As part of its programming for Virtual Children’s Day this past Saturday, October 3, the Brooklyn Book Festival hosted “Spooky Stories!” via Crowdcast, moderated by Max Brallier (The Last Kids on Earth series, Viking) and featuring middle grade authors R.L. Stine (Goosebumps series, Scholastic), Claribel A. Ortega (Ghost Squad, Scholastic Press), and Sophie Escabasse (Witches of Brooklyn, Random House Graphic). Due to ongoing Covid-19 restrictions, the free literary festival, held from September 28–October 5 this year, ventured into the virtual space.
After author and book introductions, Brallier kicked off the panel with a seasonally appropriate question: had any of the panelists experienced a legitimate supernatural encounter?
Middle grade debut author Ortega went first. While they hadn’t experienced anything personally, they did grow up hearing about instances that had “definitely happened” to their family. “One of the things that stood out to me is that, when living in the Dominican Republic, the houses in the country are made with zinc roofs a lot, so my mom used to say that witches would walk on the roof of the house, and that’d always creep me out so much.”
While Escabasse did not have any supernatural stories, growing up in the countryside of the south of France—“running naked in the fields, really a wild child, a lot of time in the woods and nature”—convinced her that there is a spirit in all living things. She shared that, upon moving away from Brooklyn during adulthood, she had been crushed to leave behind a maple tree that she’d planted there, with which she had a connection.
Brallier confessed he had not a spooky experience either, despite growing up in “a really old house.”
“I would love to see a ghost! I’m always looking,” Stine said. “I think people in books are never scared enough when they see a ghost. They should always be a lot more terrified than they are.”
Stine then shared a story he said he never talks about: many years ago, when he was an editor at Scholastic, a woman asked him his age. He lifted out of his body and watched from the ceiling as he answered 38. “And then I floated back down and I was back in my body,” he said.
Brallier said he had also had out-of-body experiences, as well as an instance of sleep paralysis, which “was so terrifying. Anyway, happy Halloween!” Next, he asked about the authors’ writing processes.
Ortega said they were a “plantser, a combination of a pantser and a planner.” They have a vague page of plot and character ideas, but not a chapter-to-chapter outline, and then they “just go for it. Sometimes I have to outline part of the book to keep going, but in general, I just sort of see where the characters take me—because they always really end up surprising me, and I love that process of just writing and seeing what happens and letting the story unfold.” They said they use placeholders, like writing “fight scene goes here,” in order to not lose momentum.
Escabasse agreed with Ortega, saying that she is “a little bit of both.” Since she is “a very visual person,” she sees the scenes clearly in her head and storyboards her way from one scene to another. As she is a graphic novelist, the way she “thinks in images” works well for her.
“I do a complete chapter-by-chapter outline of every book I write,” Stine reported. “Everybody hates to outline, but I cannot work without it.” When children ask him about writer’s block, he answers, “You can’t have writer’s block if you’ve done all the thinking first!”
Brallier said he writes outlines so detailed that they are “practically half the book.” He then asked the panelists to share their first writing memories.
“I wrote a lot of poetry and songs when I was little,” Ortega said, admitting the pieces “got really cringy” around their preteen years. Their earliest writing memory was when their sister—around a decade older than them—was getting married, and Ortega gave the newlyweds a book they wrote and illustrated.
“I am really like a writer-illustrator—it has to go with the illustrations for me, or it doesn’t work,” Escabasse revealed. “The first thing that I can remember that looked like a story is my diary. I used to write my diary in the format of pages of comics.”
“I started writing when I was nine. I was a weird kid, I don’t know why,” Stine said. He used to type away at his typewriter, working on joke books and funny magazines, which his parents didn’t understand. “All I really wanted to be was a comic book illustrator. I wanted to draw. I had this superhero called Super Stooge, and he was really stupid,” Stine shared. In around fourth grade, he gave the books to his friends, who all insulted his drawing. “To this day, I think it’s very mysterious that some people can draw and some people can’t,” Stine mused. “I knew I couldn’t draw, so I had to write.”
After a tangent about horror and humor, in which Stine spotlighted the Scream franchise and Cabin in the Woods, Brallier asked about the panelists’ bad ideas.
“All of my bad ideas end up as books,” Stine said, earning a laugh.
“I don’t think I have a lot of scrapped ideas,” Ortega answered. “With the exception of one picture book idea”—about “a witch who was really good at being a witch, but couldn’t learn how to use the potty.”
“For the Witches of Brooklyn in the earlier drafts, there were ghosts that I ended up removing,” Escabasse said. “But I don’t want to say more because if I have the chance to write a fourth book, I may bring the ghosts back, so we’ll see then if it was a bad idea or not.”
Brallier confessed his own bad idea: when the Sweet Valley High series was being rereleased for its 25th anniversary, “a friend and I wrote and tried to sell a vampire take called Sugar Valley Vamps, two sisters who were best friends and drive a cool convertible but were also vampires,” Brallier said. “It was so bad.”
Stine remembered one thing he did have to remove: a scene from The Girl Who Cried Monster, in which a girl realizes the librarian is a monster. “I had one scene where the librarian eats a kid, and for some reason, no one liked that,” Stine deadpanned, saying he replaced the kid with a big bowl of live turtles. “That’s actually better than a kid. Because it’s crunchier.”
Brallier then asked for details about their current projects.
Ortega has “a graphic novel coming in 2022 called Frizzy, about a young Dominican American girl who learns to embrace her curly hair, plus some witchy books coming that I can’t talk about much.” They also are on deadline for Reclaim the Stars, a Latinx speculative fiction anthology; their short story is set in the 1960s Dominican Republic and is about three witch sisters helping to overthrow the dictatorship.
Escabasse is “coloring frantically the second book of The Witches of Brooklyn,” though she “should be writing the third one already.” She is also inking the third book of The Derby Daredevils by Kit Rosewater.
“Garbage Pail Kids: Welcome to Smellville came out September 29, and on October 6, the new Goosebumps book came out, My Friend Slappy, about a boy who actually likes Slappy,” Stine said. “Do you have any idea how hard it is to come up with plots about a wooden dummy that comes to life and no one knows it and then they do know it? I think I’ve done 14 of them.”
Brallier then asked the panelists, “What makes a great villain?”
“I would say my favorite villain in recent times is Killmonger from Black Panther,” Ortega said. “I really like a villain whose target can feel justified, but their means can’t.” It makes them feel more human, Ortega added, saying their YA novels featured this type of villain more, whereas their middle grade features more comedic, bumbling villains.
“I don’t like villains who are completely evil, because it doesn’t feel real to me,” Escabasse concurred. “I don’t think I will bring too many real villains to life, but I do like a comical villain or a conflicted villain, like Kylo Ren.”
“I think if I’d come up with better villains, I wouldn’t be doing Slappy every book,” Stine said. The Horror at Camp Jellyjam featured his particular favorite villain, the Jellyjam of the title.