Jeff Kinney Shares Secret Origin of "Diary of a Wimpy Kid"

Unlike the extraordinary worlds of Harry Potter and Katniss Everdeen, cartoonist Jeff Kinney has tapped into the zeitgeist of today's youth by delivering something quite ordinary in the pages of his "Diary of a Wimpy Kid" series.

The international best-selling series explores the daily happenings of Greg Heffley, a boy who is not a wizard -- though he once played a magician's assistant in his middle school's talent show. Greg's also not fighting for his life in a "Lord of the Flies"-inspired game of survival, but his dad did once threaten to send him to military school to toughen him up.

All that said, Greg's (and Kinney's) success is far from ordinary. To date, seven "Wimpy Kid" books have been released through Abrams' Amulet Books imprint, and when the eighth in the series, "Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Hard Luck," is released on November 5, the publisher expects the series will surpass sales of 115 million books in print worldwide -- placing it in a class with sales juggernauts like "The Chronicles of Narnia" and "Twilight."

With the release of his new book just weeks away, CBR News connected with Kinney to discuss Greg's latest misadventures. During the course of our conversation, the author shared his thoughts on mastering his craft after years and years of hard work, which comics and comic strips he enjoyed growing up and how and why Greg finds himself facing a new streak of bad luck in the latest book.

CBR News: There is a line in the most recent news release for "Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Hard Luck," which -- for obvious reasons -- really jumps out at me: "Wimpy Kid will join the elite ranks of the few series that have surpassed the 115 million mark, including 'The Chronicles of Narnia' and 'Twilight.' This major triumph comes just six years after the first book in the series went on sale." Does that blow your mind?

Jeff Kinney: I don't know if I will really be able to appreciate facts like that until this is all over and everything has been tallied.

A few years ago, my pie-in-the-sky goal was 100 million books sold. I thought one day I might reach that number, but, quite frankly, I didn't think it was achievable. Recently, my publisher counted up all the sales from all the different countries and languages, and shockingly, we were already above 115 million. I can't believe it. It's also very humbling because you think that as an author, after one success, you will work on your next project. And you hope that the next project will be successful, as well, but I'm sure that everyone else that has sold more than 100 million copies has tried to do something else and has not succeeded to the same level so I'm certain that I've peaked. [Laughs] I just need to appreciate what I've done.

That the books do well in the United States and other English speaking countries like Canada, the U.K. and Australia makes sense, but do you find it at all bizarre at how easily the books appear to translate to other languages, like Spanish or Mandarin?

I am surprised by it, but when I started doing these books, I made a rule that all things that happened in the book could have happened 20 years ago or could happen 20 years from now. I was always turned off by old comic books that my dad had that had technology or something anachronistic that didn't exist anymore, so I try to make them very general. I think that, coupled with the fact that there is no real place named -- you don't know where the books are happening -- allows the books to work outside of the United States.

This new book is called, "Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Hard Luck." Do you feel that you've been lucky?

I think that I've been very fortunate and I have nothing to complain about.

Obviously, you can't give too much away, but what can you share about Greg's latest exploits?

Greg finds himself without his best friend Rowley because Rowley's gone and gotten himself a girlfriend. Greg is starting over socially, which is a hard thing to do in middle school. He's looking for friends, and he's looking to find his way. Eventually, he realizes that his own decision making is suspect, so he turns his life over to chance, finds a magic eight ball and goes from there.

Is Rowley's new girlfriend Abigail from "Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Third Wheel?"

Yes, she's the one. She's a little bit hard to write as a character because she's meant to be a placeholder for a girlfriend rather than a fully developed character. It was a little tricky trying to figure out how to write for a character that hardly has any dialogue and not much of a personality. She's just a stand-in for a threat to Greg's and Rowley's friendship.

What comics or comic strips did you enjoy in your youth? And are you reading any comics books now?

Honestly, I did have a handful of superhero comic books, but those didn't really interest me that much. The Carl Barks' "Uncle Scrooge" and "Donald Duck" stories are the best stories that I've ever read, in any medium. I've made an effort to go out and buy the Fantagraphics books for my sons because I think those are real treasures.

