JH Reynolds, author of the MonsterStreet series (which RL Stine called “fast, funny and frightening”) is a standout in the cluttered world of middle grade fiction. Many have tried to imitate Stine’s Goosebumps series, but few have perfected the right combination of humor and creepy thrills the way Reynolds has here.
But to claim Reynolds is merely an imitator is to do his work a disservice. Sentence by sentence, Reynolds’s writing is sharper and sturdier than Stine’s, and while MonsterStreet occupies the same haunted headspace as Goosebumps, each book feels wholly original and inventive.
As we found out in sitting down with Reynolds, it’s not just his wonderful novels that are filled with fun and adventure. His life has been a fantastic story in its own right.
It is quite possible that you are the only writer on the planet who began their professional life as a traveling fashion model. Can you tell me how you got into modeling? What was that experience like?
Well, you are the first person in the publishing industry to ask me about that, probably because I’ve never told anyone. But that era of my life during my 20s was filled with adventure, dreaming, and personal growth. Long story short – I was in college in Texas at the time, and I was approached by modeling scouts at a restaurant where I worked. I immediately told them I had no interest in fashion or modeling. They approached again and told me I could make a lot of money and be able to travel the world. I didn’t care so much about the money, but one of my dreams had always been to travel.
So I accepted a contract from Wilhelmina Agency in New York City and flew up there the day after I finished finals at the end of my Sophomore Year. A limo picked me up at La Guardia Airport and took me straight to the agency, and my life was never the same.
As you can imagine, coming from a small town in Texas, I was overwhelmed by it all. I even missed a meeting with Calvin Klein my first day in Manhattan because I got lost in the subway! But during the years that followed, I was able to travel all over the world and meet so many interesting people, and I found myself in countless fascinating moments along the way. I was fortunate to work for a lot of esteemed clients in the industry, the biggest of them being Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein, and Giorgio Armani.
But to tie this all back into the work I do now with storytelling, it was during those years when I really began to take my writing seriously. I had wanted to be a writer since I was around ten, but I was now at the age when I had to begin thinking about choosing a long term career path. I knew I didn’t want to model forever, but I wanted to use that time wisely—I saw it as a gift from the universe.
So when my fellow models were going out to clubs and parties, I stayed at my apartment or hotel and worked on writing screenplays and novels and reading what others had done in various genres. I spent a lot of time at the Barnes and Noble in Union Square perusing books and learning about authors and dreaming of one day having my own books on the shelves there. It was fun to go back to that bookstore years later and see MonsterStreet on display.
As a model, you traveled all over the globe. How many countries did you visit? Did you have time for exploring?
Before I got married and had kids, I was fortunate to be able to explore all seven continents on over 30 overseas expeditions. Many of those trips were for modeling, some were as an adventure guide or working on film sets, other trips were ones I simply saved up money to do on my own.
But yes, even with modeling there was always time for exploring. One of my favorite trips was a shoot in Kenya for Marie Claire Magazine about 20 years ago. We spent time in the bush with the Maasai tribe, and it inspired me to learn Swahili when I returned home.
I also remember one night on that trip going out in a dhow boat with some local pirates off the shores of Lamu Island during Ramadan and them throwing a rope out into the Indian Ocean and dragging me behind the boat beneath the night sky. It was one of those transcendental moments I experienced as a young man in my early 20s when I realized I was touching the other side of the world.
In the decades since—with the arrival of smartphones and social media—the world feels like it’s gotten much smaller. But back then the world still felt wild and mysterious. I’m daily grateful that I was able to have those experiences and moments to think back on for a lifetime.
What is the strangest travel experience you’ve ever had?
Oh, there are quite a few.
One that just popped into my head was a trip to Costa Rica for a photoshoot for FMH Magazine. I arrived in San Jose and a driver took me to a smaller airport to catch my flight out to the beach village where we were shooting. When I arrived at the smaller airport, I walked out to the runway to find a pilot of about 18 years old standing next to what looked like a go-kart with wings.
I reluctantly got into the little plane, and we took off over the rainforest where, as the pilot informed me, many flights crashed each year. It wasn’t long after he told me this that the engine of our plane went out and we began to descend toward the forest at a glide. I began to pray for my family, believing I was experiencing my final moments.
