, I loved The Babysitter. The same thing happened to me, only it was my uncle who tried to kill me. Keep up the good work. '
That was pretty scary. I actually notified her teacher and said, 'You should look into this. ' I never heard back.
My all-time favorite letter was from a boy who wrote, 'Dear R. L. Stine, I've read 40 of your books and I think they're really boring. ' Isn't that perfect?
At one point, I was getting 2, 000 letter a week. My mailman hated me. One day he took the big canvas mailbag and just threw it in the apartment.
Do you answer all your mail?
In the early days, I could; I think every kid deserves an answer, because it's hard for kids to write letters.
I make sure everyone gets an answer; at one point I had a staff of five answering mail. I try to read as much of it as I can.
Your books require a lot of imagination. Do you think people are born with imagination, or do you think they develop it through reading?
I think everyone has imagination, but at the same time, it's a very mysterious process. When I was nine, I was drawn to scary programs and would listen to science fiction shows on the radio. I really can't explain why I found that stuff so interesting. I think I absorbed all those and the many Ray Bradbury stories I read growing up.
People think they lose their imagination as they age (obviously you're an exception). Why do people believe that?
I think that most people don't have the luxury of sitting at home and writing stories. They have to find other ways to earn a living which might not demand as much imagination.
There are lots of ways to express your imagination through writing. One is poetry, almost all teenagers love to do that. Have you ever written any poetry you'd want to share or publish?
No, I'm horrible at it.
Back in my hometown I sponsor R. L. Stine Writing Workshops in the public schools. We have professional writers come for two weeks every year and work with kids who are really interested in being writers, but not poets. The world has enough bad poets. I try to discourage everyone from writing poetry.
Yet, every once in a while a kid writes a poem that is really good, and you sit there and think, Oh, wow, this kid can write.
Since you're an author of horror novels, you probably expect this question: what has been your most frightening personal experience?
I don't like that question; there's no way anything frightening can happen when I'm in the house all the time. They don't let me out of here.
I haven't had a scary life, aside from real personal things.
I do have a phobia that my nephews think is just insane: I cannot jump into water. I have to step into swimming pools. It's a real phobia, but my nephews think it's hilarious that this scary guy is so terrified of jumping into water.
Why do you think people like to be scared?
I think everyone likes a good scare, and I think everyone likes to be able to have creepy adventures and face monsters when they know they're safe at the same time.
When kids read my books, they're facing a lot of their real fears in these books but know that they're not in any real danger.
What do you respond when a little kid writes you and says one of your books gave him nightmares?
I hate that, I just hate that. You don't want to give kids nightmares; luckily, it doesn't happen often.
A woman wrote to me once, 'I like your books because they give my kids shivers but not nightmares. '
This was perfect because that's what I try to do; I don't want to terrify kids.
Have you ever written something that was really scary and then had to make it less frightening?
It's usually the opposite; my editors tell me to make it scarier. I tend to pull back and they're always saying, 'You have to make it scarier. '
Except once. The Girl Who Cried Monster is about a girl who discovers the librarian is a monster when she sees him eat a kid. The editors thought that was a little much, so instead I gave him a tray of snails on his desk, and every once in a while he chews one up.
Do you have a whole bunch of ideas in your head, or when you start to write do they just come?
It's usually one at a time; it's gotten harder because I've written so many books.
I need a new idea every month since I do a book a month. They usually come from a title; I don't really have ideas in advance, but almost all my ideas come from thinking of a really good title and seeing where that leads.
I work backwards from every other author; most authors get an idea for a story and think of a title later.
Is there a reason you think of a title first?
It just works for me. One day I was walking down the street and the title Brain Juice popped into my head. Then I started to think, what would happen if kids could drink brain juice? Maybe they would get really smart. Maybe they'd get so smart, no one could stand them. It would ruin their lives. That turned out to be one of my favorite Goosebumps books.
Do you ever get ideas from readers?
That's never worked out; it's a shame.
And I've never gotten any ideas from my dreams. I have the most boring dreams. One night I dreamed I was making a bologna sandwich.
Most of your writing is fictional and crazy. Do you ever put little autobiographical events in?
I was a very fearful child, and I can remember that feeling of panic. I use that feeling a lot - that's from real life.
The only other thing I use is - I grew up in a little suburb of Columbus, Ohio and I use that setting a lot.
I've never written a book about New York City, where I've lived for years. It's sort of a superstition of mine. The settings are all suburban, from my childhood.
Every once in a while there will be an incident that sparks an idea. I was at an airport watching a family say goodbye to their little boy -he was flying by himself, and they were hugging him - and the parents were totally nervous.
I saw the mother hand the boy a note as he boarded the plane. I watched and thought, What if he gets on the plane and he opens the note and it says, 'We're not your parents?'
What's the one element of your writing that you believe makes you different from other writers?
I really like kids. I think I'm really good at talking with and writing for them, because that's my level, basically.
