If you're a person of a certain age, R.L. Stine probably scared or delighted you with his Goosebumps and Fear Street series. (And you'll be happy to hear Stine recently announced a Fear Street reboot.) But the man who declares "terrify[ing] kids" as his job description actually started out as a humor writer — and his "jovial" nature remains intact. And he's full of other fun facts: he was the co-creator and head writer of the '90s Nickelodeon TV series "Eureeka's Castle," and nobody calls him "R.L." It's "Bob."
Stine joined Ask Me Another host Ophira Eisenberg to talk about his early joke-writing days, and how he made the leap to writing horror books for teenagers, starting with 1986's Blind Date. Then, in 1992, he began the Goosebumps series, quickly becoming one of the highest-selling children's authors of all time, with estimated sales of over 400 million. At one point, he was writing one book every month, all of which he typed out using only the index finger on his left hand. "Look," he said, displaying it proudly to the audience at The Bell House, in Brooklyn, NY, "It's ruined. Totally bent."
We wanted to know if the man who makes his living petrifying children could guess what frightens Ask Me Another listeners most. So later in the show we put him to the test in a game called, "What's Scarier?," based on an audience poll. (Sample question: a needle drawing blood, or a paper cut on your eyeball?) Maybe we even gave Stine some ideas for new horrors to include in his books.
On his early horror influences
When I was a kid there were these amazing comic books, Tales From The Crypt and the Vault of Horror. They were gruesome, bloody--I loved them. I used to read them at the barbershop. They had a big stack of them. One day, I bought a couple. I brought them home and my mother said, "Well you can't have these. This is trash. You can't bring these in the house." And so--this is true--every Saturday morning I went to get a haircut. I had less hair when I was a kid than I do now. So I could read these comic books. That is really what got me started, and those comics were a major influence on me.
On shifting from humor writing to horror writing
One day I was having lunch with an editor, a friend of mine, and she had had a big fight with somebody writing teenage horror. Who will remain nameless. Christopher Pike. And she said, "I'm not working with him again. I'll bet you could write good horror. Go home and write a novel for teenagers. Call it Blind Date." She even gave me the title. It's embarrassing! It wasn't my idea.
On his multi-generational fans
I do a book signing now, and I get seven-year-olds, 10-year-olds, 20-year olds, 30-year-olds. At first it was a horrible shock to me. I'd say, "What are you doing here? Why are you here?" And they'd say, "We loved your books when we were kids." And I realized--this is the horrifying part--I'm nostalgia.
On his favorite book by his favorite author, Ray Bradbury
Dandelion Wine. Not a science fiction one. It's a beautiful book. It may be the most underrated book ever, about his childhood, and growing up in the Midwest. Sort of in a fictional time, a fictional Midwest. And every page is beautiful. I read Dandelion Wine once a year, seriously, just to remember what good writing is.
On whether he believes in ghosts
No. It's a shame, but I don't.
On whether he would go investigate a scary noise outside his bedroom door
I would send my wife. I'm a real avoider. I would pretend it wasn't there.
On his favorite fan letter of all time
"Dear R.L. Stine, I've read 40 of your books, and I think they're really boring." Isn't that wonderful? A perfect letter.
This segment originally aired on November 21, 2013.
OPHIRA EISENBERG, HOST:
You're listening to ASK ME ANOTHER from NPR and WNYC. I'm Ophira Eisenberg and let's welcome our very important puzzler, the author of the "Goosebump" series R.L. Stine.
R.L. STINE: Thank you. Thank you very much. Thank you. Ophira, I have to say, I'm having a really bad night.
STINE: Well, a woman stopped me. I was coming into the theater tonight.
STINE: And she stopped me and she said did anyone ever tell you, you look a lot like R.L. Stine, no offense?
STINE: That didn't exactly make my night.
EISENBERG: So you're such a prolific writer that some people have thought that R.L. Stine was a group of people writing.
STINE: I wish. I wish.
EISENBERG: Yeah. But it's just you.
STINE: That would be - it's just me.
EISENBERG: So what is your discipline? Because you would write a "Goosebumps," what, a month, every two months? How - what was...
STINE: For a while, I did - I wrote one a month.