Thankfully, the engine came back on in time to avoid crashing into the rainforest, and the young pilot said, “Sorry about that. It happens sometimes.”
I wanted to ask him how many times it had to happen before they retired the plane. But instead, I took some deep breaths, grateful to be alive.
Within an hour, we landed on a dirt runway in Tambor, and another driver took me in a Jeep out to Mal Pais—a beautiful, rustic beach village. When I arrived, I noticed that all of the local villagers looked poor and dirty, with none of the kids wearing shoes. But surprisingly, everyone I encountered looked very happy and were smiling and would call out “Pura Vida” (Translation: “Pure Life”) when I passed them on the dirt pathways.
That evening, I learned their secret. As the sun began to set, all of the villagers stopped whatever work or play they were doing and went out to the beach together to watch the sunset. I was informed that the entire village did this together every evening. I learned then as a young man where true wealth and happiness is found, and I’ve never forgotten it.
Do you have a favorite country or region of the world? What’s special about it?
I love them all . . . I love Asia for its food and culture, Europe for its architecture and history, Australia for its wildness and aboriginal heritage, Africa for the same, North America for its landscapes and people, South America for its customs and adventure, and Antarctica for its otherworldliness.
It would be very hard to choose one, but I will say that Antarctica is unlike any other experience I’ve had, and I would recommend my fellow humans go see it while it is still untouched.
Ironically, two of my other all-time favorite adventures were right here in North America:
1) Hiking the 220-mile John Muir Trail in northern California with my uncle and cousin for three weeks across the vastest expanse of natural wilderness that still exists in the continental U.S. (August 2010).
2) Traveling to 30 states in 31 days with my wife for our honeymoon to visit the graves of American authors and poets, as well as to see other iconic historic and cultural sites. This was during July 2014, so we saw five or six fireworks shows while we were in the northeast, and the trip really inspired me to connect with the spirit and history of my home country.
You eventually became a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, a member of the renowned Explorers Club, and you founded Elite Expeditions, an educational travel company that partners with National Geographic. Have you always been interested in travel?
I was always fascinated with travel and adventure, but I lived the first 18 or 19 years of my life in a small town in Texas. Those were amazing years with amazing people, and that season of life made me who I am. During that time, my uncle was off in Hollywood making movies (Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Waterworld, Red Dawn, Count of Monte Cristo, etc). He would come back to Texas and sit around my grandparents’ dining room table and tell enrapturing stories over our family meals.
So he was sort of my portal into the world beyond Texas while I was growing up. In fact, my first trip overseas was to work on one of his films in Europe when I was 19. I ended up dating the lead actress that summer and becoming friends with Henry Cavill (who later became Superman), and that was really the beginning of all my adventures.
Another big influence for me while growing up was movies. When I was 15, the foundation that my Dad runs loaned money for a movie theater to be built in our hometown, and everyone in our family received a four-year movie pass where we could go see as many movies as we wanted and bring a guest.
That was during my high school years, so I went and saw every movie that came out two or three times, often playing hooky from school with a friend. Movies like Indiana Jones had always inspired me with the spirit of adventure, but I recall at the age of 16 the character Jack Dawson from Titanic having a profound impact on me. I felt kindred to him in the sense of being a free spirit just wanting to experience romance and adventure and explore the world. And I ended up living that bohemian, vagabond life during my late teens and well into my 20s.
Another influential moment was a trip my high school took to Canada a few months after Titanic came out. I remember standing on this rope bridge called Capilano near Vancouver, and the desire to travel the world really possessed me in that moment.
A year later, our family and several other families took a cruise to Honduras during my senior year in high school. I remember standing on the side of the ship one night looking out at the ocean and having an epiphany that life was an adventure and, as cheesy or lofty as it may sound, pledging to some cosmic power behind the universe that I would live my life to the fullest. It was a spiritual moment that set the tone for the journey ahead of me, a journey I couldn’t have fathomed then.
What does it mean to be a member of the Royal Geographic Society and the Explorers Club? How does one become a member? Is there a secret handshake?
