The Perpetual Fun House of R. L. Stine

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Before anyone had ever heard of J. K. Rowling, R. L. Stine was the tippy-top in children's authors. Stine is best known for his 100 "Fear Street" and 87 "Goosebumps" books. During the 1990s, these horror-thrillers dominated the children's best-seller lists. Stine has sold more than 300 million books, a pretty thrilling accomplishment. This month, he will be introducing his latest series, "The Nightmare Room." TIME's publishing reporter, Andrea Sachs, talked with Stine last week at his spacious Manhattan home:

Q: What's the appeal of writing for kids?

A: They're the best audience. They're wonderful. At one point, I was getting 2,000 letters a week from kids. They're just so excited. They're so enthusiastic about reading.

Q: How have you come up with so many ideas?

A: At this point, I amaze myself, I have to tell you, without being immodest. I don't know where the ideas come from, and I never have a decent answer to that question from kids. Somehow, I'm just lucky, I think. Every time I need an idea, I get one. It comes to me, so far. Someday I'm going to sit down, I won't have an idea and that will be the end.

Q: How many books have you written?

A: I've really lost count.

Q: Are there any subjects that you consider off-limits for kids?

A: My rule is, never make it too real. The "Nightmare Room" books that I'm doing right now are a little more personal, they're a little more sophisticated than what I've been doing. But I still stick to this rule. These books have to be fantasies, and you can't let the real world interfere. I won't do anything with drugs, I won't do anything with divorce, I won't do anything with child abuse. I won't do anything that's really serious. You want the kids to turn to these books for fun. I don't want to terrify kids and I don't want to upset them.

Q: How is this series different from your earlier books?

A: I always describe "Goosebumps" as a roller coaster ride, all the twists and turns and crazy things jumping out at you. I see "Nightmare Room" more like a fun house. You step inside this place, and everything seems normal at first. And then you look and you see, ah, the floor is tilted. And then it looks like the walls are closing in on you. Then you look in a mirror and it's all distorted. It isn't you in there. And you realize you've stepped into something. You're not in the same reality.

Q: How did you entertain yourself as a child?

A: When I was a kid in Ohio, I had this big radio by my bed. Late at night, I would be up, 2 a.m., trying to get New York stations, trying to listen to Chicago stations. It was so exciting to me to be able to hear these faraway cities. And I realized that kids now, if they want to hear a radio station in New York or something, they'll go on the Internet, and they can hear things from anywhere and see things. And they can talk to people all over the world. It's, like, such a cool thing. I would have loved that when I was a kid!

Q: Did you begin to write early?

A: I started writing when I was nine. I found this old typewriter, and dragged it into my room. I don't really know why I thought it was so interesting. I wrote joke magazines and little stories and books. I'd bring it into school, pass it around to the other kids. That's how I was getting attention. I was always getting into trouble in school, the teacher taking them away.

Q: What's it like to watch this Harry Potter mania?

A: I'm thrilled by it. It's so wonderful seeing kids going to the bookstore. This is what my whole career has been about.

Q: Do you feel jealous of J. K. Rowling?

A: Not at all. A lot of people think that authors are very competitive. Someone once said to me, Children's books are a bunny-eat-bunny business. But I don't feel that way. I think authors are very supportive of each other. I've met so many authors and they're all so nice to each other. Everyone's been very supportive of me. I'm not jealous at all, partly because the success I've had is so far beyond anything I ever dreamed of. So I wish her all the best.

Q: Why do you always wear black for your appearances?

A: My wife says if I don't wear it, I just look like somebody's dad. I went back to my hometown of Columbus, Ohio, and I did a bunch of appearances. The local paper wrote, "In person, R. L. Stine is about as scary as an optometrist."

Q: Are you as optimistic and even-tempered as you seem?

A: I am. I'm so lucky! I love what I do. This is what I wanted to do from when I was nine years old. Who's luckier than I am?