‘I write about 350 jokes per book. I throw away about a third of them’: Jeff ‘Wimpy Kid’ Kinney

A very candid interview indeed with the author and illustrator of the hugely popular series of children’s books.

Wimpy, geeky, quirky – there was a time when these were not attributes considered remarkable, much less worthy of flaunting. But that has changed since popular culture gave way to tremendously successful entertainment vehicles that celebrate the life of oddballs, not the least of which is the phenomenal publishing hit Wimpy Kid series, which be both writes and draws. In less than a decade, it’s very amiable creator, Jeff Kinney, 45, has written 11 books, told in journal-form, accompanied by hilarious illustrations.

Quirkily, each book is exactly 217 pages long.

Those who know a little about him know that Kinney never wanted to be a children’s author, but after many failed attempts at being a newspaper cartoonist, and later, trying to pitch The Wimpy Kid idea as a book for adults, he landed a publishing deal for what sent him right up the New York Times bestselling list. Where he has stayed.

The series was made into three blockbuster films, and, in 2015, Kinney, who also runs the children’s gaming website, Poptropica, opened a bookstore, An Unlikely Story, in Plainville, Massachusetts, where he lives. The latest in the book series, Double Down, which was released in November 2016, takes us through the wimpy hero Greg Heffley’s account of his experiments with the French Horn, a most disastrous play date, and some crazy ideas about making it big by shooting a scary movie.

Kinney was in India to address two venues full of fans at the 10th Penguin Annual Lecture in New Delhi and Mumbai, where he spoke about what it takes to create each book and the tricks to illustrating. Earlier, he spoke to of the strains behind the lightness of his books, the challenges of being a parent today, and where The Wimpy Kid will go next. Excerpts from the interview:

Nearly 10 years of The Wimpy Kid. How difficult is it to sustain a series this long, with Greg Heffley continuing as a middle-schooler throughout?
It’s been a fun challenge. I’m writing about the same characters and the circumstances are similar, but I have been trying to look at childhood from a different angle. I would like to see how far I can go with it. The universe of a child is really big, it’s sort of never-ending and ever-expanding. I just hope I can keep writing in a way that honours the readership.

Were you a wimpy kid?
I was, I had really wimpy moments. I was also athletic, I played sports and didn’t only play video games. But I could be really wimpy. I remember I was in the swimming team and I would hide from the coach in the locker room just like Greg does in the second book. And it would get so cold in there, I would wrap myself in toilet paper just to keep warm. So I did some really wimpy things that made their way into the book.

When did you realise cartooning was your thing? What did you read growing up?
I read Peanuts, Calvin and Hobbes, Bloom County – which is a very US-based comic – The Far Side by Gary Larson. But I liked comic books even better: I liked Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge comics that my father had collected as a kid. So those had a big influence on me.

I always knew I liked comics but when I got to college I decided I wanted to become a cartoonist. I had a comic strip in my college paper so I had every indicator that I would go on and become a newspaper cartoonist but I couldn’t break in after that. I had to change my strategy and become a cartoonist who drew inside of books.

Did you keep a journal as a kid?
I didn’t have a journal until I was in my 20s because I was working on my newspaper comics and I wasn’t working hard enough so I decided to write a journal to make myself accountable for my time. I wrote in a style which became the Wimpy Kid Diary style, which is text followed by pictures.

Tell us about the process of putting together each book. Do the illustrations come first or the diary entries? Do you bounce joke ideas off anyone to make sure they are working?
I spend about five months writing the jokes, because humour is the priority in the books. I keep the jokes to myself more and more while writing because I need people to be surprised by them. I write about 350 jokes per book. I throw away about a third of them. Then I write the manuscript for about a month and then the illustrations for about a month and a half.

Do your books require a disciplined writing routine? How do you juggle other work, like your bookstore and the gaming business, with writing?
When I’m writing, I work very hard, but I’m easily distracted. I have ADD (attention deficit disorder), so it’s hard for me to stay focussed. But when I’m illustrating, I can sit there for 13 to 17 hours at a time and just draw. I’m not very structured otherwise (with other projects), I just go where the work is.

