R.L. Stine’s First Job: Professional Plagiarism
This post was written by Rebecca Houston, a new contributor to the blog. Rebecca is a freelance journalist based in Florida covering travel and socioeconomics. Her work has been featured in Bloomberg Professional Service, Economic Cycle Research Institute periodicals and The Prague Post. She is a contributing writer to the upcoming book, “The Milennial Blueprint Project.”
R.L. Stine was America’s best selling author for three straight years in the 1990’s, has sold more than 300 million books in his career, somehow continues to crank out an average of two books a month, and says he hasn’t gotten writer’s block in 58 years.
Today, Stein is best known for his “safe scares,” and particularly for his children’s books including the Goosebumps series. Yet long before his career took off, Stine dreamed of one day of working as an illustrator and editing a humor magazine. He managed to achieve one of these life goals at a young age, but it only proved to be a pit stop on the way to a different kind of literary profession all together.
Robert Louis Stine grew up in Columbus, Ohio as “just Bob” and began writing, illustrating and publishing his own humor magazines at age nine when he found an old typewriter in his parents’ attic. He would bring these publications, which had titles like Tales to Drive You Insane and Whammy, into class and pass them out, not because he was particularly proud of his work but because his projects won him some fleeting attention from his fellow schoolmates.
Though the typewriter was a constant companion, Stine did not want to be an author from the start, and his shift towards writing was the result of a failure to excel at his first love: illustration. Stine proudly displayed his favorite drawings in class, then compared his creations to those around him, coming to a disheartening realization.
“I couldn’t draw. I always wanted to be a cartoonist, that’s all I ever wanted to do. And then I would bring my comic strips in and I’d look at everyone else in class and they could all draw better than me,” Stine said in an interview at Ohio State University as part of their Writer’s Talk series. “I was horrible. So I knew I had to be a writer.”
Stine continued creating his own humor magazines all the way through his collegiate career at Ohio State, where he was the editor of the campus’ own humor magazine, “and that’s about all I did in college. I put out that magazine. I loved it. I never went to class, I just put out that magazine. It was great!” Stine recalled in the interview.
Despite his best efforts, Stine graduated, and when he did, the school magazine actually paid for him to travel to New York. “I’ve been in New York ever since,” he said.
It was in New York that Stine briefly turned to a life of literary crime.
Driven by his passion for magazines, Stine took a job with the owner of six movie and TV oriented rags. She would greet him in the morning with requests for interviews with pop culture icons like Diana Ross and The Rolling Stones. Because resources were limited, and he had six magazines to fill, Stine did what he had to do.
“I couldn’t draw. I always wanted to be a cartoonist [but]…I was horrible,” Stein recalls. “That’s how I knew I had to be a writer.”
“I would sit down and make up interviews, just totally make them up. And that was my job,” he said. “It was a very creative job, I had to make up everything, and I learned to write really fast because I had to write maybe 3 or 4 interviews a day.” Stine notes that he did “a lot of stealing” in that job, but none of the celebrities were interested in suing him or the magazine for doing so. “That job didn’t last very long, but it was a lot of fun.”
Following this episode, Stine landed a job at Scholastic where he worked for more than 10 years, eventually getting the chance to edit a humor magazine called Bananas, where he frequently wrote stories under the name Jovial Bob Stine. Unfortunately the job ended abruptly when Scholastic decided to fire him.
Still, the job helped Stine to improve his writing and make connections in the children’s publishing world. Stine picked up new projects and wrote dozens of humor books for kids, starting with his first joke book, How to Be Funny, which he recalls as “very subversive,” and something that parents hated. The book was not especially successful except in the sense that it lead to another book, and another, and Stine ended up writing joke books for nearly 20 years.
By this point, Stine was certainly an established writer, but he knew something wasn’t quite right with his career. He wasn’t desperate for work, but recalls, “There’s always a point in your career where you don’t say “No” to anything.” So he ended up writing everything from GI Joe books to stories about Indiana Jones.
Then one day he had lunch with an editor, she had the idea that Stine ought to try his hand at a good scary teen novel. She even told him what to call it: Blind Date. Stine was willing to take on the task, but since he had been working as an expert in making people laugh for decades, he had to do some research at his local bookstore to see what exactly writing a scary children’s book might entail. He found that very few books were well balanced in scariness and adventure, as many authors struggled to keep everything age-appropriate. So, he went to work on Blind Date. At age 43, Jovial Bob Stine had an immediate number one best seller! But no one was more puzzled than Stine himself.
“It wasn’t even my idea! It’s kind of embarrassing. I would go to schools and say to kids, ‘Why do you like these books?’ I didn’t get it. Every single time they would say “I like to be scared.” I just sorta stumbled on to it,” says Stine. “And I’ve been scary ever since.”