EISENBERG: One a month.
STINE: Yeah. I don't know; I just enjoy it. I don't have a good answer for that, Ophira.
EISENBERG: That's good. That's fine.
STINE: I wrote one a month. It's the only thing I'm good at. No, no, you could ask my wife.
STINE: It's awful.
EISENBERG: But you started off writing joke books and humor books. You were a comedy writer.
STINE: Yeah. I wrote jokes for kids.
STINE: Here's one of my best jokes.
STINE: What do you get when you cross a dog with a frog?
STINE: A dog that can lick himself from across the room.
STINE: Oh, come on. That's one of my best jokes.
EISENBERG: That's good. I see why that you have the nickname jovial Bob Stine.
STINE: And now you see why I'm scary.
EISENBERG: Yes, exactly. Of all things. Who gave you that nickname, jovial Bob Stine?
STINE: I did.
EISENBERG: You gave yourself a nickname?
STINE: In college. I was jovial Bob Stine in college.
EISENBERG: What got you interested in writing horror?
STINE: When I was a kid there were these amazing comic books "Tales from the Crypt." And the "Vault of Horror."
STINE: And they were gruesome, bloody, horrible. I loved them. And I used to read them at the barber shop. They had a big stack of them at the barber shop. One day I bought a couple and I brought them home and my mother said, well, you can't have these. This is trash. You can't bring these in the house. And so - this is true - every Saturday morning I went to get a haircut.
So, no, I had less hair when I was a kid than I do now.
STINE: So I could read these comic books. And that really is what got me started and those comics were a major influence on me.
EISENBERG: When did you first decide to write your own horror?
STINE: One day I was having lunch with an editor friend of mine and she had had a big fight with somebody writing teenage horror. Who will remain nameless - Christopher Pike.
STINE: And she said I'm not working with him again. I'll bet you could write good horror. Go home and write a novel for teenagers called blind - she even gave me the title.
STINE: It's embarrassing. It wasn't my idea.
EISENBERG: Now, children love these books. So many people grew up on them and I'm sure you get accosted to this day.
STINE: Now - I do a book signing now, I get seven-year-olds, 10-year-olds, 20-year-olds, 30-year-olds. And at first, I - yeah, but it was a horrible shock to me. I'd say what are you doing here? Why are you here?
STINE: And they'd say we loved your books when we were kids. And I realized - this is the horrifying part - I realized I'm nostalgic.
EISENBERG: OK. Now, Bob, we are going to bring you back later in the show for your own challenge but right now you're going to help us with our very first phone game. First time ever, Bob. The very first time.
EISENBERG: So let's see. Hello, caller.
RACHEL BROWN: Hi. This is Rachel Brown calling from St. Louis, Missouri.
EISENBERG: Well, hello Rachel.
EISENBERG: Did you read "Goosebumps" growing up?
BROWN: I did. I read them throughout elementary and then became too cool and moved on to the "Fear Street" series.
EISENBERG: Ah, yes.
STINE: Nice. Oh, I'm happy she mentioned "Fear Street" because I'm starting the series up again.
EISENBERG: All right. So, Rachel, if you hear a couple of other voices here, it is our puzzle guru Will Hines.
WILL HINES: Hello, Rachel.
EISENBERG: And our one-man house band Jonathan Coulton.
JONATHAN COULTON: Hi, Rachel.
EISENBERG: And this game is called Random Questions With R.L. Stine. So Rachel, before the show we asked Bob a few random questions with two possible answers. Like do you prefer the Rolling Stones or the Beatles? And you have to tell us how you think he answered. So for that example, Bob, what was your answer? Rolling Stones or Beatles?
STINE: I would've said the Rolling Stones.
EISENBERG: Rolling Stones. And why is that?
STINE: I don't know.
EISENBERG: Well, that's what he would've said and that's all that matters.
STINE: You needed an answer, Ophira, I gave you an answer.
EISENBERG: That's right. That's perfect. So, Rachel, if you get enough right we are going to send you an ASK ME ANOTHER Rubik's Cube.
EISENBERG: Are you ready?
BROWN: I am ready.
