Life & Style

EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW | I think I’m a good joke-teller: Jeff Kinney, ‘The Diary of the Wimpy Kid’ author

International bestselling author Jeff Kinney is best known for his ‘The Diary of the Wimpy Kid’ series, which was first published in 2007. Since then over 250 million copies of the books have been sold worldwide and they have been translated into 65 languages. And now, the author is back with the 16th book in the hugely popular series, titled ‘Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Big Shot’, which was published by Puffin recently.

In a candid chat with us, author Jeff Kinney discussed his ‘The Diary of the Wimpy Kid’ books and film, his incredible journey as an author, his writing process and tips, his thoughts on the pandemic and more. Excerpts from the exclusive interview:

1. Firstly congratulations for your new book ‘Big Shot’, the 16th book in the ‘The Diary of the Wimpy Kid’ series. Did you ever imagine that your books will be such a huge hit worldover?

I never even thought that I would get published. When I was working on ‘The Diary of the Wimpy Kid’, I spent some eight years working on it. And when I was trying to get it published, I thought nobody would like it because I had already spent three years trying to become a newspaper cartoonist. So everything past that first moment has been like a miracle for me! I really can’t believe that we are in book number 16 and I have signed a contract for three more books now, so we are sure to have book 19th in the series too.

When I started writing, I released the story online and I started getting emails from adults living in China, Pakistan, and others saying they liked reading these really simple cartoon stories. So my taste of any kind of recognition (as an author) came from overseas. But when I thought of myself as an author, I thought of myself as an author inside of the United States. I never thought I would be recognised in places as far as the UK or India. Now I have been to India and created some meaningful relationships with my readers there. So the book is kind of a passport for me, in a way. I see these books as my ticket to see the world and I have developed so much as a person by having these relationships with readers outside of my country. In fact, one of my good friends is a woman named Priya who lives in India. She wrote to me years ago and told me about her son Pranav. He had a terminal illness and I got to connect with Pranav on Christmas day; we face-timed for a long time and I got to know the family that way. Pranav passed away but it’s really important to Priya and her family to keep their son’s memory alive and we have done that through the books. Now Pranav’s name is at the beginning of the ninth book ‘The Long Haul’.

2. In your family, you are the third child out of four kids and you also have two children of your own. How much of your real-life experiences are added to your stories?
Surprisingly little. In some ways, in those early books, the DNA of my childhood was stamped on it– like how the Heffleys live on the hill, the mom-dad-older brother, etc. But these days I’m creating a lot of things out of thin air, especially the last few books that have been wholly original. However this new book ‘Big Shot’ is about basketball and my family has lived the basketball life. Both my sons played the sport and we still go to tournaments every weekend for our kids, so it really taps into real life in this book.

3. The books are also being made into a movie. Tell us about it and your role in the films?
I’m the writer and producer of the movie, so I have complete involvement in the film… The first film feels like the ultimate telling of the first story in ‘The Diary of the Wimpy Kid’ series. These movies have given me a chance to tell the story in the right way.

I have grown a lot as a writer; I wrote the first ‘The Diary of the Wimpy Kid’ book when I was 28 and now I’m 50. I have lots of life experiences in these books– I’ve learned a lot about movie-making, about how to tell a story– I wouldn’t have been able to do it earlier. So I’m really pleased to be in this position creatively.

4. How do you express yourself best- through writing or illustrations or anything else?
I think I’m a good joke-teller, everything else I struggle at be it my illustrations, writings or plotting. I would consider myself a good joke-teller and not a good writer… What’s interesting is that I have this other series ‘Rowley Jefferson’s Awesome Friendly Adventure’ and when I was doing a read-aloud of it, I really liked it and I realised why I like cartooning– because it is about telling stories in a simple manner. I think I would keep doing that– simplifying and telling stories which are impactful.

5. The pandemic has been tough for a lot of children and adults across the world. Do you think writers and artistes have additional responsibility at this time to keep readers entertained, keeping them away from the negativity that’s surrounding us?
Kids have been so resilient during this pandemic. We were so scared for them during this pandemic but our kids, they carry on. I know there are a lot of kids who have had difficulties during the pandemic and some of them have developed social anxieties, etc but a lot of kids are doing quite well. My own kids did just fine through the pandemic. We were lucky that we didn’t have COVID-19 touch our family, we had enough space to move around and not go crazy inside of the house. But I think in many ways this generation of kids is going to lead the world and hopefully overcome some of my generation’s failings. I feel it’s less our responsibility of ours to protect our kids and more our responsibility to instill optimism in our kids.

6. Tell us about your writing process, especially during the pandemic?
I usually write in my car at the cemetery, so I pick an unusual spot to write. I like to work in isolation where there aren’t any interruptions. And I use a process called Systematic Inventive Thinking, which lets you be creative in a systematic way.

I go to the cemetery because my kids were homeschooling during the pandemic, and I couldn’t really work at home. So I took my writing to the cemetery and that seemed to really work for me!

7. Please share some of your writing tips?
Read as much as you can. Write and show your work to someone; not just someone in your family like you mom or grandmom who is going to encourage you but to someone who will give you some hard criticism because when you go through those difficult moments of criticism that’s how you grow.

For aspiring children’s authors, I would say, do not start off with the idea of a moral in your story. Think of entertainment as the priority in your story. And if a moral comes along in the story, then it is great.

8. And lastly, how has the pandemic been for you as a writer and as a person?
As a writer whenever something sad or tragic happens, I tend to work and that’s how I get through it. So when 9/11 happened, I was a computer programmer at that time and I just started working. I just worked that day.

Now I think it is clear that the pandemic is here to stay. This is our world now and we have to figure out how to live in it. We can’t live in fear, we can’t have our children live in fear. One of the things which I did in the past year was to take my son to travel overseas and that was very healing for us. We wore our masks the whole time. We got to see the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, and Paris and that couldn’t have happened had we been at home.

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