Jeff Kinney: “My stories are about the universal experience of childhood”

Image credit: Nicholas Chan

Halfway through our interview with American children’s author Jeff Kinney, his eyes widen in amazement as he recounts his astonishment at meeting fans from China, Turkey and Israel. The creator of the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series has sold over 194 million books worldwide and his books regularly feature on bestseller lists, but it’s clear he’s still very much in awe at how much the series resonates with children around the world, and the places it has taken him. Not too shabby for a writer who thought his books were “too strange” to be published when he started out 10 years ago.

The Diary of a Wimpy Kid series follows the exploits of misfit middle-schooler Greg Heffley, captured in amusing diary entries and doodles. It’s this quirky mix of words and drawings, coupled with Jeff’s knack for storytelling, that have made the books a hit with children worldwide.

In Singapore as part of a world tour to promote his 12th book The Getaway which comes out next month, he shows no signs of slowing down, despite a demanding schedule that sees him coming up with jokes for two months and working 16-hour days for another two months – just for one title.

We caught up with Jeff backstage to find out his thoughts on a decade of writing and illustrating, how he’s really a grown-up version of Greg Heffley, and his advice for his sons.

Your latest book The Getaway is out on 7 November and it’s the 12th book in the series. Did you ever envision writing so many books?
I never really thought that the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books would even be published. I thought they were too strange in a way, this mix of text and drawings on every page. And I thought it was kind of too unusual to ever get published, and so the fact that now I’ve got a 12th book coming out and I’m in my 10th year of doing this, is very strange to me.

You started writing the series in 1988 and published your first book in 2007. What were those years in between like?
I spent about eight years working on Diary of a Wimpy Kid before I showed it to anyone at all. And the whole time I was thinking, at the end of this I’m just going to get rejected. Because I really wanted to be a newspaper cartoonist and I worked on that for about three years and I got rejected over and over. So I thought that at the end of this once I’ve finished, I was going to get rejected. So I think I was sort of delaying, I didn’t want to move too quickly because I knew that it was going to be over with bad news soon.

But it turned out to be great news and you’ve come a long way since.
It has been a really wild ride since then. I remember the first day I got the first book in the mail and it was just so exciting as an author to get proof of your work. Because up until the point that you have a book it’s just thoughts in your head and then somebody makes it into a real thing, a real book and that’s when my life goal changed.

How did you feel when you saw your book in the bookstore?
It was so exciting when my book first came out, but it was also a scary moment because if the books don’t sell, they’ll get sent back to the publisher and then your career might be over. So I would always go to the bookstore and the books would be spine out, so I would turn them face out so that more people would find the books.

Do you ever buy your own books?
Do I ever buy my own books? I sometimes do, to keep the sales figures up!

How has Greg grown as a character?
I don’t think that Greg has grown much as a character through the decade. I think that we like for our cartoon characters to stay the same. We like that they’re reliable, we don’t want to learn about Charlie Brown growing up or getting older. We don’t even want to learn about Harry Potter getting older. We want these characters to stay the same forever and that’s what’s special about cartoon characters and books.

Do you plan to include new characters of diverse backgrounds, perhaps a transfer student from Singapore?
That’s a great question. People have asked me about the diversity of my characters and I’ve come to think of these characters as universal. They’re not really meant to look like me, they’re not meant to be Caucasian from America; you’re supposed to see yourself in the characters. So I try not to mention nationalities, skin colour, things like that. Plus I’m only dealing with black and white so it makes it easy to make the characters feel generic.

And makes it very relatable as well.
I think so. As I’ve travelled around the world, I’ve been really astounded by the fact that kids in China, Turkey, Israel relate to these characters and I think it’s because these are the stories of childhood, they are the stories that we all know because most of us have brothers and sisters and parents and pets, bullies, homework. These are the stories that I like to tell, the stories that everyone can relate to.

When working on a book, you spend six months coming up with 350 jokes before fleshing them out into a proper story. What are some of your favourite jokes?
If I look at a book I can remember some of my favourite jokes. I really like in Rodrick Rules how there’s this character named Joshie who’s Rowley’s hero. Joshie, this kind of European pop star. And I really like that idea that when I was a kid, my friend would go away on these expensive vacations and he’d come back with all these ideas and all these new experiences and I was very jealous of that. So that’s what I’m trying to get to the heart at with that joke is that, the kid who’s left behind feels envious of the kid who’s able to have all these big experiences.