Each organization has different requirements and initiations, but it basically means that you’ve participated in and contributed to the promotion of the sciences and exploration. The membership process is a bit rigorous and requires sponsors from the organization to commend you.
How are the Royal Geographic Society and the Explorers Club different? Is it rare for someone to be a member of both?
The Royal Geographical Society is based in the United Kingdom and has been around since 1830 (famous members include Charles Darwin, Richard Francis Burton, Ernest Shackleton, Rudyard Kipling, Percy Fawcett, etc) and is dedicated to the advancement of geographical sciences through publications, lectures, etc.
The Explorers Club was founded in 1904 and is based in New York City. Some of its famous members include Teddy Roosevelt, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, Elon Musk, Jane Goodall, James Cameron, Jeff Bezos, Sally Ride, and a host of others.
I don’t personally know anyone who is a member of both organizations, but I’m sure they exist since the organizations have kindred missions.
Has being a member of these organizations changed your life in any way?
I was a die-hard nonconformist throughout my youth and young adulthood. But around 2016, society began to feel very divided, and I felt the need to be actively involved in endorsing causes that I believed were worthy for present and future generations. So I decided to become a “joiner” and participate in organizations that espoused unity and celebrated education.
The Royal Geographical Society, the Explorers Club, and Freemasonry were all a part of that decision in my life, along with going back to graduate school to get my Master’s and Ph.D. degrees.
But without the Great Divide that occurred on the national—and global—stage around 2016, I think I would have been content to stay on the ranch where I was living, enjoying the sunrises and sunsets and not feeling the need to join any organizations. That said, I don’t think the organizations have changed my life per say, but they have definitely enhanced it.
The wonderful thing about them, besides all the interesting and amazing people I have gotten to know, is that I can partake in these organizations throughout my lifetime (even when I’m an old man).
You’re also a Freemason. There’s gotta be a secret Freemason handshake, right?
Ha, I’ll never tell. But yes, Freemasonry is one of those organizations that has definitely enhanced my adult life. The organization brings men of various religious and political backgrounds together under the banner of brotherly love and charity, connecting them across centuries and continents.
My grandfather was a 33rd degree Mason, but he never talked about it much. I didn’t join until after his death, but I wish I could have shared more conversations with him about it. Becoming a Mason has been one of the best things I’ve done in my adult life.
I’m a member of multiple Lodges, and we are celebrating our Centennial at The Harvard Lodge (Teddy Roosevelt was one of its founders) in Boston, Massachusetts this year where I serve as Co-Chair of the Charity Committee. At the Harvard Lodge in particular, we do a lot of work with the Shriners Hospital, helping support young burn victims and their families.
Are there any plans for a JH Reynolds adventure novel, maybe something akin to Young Indiana Jones?
I haven’t mentioned it to anyone except my wife, but I have kept notes for about 10 years on a Young Adult adventure series that’s basically Indiana Jones meets Da Vinci Code (think Dan Brown for teens). I have a strong teen protagonist with an interesting backstory, and I have enough material gathered for a multi-book series. Hopefully someday I’ll get around to writing it.
But I have over 500 story files that I’m constantly taking notes on, and I unfortunately can only write one book at a time. (With the exponential progress of A.I., I’m sure at some point in my lifetime my consciousness will be uploaded into some version of a computer, and I’ll be able to write multiple books at once )
Tell me about the work you do with Elite Expeditions. What impact has it had on your writing?
My wife and I started Elite Expeditions in 2015 and are partnered with National Geographic Magazine. We’re an educational travel company where we send student groups on cultural, historical, science-related, and adventure trips. Because school trips impacted both my wife and I in our youth, we wanted to provide a way for student groups today to explore the world beyond their hometowns.
It has been incredibly rewarding to watch students have these experiences and grow as dreamers and contributors to society. I don’t think Elite Expeditions has impacted my writing per say, but it has certainly been a fulfilling endeavor.
Also, to keep myself in tune with the world of travel and exploration while my wife and I raising our kids back in Texas, I host a podcast called The Explorers Roundtable (www.explorersroundtable.com). I created it to provide a place for explorers to share tales of discovery and adventure and to engage with scholars in discussions relevant to the science, history and literature of exploration.
