Catching up with R.L. Stine

A Q+A with with the popular Goosebumps novelist about nostalgia, new technology and kids' fears in a scary world.

April 30, 2013

I met R.L. Stine, author of the popular children's horror series, Goosebumps, at Chicago's Comic and Entertainment Expo last weekend. We talked about whether kids' fears are changing in an arguably scarier world, nostalgia for his Goosebumps series and how social media has affected his life as a writer. 

Full disclosure: I'm a huge R.L. Stine fan (in case you can't tell from this interview), so any gushing is 100 percent accurate and expected. 

R.L.: Hi. Earth calling. 10-9-8-7-5 whatever [laughs]. I'm R.L. Stine. I write the Goosebumps books for kids and we're at C2E2.

Logan: I read It Came from Ohio! ...

R.L.: My life story! Yes?

Logan: ...when I was about 10. And one thing I remember about it is this inset with all the pages with photographs of your family. You had this one scan of this joke book that you used to do.

R.L.: Yeah, it was a humor magazine. I did it for 10 years, actually. It was sort of like Mad Magazine, all in color. It was great. In those days I was funny [laughs].

Logan: I want to talk about the line between horror and humor. It seems to be a pretty fine line.

R.L.: I think, too. I think there's a very close connection. I know when I go to a horror movie I always laugh. I don’t know. I don't get scared. I don't have that scared reaction. Horror always makes me laugh. I think one of my very early influences were these comic books when I was a kid called Tales from the Crypt and the Vault of Horror - the EC comic books. And they were all horrifying. They were bloody, gruesome comics but they all had funny endings. They were funny at the same time. And I think there's that same visceral reaction to horror and humor that people get.

Logan: Why is fear important, especially for kids to have?

R.L.: Why is it important for kids to be afraid? [Laughs] Well, I don't think it is. But I think what my books do in a way is they help kids get over fears. They’re having these creepy adventures, terrible things are happening to whoever's in the book, but they know they're safe in their room. They’re reading. My books all have happy endings. And they all have normal kids, not especially talented or gifted, who use their own wits and imagination to solve the problems. I think that's actually the only lesson in Goosebumps.

Logan: I was thinking about what Goosebumps did for me. And I think it actually taught me how to be scared.

R.L.: Well that's not good! You don't really want to be scared.

Logan: Well, it taught me how to be scared but it also taught me how to deal with it and how to get over it.

R.L.: Yes. Right. One thing, in Goosebumps, the parents are always useless. They're totally useless. They never believe the kid. So the kids are always on their own and they have to face it. But that's getting kind of deep for me. I just want them to be entertaining, really, and we all like to be entertained by horror. People of every age like to be scared. When I first started doing these books I didn't really understand it because I’d been funny for years. I never really planned to be scary. I'd [ask people], “Why do you like these books?”and every time they said, “We like to be scared! We like to be scared!” I realized I'd just stumbled on to something that people liked.

Logan: I'm thinking about some of your books like Egg Monsters from Mars and The Haunted Mask. They're these really silly but kind of scary things. I'm wondering - with all this violence - and arguably we live in a scarier world then we used to, if those types of things still scare children these days?

R.L.: Well I hope so because I'm still doing it. I just signed up for six more Goosebumps books so I think they do. The world changes and especially the technology changes, but kids don't change in a way because our basic fears always stay the same: A fear of the dark, a fear that someone’s lurking in the closet waiting to jump out, that something horrible is in the basement. That never changes.

Logan: How do you think that being afraid helps kids now. If they're in a neighborhood with a lot of gun violence, for example?

R.L.: People say kids are becoming inure to violence and it's too common and entertainment is too violent and I don't agree with that at all. I think that's just said by people who don't like kids. And there are a lot of people who like to take away stuff from kids. One thing I found out in all these years of writing for them is that kids are really smart. There's a very big difference. If they're playing a violent video game and they're killing people and killing people or reading a violent book, that's one thing. And then if they go to a very dangerous neighborhood and they see something horrible happening, that's a whole other reaction. Kids know the difference between fictitious violence and real violence. You know it immediately. There's no real connection.

Logan: So it's about creating that fantasy world as well, right?

R.L.: People always say, 'Well how do you know you're not going too far?' and my only rule is they have to know it’s a fantasy. They haven't to know this couldn't happen. The egg monsters couldn't come from Mars. I'm very careful not to let the real world creep in.

