Q&A: Jeff Kinney
With all due respect to Dennis Lehane, David McCullough, and Anita Diamant, the most popular author in Massachusetts just may be Jeff Kinney. His Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, about a middle school nothing named Greg, is a regular on the New York Times bestseller list, has won two Nickelodeon Kids’ Choice Awards for favorite book, and has spawned two movies (with more to come). In other words, adults, Kinney is a BFD.
So were you a wimpy kid?
I was an average kid, but I definitely had my wimpy moments. During my swim-team days, I used to sit in a stall in the locker room and wrap myself up in toilet paper to keep warm. I definitely think that that’s where Greg was born, in that stall.
Nobody on the swim team was worried that you were gone? It was just, Oh, Jeff, he’s probably wrapped himself in toilet paper again.
I didn’t make much of an impression in general throughout my childhood, so I don’t think I was missed.
Are you surprised that the books turned into such a phenomenon?
Yeah. I worked on these books for about eight years without having any real hope that they would get published, and almost five years ago now, we got that call. Then it was a bestseller. And now, just when I think it can’t get any more absurd, it does.
What’s the most absurd thing that’s happened so far?
I had lunch last year in President George W. Bush’s home with him and his family and Condoleezza Rice. It was a Barbara Bush literacy event, but there were only two civilian authors there, so it was really like being at the Bush residence for Thanksgiving.
So the president, I presume, was a big fan of your books?
He was aware of them. Actually, we had books come out on the same day. He had Today and Oprah lined up. The best I could get was a small local television station in Texas. And when I was in the middle of my interview, I could see that they were showing the lines for President Bush’s book signing outside of a local Barnes & Noble. I was traveling on a giant tour bus at the time, so we went and buzzed by the Barnes & Noble and honked our horn and told the people in the line that they were wasting their money on his book and they should buy mine instead.
What age group would you say the books are meant for?
Truthfully, I was aiming at adults. I was planning on writing a single 1,000-page book. So it was a shock to me when my publisher told me they saw what I had created as a children’s series.
Were you insulted? They basically called you a wimpy adult.
I wasn’t insulted, but it kind of scrambled my brains. But then I realized that my sensibilities were pretty G-rated.
You’ve done six books so far?
Yes, I am working on my seventh. It’s really difficult, actually. My memories are sort of tapped out. So what I do now is look through parenting magazines and magazines for teachers and boys to see if anything gets triggered.
Your books have spawned lots of imitators, but this new Diary of a Zombie Kid has gotta be the topper.
Oh yeah, we’re in the middle of a lawsuit there, so I can’t say anything about it, unfortunately.
Ah, I wanted to talk zombie, but fine. Despite your success, you still keep your day job with your website for kids, Poptropica.
It might sound corny, but I really believe in the product. It’s full of quests and adventures, and it’s a lot of fun. Any other job, I probably would have given it up, but it’s a great product with a huge audience of about 10 million kids a month.
If we time-traveled back to college and I told you that you were going to be doing all this kids’ stuff, what would you have thought?
I would have been surprised, but I think I could’ve made that stretch. What’s strange is, back then I had this feeling with certainty that I would someday be famous. And I thought that it was just a phase that everyone goes through, but then I noticed that nobody around me really had the same ambition to do something grand, so that gave me hope that I could make a splash.