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R.L. Stine, the giver of 'Goosebumps,' on 30 years, countless nightmares, and a lot of luck

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Children's author R.L. Stine on the set of the 'Goosebumps' television show, inspired by his wildly popular children's books. 'Goosebumps' celebrates its 30 year anniversary this year. (Courtesy R.L. Stine)
Children's author R.L. Stine on the set of the 'Goosebumps' television show, inspired by his wildly popular children's books. 'Goosebumps' celebrates its 30 year anniversary this year. (Courtesy R.L. Stine)

Team Endless Thread is here with your holiday bonus — a bonus episode, that is! If you heard our most recent episode on "Goosebumps The Musical," you know that Amory got to talk to R.L. Stine, author of the wildly popular "Goosebumps" book series, which turned 30 this year.

(Courtesy R.L. Stine)
(Courtesy R.L. Stine)

But what you didn’t hear was … most of their conversation! It actually had very little to do with the musical (which, Stine confessed, he had never listened to), and much more to do with the origins of "Goosebumps" and the series’ impact over the last 30 years.

Stine tells Amory why he didn’t want to write a series of scary stories for 7-12 year olds initially, but why he now considers them the best audience.

Enjoy, happy holidays, and don’t forget to sign our petition to help get Goosebumps The Musical to Broadway!

(Courtesy Dan Nelker, R.L. Stine)
(Courtesy Dan Nelker, R.L. Stine)

Show notes

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Full Transcript:

This content was originally created for audio. The transcript has been edited from our original script for clarity. Heads up that some elements (i.e. music, sound effects, tone) are harder to translate to text.

Amory Sivertson: Happy holidays!

Ben Brock Johnson: Merry, happy everything! And guess what? We got you a little something.

Amory: That sweet sweet Christmas bonus!

Ben: A bonus episode, that is.

Amory: Yeah, although if anything, it’s more like a Halloween bonus…

Ben: We’re bringing spooky back?

Amory: Does spooky ever really go away in this world we live in, Ben?

Ben: Woof. True. But also, we kind of already brought spooky back in our most recent episode, which, if you haven’t heard it yet, is about Goosebumps The Musical.

Amory: If you have heard it, you know that I got to talk to R.L. Stine, author of the more than 60 Goosebumps books, and that the book series turns thirty this year. And even though that conversation happened back during actual spooky season, I wanted to share more of it with you before we close out the year, because A) I suspect I’m not the only 90s-kid-R.L.Stine-fan out there, and B) I just had so much fun talking to him.

Ben: Were you fangirling, Amo?

Amory: I’d like to think I played it cool … but yeah! We talked about our mutual home state.

Amory: You're also— I'm a fellow Ohio person. 

R.L. Stine: You are? Where?

Amory: So I grew up in the Cleveland area, but my sister's still in Columbus and went to OSU. 

R.L. Stine: I went to OSU. I grew up in Bexley.

Amory: The Bexley, Ohio native also told me how shocked people are when they find out he has other interests.

R.L. Stine: You see, if you're a horror writer, people expect your whole life to be horror. And when I say, "Well, I have an opera subscription, and we live near Lincoln Center, and I go to the ballet," people are horrified by that. That's like, all wrong for me.

Amory: What do they expect you to do? Just like, lurk around?

R.L. Stine: To all be horror. Yeah. I can only go to Stephen King movies. That's it.

Amory: And, of course, I got to hear how the very first Goosebumps books came to be 30 years ago, in spite of R.L. Stine himself!

R.L. Stine: I didn't want to do it.

Amory: What? 

R.L. Stine: I didn't want to do it. 

Amory: Why not?

R.L. Stine: Because I was doing a series for teenagers called Fear Street and we were killing off teenagers every month. It was cool. People love that when you kill teenagers. And this series was really successful. It was for older kids.  And my wife and her partner, who had Parachute Press, came to me and they said, "No one has ever done a scary series for 7 to 12 year olds. We should try it." And I said, "No, I don't want to."

Amory: Why not?

R.L. Stine: Because it'll mess up Fear Street. It'll mess up my older audience. I don't want to confuse them and I don't want to do it. That's the kind of business that I am. Right? I didn't want to do this one. Brilliant. Brilliant. And they kept after me. And then finally I said, "All right, if we can think of a good name for the series, maybe we can try two or three."

Amory: Okay.