Logan: How do you feel your Goosebumps novels have affected my generation?

R.L.: Well, this makes me very happy. I'm on Twitter all day and I hear from people your age and there are no kids on Twitter, they're in their 20s or 30s - my readers from the 90s. You can't imagine the messages I get: 'I wouldn't be a librarian today if it wasn't for you. I would never have gotten through my childhood if it wasn't for you. I wouldn't be a writer today if it wasn't for you.' My wife has to bring me back down to Earth and try to keep me humble because it's so rewarding and very touching for me.

Logan: I have a big Goosebumps collection but it's not in this state. I wanted to find a Goosebumps book, so I went to a number of used bookstores and I couldn't find one (I did eventually). One of the librarians told me that they sell out because people are collecting them still. Does that surprise  you?

R.L.: I have to say, it's the 21st year of Goosebumps. I'm surprised. Most children's book series don't last this long. Few do but most don't. And that's thrilling to me that kids still want to collect it.

Logan: It seems like they want to collect them for nostalgia, but they also love them. I started reading my Goosebumps book I got last night again. It's The Cuckoo Clock of Doom.

R.L. [Laughs] Well, that's good. You don't want to be nostalgia. [Laughs] I think you'd hate to be nostalgia, really. But it's nice. I still hear: 'I'm 27 and I still read them and I think they're wonderful ...' and I love that.

Logan: Can you talk a little bit more about the idea of nostalgia associated with Goosebumps and how you feel about that?

R.L.: There were many kids back in the '90s who went to the bookstore like every two weeks waiting for the next one. You know, they were desperate to collect them all. You don't think about this when you're an author. I'm sitting in my apartment typing these stories but it became a big part of their childhood. And a lot of kids learned how to read on these books, so they do have fond memories and it is nostalgia to them and I just have to suck it up, right?

Logan: I guess so. Is there any particular book or series that you're nostalgic for? What makes you nostalgic?

R.L.: Well, I mentioned those comic books and those are very important to me. My very first exciting reading experience: A librarian in my little town in Columbus, Ohio, she said, 'What do you read?' and I said, 'I just read comic books,' and she said, 'I have something I think you'll like.' And she took me over to a shelf of Ray Bradbury novels and short stories and said, 'I think you'll like these.' Those books really changed my life. He was so creative and so imaginative and the stories were so wonderful and Ray Bradbury really turned me into a reader. So I have very fond memories of that.

Logan: What about fan mail? How has that changed over the years?

R.L.: Not at all. Here's my typical fan letter, okay? 'Dear R.L. Stine, our teacher is forcing us to write to an author. I chose you. Where do you get your ideas?' That's 2/3 of my mail. Hasn't changed at all. I get wonderful letters from kids. It's one of the great things about being a children's author is that they want to be in touch with you. So they write a lot. If you're an adult author, adults don't have time to write to an author. I get great mail. Last week I got a letter it said: "Dear R.L. Stine, You are my second favorite author." That was the whole letter.

Logan: There was no exclamation point or anything?

R.L.: No! Nothing! "You are my second favorite author." [Laughs] I love that.

Logan: And they're still coming to you in paper form, I'm assuming?

R.L.: I still get a couple hundred letters a week. They all get answers. I mean, that's hard work, writing a letter and mailing it and everything. I don't get much kid e-mail. It would be too much to handle I think. It would be a little hard.

Logan: So you mentioned you're active on Twitter and that you're there. You're available for people if they want to talk to you. How does social media help you be the writer that you want to be?

R.L.: Well, for me it's just fun. I only do it for fun. Well, I do mention my books occasionally and tell them when the new books are coming out and that kind of thing. It's a good marketing tool, definitely. But, what a good thing to be able to keep in touch with my readers. I never used to have an outlet like that. I love that.

Logan: You've probably answered this a number of times, but what would you say to kids right now?

R.L.: Books are really entertaining. You should turn to books for entertainment and keep reading. That would be my serious answer.

Logan: Does it matter to you if they're in paper form? Keeping in mind newer technologies like Kindle...

R.L.: Not at all. Doesn't matter. I think more people are reading now. More kids are reading now. Whether they're reading on a screen or a page it's wonderful. I like to be wherever kids are reading.

Logan Jaffe is a producer for WBEZ and Curious City. Follow her @loganjaffe