With two dots for eyes, a perfectly round head atop which are three strands of hair, a glum expression plastered over his face, the reed-thin 12-year-old Greg Heffley crouches on the starter blocks at a swimming pool waiting for the coach’s whistle. ‘Stop shivering, Greg,’ shouts out his father from the sidelines, annoyed over his son’s reluctance to participate in sport.
Clearly not pleased to be there or indulge in any kind of exercise, Greg only wants to get it over with so he can rush home to his favourite video game. Or, maybe, mess around with his best friend Rowley Jefferson, the guy with a mop of hair and two pronounced front teeth.
‘That could be straight out from my own life,’ says Jeff Kinney, the author of the bestselling Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, with a laugh, the mirth in his voice palpable when I ask him if Greg, the hugely popular character he created, is modelled on him. ‘I was almost always looking for a way out of swim team or soccer practice.’
The US-based author, who will be attending the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature that opens on March 1, admits that ‘Greg has all my flaws as a kid and as an adult amplified. He wouldn’t exist without me. He’s a very exaggerated form of myself.’
Clearly, readers cutting across all nationalities and ages love them both. Get this: Since the first book about the trials and tribulations of the tween was released on April 1, 2007, the 13 novels in the series have sold more than 200 million copies in 140 countries.
Translated into more than 56 languages, including Arabic and Latin, the Diaries have struck a chord in readers from Australia to Zambia, Iceland to India. From the head of the Catholic church — Pope Francis was photographed leafing through a Latin translation of Diary of a Wimpy Kid — to former US presidents — Barack Obama was seen walking out of a bookstore with a copy of the book — to the kid next door, readers cannot seem to have enough of the misadventures of the Wimpy Kid, his friends and family.
That the series is hugely popular in the UAE, too, is evident from the fact that tickets for Jeff’s session at the Emirates Litfest were sold out within just a couple of days forcing organisers to review the venue and include more seats thereby making more tickets available for fans. (At the time of going to press, a few more seats were available for the session on March 2.)
So, why is Greg so popular across the world? I ask the author, who Time magazine listed as one of 100 most influential people in the world.
Jeff considers the question for a moment. ‘I ask myself that every time I take a trip out of the US,’ he says. ‘I find so many readers of Wimpy Kid when I tour China, Brazil, New Zealand… places where the culture is different from that in the US. I think the reason [for the popularity] could be because I really try to write about universal childhood. Most of us have siblings, parents, teachers, pets and bullies and friends. I write about that. I’m not writing about an American childhood; I try to write about what we are all going through growing up. In fact I don’t like to write about cultural references that might make sense in the US but not, for instance, in the UAE.’
Jeff also believes that the format — of including funny cartoon sketches with text in handwriting font — is an appealing one. ‘If someone opens my book, it seems like there’s a lot of fun and not much words. I think kids of a certain age need books like this that bridge that gap between picture books and novels,’ he says.
The format, incidentally, is similar to a journal Jeff maintained when he was young. ‘It was handwritten but I interspersed [the text] with cartoon-like drawings. There is a direct connection of Diary of a Wimpy Kid and those early journals I wrote.’
So popular has the format become that it has spawned a genre of sorts not least because ‘there is so much room within it to be expressive. ‘Some people are doing some really amazing things [within the genre],’ says the bestselling author.
Son of a military analyst who worked at the Pentagon and a mother who ran a preschool, Jeff, who used to draw a comic strip for his college newspaper, was keen on pursuing a career in comics. Although he tried hard to break into cartooning for newspapers dashing off pieces as often as he could, rejection slips were all he received. ‘It was tough,’ he says, but was reluctant to give up.
The father of two, who has a degree in criminal justice, initially planned to write for a mature audience. ‘My dad introduced me to comics — classic comics from the 50s and 60s — and I thought cartoons were something everybody tends to enjoy. So when I wrote The Wimpy Kid, I was thinking of the humour section of a bookstore. I wasn’t thinking of kids as an audience [but] of all the funny books that sat in that section including cartoon compilations.’
Jeff, whose favourite authors growing up included Judy Bloom — ‘she captures the essence of childhood very well’ — and JRR Tolkien — ‘because he was able to transform me to a new world through his work’ — worked on the first Wimpy Kid book for eight long years. ‘I felt this was the only good idea I was ever going to have so I wanted to take my time,’ he said. He built on stories from his childhood — how he tried to avoid swim-team practice, antics in school, the awful school cafeteria food, quirky friends — all aimed at eliciting chuckles from readers.
‘Here I was writing about my failures and my challenges in this journal format and then one day I decided maybe this is one way I can get my cartoons published,’ he says.
