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R. L. Stine, Master of Fear

The bestselling author you read as a kid on how he's made scary stories his life's work, as told to Jen Doll.

(Image credit: Larry D. Moore CC BY-SA 3.0.)

All I ever wanted to be was a writer. I started when I was 9. I’d be in my room writing little joke magazines, and I would bring them to school. I was a shy, fearful kid, and it was my way of getting attention. People always ask, “Did you have any teachers who encouraged you?” and the right answer is, “Yes, I did.” But I didn’t. They begged me to stop!

These days, I read the paper and get to work at about 9:30 every morning in my apartment. It’s the world’s best commute. I write 2,000 words and usually finish by 2:30 p.m. I walk the dog, go to the gym, and take a nap. That’s it. It’s a full life.

The challenge is coming up with new ideas. I’ve done every scary thing you can possibly do. I met Stephen King at the Edgar Awards and he said, “You’ve taken every single amusement park plot and haven’t left any for anyone else.”

I’m lucky. When I need a new idea, I get one. But it’s mysterious to me. People say, “R.L. Stine has the formula.” I wish I knew the formula. I don’t think there is one.

About every Goosebumps book has to take place in some kid’s backyard, or the kitchen, or the basement. It’s scarier for kids if it starts in their own house or neighborhood. Some writers make a mistake; they want to do something creepy, so they pick a huge dark castle in Europe, but kids don’t relate to that.

I don’t get scared. I watched this horror movie, It Follows. It just made me laugh; they all do. I think horror is funny. That’s the combination kids like: books that are funny and scary at the same time, but not too scary.

I don’t read much horror. A few Stephen King books are absolutely brilliant. I think Misery is the best book ever written about writers and editors. Pet Sematary, I’ve stolen that plot about six times. I had to—it’s just so good.

Jack Black plays R.L. Stine in the Goosebumps movie. Watch it for a cameo from Stine himself.

Planning a book is the only time I get stuck. I can do a Goosebumps outline, which is 25 to 30 chapters, in three or four days. But if it’s not going well, it might take me two weeks. My editor is my wife, Jane, and I never get a book through without revising. It’s the main thing we fight about—plots.

In the early days, Jane and I collaborated on funny books for kids. But we work so differently. I go in order, starting in the beginning, and Jane would write something in the middle, then write an ending, then go back. We fought about it, and she locked me in a closet and left the apartment. Then we decided not to collaborate.

After college, I went to New York and worked for a year on a soft drink magazine, and then I became assistant editor of Junior Scholastic. It was 1968. I wrote history and geography articles and news stories, and then they gave me my own magazine, Search. It was a history-current affairs magazine for junior high kids, but written at a fifth-grade level. That’s how I learned about reading levels. I learned all the vocabulary lists for fourth and fifth grade, and that’s how I keep Goosebumps easy to read.

I did that for four years, and then we did Bananas, which was my life’s goal: my own humor magazine. I was 30, I did it for 10 years, and I had the best time. When the magazine folded, I thought, “God, I’m never going to shave again, never get dressed.”

I was doing everything just to make a living. I was writing Bazooka Joe comics and jokes for bubble gum. I did Rocky and Bullwinkle and Mighty Mouse coloring books. That was a great job because it’s one sentence per page. Then, I was having lunch with Jean Feiwel, the editorial director at Scholastic at the time. She’d just had a fight with a YA horror writer and said, “I’m never working with him again. You could write a good teen horror novel. How about it?” I hadn’t read any teen horror novels, but I didn’t say no to anything in those days. I ran to the bookstore and bought a bunch of horror books.

Then, I was having lunch with Jean Feiwel, the editorial director at Scholastic at the time. She'd just had a fight with a YA writer and said, "I'm never working with him again. You could write a good teen horror novel. How about it?" I hadn't read any teen horror novels, but I didn't say no to anything in those days. I ran to the bookstore and bought a bunch of horror books.

Fear Street sold like crazy: 80 million books. Jane’s business partner at Parachute Press, Joan, said, “Let’s try to do middle-grade horror for 7- to 12-year- olds.” I refused. But she kept after me. I finally agreed that if I could think of a good name, I’d write a few books. Well, I was reading TV Guide, and there was an ad on the bottom of the page that said, “It’s Goosebumps Week on channel 11.” The name was just staring at me!

I recently went back to writing Fear Street, and the new one [as of September 2015] is the best.
It’s called The Lost Girl. It has the most gruesome scene I’ve ever written. It’s disgusting. It involves horses eating a man. I should be ashamed, but I’m so proud of that scene.

I think I’m totally normal, don’t you? Horror guys aren’t sick at all.

________________________________

The article above, by R.L. Stine as told to Jen Doll, appeared in the October 2015 issue of mental_floss magazine. It is reprinted here with permission.

Don't forget to feed your brain by visiting mental_floss' extremely entertaining website and blog today for more!


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