In 11 Questions, The A.V. Club asks interesting people 11 interesting questions—and then asks them to suggest one for our next interviewee.
With more than 350 million books sold in as many as 32 different languages, R.L. Stine is one of the world’s best-selling childrens’ authors. But the man behind the Goosebumps and Fear Street series (not to mention the joke books he wrote under the pen name Jovial Bob Stine) has been active in other media as well, co-creating the classic Nick Jr. series Eureeka’s Castle and inspiring a spate of TV projects based on his YA horror work. The most recent of those series, the Hub Network’s Daytime Emmy-winning anthology series R.L. Stine’s The Haunting Hour, begins its fourth season on October 4 at 4 p.m. Eastern.
R.L. Stine: One of my very first jobs when I moved to New York was writing for a men’s magazine—I think it was a sex-and-sadism kind of magazine because they would give me all kinds of photographs, and they were always photographs of women all tied up. They were very vile photographs and I would write short stories to go with the photographs. I had this job, but I was kind of ashamed and I wasn’t really proud of what I was writing, so I wouldn’t sign my name, I’d sign the name of my high school principal instead.
The A.V. Club: Do you know if that ever got back to the high school principal?
RLS: I never heard from him. He was a horrible guy. We all hated him, so it was a nice revenge to have his name on all of these awful stories.
AVC: How often have you used names from people in your own life within your work?
RLS: Never—almost never. People always asked me where I get the kid’s names for Goosebumps: I had my son’s school directory and I used all the kids from his school and that’s where the names came from. I’d need a lot of names and there were four or five new kids in every book.
I think my son used to sell parts in Goosebumps for $10. He would come home and say, “Dad, you have to put James in the next one,” or, “Dad, you have to put Will in.” And of course I always did it.
RLS: I think they wanted me to be out of the house. My parents—they didn’t really understand. There’d never been any writers in the family or anything, and my dad was a blue-collar worker—he unloaded trucks. And I think they just thought I was weird. Like, “Why is he staying in his room typing?” Because I started writing when I was 9 and I’d just be up in my room typing all the time and they didn’t understand it at all. I think my mother gave me, maybe, the worst advice I’d ever had in my life: She said, “Stop all that typing and go outside and play!” That would be bad advice, wouldn’t it?
AVC: For a writer, certainly.
RLS: [Laughs.] Yeah, they just didn’t understand. They were very tolerant, but they didn’t understand why I was interested in writing, but I didn’t either.
AVC: At that age did you have your own typewriter or were you borrowing the family typewriter?
RLS: I found a typewriter up in the attic. And then I got a nicer typewriter for my bar mitzvah—that was my big bar mitzvah present—and I would literally stay in my room for hours just typing little stories and joke magazines and funny little things.
AVC: Did you distribute those to friends and classmates, or did you keep them to yourself?
RLS: Oh, yeah. I obviously did it to get attention at school; I was a very shy kid and I’d bring these little magazines that I did—these little joke magazines—and I’d pass them around. People always ask me if I had a teacher that encouraged me to write, and I’d have to say, honestly, they tried to discourage me. They begged me to stop. They were like, “Bob, please stop bringing these things to school. Bob, stop doing this. Bob!”
AVC: Did you find later on when you were working on the “Jovial Bob Stine” joke books that the experience as a young joke writer came in handy?
RLS: I think all the experience, all the writing comes in handy because—they always ask what advice I have for young writers, and I just say, “just write.” Because the more you write, the better you get. You always learn something.
RLS: Best friends… aside from Shakira—I think I’d fit in with the whole family from Family Guy. That just seems like my kind of family—they’re all totally foul. I think that would be a fun place to live.
AVC: Do you think Stewie would provide you with any good ideas for The Haunting Hour?
RLS: Well, he’s horrifying, isn’t he? He would provide some ideas for The Haunting Hour—Stewie belongs on The Haunting Hour. I’m surprised he hasn’t been a guest.
