Transcript from an interview with Jeff Kinney

Below is an edited transcript from Reading Rockets' interview with Jeff Kinney. The transcript is divided into the following sections:

A tradition of oral storytelling

My name is Jeff Kinney and I'm the author of the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series.

My family has a real culture of retelling stories. It started with my grandmother who would tell the same exact stories again and again and again, but we'd always indulge her and enjoy the stories as if we were hearing them for the first time. And now today I still call my siblings and we rehash these old stories of things that happened to us as kids and I think that that's really helped shape the Wimpy Kid books. A lot of my family's stories have kind of made their way sideways into my books.

I think in my own family, my nuclear family, we're really carrying on this tradition, this oral tradition of storytelling where we're telling the same stories about family members, about ourselves, and it's a lot of fun. I think it really creates a nice family bond.

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Time capsule

Growing up, my house was full of books. And I think that comes from my mother who is an educator. But still, if I go back to my parents' house to this day, there are all of the books from my childhood and it's like sort of a chronology or a time capsule of my childhood and I can see what my interests were over time. I think that was really special. Now, today, in my house, we kind of get rid of books. We purge books, which I don't think is such a good thing. I think we need to hold onto those.

My favorite reading as a kid was my father's comic book collection. He had collected comics since he was a kid and his favorites were the Carl Barks, Uncle Scrooge and Donald Duck comics. I thought those were great. In fact, I still think to this day it's the best storytelling I've ever seen of any sort. So I read lots of comics, but I also sort of inherited my sister's Judy Blume and Beverly Cleary books. I read a lot of those, Freckle Juice and Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing. Luckily I got the heads-up about Are you There, God? It's me, Margaret and I avoided that one.

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Diving into fantasy and myths

In about the fifth grade I discovered fantasy. You know, I started reading books by J.R.R. Tolkien, Piers Anthony, and Terry Brooks and I don't know if it's a guy thing or if it was a condition of the age, but I really liked escaping into those epic books that just took me to a different place. And I think that's what books do better than anything else is they introduce you to a different world or a different point of view and you can do that, you know, just sitting in your bedroom and diving into a book.

In the fifth grade a neighborhood kid introduced myself and my best friend to Dungeons and Dragons. And it was such an eye-opening experience to me. I think it changed the course of my life or at least for the next like five years where we were telling a story together, we were creating an interactive story. And I think that that's really actually shaped what I do today, which is to work on a website called Poptropica, which is a big, virtual world for kids where we're telling stories.

So I don't think I'd be quite satisfied if I only did Diary of a Wimpy Kid. I like having that whole other dimension in my life and I think it comes from Dungeons and Dragons.

What my day job allows me to do working for Poptropica, is it allows me to do genre writing. So I can write in mystery or history or fantasy or even horror for kids. And it's a real privilege actually to be able to tell kids for the first time about a particular subject like Greek mythology. Kids who play on Poptropica are six, seven, eight years old and they're being exposed to the world of Greek mythology for the first time through us.

So it's both an honor and a privilege to be able to have that power to reach that many kids, millions of kids, and tell really different kinds of stories.

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Interactive stories

I think kids are absorbing stories in a different way than they ever have before. I think the interactive stories can be the best stories actually. Even movies, you know, there is so much money put into the storytelling in movies. Some are good or some are bad. But games, it's really a different genre because you're the star of that story. And there's huge budgets set aside for these sprawling video games where the storytelling is actually better than in many movies. So I think that it's an evolving art form and it just keeps getting better and better.

I don't feel a conflict between writing books and writing interactive games because I think that kids are always just looking for a good story. You know, somebody will come up with a new technology, whether it be the radio or television or film and somebody else has to come along and provide a good story for that medium. So I'm very agnostic when it comes to writing for kids is that I just want to write a good story and hope that they can find their way into it.

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The candy and the vitamins

With my Wimpy Kid books ironically I don't care that much about story. I see my books as joke delivery mechanisms. You know, I'm trying to get as many laughs as I can per page. And if I can figure out a way to get a good story out of it or something credible, then I'm very satisfied, but really I'm trying to keep the kid laughing and oftentimes if I have a lot of plot, it gets in the way of the jokes and it burns through too many pages. So I will sacrifice a good story for a good joke anytime.