Comic writing is tough –making it seem effortless for maximum impact, book after book. What’s your formula?
I hope that I make it look effortless, because there’s a lot of strain behind the writing. It’s very difficult for me to write and come up with good jokes. The way I keep it fresh is to remind myself that there is a lot to childhood, and as long as I am honest about things and kids can see themselves in the characters and situations, then I’m doing my job.

Do the jokes just keep coming to you? Do you need to take a break sometimes to get back to it afresh?
A lot of writers are like that, their brains are like faucets they can’t turn off. For me it’s really different, I have to work really hard to get to the ideas. But there is a period of about a month-and-a-half when I tour and I don’t do a lot of work on the Diary, and then I get back into it and start working.

Where do you find new material for Greg’s journal other than your own experience? Do you dip into your kids’ lives for inspiration?
I don’t get a lot of the jokes specifically from their lives because they don’t do all of the embarrassing things I did as a kid. My kids are pretty straight-laced and not wimpy. But just being a parent and seeing childhood a second time has helped. I drive them to practice all the time and I see their friends. I should probably volunteer more at school, and I would get a lot of material from that experience!

Your books do have adult readers as well, so how do you imagine they relate to them differently from kids?
I wrote the books originally for adults, as one big fat nostalgia piece that really captured a kid’s whole school year. So it’s good to hear that adults read my books too. I think kids don’t fully understand a lot of the humour in the books, like the irony, the fact that Greg is an unreliable narrator. But the kids, they aspire, so what they don’t want understand, they want to learn, so I think there is a good balance between the material that is intended for kids and for adults.

There is a lot of enthusiasm currently around children’s publishing. Do you feel the shift? Any favourites in the Young Adult genre?
I think there is a lot of great stuff for kids these days. It’s very well curated, publishers are really doing their job. But some of the success of children’s books can be misleading, because a lot of the books that are written for young adults are actually devoured by adults. My books are different because they are mostly for kids, though some adults pick it up for guilty pleasure.

I try not to read much of YA fiction because I don’t want to influenced by it. But I love the Harry Potter series and there is some good work in the same genre as mine such as Big Nate by Lincoln Peirce, Pearls Before Swine by Stephan Pastis. My older son responded very well to the Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan.

Image credit: Neha Bhatt
Image credit: Neha Bhatt

You said in an interview recently that Greg Heffley is sort of an “anti Harry Potter” character. What did you mean?
Actually, that came out the wrong way. What I meant was that Greg is different from Harry Potter because you think of Harry Potter as an underdog but he is not really. He is a powerful magician, he is famous, and he is also athletic. But Greg is really a nobody.

In your latest book especially, Greg’s parents are worried that his videogame obsession will turn his brain to mush. So are most parents around the world, with that constant struggle to rein in screen-time and encourage more reading. You have a foot in both worlds, so have you found a balance?
We are dealing with an unprecedented event: the fact that we’re all, adults and kids, glued to the screen all the time. It’s going to have long lasting effects on socialising. It’s a great struggle, especially between parents and kids, and we seem to be telling our kids, you need to get off your phone even while we are on our own (devices). I haven’t found a way, but we need to find a way to unglue ourselves from our screens.

With misfits getting their moment in the sun in your books and elsewhere in popular culture, TV shows, movies, etc, do you think kids like Greg have it easier now in school and in life?
There seems to be more acceptance for kids who are oddballs. A lot of kids will self-identify as geeks in the US these days, which you wouldn’t have seen (earlier). I think there is an entertainment culture that is very supportive of those types of kids, so it helps them feel more comfortable.

You are pretty tuned into what goes on in the minds of kids – does that make you more empathetic than the average parent, you think?
That’s a good question. I hope I am! But sometimes I fail as a father. I think the most important thing we can do for our kids is to say that “I understand”, because they make the same mistakes that we did. But as a parent, I understand up to a point. If they cross the limit, then their electronic device of choice is taken away for a day or so.

So where does The Wimpy Kid go from here?
The fourth movie has been filmed, the post-production is in the pipeline, and it will come out next year. An animated series for television is being planned, which will be closer to the books. I’ll be the writer and creator of that series, so I’m excited to get that started.

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