RLS: Well, I was actually on To Tell The Truth. I was a contestant and they had to guess who I was and I was terrible at it because they guessed me right away. Like in under two minutes, they knew who I was, they knew the truth. So I was terrible at that. So I don’t know what game I’d be good at it. It was weird to be on To Tell The Truth because I had watched the original when I was a kid, and there I was sitting with three other people saying that they were R.L. Stine.
AVC: Did you get to have any conversations with the fake R.L Stines before the taping?
RLS: No, they don’t give you much time.
AVC: Do you remember who was on the panel in your taping?
RLS: No. The white-haired guy from Seinfeld was the host at the time.
AVC: John O’Hurley, the guy who plays J. Peterman?
RLS: Yeah. He was the host. All he wanted to talk about—he was a golf fanatic and all he cares about in life is playing golf and the only reason he does these shows is to make money so he can go play golf. He was kind of funny.
RLS: Probably as “too nice.” I think that’s my big fault in life. I’m way too nice.
AVC: Do you feel that leaves you unable to say “no”?
RLS: Yeah, I say “yes” to everything—I’m doing this interview.
AVC: Fair enough. But there are some advantages to saying “yes” to everything. It can get you rather far in life.
RLS: Well, to be serious: I did the graduation speech at Ohio State last December and this was my advice. I told a ghost story—because I knew no one would really want advice from me for their graduation—but my advice to them was, really, to say “yes” to everything, because everything that has happened to me wasn’t my idea. Somebody suggested it and I said, “Well, okay.” Even being scary. I wrote over 100 joke books and I did a humor magazine for 10 years called Bananas and it was someone else—an editor—I was having lunch with and he said, “I bet you could write good scary novels. I want you to go home and write a novel for teenagers called Blind Date.” And I said “yes,” because you never say “no.” But if I hadn’t said “yes,” I wouldn’t have had this other career—I wouldn’t have become this scary guy. So I always tell them to say “yes” to everything, because you never know where it’ll end up.
RLS: Well, it’d have to be something creepy, like tongue. You know what, it would have chicken skins, because, in France, Goosebumps is called Chair De Poule—“goosebumps” is “chicken skin” in France, so that’d be a good sandwich.
RLS: I was thinking about this: When I moved to New York from Ohio, I got this apartment. I guess my first grown-up purchase was a television set. I went to a department store—this is a sad story by the way—I bought a TV, I brought it home. And I had this little studio apartment in the Village and I put the TV up in the window. This was a big deal for me—it was my first adult purchase. And I went out that very same day, and while I was out, somebody reached in the window and took the television. When I came home, it was gone.
AVC: That is a sad story.
RLS: [Laughs.] This was a good lesson for an Ohioan to not leave the window open if you go out and live on the first floor. It’s a very good lesson.
AVC: In addition to never leaving that window open again, did you make sure to not leave any sort of valuables or enticing items sitting in front of it?
RLS: [Laughs.] Yeah. The window was actually facing an alley, so there weren’t that many people back there. It was a horrible little apartment on the first floor right next to the elevator. Terrible place.
RLS: I stay away from that. No interest. Karaoke is so embarrassing to me. It’s so horrifying.
AVC: Do you have any sort of musical outlet?
RLS: Oh, I love music. I’m a big country music fan and also a big opera fan. We have a subscription to the Met—people probably wouldn’t think that about me. People think my whole life has to be horror, and then they’re shocked when I go to the theater or something. I’m a New Yorker.
When I was a kid, I used to ride my bike to school and I used to sing Elvis songs—because Elvis was huge—and practice sneering, which was the big thing that Elvis taught us. And I’d practice my sneer on the way to school and I would sing whatever the Elvis songs were. That’s my singing story.
AVC: But you’d never want to sing one of those Elvis songs in a karaoke setting?
RLS: No, I wouldn’t go in a place that had that. Seriously, it gives me the creeps.
AVC: I think we might have already covered that one.