People ask me all the time if there's a moral or a lesson to my books and I would say that I don't feel that that's my job is to moralize to kids or bake in some sort of a lesson into my books. You know, I'm really trying to entertain kids with those books. And I figure that if there is a lesson, it's that reading can be fun because adults read for fun and for entertainment and why shouldn't kids? There's no better lesson than that. I think that if you open a book and it feels welcoming and it doesn't feel like work, that a kid can really feel comfortable with that and then move on to bigger and better things as they usually do.

I actually feel conflicted about the world of literature as handed down from adults to kids because I think that it's very important that kids have a filter that somebody can tell kids what quality reading is. And, you know, my books are candy and they don't have a lot of vitamins. I think that kids need their vitamins too, but I think that sometimes adults miss the mark. They hand kids books that maybe they were forced to read as kids. Forced is maybe too strong of a word but, you know, books they were asked politely by their teachers to read that really have no — they have no relevance to the kid's life.

They're really anachronistic books or they're written in this really stilted sort of way and that's going to turn a kid off to reading. And a kid might read a book like that and say okay if this is what reading is, then I don't like books. And I think that's bad. I think that a teacher or a parent has to meet the kid at their interest level at least at first and then, you know, work their way into more sophisticated fare. And I think you could apply that to just about any aspect of life. Filmmaking too, you know, you're going to want to see something that's a popcorn movie and then you'll learn about the, you know, German abstract movies or something like that, but you can't start with that.

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A kid at heart

When I started writing my books, I actually had an adult audience in mind. For eight years I was working on my books and I never for a second thought that I was writing books for kids. So now I don't feel like I really have any legitimate claim to targeting reluctant readers or to getting kids into reading because I wasn't aiming for them, I was aiming for somebody else entirely. But if there is a lesson in it for me, it's that you can't really write for kids or you might write down to kids because now when I think of kids and writing maybe a new series, I think, "Well, what would a kid like?"

And I feel like that that's actually sort of toxic in a way. I feel like what I should do is write what I would like or maybe what my younger self might have liked and try to hope that kids will kind of find me there and appreciate what I've written because I think that once you start thinking, "I'm the adult up here and you're the kid down here," you start trying to impart lessons that maybe the kid can sniff out or doesn't really enjoy.

I think I've always had a kid's sensibilities. You know, I like things that kids like. I like the food that kids like unfortunately. I feel like everybody else grew up and I just missed the memo on that day or something. I live in a very adult world, but I think that I'm really a kid at heart. I think that I'm in some sort of state of arrested development, but luckily, I've been able to find a way to apply that to my work and it's working out well for me.

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Think before you ink

In the fifth grade I had a teacher named Mrs. Norton who was actually probably about in her 70s. She was a stout, matronly kind of woman. Not the kind of person you think might inspire a kid to go into comedy, but she really changed my life. She encouraged me to be funnier. She encouraged lots of kids in the class to go for the best joke that they could. And I remember once we were all dressed up in a giant snake costume and we were planning on doing this big skit at a campfire.

And as we were writhing around on the ground, she walked in the room and said, "I think you need to learn the difference between being laughed at and laughing with," and we all abandoned the snake costume. We got the idea. But similarly, in my drawings I was a pretty good illustrator back then and I got lots of praise from the adults around me and my peers. But Mrs. Norton would actually point out the problems in my drawings. Like sometimes I might be drawing a figure and I'd shorten the legs because I realized I was out of room on the bottom of the page.

And she'd say, "You know, you really need to plan ahead. You really need to think before you ink basically." And I really took a lot away from that because she challenged me and us to be excellent. I'll never forget one time there was a kid named James in the class who was silent throughout the whole entire year. And on the very last day of school Mrs. Norton said to James, "You can do anything you want for five minutes."

And James, without missing a beat, just got up on the table, started tap-dancing and did a Groucho Marx routine on and on and on and then sat back down and returned to his silence. And I'll never forget that because Mrs. Norton knew that he had something in him and I don't know how she knew, but it really was amazing and I think that it was good for him to be able to release that.