It’s been a blast to chat with and learn from some of the great explorers of our time.
Here’s a lecture I gave a couple months ago about Ernest Shackleton’s expedition:
You attended Baylor University but took a break your sophomore year. You’ve said that it was during this time that you chose writing as a “life path” and not just a “career path”. Can you speak to how you see writing informing or guiding your life, regardless of whether it ever made you any money?
I’m fortunate at this point where I’ve made good money from my writing, but it certainly wasn’t always that way. I played around some on my typewriter when I was about 10 years old after deciding I wanted to write books when I grew up.
But daily disciplined writing for me began as a spiritual practice when I was about 12 years old in 7th Grade. I made myself sit down every evening (no matter how tired I was after school or baseball or basketball practice) and reflect on my day, on things that I had read, and to write down prayers for family, friends, and my future.
Looking back, it seems bizarre for a 12-year old boy to commit himself to such a discipline, but something in me found writing to be a natural place to process life. No one told me to do it—it was just something I did. So journaling was the beginning of my daily practice of writing. By the time I was 17, my journals took on a much more complex, philosophical tone, and I saw myself more as an explorer of life wanting to make sense of the mystery.
Journaling continued as a daily spiritual practice for me until I was in my 30s. But after getting married and having kids, there hasn’t been quite as much time to journal on a daily basis. But it was during that time as a young teenager when writing became a life path in the sense that it’s how I learned to relate to and process my inner life. And it filled those years with so much more fulfillment and dreaming than there would have been otherwise.
Your grandfather was President of Baylor University. How much influence did he have on you?
Man, you’ve really done your research. I was very close with my grandfather while growing up, and his impact on me is immeasurable. As busy as he was running a university, I always felt very loved and important to him.
My parents, sister, and I had lunch with my grandparents every Sunday after church while growing up, and my grandparents made every birthday and holiday so special. I was lucky to get to know my Granddad on a deeper level in my adulthood, and we shared countless conversations about science, religion, family, and everything in between.
He always set a standard of excellence and integrity in every aspect of his life, and he was always open to questions and encouraged examination. That said, I think growing up in a family of successful people allowed me to believe that I could accomplish anything I put my mind to. There was never a doubt that I could achieve a goal because I had examples in my life of people who had done so (e.g., my grandfather being President of a university, my uncle being a successful Hollywood film director, and my Dad being Executive Director of a large foundation, etc).
That said, the biggest impact on my life while growing up was, naturally, my Mom and Dad who gave my sister and me a consistent, stable, and loving home. My parents were incredibly involved, supportive, and they set wonderful examples of how to do good in one’s community and to help those in need.
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I believe it was during your break from college that you witnessed the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center from the top of a Manhattan apartment building. You were inspired to write the short story The Gift, which eventually became the short film Where the Fireflies Die. Can you talk about how you felt that day and why, at 20 years old, you were motivated to channel those emotions into fiction and eventually film?
Shortly after I moved to Manhattan—while I was still adjusting to life in the big city—9/11 happened about 20 blocks away from my apartment. That day and the days that followed were some of the most surreal of my life. I think back to it often, always with a heavy heart. NYC has this reputation of people being rude and closed off from one another, but when 9/11 happened what I saw was New Yorkers of all backgrounds come together and help each other in the most brave and caring ways. The shared grief brought everyone together and forced vulnerability, and what I saw was noble, loving, courageous, and empathic hearts in the ashy streets of Manhattan during September 2001.
When I returned to Texas for a short time that fall to be with my family, I didn’t realize that I had been through a sort of trauma and didn’t really know how to process it and didn’t even realize I needed to process it. I was more quiet and contemplative, and my Mom even asked me if I had been doing drugs in NYC (which I hadn’t) because I wasn’t my usual carefree self at the time.
Even today when I smell a campfire, I’m transported back to the heavy feeling of 9/11 (the entire city smelled like a giant campfire on that day and for a long time after). Anyhow, that next summer, I sat down and wrote a short story called “The Gift” that was a simple story of love and friendship between a boy and girl in the countryside of Texas, and the story ended in tragedy.
