Of all the fan mail R. L. Stine has gotten, there are two that stick out in his mind the most. The first was a girl who wrote, "Dear R. L. Stine, I loved The Babysitter. The same thing happened to me…. Keep up the good work." The second is his 'all-time favorite': "Dear R. L. Stine, I've read 40 of your books and I think they're really boring."
Despite some criticism, Stine remains the all-time best-selling children's author, even ahead of J. K. Rowling. "At one point," he says, "I was doing a Fear Street and a Goosebumps every month, so I did it by doing twenty-four books a year; J. K. Rowling does one a year. She's smart, she has a life." In America alone, the eighty titles of the Goosebumps series have sold 220 million copies; abroad, they have been translated into sixteen languages for publication in thirty-one countries.
Though none of his plots happened in real life, Stine admits to using feelings in his books. "I was a very fearful child…. I remember that feeling of panic. I use that feeling a lot…." But whatever he may have felt, Stine insists he had a happy and safe childhood.
Robert Lawrence Stine, who was born in Columbus, Ohio, loved scary stories from the start. In addition to reading Edgar Allen Poe and baseball stories, he discovered -- and devoured -- Ray Bradbury thrillers. Stine also sought out science fiction programs on the radio.
"When I was a kid, there were these great comic books called Tales from The Crypt and The Vault of Horror," he says. "They were gruesome. I discovered them in the barbershop and thought they were fabulous. I used to get a haircut every Saturday so I wouldn't miss any of these comic books. I had no hair at all when I was a kid!"
When he was nine years old, Stine discovered an old typewriter in the attic; he dragged it downstairs and started banging away at the keys, producing pages of jokes and stories for his classmates. "The teacher would grab them and take them away," he says, "but I kept doing it." In high school, he found an approved outlet for his writing in the newspaper, and in college, an even better one. For three out of his four years, he edited The Ohio State University's humor magazine, The Sundial. After graduation, Stine moved to New York and combed the classifieds for writing jobs. His first job was with a fan magazine, and after several more of those, he started working at Scholastic, Inc. Now he's thankful for his early years in the publishing business. "…You learn to write fast and to make up stuff," he says. "It was very good training; you think it's horrible at the time, but it's good training."
For sixteen years, Stine worked at Scholastic; at one point he was even the head writer for Nickelodeon's show Eureka's Castle. But he was missing his calling, and when he was twenty-eight, he decided to go find it. "My goal in life was to have my own humor magazine." For the next decade, he was the editor in chief of the children's humor magazine Bananas; under the name Jovial Bob, he wrote things like 101 Silly Monster Jokes and Bozos on Patrol. Eventually, the magazine folded, but Stine will always remember its initial inspiration: "Mad Magazine changed my life."
Fresh from the humor world, Stine decided to try his hand at horror; in 1986 he wrote Blind Date, a scary novel for teenagers. It was a best-seller, and three years later he made a deal with Parachute Press to write the Fear Street series. It was the first horror series for teens, but even so, Stine was amazed at its success. "I realized I'd struck a chord with kids. They liked my scary books!"
In 1992, Stine started another brand-new project, a humor/horror series for kids eight to twelve years old, Goosebumps. With titles like Brain Juice, Stay Out of the Basement, and Say Cheese and Die! the series manages to be funny, scary, gross, and exciting all at the same time. Stine has even written an autobiography, It Came from Ohio.
Books usually start with the idea for a title, but sometimes they're a result of several different inspirations. The book The Haunted Mask came from a Halloween when Stine's son Matt couldn't get his mask off. Another character in the book has a duck costume for Halloween, something that came from a particularly painful holiday in Stine's childhood: "Halloween was my favorite holiday when I was a kid," he says. "I always wanted to be something really scary. A ghost. A mummy. A--duck? One year, my mother bought me a duck suit. Other kids thought it was pretty funny, but I didn't think it was funny at all."
In 1999, Stine began a new series, The Nightmare Room, which he described as a Twilight Zone for kids. Though the stories in this series were more creepy than scream inducing, Stine still had to work to scare his readers. He admits he sometimes holds back on the truly horrific material, but his editors push him to include it. "Except once," he says. "The Girl Who Cried Monster is about a girl who discovers the librarian is a monster when she sees him eat a kid. The editors thought that was a little much, so instead I gave him a tray of snails on his desk, and every once in a while he chews one up." Maybe that was why he got that "boring" fan letter.