RLS: Oh that apartment? No, I didn’t even have to think about this: In college, my family was really, really poor, and I lived in Columbus and I went to Ohio State and I lived at home. I lived at home all through college and my roommate was my brother. That’s another sad story, right? That’s the worst possible way you can go to college.
AVC: You couldn’t have the traditional dorm experience living with your brother.
RLS: Yeah, it was quite far from that. Yeah, it was bad. It was terrible, really terrible. It was a horror story.
AVC: Would you say the food was at least better than cafeteria food?
RLS: [Laughs.] A little.
RLS: I would say nobody. I’ve never been in a fight, I’ve never hit anyone, I’ve never been hit. I’m not tough at all. Also, people expect me to be scary. Once I went back to Columbus and gave a talk and the next day the newspaper said, “In person, R.L. Stine is about as scary as an optometrist.” That’s not nice, is it? That’s pretty bad.
AVC: Of all the villains, creatures, and monsters you’ve created, who do you think would be the most formidable fighter?
RLS: Probably Slappy The Evil Dummy because he’s the smartest one. He’s the only one that has a brain.
AVC: You don’t think his size would be a disadvantage?
RLS: No, no. He can hypnotize—he’s very evil.
RLS: I have two of my heroes, actually—two people who were really important in my life. One was from Kurt Vonnegut and the other one was from Ray Bradbury, who was such a major influence on me. When I was a kid, he turned me into a reader. And I’m very proud to have those. I’m not a big autograph person, but those two mean a lot to me.
AVC: How did you acquire those autographs?
RLS: Well, Kurt Vonnegut’s daughter was a big Goosebumps fan. I got invited over to their house in the city for dinner one night and we had a great time. Ray Bradbury I met at the L.A. Times Book Festival one year. He was sitting in a booth eating a hot dog and I saw him there and my wife said, “You have to go say hello. He’s so important to you.” But I’m kind of shy and I was really nervous and I was like, “No, I can’t. It’s Ray Bradbury.” And she said, “No, you go up and introduce yourself.” So I went over to him and I was shaking like a kid and I stuck my hand out and said, “Mr. Bradbury, you’re my hero!” And he turned around and we shook hands and he said, “Well, you’re a hero to a lot of other people.” And it was one of these great moments in my life. What a wonderful thing for him to say.
Later, he sent me a letter—I used a story of his in a collection that I did called Beware—and he signed it “Yours in admiration, Ray Bradbury.” It was a very sweet thing.
12. Bonus quest from Molly Shannon: What’s your most embarrassing moment?
RLS: A lot of things come to mind, because I always manage to say the wrong thing. Let me see if I can tell this one: I was at a book convention and there was a picture book that was discussed in a panel that I just thought was dreadful. I thought it was everything that was wrong with picture books. And later on, I was walking around the convention and I stopped—there was a stack of this book that was discussed and there was a woman standing there and I said to her, “You know, this book is so bad. This book is the reason kids play video games. This is why kids don’t read. That’s how bad this book is.” And she said, “Well… I was the editor of that book.”
AVC: What can you do in that moment?
RLS: Sink through the floor. I don’t know.
Years later, my wife, unbeknownst to anyone, had a meeting with her. She didn’t know her—she was the publisher at Candlewick—and when my wife introduced herself, this editor said, “Oh, I met your husband” and told that story. Years later and she’s still telling it.
AVC: You said you always find yourself saying the wrong thing. Do you think that’s part of why you like writing—because there’s more control over the words that come from your fingers?
RLS: I think all authors are the same. They can create a world and control it—it’s a kind of control, isn’t it? Because you can’t really control your life at all, but you can control what you’re doing on the page. But I’m not good at talking about writing, and I cannot really talk about my writing. My wife is much better. She’s my editor—I’m married to my editor. She’s much better at explaining what I do than I am because I’ve been doing it for so long and I love it. I don’t know why, I just enjoy it so much so it’s hard for me to describe what I do.
RLS: Why did you do this interview?