The editor at Abrams, the publishing house he approached, though, wanted to aim it more at young readers rather than adults. Not wanting to be a wimp, Jeff agreed. And The Diary of a Wimpy Kid was born.
‘The DNA of my books is in comics,’ says Jeff. ‘[The Wimpy Kid series] is not really books; it’s long form comics.’
He admits that just about everything in his book, particularly the first three or four of them, has some connection to what happened in his life. ‘Everybody has funny stories, scary stories, dramatic stories to tell. So I incorporated all the funny things that happened to me as a kid, things that happened to my family. Everything has been put through the fiction blender — the specifics have been changed [but] the spirit of what happened is captured there. I think that’s what drives the series — the real-life experiences — because I’m really interested in funny and authentic things that happen to people.’
Was the decision to create a hero with a few imperfections, a tough one to take, I ask the award-winning author, who also built Poptropica, an education gaming site for children.
‘I’ve always been a little bit conflicted about having this flawed character since I now know that kids are raving about him. The conclusion I’ve come to is that it would not be a funny book if the main character was perfect — a goody two shoes. I certainly don’t think Greg is corrupt or truly bad,’ he says, taking up for his lead character.
Greg, he believes, is only human and his bad decision-making and sometimes flawed points of view are on display for everyone. ‘I have this idea that Greg is writing about his life at the worst possible time. I’d be very embarrassed, really really mortified, to see a movie about my life as a 12- or 13-year-old. He’s a bit full of himself but also quite clearly wrong and I think that’s the fun of it all; that’s why kids enjoy the character.’
So, was your adolescence as cringey and painful as Greg’s? I ask.
Jeff bursts out laughing. ‘It was sometimes worse,’ he says, after a moment. ‘In some ways I think the books are a toned down version of what happened, and sometimes amplified.’
Growing up with two brothers — one older and one younger to him — and an older sister (not very different from the Wimpy Kid who has an older and a younger brother), Jeff believes the dynamics in Greg’s family aren’t a lot different from his own. For instance, having to share a single bathroom with three siblings can get a little tense at times, he says. Not unlike Greg, he admits he used to feel pretty jealous when his younger brother used to get a lot of attention.
‘Comedy is a filter,’ says the writer. ‘In some ways my childhood was pretty ordinary. It’s just that I’ve collected everything in one place. If you did that, you would have a different kind of book; it might be similar [to the Wimpy Kid books] in many different ways.’
Greg, Jeff is convinced, is the odd man out. ‘But I think that’s his fault. He’s got this very isolated, suffocating relationship with his best friend Rowley and that’s because of Greg’s smallness. He doesn’t have a wider network of friends. Within his own family it’s every man for himself. And sometimes it’s every man against [his younger brother] Manny. In Greg Heffley, I’ve created a smart character who kids can hopefully relate to.’
If the popularity of the series is anything to go by, they surely do. An adolescent video game addict, Greg has a cool, long-haired guitar-strumming elder brother who frequently belittles him, a mollycoddled baby brother who annoys him, and parents who are always on his case often embarrassing him in front of the local pretty girl for whom he is willing to do anything — even attend those dreaded swimming classes.
‘I think it’s very true that children like to read about somebody who is having it a little bit worse than they are,’ says Jeff. ‘If people were to ask me why Greg is frowning on a couple of book covers, it’s because if he was this very happy guy, you wouldn’t be so interested about him. If he was well-adjusted or happy or brave and good at everything, it wouldn’t make him a very interesting person. In comedy, we want to read a little bit about struggles because comedy comes from that struggle.’
I ask Jeff if it was also a struggle to ensure every book in the series is exactly 217 pages long. Also, why 217?
‘Ahh, that’s an easy one,’ says Jeff, cheerfully. ‘My first book, which is very special to me because it helped me break through as a cartoonist, happened to be 217 pages long. I wanted all future books in the series to look the same on someone’s shelf so decided to make them the same length.’
That was only part of the reason, though. Harry Potter books was the other. ‘I was writing my books when the Harry Potter books were coming out and I remember they used to grow in size and contract a little bit. I think when you pick up a book, you assign a value to it based on its length. I didn’t want kids to do that [for my series] so I strived for sameness.’
While there may be a certain sameness as far as the size of the book is concerned, the jokes and content are anything but. Also, unlike most writers who create a plot and then structure the book around it, Jeff adopts a different process of writing. Upending the conventional mode, he thinks up maybe around 200 jokes then creates a plot to suit the gags.
The traditional process does not work for him, he says, ‘because it’s very hard to layer comedy onto a plot. The priority of my books is really comedy — they have to be funny and have to work. It’s more important for me to have a funny book with a weaker plot than a book with a really strong plot but not many jokes.’