EISENBERG: OK. Who is Bob's favorite author? Is it Ray Bradbury or Isaac Asimov?
BROWN: I am going to go with Ray Bradbury.
STINE: Yes, she's right. Ray Bradbury.
EISENBERG: What is your favorite Ray Bradbury book?
STINE: "Dandelion Wine." Not a science fiction one.
EISENBERG: Oh, interesting.
STINE: It's a beautiful book. It may be the most underrated book ever, about his childhood and growing up in the Midwest sort of in a fictional time, a fictional Midwest. And every page is beautiful. I read "Dandelion Wine" once a year, seriously, just to remember what good writing is.
EISENBERG: Ah. That's lovely. Rachel, we asked Bob if he could travel through time would he go forwards or backwards? What do you think he answered?
BROWN: Oh. I would say he would go backward.
EISENBERG: Interesting. Bob.
STINE: Very good answer. I would go backwards.
EISENBERG: He would go backwards.
STINE: One of my favorite books is "Time and Again" by Jack Phinney. I would love to live in that time, in New York in the 1880s. It was so amazing here. It was such a wonderful time in New York. I just - I would love to know what that was like, what it smelled like, what it felt like, and just what the air was like.
EISENBERG: And get that apartment early. Right?
EISENBERG: Rachel, we asked Bob if he believed in ghosts. What do you think? Yes or no?
BROWN: See, with a background like this. I would say yes.
EISENBERG: Yes. OK. Bob?
STINE: It's a shame but I don't.
EISENBERG: You've met people, though, that believe in ghosts? That's right?
STINE: I have. Well, I know the Ghost Hunters.
EISENBERG: Oh, well, yeah.
STINE: So they believe in ghosts.
EISENBERG: They really do?
STINE: Oh, yeah. And they've had many experiences. I mean they really believe in them.
EISENBERG: Were they trying to convince you at all?
STINE: No, not really.
STINE: We didn't discuss it.
HINES: R.L. Stine met the Ghost Hunters and you didn't talk about ghosts?
STINE: We talked about the TV business.
HINES: It'd be like Madonna meeting Lady Gaga and they, like, talk about, like...
EISENBERG: Rachel, how do you think Bob writes his novels? Does he write them out longhand or does he type them?
BROWN: Wow. Not that you're an old man, but...
BROWN: ...I would say with a typewriter.
STINE: Ooh, that's scary.
EISENBERG: Yep. People in St. Louis are really straight ahead. It's one of their...
BROWN: It's one of our...
EISENBERG: ...positive personality traits.
EISENBERG: What do you think?
BROWN: I would say - what are my options? Shorthand or?
EISENBERG: Longhand or type.
BROWN: Oh, type. Oh, type.
EISENBERG: Bob, you type them out?
STINE: Yeah, I type. I type with one finger. Not even two. Not even two. And, look, it's ruined. Look at the finger.
STINE: Look. It's totally bent.
EISENBERG: All right. For our radio listeners, it is...
STINE: Listen, it's 300 books with this finger.
EISENBERG: It's crooked.
EISENBERG: It's got a weird knot on it.
STINE: It's terr--yeah. It's hard. I can't even bend it. That's what I sacrifice for my art.
COULTON: Maybe you're typing too hard. Are you pushing down really hard?
EISENBERG: That is a cautionary tale for the texters of the future. All right. Finally, Rachel, Bob hears a scary noise outside of his bedroom door. Do you think he would check it out? Or would he go back to sleep and hope it goes away?
BROWN: Well, I would say, see, I would say he goes and checks it out.
EISENBERG: Interesting. Bob, what do you think? What would you do?
STINE: I would send my wife.
BROWN: Don't they all.
STINE: No. I'm a real avoider. I would pretend it wasn't there.
EISENBERG: Just go back to the typing, right? We're fine. All right. How did our contestant do, Will?
HINES: She won.
EISENBERG: Rachel, our first phone-in contestant and you won.
BROWN: All right. Thank you.
EISENBERG: Thank you for playing. You'll be getting an ASK ME ANOTHER Rubik's Cube. And thank you so much. But, Bob, we'll see you later on in the show for your own challenge. Thanks again. R.L.Stine.
(APPLAUSE) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.