On the eve of the release of Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules, Donal O’Donoghue spoke with Wimpy Kid creator, Jeff Kinney
You may not have heard of Jeff Kinney but I bet the country is full of young people who have. The 40-year-old American writer is the creator of The Wimpy Kid, star of five books (so far) and two movies, including the current release, Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules. His books have sold over 30 million copies worldwide, a Wimpy Kid balloon featured in last year’s Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade (a huge deal in the US) and in 2009 he was listed by Time Magazine as one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World.
Perhaps the person most surprised by all this hoo-haw is Kinney himself. Married with two young boys, Grant and Will, he still works full-time as an online games developer (he is the brains behind Poptropica.com). Writing the Wimpy Kid books he says is his ‘hobby’.
You’ve described your own childhood, growing up in Fort Washington, Maryland, as being ‘unremarkable and normal”. Was that the case?
“It was an average childhood. But I was very grateful for having such a normal childhood because those are the kind of stories that I’m writing about, just ordinary stories. I’m the second youngest of four and it was a Catholic family.”
One of your brother’s names is Patrick – any Irish heritage or lineage?
“At one point we were the McKinney’s so there’s definitely some Irish and English blood in the family history. I plan to visit Ireland later this year.”
In 2007 only 23 people showed up for one of your first book signings – and they were all relatives. So how has it all changed for you?
Everything since I had my first book published has been absolutely surreal for me. I often feel like I’m on The Truman Show, that my life couldn’t get any more strange. So it has been a great ride.”
Can you tell me a little bit about Igdoof the comic strip you drew for your college newspaper at the University of Maryland?
“It was a story about a college first year student who was socially maladjusted and he had a room-mate who was a strait-laced guy. It was somewhat similar in tone to the relationship between Ernie and Bert in Sesame Street. That’s where I cut my teeth. It was a daily paper so it really helped me to see what the life of a cartoonist was like and to understand the demands of the job. That’s how I got the bug to become a cartoonist.”
For three years you tried to get your work syndicated but you said that it was “an unrealistic sort of rock star dream”. How tough was that?
“Of the many efforts that I made I only got a personal response twice. And one of those responses was that I should change the name of my character, Igdoof. For three years I tried to get my work syndicated and then I realised that the problem was with my drawing style. I didn’t have the talent to draw professionally so I started to draw as a kid and that’s when I got my breakthrough.”
You said not that long ago of Wimpy Kid, Greg Heffley: “I know Greg’s not a role model and it’s a bit of a conflict with me.” What do you mean by that?
“Greg is an imperfect character and flawed in the way that the average person is. I know now that I’m writing for kids and I’ve worried from time to time that kids will see Greg as a role model which he’s not. He’s not a bad kid but his life is being captured and documented at a time that most people would not want to have their lives documented so. So knowing that I’m writing for kids, I want to make sure that they get the joke. I feel confident that they are.”
You say that your sensibilities are “kids sensibilities, that you like the same kinds of things that kids like.” But does it also help to have two young boys, Will and Grant, to keep you plugged into that world?
“I think that’s what is great about having kids, in terms of my writing, is that I’m getting to experience childhood all over again. I used up a lot of my childhood memories to help inspire moments in the books and so have tapped out my own childhood so now, as a parent, I’m getting to see childhood from the ground up. It gives me lots of ideas and it’s exciting to have this fresh material.”
Has Grant read The Wimpy Kid books?
“He hasn’t really come to them on his. My wife read the books to Grant when he was six and couldn’t read on his own. So since they are still fresh in his mind he hasn’t come to them himself yet, which is just as well.”
As much as I can I try to keep my Wimpy Kid stuff out of the kids lives because I don’t want it to overwhelm them or for them to hear about it all the time. In fact I’ve moved almost everything thing to do with the Wimpy Kid out of my house. I don’t my kids to grow up feeling that in order to be happy in life they have to have my success. I really appreciate the fact that my parents had really normal lives and instilled in me the belief that I could be anything that I wanted to be.”
How is work going on the sixth Wimpy Kid book?
“I’ve started it but haven’t finished it. It’s due in a few months so I’ve got to get cracking. I’m not allowed to give away the title yet.”
Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules is published by Puffin Books. The film is at cinemas nationwide.