Jeff Kinney, 44, is the best-selling author of the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, a cartoon-filled chronicle of the life of middle-schooler Greg Heffley. Kinney worked on the book for almost six years before publishing it as a web comic in 2005, offering daily installments on Funbrain.com. The online version has had more than 80 million visits and is read by more than 70,000 people a day. In 2006, Kinney signed a multi-book deal to turn Diary of a Wimpy Kid into a print series. Released in 2007, it quickly became a No. 1 New York Times best-seller and spawned three films that have grossed more than $225 million worldwide. In 2007, Kinney also created the online gaming company Poptropica.com, where he serves as creative and editorial director. He lives in southern Massachusetts with his wife and two sons, and he plans to open An Unlikely Story, a 3,000-square-foot bookstore and cafe, in Plainville this spring.
Jeff Kinney: I was an average kid with extremely wimpy moments. For example, I would hide from my swim coach in the locker room, and it would get so cold that I’d wrap myself in toilet paper to stay warm. That’s where Greg Heffley was born—me wrapped up like a mummy in toilet paper, wearing a Speedo.
I wanted to be a newspaper cartoonist and couldn’t break in, so I had to figure out a way to get my comics published somehow. So I decided to put them in book form. But specifically, I was reading the Harry Potter books, and Harry Potter might seem like an underdog, but he’s really not. He’s powerful. He’s famous. He’s rich. He’s brave. He’s a good athlete. All the things I was not. And I thought it would be fun to write about a kid who was more like me.
Was there a period when you were popular in school? I had my height of popularity in fifth grade, when I was the third most popular boy. It really was all downhill from there.
Do you think there’s a connection between your books and the rise of the movement to stop bullying? Interesting. I’d say it’s coincidental. I certainly never set out to write an anti-bullying book, and I parody the stridency of the anti-bullying movement in my books. You see these posters all over the hallways of schools, like “Let’s Stomp Out Bullying,” or “Let’s Kill Bullying in Its Tracks.” I kind of lampoon that in my books.
Where did the name Greg Heffley come from? Well, Heffley is kind of close to Kinney. The name Greg is one my mother almost used on all three of her children but never did, so I thought it would be fun to bring that name to life.
How would you describe your drawing style? Sophisticated middle school. It’s meant to look like it’s drawn by a kid but with an adult’s polish.
Who are your biggest fans? I’d say the sweet spot is fourth- or fifth-grade boys, but they seem to be popular in grades two through six.
I used to look at my books as a way to get kids to laugh at their own circumstances, but I’ve come to find out that my books actually terrify a lot of grade school kids. I guess they depict middle school as Dante’s ninth ring of hell. When I first met the kids who were doing the movie, they were just getting ready to go into middle school, and they were really scared about it just because of my books.
Speaking of the movies, you’ve acted in two of them. What was that like? I’m assuming you’re putting quotes around the word acting. It was agony. I felt so self-conscious. I didn’t belong there at all. I think I ruined the scenes I appeared in. I don’t think I’ll do that again.
Once a kid told me that his father was a bigwig with Gulfstream, and he was offering me a ride on a private jet. On the one hand, I thought, “This is extremely bizarre,” but it was tempting.
I’ve always felt I have a kid’s sensibilities. When it comes to my breakfast cereal, I tend to gravitate toward things like Fruity Pebbles. So I feel like I’ve never quite grown up.
You have kids. What’s their response to the books? My kids are 9 and 12, both boys, and I keep the books and all the Wimpy Kid stuff out of the house, so they’re not inundated by it. But every so often, they’ll use it. My younger son sometimes uses his notoriety to make friends or brag a little bit, and it’s kind of fun to see him get a little something out of it.
How do you feel when you’re in public and you see a kid reading one of your books? It’s happened a few times, and when I mention to the kid that I’m the writer, it always really creeps them out. One time a girl got onto a plane while I was sitting next to the actor who played Greg Heffley in the films. She sat down next to us, and after we told her who we were, she was just silent for the whole rest of the flight.
Time Magazine named you one of its 100 most influential people. How much grief did you get for that from friends and family? [Laughs] Well, I realized after getting that honor that I wasn’t even the most influential person in my own house. It was a lot of fun, but I didn’t take it too seriously.
Ever use your fame to get a restaurant reservation? Sometimes, when I want to convince people of an argument, I’ll remind them that I’m one of the most influential people in the world. [Laughs]
If I’d said to you 20 years ago that you’d have this whole franchise or empire, what would you have said? I always felt very irrationally that I was going to be famous one day. In the first Diary of a Wimpy Kid book, Greg says he knows he’s going to be rich and famous one day, so he’ll keep this journal so he doesn’t have to answer people’s stupid questions. I can’t tell if that’s something I felt or most American kids feel, but I think we all feel like we might be president one day, and I had this completely irrational belief that I would become famous, based upon absolutely nothing. I remember in middle school, I decided to up my signature, because I’d need a fancy signature to sign autographs.
No. About 18 years ago, I used to play a lot of video games, and at the end of a session, everybody would say where they lived. There were all these exotic places, like Fiji and Australia, and I felt very sophisticated and worldly for playing this particular game. Then, one day, someone said, “How old are you?” and almost everyone rang in with 10, 11, 12. I took my hands off the keyboard, and I’ve never played another online game. But I write video games. ?
I have my video game sensibility, and that comes from the EA games from the 1980s, like King’s Quest and games of that ilk. So I try to write games that I would have liked as a kid—games where you go on a quest, and solving puzzles. Not so much the action-packed arcade-like games. I like games where you have to use your brain.
What do you think about the ultra-violent games? I really don’t like them. I think they desensitize kids. I don’t let my kids play them. I guess I’m a fuddy-duddy, but I’m happy not to have that kind of stuff in the house.
When I was a kid, we had a neighborhood bookstore that vanished one day. In recent years, we’ve seen so many bookstores close. I’m happy to be in a position to fight back and add another bookstore to the landscape.
Do you think independent bookstores will survive Amazon? I do. We buy from Amazon, but a bookstore is a very special space that’s hard to replicate on a screen.
Merchandising opportunity that you’ve turned down? In the U.K. they wanted to do tighty-whities with Greg Heffley’s face emblazoned on them, and I said, “I really don’t think we should go there.”
Is there a culture where it seems like kids just don’t get the Wimpy Kid series? Good question. For a while there, it didn’t do well in France, despite doing well in other European countries, but just recently it started to do well there. I’ve always been surprised by where it does do well. It’s very strong in rural Brazil, where a large number of the copies are delivered by salesmen going up the Amazon in canoes. That strikes me as a strange thing.
Are the unsympathetic characters in the book based upon actual people? I realize that most of the adults in my books are unsympathetic. They’re all sort of tyrants, and I think most kids relate to that feeling. But I’ve tried to put everything into the fiction blender, so that there’s not really a one-to-one connection to actual people, but there are bits and pieces, definitely.
Greg’s family is sort of uniformly unlikable, no? I was recently interviewed by CBS Sunday Morning, and the reporter said, “What’s with the Heffley family? They’re really awful.” It took me by surprise, because these are the people I know and love. In some ways, everybody’s family is awful, but they’re your family, and you love them.