Attack Of The Spooky Script! R.L. Stine, In Life And On The Screen
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
So I walked around the office and mentioned the name R.L. Stine to a couple of young producers - talk about goosebumps. With titles like "The Beast From The East," "The Abominable Snowman Of Pasadena," and "The Werewolf Of Fever Swamp," R.L. Stine has inspired countless shivers and maybe a nightmare or two in children around the world, what with some 400 million copies of children's books in print.
Especially popular has been the "Goosebumps" series, with its iconic neon cover art. Now, more than two decades since the start of the series, "Goosebumps" has finally been adapted for the big-screen, starring Jack Black playing a fictionalized version of Stine. We spoke with Black on yesterday's program, and now we turn to the real Robert Lawrence Stine, as he known to the IRS. And I asked him how his career as a writer began.
R.L. STINE: I started when I was nine. I don't know. I was this weird kid. I found a typewriter. I dragged it in my room. And I would just stay in my room, typing - typing out funny stories and little comic books. And I never planned to be scary. I always wanted to be funny.
MARTIN: I wanted to ask you about that. Why horror? How did you get into children's horror?
STINE: Actually, it wasn't my idea. It was an editor - an editor at Scholastic, and she needed a horror novel for teenagers. And she said go home and write a book called "Blind Date." She gave me the title and everything. I didn't know what she was talking about. I said sure, fine, and then I wrote this book "Blind Date." It came out. It was a number one best-seller. And I thought forget the funny stuff.
STINE: Kids want to be scared, so I've been scary ever since.
MARTIN: Well, why do you think that is? Why do kids like being scared?
STINE: Oh, I think they like being scared when they know they're safe at the same time. They like to have it these creepy adventures. It's kind of bold. But they like to know they're in their room, you know, safe reading it while the having adventures.
MARTIN: Well, you also wrote a memoir for kids called "It Came From Ohio: My Life As A Writer." I got a kick out of it.
STINE: Thank you.
MARTIN: But you talk about how you and your brother used to sit in your room at night, and you would tell scary stories and scare each other (laughter).
STINE: Yeah, but I would always leave him up in the air. I would never finish the story. I would drive him crazy. And he'd say finish it, finish it. I'd say, good night, Bill, and I'd leave him.
STINE: And it's sort of what I do in "Goosebumps" because every chapter is a cliffhanger, so I'm kind of still doing it.
MARTIN: I just have to ask - how do you come up with so many ideas?
STINE: I don't ever try to think of ideas. I always just think of titles, and then the title leads me to the story. One day, I was walking my dog in the park here in New York. And these words flashed into my mind - "Little Shop Of Hamsters."
STINE: Where - why - why - I don't know where it came from. So I'm thinking - what could be scary about hamsters? Could maybe there be a thousand of them? Or maybe there'd be a giant hamster. I worked backwards from most authors, I think. They get an idea first, but I always start with a title.
MARTIN: Do your friends, like, hate taking walks with you because you're always, like, look at things that make you spook.
STINE: Yeah, even my dog hates it.
MARTIN: Wait, there's a leaf. I think I've got a story. Yeah.
STINE: You know, I've done 125 "Goosebumps" books, so it's always a miracle to me when I - suddenly, I have an idea for a new one.
MARTIN: I read somewhere where you were called the Stephen King of children's horror. It's even the subject of a joke in the film. I just want to play that clip.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GOOSEBUMPS")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Stop trying to be Stephen King, man.
(SOUNDBITE OF CAR ENGINE AND TIRES SQUEALING)
JACK BLACK: (As R.L. Stine) Let me tell you something about Steve King. Steve King wishes he could write like me. And I've sold way more books than him, but nobody ever talks about that.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) OK.
BLACK: (As R.L. Stine) Way more books.
STINE: Yeah, yeah.
MARTIN: Is that OK that we played that clip?
STINE: Well, it's in the movie. You know, I have to say...
MARTIN: I know, but is it a sore - I mean, is there a thing - is there a thing with you two? Is there...
STINE: No, no, not at all. No. In the all honest truth, I didn't really like those jokes in the movie about Stephen King 'cause I'm a great admirer of his. I actually just met him this year. After being Stephen King for kids for 30 years, I finally met him. And we had a nice talk, and I said, Steve, you know, a magazine once called me a training bra for you.
MARTIN: Oh, my goodness.
STINE: Yeah, that's true. How would you like that - to be called a training bra? And he said, yes, I know.
STINE: He knew about it. No way. You know, writers aren't like rivals or competitors. I know a lot of writers, and we're all very supportive of each other. We don't have that kind of thing.
MARTIN: Well, as I mentioned, you know, we spoke with Jack Black on the program yesterday. And he plays you in the film as kind of a recluse, kind of intimidating, a little creepy.
STINE: (Laughter) Yeah.
MARTIN: And he says you're not like that at all.
STINE: No. Jack flew to New York, actually, in a blizzard last winter to meet me, and we had lunch. And I think he came, you know, just look at me.
STINE: And he said, well, you know - after we talked for a while, he said, I'm going to play a sinister version of you, and that's what he did.
MARTIN: He said that you also gave him some advice. And his advice was don't be too scary. He said just remember there are a lot of kids. Lean into the comedy and have fun with it.
MARTIN: I'm just wondering what gave you the insight about balancing the scariness with the comedy?
STINE: Well, you know, my hope - that's - my books are scary and funny at the same time. You know, they're not just horror novels. And my real input into the movie was to make sure that the film had that same balance of horror and humor. I don't really want to terrify kids. Whenever I have something that I think is kind of intense, I throw in something funny to lighten up. And that's why I'm happy about the film because they caught that same balance.
MARTIN: In your autobiography, you talked about how you actually started writing comedy, and you were writing - didn't you write for a humor magazine in college?
STINE: That's all I did in college, and then when I came to New York, I actually had a humor magazine at Scholastic called Bananas for 10 years. That was like my life's dream, and when it ended, I thought I'd just coast the rest of my career.
STINE: I had no idea what was in store for me.
MARTIN: Isn't it amazing, though, that something you didn't even plan to do turned out to be such a big part of your life?
STINE: Kids don't believe that. I always tell them, you can't - there's no way to plan your life. You never know where you're going to land. There are always going to be all kinds of surprises.
MARTIN: You started writing the series in 1992. Why is the film coming out now?
STINE: What? It's only 20 years. Come on.
STINE: What's 20 years? I always talk about Maurice Sendak 'cause when he wrote "Where The Wild Things Are," he was in his 30s. And when the movie came out, he was in his 80s, so I think I'm pretty lucky.
MARTIN: How do you account for the longevity of the series?
STINE: I can't. You know, kids still like it. I keep getting new generations to scare. And now, you know, when I do book signings now, I get 30-year-olds and 20-year-olds and seven-year-olds. It's very strange.
MARTIN: Since the "Goosebumps" series started, there have been a number of children's books series that have also been successful, but none like yours. And I just wondered if you - you know, what - of all the things that you've done, what do you want your legacy to be?
STINE: First of all, I have to say I'm always so happy when other authors get to know this kind of incredible success. It's such a wonderful thing for an author. Like in the case of J.K. Rowling - I mean, how wonderful is it that the richest woman in the world is a children's author? I just think that's so terrific. But my legacy - oh, I don't know. I guess on my tombstone - he got boys to read.
MARTIN: R.L. Stine, the author of the "Goosebumps" series, among other books, and a new movie based on the "Goosebumps" series is in theaters now. We spoke to R.L. Stine from New York. Mr. Stine, thank you so much for speaking with us.
STINE: Thank you. I enjoyed it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.