It wasn’t until later when I realized that the simple story was my way of processing the loss of innocence that I experienced after moving to NYC and witnessing 9/11. I was no longer a carefree boy in Texas. I had seen the darkness of the world, and, not to sound too dramatic, but some of my innocence had been lost in a rather traumatic way. I turned the story into a short film about 10 years later called Where the Fireflies Die.
You have directed three short movies (Where the Fireflies Die, The Last Wildflower and Is There Anyone Out There?) What led you to directing?
Directing films has always been something in my DNA. I grew up with an uncle who was directing films for a living, and my mind and storytelling instincts have always been cinematic, even when I’m writing novels. I fell in love with movies before I fell in love with books, and so, on a creative level, I feel very comfortable in both mediums.
What do you enjoy about directing? How is it different from writing novels?
Writing a film is a completely different craft than writing novels. I first learned to write stories by writing screenplays. When I lived in NYC back in the early 2000s, there used to be tables full of screenplays set up on the sidewalks in Union Square and Times Square and various other places around Manhattan. You could buy one screenplay for $10 or three for $25. I’m sure it was illegal to sell them, but I used to go down and buy scripts from my favorite films, then go back to my apartment or hotel room and read them and try to imitate them in my own attempts at screenwriting. It was a wonderful way to learn to tell stories.
Even when crafting my more commercial fiction today, I still use some of the tools from my screenwriting toolbox. My natural instinct is to write cinematically—that’s just how I see and communicate what’s in my imagination and heart.
Regarding directing films, it’s an entirely different craft. Writing a novel is much less stressful and gives me as the storyteller full control over what my audience — the reader— experiences. Directing is wholly collaborative where you’re trusting in a lot of other people to bring your vision to life, and you don’t get as many chances at revision because it costs a lot more to make a film than it does to write a novel.
With writing novels, I can revise, revise, and revise a million times over until I land on a draft I’m happy with. But I don’t have that luxury with filmmaking. My experience with writing and directing films is that you really end up making three different movies: the one you write, the one you shoot, and the one you edit.
Do you have any interest in directing feature-length movies?
I’d love to direct features. I’m currently writing a five-part miniseries about The American Transcendentalists (Emerson, Thoreau, etc), but I love writing in all different genres—from drama to horror to sci-fi to comedy to historical to adventure to family films.
I remember Spielberg once saying in an interview that guys like Hitchcock and Malick have a specific style of filmmaking. You can watch one of their movies and say, “Oh, that’s a Hitchcock film.” Or “That’s a Malick film.” But in the interview, Spielberg claimed that he didn’t have a style—he simply made a film in service of the script. He claimed to be a chameleon when it came to style.
I feel more kindred to that Spielbergian type of filmmaking. I could make a kids’ adventure film one year and then a drama examining Nineteenth-Century literary history the next, and I’d feel equally comfortable in both story worlds—the same way I do when writing books of various genres.
Speaking of movies, your office is filled with film canisters (Jurassic Park, Karate Kid 3, Willow, Waterworld) as well as memorabilia from everything from Star Wars to The Monster Squad to Raiders of the Lost Ark. What are your Top 10 Favorite Movies?
When it comes to movies, I have quite a few “Top 10” Lists, and it would be hard to choose one list. But here’s a list of 10 (in no particular order) off the top of my head, some of which are on a list I recommend to my college students to provoke thought and discussion in class and some that are simply personal favorites. I’ve also included a list of random other favorite films that came to mind just now.
JH Reynolds Top Ten Movies
- Dead Poets Society
- Shawshank Redemption
- It’s A Wonderful Life
- To Kill A Mockingbird
- 12 Angry Men
- The Elephant Man
- Schindler’s List
- Life Is Beautiful
- Back to the Future
Others Favorites Worth Mentioning:
- Rear Window
- Sherlock Jr. (1924)
- Do the Right Thing
- Legends of the Fall
- Fried Green Tomatoes
- American Graffiti
- The Vast of Night
- Dazed and Confused
- Raiders of the Lost Ark
- Jurassic Park
- Star Wars (original trilogy)
- The Goonies
- The Karate Kid
- The Natural
- The Monster Squad
- Superman (1978)
- Hocus Pocus
- Monster House
- A River Runs Through It
Given the intense hate out there for Waterworld, your reel may be the last surviving copy. Is Waterworld really that bad, or is it a misunderstood masterpiece?