Another thing I do that many writers don't value as much, is I want a lot of surprises in my writing. I don't want to be able to predict what's going to happen. I work really hard at putting surprise after surprise in each book.
I try to shock readers and tease them and lead them off in the wrong direction.
We read that your son hasn't read any of your books.
Sad to say. And he's in one of the books, too. He just wouldn't read them.
Have you ever tried to get him to?
Oh, always. It did make me nuts, but if you're an author, your kid is basically going to be a non-reader; that goes without saying.
Every writer I know, their kids don't read their stuff. It's a natural way for kids to get their parents.
Kurt Vonnegut's daughter was a big Goosebumps fan. When she was 12 she told her father, 'Oh, he's a much better writer than you, Dad. '
This was Kurt Vonnegut, for goodness sake; I was so embarrassed. She wouldn't read his books for anything.
Do you believe in ghosts?
No, I don't believe in any of the stuff I write.
What do you think is the biggest problem facing teenagers today?
I hate questions like that.
People are going to want to know.
Well, when I was a kid we had childhoods; we didn't have to be sophisticated and cool. We could just be kids. We weren't exposed to as much stuff, and every sitcom on TV wasn't just about sex.
I think the biggest problem is that kids are growing up too fast and not having fun just being a kid. It's a very tough job to be a kid.
Is it a hard job to be a writer?
It's never been hard for me; it's the only thing I do well. Ask my wife; it's the only thing I'm competent at.
I came from Ohio and moved to New York to be a writer. I got magazine jobs right away and wrote for all these fan magazines. Then I worked at Scholastic for many years doing educational magazines.
My goal in life was to have my own humor magazine, all I wanted was to have my own Mad Magazine. When I was 28 I got it. I did a funny magazine for ten years called Bananas. That was my life's ambition and I reached it. And then Bananas folded; it wasn't popular anymore.
I had no idea what was coming, it's been very exciting and I feel very lucky.
Is the success of your books one of your greatest surprises?
The success of the Goosebumps stories was a total surprise to everybody. You can't ever plan on having that kind of a success; I'm in the Guinness Book of World Records as the biggest-selling children's author in history.
To me that's amazing, because I wrote for 20 years and nobody noticed.
When I was a kid there were a lot of horror books for adults, but other than Goosebumps, I don't remember seeing any for kids.
No one had done it. I did Fear Street first. When I started, they said, you can't do horror as a series, no one would buy it.
Someone once asked Agatha Christie, 'Why do you think your books are so popular?'
And she said, 'I just stumbled onto something people wanted to read. ' And I think that's what happened with me.
How many books have you sold?
Well, Goosebumps has sold 220 million in this country. It's just huge all over the world, it's incredible. Altogether I've sold over 300 million books.
Are the Harry Potter books in the hundreds of millions?
No, they've sold 35-40 million. They get a lot more media attention, though.
At one point I was doing a Fear Street and a Goosebumps every month, so I did it by doing 24 books a year; J. K. Rowling does one a year. She's smart, she has a life.
Have you had any significant disappointments?
Yes, I did a book series before Goosebumps that I loved. I always wanted to write funny stuff, and I did a series called Space Cadet about the five dumbest cadets in the Space Academy. It was just slapstick humor. I loved these books; they were my favorites. I thought they were really funny. No one bought them, they were a total flop.
A lot of people say scary books, movies and TV shows are a big reason for teen violence. What do you think?
Well, I think they're totally wrong. I think my books are really healthy, and I think they help kids deal with a lot of anger.
Also, I don't really think mass killers read these books; I've never heard of somebody reading one and then running out and doing something horrible.
And I think violence in movies and on television is very healthy. Everybody has these pent-up feelings, and I think it's good relief to be able to sit and watch it.
People who say kids are going to be influenced don't realize that kids are very smart; it's insulting to kids. Whenever there's some horrible tragedy they start saying, 'Well, let's make sure kids don't go to these movies, ' or 'Let's censor the lyrics in their music, and give them a curfew. ' Every solution is a punishment, not a solution.
There are a lot of people who don't like young people and resent them. They are the ones who try to solve serious problems by punishing kids.
What do you think is leading to the violence?
I wouldn't even venture a guess; there are a lot of serious social problems. People have these natural tendencies and they shouldn't be repressed.
My brother has a son and they didn't want any violence in the house; my nephew wasn't even allowed to watch the Muppets. They never allowed him to have toy guns. One day he was visiting us, and I gave him a slice of American cheese. He bit it into the shape of a gun. He was obsessed.
Back to writing, are there any jobs or internships you'd suggest for a young person who really wants to be a writer?
Well, I would suggest they try to get some kind of magazine job. I came to New York and started getting publishing jobs. I didn't stay home and send in manuscripts from 500 miles away.
I was working in a publishing company and got to know a lot of editors, and they would leave to go to other companies, and then I would know someone at all those other publishing houses.