R.L. Stine: And so I went off and I tried trying to think of a good name that would be not too scary. It would be funny and scary at the same time. And I was reading TV Guide magazine, and in those days, TV Guide had all the TV listings in the middle, and I was thumbing through this magazine, and on the bottom of one page was a tiny ad and it said, It's "Goosebumps Week on Channel 11." And I just stared at it. I mean, there it was. I knew. I said, "Hey, we'll call it Channel 11."

Amory: Hahaha.

R.L. Stine: No, don't laugh at that. Well, that's where the name Goosebumps came from. And we took it to Scholastic and the board for books. They said, "Oh, we'll try four of them." And we put four books out, and they just sat there on the shelf. They didn't do anything for months. And if it was today, with all the computers and everything, the bookstores would have yanked them off the shelves. They wouldn't be around. But somehow, after four months or so, somehow, kids discovered them and took them to school and showed them to others. It was this secret kids network of kids just showing kids. Because there was no advertising. There was no hype. No one really knew me at the time. It was 1992. And I think this is how all the book crazes get started. I think even Harry Potter or The Hunger Games, all of them — kids telling kids.

Amory: So why, even with Fear Street, you know, you're scaring an audience of children. So what's the joy in scaring children?

R.L. Stine: It's really fun. I just like to scare kids.

Amory: (laughs) Uh huh.

R.L. Stine: That's a horrible answer. You know, I just find that kids like to be scared. I mean, thank God, but kids like to be scared. You know, I was funny. I never planned to be scary. I never plan to write horror. It's embarrassing. It wasn't my idea. It was whose idea was it, oh, a woman named Jean Feiwel, who is a publisher at Scholastic. Okay, it was her idea. I was funny. I had a humor magazine. I wrote about 100 joke books for kids. That's all I cared about. And she arrived at lunch. We were having lunch and she was angry. She had a fight with another guy who wrote teen horror, and she said, sat down to lunch and she said, I'm never working with him again. You could write a good teen horror novel, go home, write a book called Blind Date. She gave me the title and I didn't know what she was. I didn't know what she was talking about. What's a teen horror novel? I ran to the bookstore to buy Christopher Pike and Lois Duncan and Diane Ho and Richie Tankersley Cusack. All of these people were writing teen horror back in the nineties just to find out what it was. And I wrote this book, Blind Date. It came out, it was a number one bestseller. I said, "Wait, what?"

Amory: Was it fun to write, though? Was there something about doing that?

R.L. Stine: That three months! It took three months! That's a long time for me. And I didn't know, you know, I didn't really know what I was doing. It was a number one bestseller. And then a year later, she asked for another one. And I wrote a book called Twisted, number one bestseller. And I thought, forget the funny stuff. I'm going to be scaring kids. I've been scary ever since.

Amory: Coming up, R.L. Stine on the material that’s too scary … even for him.

[SPONSOR BREAK]

Amory: We’re back, with more from R.L. Stine, who told me what it’s like writing scary material for kids specifically …

Amory: Is it satisfying? Do you kind of know when you land on something like, "Oh yeah, this is going to really freak them out!"?

R.L. Stine: I enjoy the writing. I enjoy it. Sometimes I surprise myself, but also I don't, you know, I don't really want to terrify kids. I really don't want to do that.

Amory: But you've done that for 30 straight years.

R.L. Stine: No, but they're not terrified. I hate it when kids come up to me at a book signing, "Your book gave me nightmares." I hate that. That's not what it's about.

Amory: But then why write it? Why write it?

R.L. Stine: It's to get them reading! You know, the most satisfying part for me is all these parents who come to me and say, "My kid never read a book in his life. And I caught him reading with a flashlight under the covers, reading your book," or "My kid learned to read on your books," or people who come up to me and say, "I had a really hard childhood and your books got me through it." "I wouldn't be a librarian today if it wasn't for you," or "You got me through a bad time." And you know, that's really what it's about.

Amory: Is anything too scary for children, do you think? Any subject matter? 

R.L. Stine: Real life — it's a horrible, scary world for kids now. It's awful. Any real world thing is too scary. I don't even do parents getting a divorce. I don't even do that.

Amory: Wow. My answer to that, for what it's worth, is Slappy. I am not a fan of Slappy.

R.L. Stine: Really? You think he's scary.

Amory: Slappy was too much for me. Yeah. Slappy stayed with me.

R.L. Stine: I don't get it.  Let me tell you. No one's listening, right?