Ha, my uncle directed it so I have a soft spot for it. I was supposed to go over to Hawaii that summer while they were filming it, but my All-Star baseball team won the state championship and we were in the regional playoffs championship to go to the Little League World Series. So I missed getting to see the film set for myself!
* Note From the Editor: Waterworld is a misunderstood masterpiece. Just so we’re clear.
You can only watch one for the rest of your life: The Goonies or The Monster Squad. Which is it?
Ah, this is one of the big cosmic questions in the universe, kindred to Hoosiers vs The Natural!
That said, I’m a Goonie through and through, but my all-time favorite childhood adventure film is The Monster Squad. It’s a modern-day David vs Goliath story. So I’m going to have to go with the Squad on this one.
I used to rent the VHS every Friday night from our local video store—Flicks—back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and the film has stayed with me ever since. I often listen to Bruce Broughton’s score during writing sessions, and I was able to meet several actors from the film a few years back at a screening in Austin. I showed the film to my oldest daughter this past Halloween, and she loved it!
You’ve said that you received a typewriter on your eleventh birthday and have been writing ever since. Did you actually compose stories on a typewriter? What kind of stories did you write as a young boy?
I used to write short tales on my typewriter. Sometimes spooky ramblings, sometimes sports stories, sometimes I’d just type up thoughts and ideas. Granted, each creation was very short and not very good. I don’t think I wrote a decent, cohesive story until I was fourteen years old my Freshman year in high school.
P.S. I have a series I’ve taken notes on for several years that combines the elements of “spooky” and “sports” into spooky sports stories—a recipe which I think will get a certain facet of reluctant readers interested in books.
Did you always see yourself as a writer?
As a boy, I simply saw myself as someone with a big imagination. As an adult, sometimes that inner magic comes out in the form of a book, a film script, a piece of music, or even in the way I parent my daughters. But for me, the important thing is always just finding ways to keep that magic alive—be it through my experiences as a writer, filmmaker, composer, teacher, or parent.
As a committed traveler and member of organizations that have inspired romantic dreams of far-off adventures, you must have a list of favorite adventure novels. What books would be in your top ten?
Here are a few off the top of my head . . .
JH Reynolds Top 20 in Adventure Fiction:
- King Solomon’s Mines by H. Rider Haggard
- The Time Machine by H.G. Wells
- Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown
- Call of the Wild by Jack London
- White Fang by Jack London
- The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain
- The Adventure of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
- The Lost World by Arthur Conan Doyle
- The Odyssey by Homer
- Jurassic Park by Michael Crighton
- Contact by Carl Sagan
- The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown
- The Road by Cormac McCarthy
- The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
- Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
- Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson
- Swiss Family Robinson by Johann David Wyss
- Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
- My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George
- Hatchet by Gary Paulsen
JH Reynolds Top 15 in Non-Fiction Adventure:
- Endurance by Alfred Lansing
- Into the Wild by John Krakauer
- A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson
- The Journals of Lewis and Clark
- Expedition Fawcett by Percy Fawcett
- The Lost City of Z by David Grann
- The Lost City of the Incas by Hiram Bingham
- The Innocents Abroad by Mark Twain
- South by Ernest Shackleton
- The Discovery of the Tomb of Tut by Howard Carter
- Ghosts of Everest: The Search for Mallory & Irvine by Hemmleb, Simonson, and Johnson
- The Wild Muir: Twenty Two of John Muir’s Greatest Adventures by John Muir
- “Nature” by Ralph Waldo Emerson
- “Walking” by Henry David Thoreau
- Walden by Thoreau
Your first middle grade series, Octobers, was written in collaboration with Craig Cunningham and JR Fleming. How did the three of you come together, and what was the inspiration for Octobers?
I had taken notes for Octobers since I was in high school, and it was meant to be a celebration of my love for Halloween. It was originally called The Twelve Octobers, and I had planned to release 12 volumes (48 books total) over 12 years (i.e., one Volume, or four books, every October for a dozen years). It was intended to be an epic fantasy—my ambitious, and naïve, attempt during my 20s to try to compete with Harry Potter.