Being in the business gave me a real head start to being a writer.
How did you start getting publishing jobs?
I came to New York - I didn't know a single person - and started answering ads in the papers.
My very first job was with a fan magazine, making up stories, interviews with the stars. I learned to write really fast, you learn to write fast and to make up stuff. It was very good training;you think it's horrible at the time, but it's good training.
Then I answered an ad and got a job working for Junior Scholastic Magazine; I ended up staying there for 16 years.
What about college, did you major in writing?
I was an English major at Ohio State. Back then every college had a humor magazine, and that's all I was interested in. Three of my four years in college I was editor of the humor magazine.
How does writing for TV compare with writing novels?
It's totally different, and in some ways it's irritating, because it's collaborative. I sit here by myself all day writing books. But when I wrote for television I'd write a script and then I'd go in and all the puppeteers and producers and the director and writer would sit around a table and rip your script apart and suggest other things.
You have to collaborate every step of the way; everyone is an expert.
So, there would be three or four versions for these little five-minute puppet segments. Then you'd come in and they would shoot the segment, and the puppeteers would say whatever they wanted in front of the cameras. And every once in a while you'd recognize a word of yours, but that was the process.
What is your new TV series, "The Nightmare Room"?
Most of the episodes are based on the Nightmare Room books, but other people write them.
How do these books differ from Goosebumps?
Goosebumps was sort of a roller-coaster ride, with monsters jumping out or hiding under the bed, and running from werewolves, and becoming invisible.
The Nightmare Room series is quiet, darker; I'm trying to do "Twilight Zone" for kids, where you step into a place you've been a hundred times but suddenly something isn't quite right. There are no monsters; it's more psychological.
One, Liar, Liar, is about a boy who never tells the truth, he even lies to the reader. He lies about the color of his eyes when he's describing himself. He tells so many lies that he lies himself into a parallel world.
I needed to do something different from Goosebumps. I wrote 87 of those, and I needed a new little twist that would give me story ideas.
What keeps you motivated after you've sold so many books?
I just love it. I still enjoy it. It's a real challenge not to repeat myself.
I get up in the morning and still enjoy getting to the computer at 10 o'clock each morning and writing my pages; I do 15 pages a day.
Do you edit yourself as you go along?
Yes, except my secret is that I do a chapter-by-chapter outline first; I never wanted to do it, but my editors forced me to.
The outline has everything that happens in the book. That's the real work. It has all the chapter endings - every chapter has to end with a cliffhanger - and it includes all the action of the book.
So, when I sit down to write, I've done all the thinking and I can enjoy the writing.
Most people hate outlines, and I hated them at first, mainly because my editors always made me revise and revise the outline, so by the time I'd done three outlines, I'd be sick of the book. But now I can't work without one.
Do you think writing is lonely?
Yes. But I think too often teachers present writing as something that is very serious. I hate it when people tell kids, 'Write what you know. Write from your heart. '
That's terrifying; I've never written a word from my heart, never. I've been writing for 30 years, and I've never written a single word from my heart, and I never write about what I know. I think that makes writing sound too hard, it makes it sound like work.
What do you tell kids to write?
I tell kids to write to entertain yourself, write to be entertained. Writing should be fun. I tell them about all the insane things I've written just because I love to write.
You don't have to write serious literature, you don't have to be an artist to be a writer. I've written GI Joe books, coloring books, even bubble gum cards.
What's your most favorite book that you've written?
I have to divide it up; there's a funny novel I wrote called Phone Calls that is about teenagers calling each other. It's really funny, very twisted.
There's another funny one, How I Broke Up with Ernie. I'm really proud of those.
And there are a couple of Goosebumps I'm really proud of; Brain Juice is a perfect combination of scary and funny, I think.
Do you ever have a hard time letting go of something you wrote that your editors say you have to change?
Oh, always. I hate to revise, I hate it, and I have a lot of editors. You think, Oh, by now you've done all this stuff, it will be easy, but sometimes I have to do three versions of a book, and I complain about it all the time.
It's very hard to get the same energy for revising as for writing.
How do you work up that energy?
This is my major failure as a writer. I always think that if it's typed, it's finished and is a masterpiece. I consider it done and I'm on to the next one.
And that's a real problem; many writers are the opposite. I don't know which is healthier.
What do you do if you don't respect the editor?
I don't have that choice; my wife is my editor.
You said you have lots of editors.
My wife has a company called Parachute Press, which is a children's book packager. My books go through her company. In addition to my wife, two other editors in her company read everything. Plus I have two editors at my publisher, Harper-Collins, so there are five editors for every book.
But you must respect them all enough that when they throw your book back at you . . .
Well, I argue all the time. I don't win very often. Sometimes they agree with me, but they're usually right; it's easier for others to see what's wrong with writing, especially when you're as self-satisfied as I am.
And my wife is very smart, she's always right. We've been married 32 years and in that time I've never been right.