NEW YORK (Reuters) - Before talking with children’s author R.L. Stine, it’s worth getting a sense of the scale of his operation.
Stine is the author of “Goosebumps” and other series for young readers that have sold more than 300 million copies in 32 languages and inspired TV shows, merchandise, a theme park attraction and a Wii game.
For many children, Stine’s mildly scary books are their first step up from picture books. Their language is accessible and they tend to sidestep real-world concerns, relying on fantastical creatures, ghosts and the occasional slow-moving zombie for their scares.
July was the 20th anniversary of Goosebumps, which still sell several hundred thousand copies a month. Stine writes six Goosebumps books a year and at least one novel. A horror story for adults, “Red Rain,” about evil children, is due later this year. Stine spoke with Reuters about his extraordinary productivity:
Q: At its peak, you sold 4 million books a month. Why?
A: “The secret of Goosebumps, and the reason it got so enormous in the 90s, was it was the first book series to appeal equally to boys and girls. Everyone in publishing (assumes) girls read and boys don’t read. In fact, these books were originally done for a girl audience. And then the fan mail started coming in and it was half from boys.
“I have a boy and a girl in every book. They’re all 12. They’re aimed at 7-12 year olds. Second graders can read them. By 12, I sort of lose them. They go on to other authors.”
Q: There’s little outright cruelty in your stories. Where do you draw the line in terms of what’s appropriate?
A: “I have some rules. No one ever dies in a Goosebumps book. If there happen to be ghosts and they are dead, it happened before the book starts. And I don’t do any real serious problems. Kids have to know this is a creepy fantasy and it couldn’t really happen.”
Q: And it’s always the kids who solve problems. Parents don’t interfere.
A: “The parents are useless. Either the parents don’t believe them or the parents aren’t there.”
Q: When you write, for example, about a hideous mask that the heroine can’t take off, one wonders if your deeper theme is the horror of adolescence.
A: “I didn’t really think of that. When my son was little he was trying on a green Frankenstein mask and he was pulling it down over his face and he couldn’t get it off. And he was tugging, tugging. I thought, what a great idea for a story. I should’ve helped him. I wasn’t a good parent that day.”
Q: Do you still claim the title of “the world’s best-selling children’s author”?
A: “I think J.K. Rowling’s passed me by. I’m No. 2 now.”
Q: This is your obligatory question about the number of books you’ve published.
A: “I’ve lost count, which is kind of obnoxious. I’ve written 330 books, or something. I’ve got a ways to go to catch up to Isaac Asimov. I used to see him at the post office, mailing off two or three manuscripts at a time. He wrote 550 books.”
Q: What were you into when you were the age of your readers? How did you come into this line of work?
A: “I was a very shy kid, very fearful of a lot of things, which is bad when you’re a kid but now it’s very helpful. I can remember back and remember that feeling of panic being a kid, and try to convey that in the books.
“When I was nine or 10, I just started staying in my room and typing these stories, a little joke magazine. I wrote funny stories for years. I was an editor at Scholastic in my 20s and did social studies magazines for kids. Then I had a humor magazine, which was my goal in life. It was called ‘Bananas.’ I had the best time. While I was doing it, I started writing funny children’s books, joke books.”
Q: I’ve read you get a lot of fan mail. What do kids say?
A: “That’s one of the best parts of writing for kids. I get wonderful mail, tons and tons. Here’s a couple classic letters:
“‘Dear R.L. Stine, I really love your books but can you answer one question, why don’t the endings make any sense?’
“‘Dear R.L. Stine, I’m huge fan of your books. Your friends and family are proud of you, no matter what anybody says.’
“‘Dear R.L. Stine, I’ve read 40 of your books and I think they’re really boring.’
“That’s my favorite.”
Q: What do you read for pleasure?
A: “I read a lot of thrillers and mysteries. I’m in the international thriller writers’ organization. We all get together every summer. So I read Lee Child and Harlan Coben and Doug Preston and Michael Connelly. I don’t read any nonfiction. I don’t like the real world.”
Q: These are physical books?
A: “Mostly. I have a Kindle when I travel.”
Q: Do you feel boxed in by horror?
A: “No, because I put a lot of humor in the books.”
Q: Are you a very disciplined writer?
A: “I’m a machine. It’s like a full-time job. I work six days a week. I sit down at the computer, maybe 10 o’clock, and I write 10 pages a day every day.”
Reporting By Nick Zieminski; editing by Patricia Reaney and Kenneth Barry