Jeff Kinney sold more hardcover books last year than any other author. More than 8.5 million editions from his Diary of a Wimpy Kid series are now in circulation—some in languages that don’t even have a word for “wimpy.” But the real proof of his success is in the laughter of children and adult readers alike—very much on display at Trustees Theater on Saturday. Savannah magazine editor Annabelle Carr and her 11-year-old son, Santo, sat down with Kinney before his sold-out presentation at the Savannah Book Festival.
Santo: So you have a new Wimpy Kid book coming out in November, right?
Jeff Kinney: Yes, I do.
What’s it about?
Kinney: I have no idea! I’m in trouble. (Laughter)
It takes me usually about nine months to write a book and I’m a little behind on this one. Part of the fun of writing Wimpy Kid books is that I don’t know what’s going to happen next myself. So I really, REALLY don’t know on this book.
Annabelle: So you’re going to write pretty fast.
Jeff: I hope so!
Annabelle: The first book took eight years, and now you finish at least one a year. What’s the secret to writing fast? How did you make that evolutionary leap?
Jeff: I don’t know. This time, we’ll see. I’m up against it so I guess I’ll find out. I think the book is actually going to be about Rowley (Greg’s best friend) getting a girlfriend and it being really annoying to Greg. So we’ll see how that works.
Annabelle: That sounds pretty realistic.
Jeff: Santo, Have any of your friends gotten interested in girls?
Santo: Um, yeah.
Jeff: So you know how that goes.
Santo: (Changing the subject) How did you pick the name Greg Heffley?
Jeff: Well, my mother always said that she wanted to name a son Greg, but she never did, so I thought I would create that character. And Heffley is a name that’s very similar to Kinney if you line them up.
Annabelle: I’m always surprised that you keep coming up with funny ideas that are age-appropriate. I laugh out loud, and so does he. When you started out, you were drawing on your own experiences in middle school. Do you have people sharing their memories at this point, or are you still drawing from your own past?
Jeff: These days I’m using my imagination more than anything, so I have to be very inventive. I like writing about stuff that’s rooted in truth but I’ve tapped out my childhood in a way.
Santo: Which is harder, writing Wimpy Kid books or planning for Poptropica?
Jeff: Oh, you know I work for Poptropica! Well, it’s hard to keep a balance. I do Poptropica during the day and the Wimpy Kid books at night. It’s hard to do both, but I think it’s really hard to come up with a funny new idea for Wimpy Kid. Like, if I have four hours in the night, I might spend four hours without coming up with any funny ideas at all.
Annabelle: Are you very disciplined about it? Do you sit down with your blank page every night no matter what?
Jeff: I’m the most disciplined when it comes to drawing. In fact, I can draw in the summertime for 16 or 17 hours a day for a month or two months.
Annabelle: Wow. And out of that, do you extract and refine you ideas?
Jeff: Actually, drawing is the last part of the process for me.
Annabelle: And a lot of the punch lines are visual.
Jeff: Yes, that’s right, they are.
Santo: What’s the most trouble you ever got into in middle school?
Jeff: Well, that’s interesting. One time my friend and I were horsing around. We were boy scouts and we were throwing knifes through tents. It was pretty bed news. But I don’t do that kind of thing any more. (Laughter)
Annabelle: Throwing knifes through tents? That’s could’ve been dangerous if someone was in there.
Jeff: Yeah, no one was in there but we didn’t help the waterproofing of those tents very much.
Annabelle: OK, my motherly reaction to that reminds me of the parents in your books. I know what it’s like to have parents like that. You know, kind of lame. I don’t like to think of myself that way, you know?
Jeff: Right, right, right.
Annabelle: But Santo calls me out for being lame all the time. (Laughter) Are you prepared for the fact that you’re going to be somebody’s dorky dad?
Jeff: Yeah, I have a different perception of myself than my kids have of me and you can see the seeds of them being embarrassed of me. But we try to keep it loose in my house and the kids have a really good sense of humor so far.
Annabelle: That helps!
Jeff: Yes! You know, my son had to take this test, and the sentences were: “Daniel is the best at throwing. Daniel is the best at swimming. Daniel is the best at running. Daniel is … ” And my son, Will, had to fill in the blank, and he wrote “Daniel is … a showoff.” (Laughter) And I’m like, you know, he’s going to be OK.
Santo: Did you do a sport in middle school?
Jeff: Yeah, I played sports like an average middle schooler. I did soccer and swimming just like Greg in the books. I wish I’d gotten into basketball. Do you play basketball?
Santo: Yeah, I play on the team at school.
Jeff: Cool. Have you ever made a shot?
Santo: Not yet. But it’s still early in the season.
Jeff: That’s the same with my son. He hasn’t made one yet. Someday, though, right?
Annabelle: What does it mean to you at this point to be “wimpy?”
Jeff: When kids picked up the book, I wanted them to see that the character was flawed, not perfect. So I thought “wimpy” was a good word to show that he was not so powerful.
Annabelle: You’re a middle school expert at this point. You’ve thought about how kids feel at that age more than most adults, aside from maybe a child psychologist. How would you advise a kid in middle school? We grow and change so much at that time in our lives.
Jeff: I think I’d say that middle school isn’t always so much fun and you have some people around you who might be mean, and I’d say the same of high school, and then things start to really change. People in general act more kind. So remember it gets better, and do what I did. Take notes and make it into a book.