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The 10,000 hour rule

I read a book about a year ago called Outliers: The Story of Success. And it was about what it takes to actually have a success or to be an expert in any field. And the opinion of the author is that there is like a 10-year rule or a 10,000 hour rule, which is to say that for anybody to be an expert at anything, a real expert, they have to spend about 10,000 hours. Whether it's a computer programmer or a musician, they really need to put in the time to have that expertise.

And with my own books, I know that I spent about eight years and, you know, maybe close to 10,000 hours just working and re-working my books and my characters. And that's something that I feel really good about and when I talk to kids, I say, you know, if you have an idea, just keep nurturing it and grinding on it and working on it and working on it. You might not have a success right out of the gate, but if you keep developing it, you might end up with something really good. So that's what I tell to kids about creativity.

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The origins of Wimpy Kid

When I was in college, I had a comic strip called Igdoof and I went to the University of Maryland where they actually had a really good daily paper called the Diamondback with a circulation of about 30,000; readership of, you know, somewhere between 40 and 50 a day. And that was a great training ground for me. And I thought that I was going to be able to take that into the grownup world, right into newspapers. But I, you know, hit a wall. Mostly because I couldn't draw like a professional cartoonist and I knew it and I couldn't do anything about it.

So eventually I found — it was sort of like a Peter Principle sort of thing where I said well, if I draw like a seventh grader then, you know, I'm going to act like I'm doing that on purpose. So that's where the idea for Greg Heffley in Diary of a Wimpy Kid came from.

I got this idea for Diary of a Wimpy Kid and I really wanted to nurture it. I really was not in any sort of rush. So I thought that if it took a year, that was okay and if it took ten, which is about what it did, that was okay too. So I worked on it and worked on it. Didn't show it to anyone at all and then finally brought a sample packet to New York Comic Con in 2006 and I walked it around. Nobody wanted to see anything from artists holding sample packets, but I just lucked out.

Maybe it was fate. I met an editor who had just published a web comic and my comic started off on the web, you know, a few months before that. And so he was intrigued and he said right away, "This is exactly what we're looking for." In fact, he responded to it emotionally and visually without reading the copy at all. So he, you know, he saw it like a kid would I think.

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A new view into childhood

When I started writing for Diary of a Wimpy Kid, I spent about four years just trying to remember what it was like to be a kid and remembering every detail of my own childhood but especially remembering what it was like to think like a kid. So much of the humor comes from Greg's perspective. And so I really tried to get inside of his head and see how he'd interpret a situation.

I actually feel like it's pretty easy to get into the mind of a kid. I think what's hard is coming up with something that's original. It's very easy to come up with something that's derivative or it's been done a million times tropes, but it's hard to come up with a real nugget, you know, something that really that people haven't seen before.

What having children has done for me is it's given me a second view into childhood. I feel like I've sort of tapped out my own childhood in my memories and my regurgitating of my childhood with my siblings and my friends. But now I'm kind of starting over. My kids are school-age now. They're in elementary school and I'm seeing things in a whole new way. So I think I'm going to be able to get a lot of material out of just watching them grow up.

I do show my books to my kids early on. My younger kid isn't really into them yet, but my older kid, his name is Will, I read my new book to him over the course of about five nights and it was really a treat for him to be the first child to read this book. And he laughed or stayed silent. You know, sometimes kids really take Greg's exploits at face value. And so they don't even see the humor in it. They just are sort of intensely into the book. So it's been neat to see it from his point of view.

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The unreliable narrator

When you read my books, you have to suspend your disbelief a little bit because Greg sometimes has a big adventure during the day and he goes to bed at 3 in the morning and yet he's still writing his journal entry from that day. I think that with this series you have to understand that Greg is sort of an unreliable narrator in a way. Oftentimes what he's writing will contradict what you see in the pictures. That's a lot of fun I have with that is to show conflicting points of view and to show that Greg isn't always on top of things.

