We met at Manhattan’s famous Carnegie Hall for the 10th anniversary of the first “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” novel, which was written by Jeff Kinney. After a special presentation, we were able to ask Jeff a few questions:
Are you a self-made artist or did you study art in school?
I was a criminal justice major and graduated with a degree in criminal justice. So I am self-taught and learned what I learned trying to become a real newspaper cartoonist. I talked about simplicity today. When I started to draw like a kid, I learned that that is the essence of cartooning — using as few lines as possible to make the biggest impact possible. So I am self-taught in that way, yes.
What does a successful book look like to you?
That is a good question. I think that any book that reaches at least one person and changes one person’s life is a successful book. I am working 17 hours a day, so if I reach one kid who really seems to be touched by the books, that means so much to me. Even if I had a small or shrinking audience, it would still be worth it.
When you see the movie after writing the book, does it turn out the way you want it to be?
That is a good question. [We watched a scene from his new movie, “Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul.”] You can see in the seagull scene that it is really close to what happens in the book. Beat by beat, it is just about what happens. And then we have to make choices in the movie because a movie tells a little bit of a different story than the book. It is an adventure, I will put it that way. It is a lot of fun to see the emotion come out in a movie. You need to tell a story that is very emotional, because that means that you care — cry, or laugh, or be scared. You need to do that in a movie, but you don’t need to do that in a book.
How long does it take you to write a book?
It takes me about three or four months to come up with all the jokes. I write about 350 jokes for one book, and then I spend about one month writing the manuscript, and then I illustrate the book over about six weeks. But those days are between 13 and 17 hours every day.
Did where you grew up affect how you write your books?
Yes, I grew up in Port Washington, Maryland. Even though in my book, I don’t talk about where Greg is, in my mind he is in Port Washington, Maryland.
What tips do you have for kids who write books?
I think the best tip to become an author is to read as much as possible. You really can’t become a great writer unless you read a lot.
Do your friends ever ask you if they can be in the books?
No, my friends never ask, but every once in a while a kid does. A kid might ask me to put their name in the book, and sometimes I remember and sometimes I don’t.
Have you been giving any thoughts to new characters in the books, like a new neighbor or a Heffley family member we haven’t seen yet?
I think the idea of problematic neighbors is a really good idea. I think that would be a really good start for a book, if you had really bad neighbors.
What is your favorite genre of book to read, and do you have a favorite author?
I like comic books. I like the comic books by Carl Barks, who did Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge. I think they are great literature, too.
If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?
I would say to be persistent, don’t give up, because one day you might be able to break through.
Are the characters of “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” inspired by anyone?
Some of the characters are inspired by real-life people, but then they are twisted a lot into fiction. So they start out that way, and then they change over time.
Is Greg Heffley based on you when you were going to middle school?
Greg Heffley is based on me as a middle schooler. He is a little bit exaggerated — I didn’t do all the bad things that Greg does. And, in some ways, he is better than I was as a middle schooler.
When you were growing up, did you have any siblings, and did they make it into your books?
I have an older brother and an older sister and a younger brother, and they have made their way into the Wimpy Kids books one way or another.