Interview: Jeff Kinney
Nine years ago, game developer Jeff Kinney started to write the diary of a boy named Gregg Heffley. A few years after that, he began to publish the story on the website FunBrain.com. Charles Kochman picked it up for the Harry N. Abrams imprint, Amulet Books, and the Diary of a Wimpy Kid phenomenon was on.
Since then, Kinney published a sequel, Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules and, this month, the Diary of a Wimpy Kid Do it Yourself Book. A third story, Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Last Straw is due in January.
The series has a passionate following. Like Harry Potter, the books attract kids (who may be too young for Rowling’s longer novels) who can’t wait to read them. Bookstores plan parties around new volumes.
Jeff was in Baltimore for the recent Comic-Con, where Abrams sold advance copies of the new Do It Yourself book. We spoke with him at the Harvey awards, where he was nominated in eight categories, including Best New Talent, Best New Series, Best Writer, and Special Award for Humor. He lost in every category, but he had the longest lines at the show, as kids waited an hour and more for his autograph.
ComicMix: I read your books this week. Sorry I’m a little late, but my kid is grown. They’re really fun. I met your mom today. I saw the line for your signing, which was thrilling.
Jeff Kinney: Thank you very much. I had no idea if it was long or short. I just sat there and signed.
CMx: Was this your first comic convention? I know you’ve done book conventions.
JK: I’ve done a few others. Actually, I got my book picked up at New York Comic-Con two years ago. And I just wandered around with a manuscript and lucked into meeting Charlie Kochman, who picked it up on first sight. He took a look at it for maybe 30 seconds and said, “This is what we want. This is why we came here.”
CMix: And you’d been on FunBrain before then?
JK: Yeah, in about 2004 I started writing the book on FunBrain.com. I felt very ambivalent about that. I wrote the book for adults, and FunBrain is a kids’ site. But I knew there was this huge audience of millions of kids. I’m really glad I ran it on FunBrain, because it’s had over 60 million readers so far. That helped a lot when the book came out. It got on the best-seller list in the first month. I think that’s just because of its exposure online. I feel grateful for that.
CMix: I read an interview with you that said it’s based on your childhood.
JK: It is. It’s got a lot of my family stories in there. I don’t want to go so far as to say it’s based on my childhood or I’ll have to get my lawyer involved, probably. A lot of my family’s DNA is in those books.
CMix: Is your mom happy to see it?
JK: I think so, yeah. I think it’s strange for her to see. A lot of the things are true but not true – true with a twist. There’s a lot of distortion, but the essence of the stories are true. It’s sort of a mythology built around my family, my growing up.
CMix: I saw kids waiting in line with the new book, the Diary of a Wimpy Kid Do it Yourself. reading it, and drawing in it.
JK: Oh, that’s good to hear. You know, I have no idea how that book is going to be received. It started off as product. The idea was to do a blank journal in the family of Diary of a Wimpy Kid. I thought, when kids see a new book, they’re going to think it’s a new book and they’re going to open it up and its just going to be blank pages. I felt awful about that. I really wanted to create something that was like a writing prompts to get kids to start writing or thinking in that creative sort of way. My books have been enjoyed by reluctant readers, and I thought there may be a lot of people who are writers but don’t know it yet. I’m happy with it now.
CMix: You’re a full-time dad?
JK: I’m a full-time dad and I also have a full-time job as a design director and a computer programmer.
CMix: What do your kids think of your books?
JK: They are five and three, so they don’t think about it much, except that I tell them I can’t play with them a lot, which I feel awful about. I’m back to being “Normal Dad” now. My son, Grant, who is three, leapt for joy last night when I finished my third book. He said, “You can be Normal Daddy forever!”
CMix: What does that mean?
JK: Normal Daddy doesn’t write all night. For the past two months, my schedule has been, at eight at night, I sit down to draw. I draw straight until four in the morning. Then I wake up at nine in the morning and do a full day’s work until six or six-thirty. I do this over and over and over again every single day for two months.
CM: With the success of your books, are you interested in quitting your day job?
JK: I could quit my day job, but I don’t want to. I don’t want to be one-dimensional. I know I could do Wimpy Kid pillowcases and everything like that. I’m very grateful for my regular, humdrum life. I’m also doing something I really love as much or more as Diary of a Wimpy Kid.
CMix: You have another book coming out in January. Tell me about that.
JK: It’s called, Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Last Straw. They’re making a big deal out of it and doing a lay-down, an embargo. “Don’t Open These Boxes Until Midnight!” I don’t know if anybody is going to care.
CMix: Are kids going to dress up like wimpy kids to wait in the bookstore?
JK: I thought about that. You see those kids in the Harry Potter lines, with the glasses and the hats. For me, they’ll have a bunch of kids with bad posture. I don’t think the kids who like my books are going to be up past midnight. We’ll see how that goes.
CMix: Are you going to have the characters age, like in Harry Potter? Will they go through high school and then college?
JK: He’s in middle school, which is kind of vague. You don’t know what grade he’s in. I think the best cartoon characters don’t age, and I think he’s more of a cartoon character than a literary character. I’d like to keep him in that zone forever.
CMix: He goes from school year to summer and back to school in the fall. That piece of cheese is still there. It feels like time has past.
JK: Right. I think Charlie Brown always has a first day of school, and you never know what grade he’s in. I’d like to keep it like that.