You own a bookstore with your wife called An Unlikely Story. Now that you can buy books online with a click, what do you think bookstores can do to survive and stay relevant?
I own a bookstore in Plainville, Massachusetts called An Unlikely Story and what I really like about it is that it puts physical books into the hands of kids. There’s nothing really like discovering books in a bookstore. You can’t really discover books online the same way and they’re trying very hard to make books more discoverable, but there’s nothing like physically holding a book in your hand, especially if you’re a kid.

How do you feel seeing your books being brought to life on the big screen? Did they live up to your expectations?
With the books, I control everything in-between the covers. In a movie it’s a collaborative effort so there are always compromises, there are always great discoveries. I think that the best thing about these movies is the casting. The actors they found to play these characters are really great, [they] really fill in my cartoon lines with real-life people. So I think that’s my favourite thing about the movies.

There are four Diary of a Wimpy Kid movies currently. Will there be more?
I don’t know if we’re going to be able to make more movies. It all depends on the success of the last movie and projections going forward so hopefully, because I think The Getaway my new book really is made to be a movie.

How involved were you in the film-making process in terms of the creative direction?
I was very involved for an author. Usually there’s really no place for an author in the creative process because typically, a studio will buy the rights [to the book] and then say goodbye to the author until the premiere. I was very involved in casting, in helping shape the plot. For the latest movie, I actually wrote the first two drafts of the script. And then I was on set a lot. It was a really interesting experience and something that I’m really edified by.

Where do you get your ideas from, given that you’ve been writing for 10 years?
Usually I draw inspiration from everyday life and in The Getaway I’m actually writing about airplane travel and family vacations, so most people have some experience with those things. It gets more and more challenging with each passing year to come up with original ideas, and I want to make sure I’m always writing in a way that feels satisfying to me.

Do you relate a lot to Greg?
I do relate a lot to Greg, I think Greg is kind of the worst version of myself captured in this one moment in time. I’ve read online recently [that] people are like, “Wow Greg, he’s gonna grow up to be a really bad person.” I hope not, because he’s really who I grew up to become. But I think that when you’re a kid, you’re not fully formed yet. You’re still working on things like empathy and you’re working on thinking outside of yourself. But Greg is capturing himself in this really bad moment.

What advice do you have for budding writers?
The advice I have for kids who want to become writers or adults who want to become writers is to read as much as possible. I think it’s really almost impossible to become a good writer if you haven’t read a lot because you need all those ideas and you need all those experiences that you have as a reader to help form who you are as a writer.

You’ve said that you would love to create another series. Would it be similar to Wimpy Kid or would it be a completely different story?
Sometimes I think I’d like to create a new series, and sometimes I think, “You know what, the only reason I really want to create a new series is to prove that I can create a new series.” That’s probably not a good enough artistic reason. What I’ve really come to understand, especially [from] travelling around the world, is that these stories are the stories of childhood, and childhood is big. The universe of childhood is really big and so I have lots more room to write with these characters.

You wanted to be a cartoonist, but eventually became a writer. Which do you enjoy more now – drawing or writing?
I don’t actually enjoy writing or illustrating these books because it’s always under really bad time pressure. I usually draw at my desk for 16 hours a day for two months and it really takes a toll, it changes me physically. It’s hard! I like having finished, I don’t like writing but I like having written. And so I like the finished product because a lot of work went into it and I feel proud of it at the end.

What advice do you have for your sons as they navigate their own growing up years?
My advice to my kids growing up is to do the opposite of what Greg does. My kids are really different from Greg. It looked for a time like my older son was going to become like Greg – playing a lot of video games and not going outside – but he really changed. Both my kids are basketball players and so they’re really not like Greg Heffley at all.

Do they read your books?
They do! I’m going to get home from this trip and we’re going to read The Getaway together so they’ll be the first kids to read that book.

What have you heard about Singapore?
Singapore has always felt like a myth to me, it is literally on the other side of the world. In fact, it makes it really easy to stay in touch with my family because I think, okay, minus 12 hours. My favourite thing in the world is to replace ignorance with experience. I didn’t know a lot about Singapore and I’ve learned a lot in the short time that I’ve been here. It’s incredibly comfortable for me as an American to come here and I really hope to be able to come back with my family.

What do you want to say to your fans in Singapore?
Keep reading as much as you can, not just Diary of a Wimpy Kid books, but everything you can – because you will enjoy your life so much better if you read.


The Jeff Kinney meet-and-greet was a collaboration between GoGuru and Penguin Random House.

The Getaway is out 7 November 2017. Get your copy at $15 (usual price $21.94) when you pre-order from us!

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