Amory: Right. Just you and me.

R.L. Stine: Yeah, I know. No one is listening. I don't get Slappy. I don't get what's scary about him.

Amory: No way.

R.L. Stine: No, I don't.

Amory: Something about an inanimate object coming to life for sinister purposes — that was a lot for me. I can't even look at any ventriloquist, even the dummy behind you, it's like I'm expecting it to open its eyes and they will be red and upset.

R.L. Stine: Yeah, well, but you know, I've written maybe 15 books about it, about a dummy that comes to life. It's harder and harder to come up with plots. I even killed him in one book. I wrote The Ghost of Slappy.

Amory: Mhm.

R.L. Stine: I killed him off but I had to bring him back.

Amory: I mean, I guess it makes sense that it would get harder and harder to write some of this material. And yet, you're on fire. You have a new book of short, scary stories that's coming out this year.

R.L. Stine: Stinetinglers. Great title.

Amory: Great title. Stinetinglers, haha.

R.L. Stine: I've been doing comic books. I have three adult horror comic series called Stuff of Nightmares.

Amory: Is writing horror for adults fundamentally different than writing it for kids?

R.L. Stine: Well, I did do some adult novels, actually, horror novels. But no one noticed.

Amory: Oh. (Laughs.)

R.L. Stine: No one noticed, they were horrible flops. Horrible. I don't know why anyone would want to write for adults.

Amory: Why is that?

R.L. Stine: It's a horrible audience.

Amory: It's horrible? 

R.L. Stine:  Look, my audience, 7 to 12 year olds, I get them the last time in their lives they'll ever be enthusiastic. Right? 

Amory: Huh. (Laughs.) 

R.L. Stine: Right? Right? When they're 12, they discover sex. They have to be cool and they're lost. That's it. That's the end of them.

Amory: Do you see yourself doing this for the rest of your days? Writing, coming up with new ways to scare and entertain?

R.L. Stine: Writers don't really retire, do they write they? They just drop dead on their keyboard.

Amory: Oh no. (Laughs.) 

R.L. Stine: I still have fun. That's the weird thing.

Amory: That's great!

R.L. Stine: I still enjoy it. I still look forward to sitting down in the morning and doing more pages.

Amory: Is there anything else about the last 30 years that has just totally taken you by surprise, about just the staying power of like— Goosebumps is in me. 

R.L. Stine: I'm nostalgia to you. 

Amory: It's more than nostalgia, though, because nostalgia, I think of as, I don't know... something you kind of look back on and then can set aside. And I think Goosebumps is actually like a part of me. I think it's a part of how I grew up. 

R.L. Stine: I'm flattered. I'm flattered.

Amory: Well, it's true. And I'm not a horror— I don't, like, seek out horror now as an adult. And I think part of that has to do with basically how you answered: one, that the world itself is a scary enough place. And two, I felt like I had a safe space growing up to kind of explore darker things. 

R.L. Stine: Right.

Amory: So, I don't know. It's it feels different to me than just nostalgia for something from the nineties.

R.L. Stine: Well, to answer your question, I mean, I'm constantly surprised. Wonderful surprises. Just amazed. I was at Comic-Con last week for three days and I haven't gotten over this: A woman came up, I was autographing and a woman came up to the table and she said, "I just flew 27 hours from Kuwait to meet you."

Amory: Holy cow.

R.L. Stine: She flew from Kuwait!

Amory: Wow.

R.L. Stine: I wouldn't go across the street to meet me. Isn't that unbelievable?

Amory: It's incredible.

R.L. Stine: It just— I was speechless. You know, I just feel so lucky. All of this. It's all luck, you know? You know that. But it's just fun to keep going.

Amory: Well, Mr. Stine, thank you so much for your time today. I'm so grateful, and it's really a thrill to talk to you.

R.L. Stine: Amory, I really enjoyed this. I really enjoyed talking with you.

Ben: That’s it for this holiday bonus. Thanks for being our ET homies for another year.

Amory: Seriously. Thank you. We’ll be back with new episodes in the new year, but we’ll keep your podcast feed toasty warm in the meantime, don’t worry.

Ben: Happy holidays!

Amory: Share your toys!

Ben: Hug your people!

Amory: Bye!

Amory Sivertson Twitter Senior Producer, Podcasts
Amory Sivertson is a senior producer for podcasts and the co-host of Endless Thread.

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