I didn’t think I could write four book per year by myself, so I brought on my friend and fellow writer Craig Cunningham to write the series with me. And I hired J.R. Fleming (an incredibly talented artist out of Austin, TX) to create all the concept art. It was an absolute blast writing the first four books (i.e., Volume One, which was 600 pages long), and we were sure it was going to get picked up by a major publisher.
When my first agent sent it out, we got close getting it picked up by Simon & Schuster, whose editors were discussing it with their acquisitions team. But ultimately, they passed, giving us the same reason the other publishers had given us: 48 books was just way too many! Again, I was in my 20s and still a bit naïve to the ways of the publishing world, so it was a learning experience. I went back to the drawing board for the next few years and created a simple, much shorter series: MonsterStreet. HarperCollins picked it up, so things worked out!
Both Octobers and MonsterStreet are in the horror field. What draws you to writing creepy stories for kids?
I like writing all different genres, but spooky books are a wonderful genre to get kids interested in reading. When I was kid, I was only interested in reading books about sports or books that had a spooky or mysterious element. In fact, the only books I ever checked out in Elementary School had to do with sports, UFOs, time travel, Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, the Bermuda Triangle, the Titanic, and spooky stories.
Where the Wild Things Are is the first book I ever remember being completely enraptured by when I was a small boy, and Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark was the first book I remember scaring me when I was in Elementary School (the illustrations by Stephen Gammell were so creepy!).
What are your favorite horror novels?
A few off the top of my head (in no particular order) . . .
- Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury
- It by Stephen King
- Cycle of the Werewolf by Stephen King
- Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
- The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving.
My all-time favorite story is A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, which has a bit of a spooky element to it.
You mentioned that you were mentored by Ray Bradbury. Tell me about how that came about.
When I was in my mid-20s, one autumn I read through all of Bradbury’s novels and short stories. Like so many people who read him, I felt I had found a kindred spirit and imagination. I was illuminated by his work. So on Halloween night in 2007, I went up to Armstrong-Browning Library on Baylor campus to watch a one-man play of Edgar Allan Poe’s work. When I returned back to my apartment that night, I wrote a letter to Ray Bradbury thanking him for his stories.
I had just read Something Wicked This Way Comes and The Halloween Tree, so my letter was Halloween-themed. Five days later, I went for a walk with my then-girlfriend around campus, and we had a long conversation about breaking things off in our relationship. But when we returned to my truck, I saw that I had a missed call from California.
When I listened to the message, it was Ray Bradbury thanking me for my letter. I was absolutely stunned—euphoric is the better word. I looked at my now-ex-girlfriend and told her we couldn’t break up on that night . . . So we broke up a couple weeks later instead.
The day after receiving Bradbury’s first voice mail, I went to my grandfather’s grave, and I called Bradbury from there in the cemetery and we chatted for a while. He and I shared about a dozen phone conversations over the following three years, and he read some of my early short stories and poetry and gave feedback.
It was incredible to hear him tell stories about his own life and work. At that point he had been a literary celebrity for almost 70 years, so for him to take the time to call and talk with an aspiring author in some obscure Texas town is a testimony to what an amazing human being he was.
Those conversations I shared with him were enough fuel to keep me going for the next decade of writing and trying to break into the NYC publishing world. When R.L. Stine endorsed the MonsterStreet series years later, he told me that he had a letter from Ray Bradbury that he kept framed, so Bob and I are both literary progeny of Bradbury.
P.S. At some point during those three years of my phone correspondence with Bradbury, I was in LA and stopped by his house to say hello in person. But his nephew met me outside in the street and said they had just brought Ray home from the hospital and that he wasn’t doing well. He died shortly after, so I didn’t ever get to shake his hand in person, but his mentorship changed my life and career. I did keep up with his daughter, Bettina, when I was on Facebook until her death a few years later, and I was able to tell her about MonterStreet and Ray’s impact on my life and writing.
Did Bradbury give you any writing advice?
He read some of my early sci-fi stories and some poetry and would call and give feedback and guidance on where to submit the stories. He would say things like “Your story is magnificent” and “You are a fine writer,” and, as you can imagine, encouragement like that from a legend such as Bradbury was fuel to keep going (even if he knew how bad the stories actually were and was just being encouraging of a novice writer). I still have recordings from some of his voice mails of encouragement, and I listen to them once or twice a year.