Coming up with those jokes, though, is not all fun. ‘A lot of my work — my joke writing — is very methodical,’ says the author. In essence, what he does is sit in a chair and go through a slightly complex process called Systematic Inventive Thinking. ‘Put simply, it’s a technique to systematically generate material instead of just waiting for it to happen,’ he says.
After spending three to four hours every morning for a few months doing this, he gets down to writing the manuscript. ‘For that writing, I need to go away to a hotel or a different state; I need to separate myself from the normal world.’
Sometimes though, going away has meant moving further than just to a different state. One time Jeff flew 500 miles to his childhood neighbourhood hoping that walking on streets that he traipsed on as a kid would stir up humorous memories. ‘It didn’t,’ he reports.
Another time, he set off to Florida, changed his mind at the last minute at the airport and took a flight to Iceland instead — arriving there with a suitcase full of shorts and T-shirts. That time though, he did manage to write quite a bit — perhaps because he was forced to stay indoors due to the cold.
Most times though, he prefers to go for really long walks. ‘Earlier, I used to walk maybe four hours a day hoping that the grind of walking would put comedic ideas into my head,’ he says. ‘But this new method [Systematic Inventive Thinking] that I employ now is much better and much more productive.’
He surely is. With 13 books to his credit and an award — Blue Peter Book Award in 2012 — to boot, Jeff was also named by Time magazine in 2009 as one of 100 most influential people in the world. ‘I’m not even the most influential person in my house!’ he reportedly said at the time.
‘[Being named an influential person] was a strange experience,’ he says, reminiscing the moment. ‘At the time, my third book wasn’t out yet so when I first heard the news, I thought it was a practical joke. It really took me by surprise. If that happened now, I’d feel a little bit better about it. I’d think it is a little more deserved than when it happened so early in my career.’
Nevertheless, Jeff is proud of the achievement and pleased that his books are helping turn a lot of kids into readers. ‘It’s nice that these books are really teaching kids that reading can be pleasurable, can be fun. There’s something sacred about a book especially for a kid [because] they treasure books. I feel lucky to be on their bookshelves. It’s a huge responsibility towards these kids, something that I don’t take lightly.’
With four movies in the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series out now, how easy was it turning the page from books to films? Was there anything lost in translation? I ask.
‘That’s a tough question to answer,’ says Jeff. ‘We made this great leap from cartoon [characters] to real people. With that change I think the material too was going to change. Of course you have the expectation of how the character should look, sound… You should have the movie in your mind when you read.
‘What’s interesting about the movie is that they bring this emotional component. They actually tell an emotional story on the screen — an emotionally satisfying story. And I think what the filmmaker got right is in focusing on the relationship between Greg and his best friend Rowley. I really like that aspect of the movies.’
He admits that when a book is made into a film, the author would be happy about some things and wish some could have changed. ‘If the kids enjoy the films and watch them as classics, then I’m happy to be part of that.’
What also makes Jeff happy is seeing readers buy his books. ‘On at least two occasions I know for sure former US president Obama bought my books for his daughters. That’s probably one of my proudest moments — to see the father buy my books for his children.’
Does the last book’s success put a lot of pressure when penning the next one?
‘I would not call it pressure,’ he says. ‘It’s more about responsibility because I know that millions of copies are printed and I do not want to let down my readers.’
Before winding up the interview I ask him what it means to be famous and successful?
‘Surreally, unreal,’ he says. ‘You know the movie The Truman Show with Jim Carrey about an ordinary guy whose life has been manufactured? I sometimes feel like I’m in a movie of some sort.’
Jeff Kinney’s tips to help children become readers
Feed your child’s interests even if their interests do not match your own. If your child really likes Pokemon, I’d recommend you get them Pokemon magazines and books. If a kid is reading something that is interesting to them, let them do that.
Do not assume that the books you read while growing up is going to work for your kid. Many times I’ve tried to read to my kids books that I loved as a kid and the writing sometimes turns out to be a little bit archaic… a bit outdated. That might cause some disappointment in parents when the kids do not latch on to what they loved.
Get kids books that are their age or grade appropriate.
Another place parents get it wrong is when they want to introduce their bright kid to the classics and when they don’t read The Great Gatsby or books like that, then we might feel that our kids are not as bright as we thought they are. But kids really should be reading within their level; they’ll move on their own. Kids will keep seeking out more and more challenging works on their own.
Jeff Kinney: The Wimpy Kid is Here! Saturday March 2, 6pm-7pm, Al Baraha 3, InterContinental, DFC.