As far as other cartoonists, I used to read "Calvin and Hobbes" and all the other ones that you'd expect when I was a teenager. "Calvin and Hobbes," "Bloom County" and "The Far Side" are kind of the holy trinity of cartoons for that time of my life. I hoped to join those ranks [as a syndicated cartoonist], but I never got to see that work out.

As for today, every so often I will get my hands on a graphic novel or something else that's a little more elevated. I like a more refined graphic novel like "Revival." That's one of my favorites. I don't watch much television and I don't read very much but I catch some here and there.

Can you take us back to Greg Heffley's secret origin? How did you conceive of the Wimpy Kid?

The secret, secret origins are a little bit obscure. I used to have a comic in college called, "Igdoof." Igdoof was this very odd looking character with a bulbous nose and gigantic ears and gigantic lips, and when he drew himself, he would draw himself as an idealized form with a perfectly round head and a button nose and normal proportions. And that was how Greg Heffley looks now.

That's where this character really originated, but the actually named character "Greg Heffley" came from my inability to get syndicated as a newspaper cartoonist. It was the result of me coming to grips with the fact that I couldn't draw like a professional, so I had to take a different tact. I had to start portraying myself as a kid in order to get my cartoons accepted.

And what about his look? Did you try various iterations?

One of the things that I decided when I came up with the "Diary of a Wimpy Kid" concept was that I was going to take my time with it. I wasn't going to put it out there until it was ready. For that reason, I actually spent a number of years writing it. The whole endeavor took me eight years -- beginning to end. And one of the years, all I did was keep reworking the characters, because one of the things that I don't like in comics is when characters evolve and find their form. If I look at old "Peanuts" comics or old "Bloom County," you can see that artist hadn't found the perfect form for the character yet, and it changed over time. In cartooning, I think that breaks the spell for the reader. I wanted to make sure that it didn't change. That's why it took so long to develop the character.

What tools do you use as an artist?

I used to use pencil, paper and ink like most cartoonists, but I found that I developed this psychosomatic problem in doing touchups on the computer. I would end up spending an hour fixing a drawing that only took me 20 minutes to do in pencils and ink. [Laughs] Eventually, the technology caught up where a person could draw on the screen but still have it look like a human being drew the lines. That was the moment that I jumped over. Now I use a really large Wacom tablet, which is about 24 inches, I believe. It weighs so much that it would take two people to move it.

Are any of Greg's stories autobiographical?

A lot of the things that happen in the books happened to me, or people in my family. It's all been put in the washer or the blender and has been all mixed up so there is nothing that's quite factual, but anybody in my family reading these books could pick out parts and say they come from real life.

This is the secret ingredient, and you may not want to give it away, but why do you think today's youth -- and most of their parents -- have connected with the "Diary of a Wimpy Kid" books?

I think Greg is a blank canvas. He is a template for a kid, and you can project yourself onto him. The fact that it's all written in the first person allows you to relate to him better, too. But hopefully the reason that the books have worked out is because of the humor in the writing. I'm not sure that the format alone or the character alone would work, so hopefully what they're responding to is good joke-telling in the books.

Kids must treat you like Elvis when they meet you, but what reaction do you get from parents? Do you ever get any negative reaction because "all young children should be reading 'Little Women?'"

[Laughs] I've received a lot of support. I haven't really seen any negative reaction from parents at the book signings or anything -- I guess the crabbier ones are at home. What I'm always really touched by is when I see each parent and kid come up to the table, seeing how every parent just really loves their kid. It's really touching to see how they just ache for them to be happy and to succeed and to have that moment to meet an author.

Does the impact of your series and how many kids it has generated interest and a love for reading in weigh on you? Do you take pride in that? Does it make you think twice about making certain jokes?

[Laughs] I definitely try not to phone anything in. I also have to remind myself that kids reading these books are young and I have a responsibility to them to not push the envelope too much and not say something that's going to change their lives in a negative way. I still feel like I'm writing for grownups -- since the beginning, I've tried to have the books appeal to people my own age -- but I am very aware how far these books travel.

Do you have a favorite character in the series?

Yes. My favorite character is Greg's best friend Rowley. What I really like about him is that he's a kid that isn't in a hurry to grow up, which is the opposite of Greg and, I think, the opposite of most kids. He's comfortable in his own skin. He's someone to aspire to in a lot of ways.

"Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Hard Luck," by Jeff Kinney, is available everywhere on November 5.

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