You were recently named a Distinguished Alumnus by the Midway Independent School District. Did you have any teachers or mentors at an early age who influenced your writing or encouraged you to become a writer?
I was fortunate to grow up in the same school district from Kindergarten through 12th Grade. I had so many wonderful teachers every year. Many of them, even my 1st grade teacher, came to the book launch party of MonsterStreet in my hometown. So I was incredibly blessed to grow up in a community where I felt supported and encouraged.
I’ve listed the names of many (hopefully most) of those teachers in the backs of the MonsterStreet books to thank and honor them. I would say the two teachers that had the most impact on me while growing up were my music teachers because I had them both for five years. Mrs. Johnson was my music teacher during Elementary School, and Mr. Vaughn was my music teacher in Junior High and High School.
Spending that many years with the same teacher during that formative season of life is immensely impactful. I also had a 7th grade English teacher named Mr. Vardeman who made reading so much fun in the classroom. He would dress up like characters from books and read stories out loud to us during class and give all the students their own nicknames. He would keep up with his students after they left his class, and I still keep up with him to this day along with the music teachers I mentioned and others.
I also had some fantastic writing teachers in college—Robert Darden and Greg Garrett are the two that come to mind. I took six courses from Robert Darden, and he has kept up with my journey as a writer since I finished my undergraduate studies many moons ago. I had lunch with him just a couple months ago.
You said you began writing the first MonsterStreet novel (The Boy Who Cried Werewolf) while staying alone at a spooky, secluded cabin in the woods. What inspired the book at that time? Was it always a middle grade novel?
There is a video on YouTube that tells the whole story, so I recommend watching that for the full story. The short version is that I was out in East Texas working on another novel when I became inspired to write The Boy Who Cried Werewolf. I was staying in a cabin surrounded by dark woods, and I wrote the first draft next to the fireplace over the course of four nights. I then spent six years redrafting it off and on between other projects before my amazing agent Rosemary Stimola (who sold Hunger Games) sent it out, and it was picked up by HarperCollins.
RL Stine endorsed MonsterStreet as “fast, funny and frightening.” Were you a Goosebumps reader as a boy? If so, what were your favorites?
I missed the Goosebumps craze as a child, as I was just leaving junior high and getting into high school when it took over the world with the TV show and all. But I very much appreciated what he was doing at the time.
I read some of the series decades later when I was researching middle grade books, and I remember really enjoying Welcome to Dead House, The Haunted Mask, and The Scarecrow Walks At Midnight. I also liked both of the Goosebumps films that came out with Jack Black, and I wish they’d release a third in the series to make it a proper trilogy. I’d love to see Tim Burton do a Goosebumps movie someday!
Hopefully the upcoming Goosebumps series on Disney+ will be good. To date, probably my favorite TV show with Stine’s name on it is The Haunting Hour.
You recently returned to Baylor University to teach. What books have you enjoyed teaching? Do you feel students and campus life has changed since you were enrolled there?
I love teaching as much as I love writing. I’ve found that I get too isolated when I am only writing, and it’s easy for me to cut off the world (except for my kids and wife). So I enjoy the balance of teaching a couple days a week and then spending a few days a week writing. It allows me to give something back in a more direct way on a regular basis and still be able protect my creative life.
I get to teach my dream class—American Literature—and introduce students to everything from Miller’s The Crucible to the poetry and essays of The Transcendentalists to Douglass’ Narrative to Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and McCarthy’s The Road.
I also teach an academic inquiry class where I focus on the ethics of the scientific imagination, and we have a lot of stimulating discussions about the growing presence of artificial intelligence in society, etc. That said, teaching informs my creative work and sharpens my instincts as writer and thinker, so there’s a symbiotic relationship between the two in my life.
Be honest. What has been the greater honor: induction into the Explorers Club, or being Prom King?
Ha . . . I would say Prom King my Senior year in high school because the honor came from people I grew up with during childhood and youth. Those people were there at the beginning of my journey, and they’ll always be a part of me.