But as far as Greg as a character goes, some people criticize him for being a bad influence on kids and I don't really understand that because I think that Greg is an average kid or at least he's like I was as a kid, which is not fully formed, not always making the right decisions, but thinking of yourself because you can't yet see outside of yourself. You know, a kid in middle school doesn't have such a great awareness of the world around them.

They're the star of their own story. And so Greg is in this state of, you know, pre-adolescent amber in a way. He'll never grow up. He's going to be frozen in this state for the rest of his life so you'll never see much character development there.

I'd say that the reason that Greg keeps a diary as established in the first few pages of the first book is that Greg thinks that he's going to be famous. And I think a lot of kids in America think that they're going to grow up to be the president. You know, I certainly did. But that he's going to be so famous that he needs to start documenting this. And so I think that's the whole, you know, the pretense of the book or the conceit of the book is that Greg is recording his own future greatness although there's no evidence of it in the books.

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Start with the jokes

These days it takes me about nine months to create a book from start to finish. And in fact this year I started on January 1st and I ended on I think about September 8th. So I know, you know, how long it takes. Is that nine months? But, you know, and I had a blank page and it's very intimidating to have nothing. But I know that to create a good book I need between 350 and 400 image ideas. Then I can whittle it down.

So if I just know that I need to put out that quantity, then I can eventually find my way to the quality. But if I don't have the quantity, I find myself in real trouble because then I need to pad and I can't stand doing that.

I start thinking of my book in terms of jokes. I think of as many jokes as I can. They're not related to each other by and large. And then hopefully there are enough that relate to each other in the big picture that I can develop a theme. So oftentimes I won't know until weeks before my first draft is due what the basic plot line is. And so it's very intimidating, you know. I'll meet my foreign publishers who are saying, "Well, you know the book's coming out in just a few months." And I will say, "I literally don't know what the book is about." And that's been the case with the last few books.

My process is that I come up with about 350 ideas and I usually write them now on my phone because my phone's always with me. And then I'll put them all into a big document and I'll put values. I'll assign values to each joke. So this joke might be a four image joke series or this one might be just a one image joke. And then I'll count how many I have and then start arranging things in terms of themes. So I'll outline it in a very broad sort of way, maybe just three bullet points, and then I'll expand and expand from there.

And then I'll start writing my first draft and after I'm done with my first draft, then I start drawing usually very late in the game. In fact this year it was closer to the wire than ever. I drew for the entire month of August and I averaged I'd say about 15 hours a day. Meals in the lap drawing on a backlit screen. It was very, very intense and nothing could go wrong and luckily nothing did.

I turn in probably about eight drafts of my book. It's pretty labor-intensive and humor is such a subjective thing that I'm constantly polling people to see what works and what doesn't. And I often hand out my first draft to about four or five people from different walks of life because people respond to different things. And I try to find where there's consensus. So that's a big part of the process. And then from there it's, I think, a standard manuscript process.

But I don't want to put pen to paper on the drawing until I'm sure of everything because each one of those drawings, and there are about 350 per book, takes an hour. So you don't want to go too far down a path that you might have to pull back from.

I would say that the final version of the book is more polished and is fairly substantially different than the first draft. You know, I usually drop major storylines. On this new book I found myself a little bit short so I inserted a character in between the scenes and my publisher likes that character the most. So he was sort of an accident that came about from underwriting my book.

I feel pretty confident in the idea that there are a lot of jokes in my brain that I just need to figure out how to draw out. I think that comedy is a filter anyway is that we're all living the same lives in ways, but some people can see the humor in things and some people can't. I feel like I can see the humor in things and I feel very blessed to be able to do that. But everybody has their own filter the way they look at life.

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Books into movies

Taking my books into movies has been really interesting and edifying for me. It's a completely different world because you have hundreds of people working on one product whereas in my writing room I am the only person who's in control of that product. So it's a really different world and I think as an author, you have to understand that this is a collaborative process and you have to really gird yourself for that and I think I came in prepared and had a really good experience.

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Turning kids onto reading

I think that I'll always be doing more than one thing at once. I don't think I'll ever feel really satisfied just working on Diary of a Wimpy Kid or another series or films or my day job. So I think that I'm always going to have this kind of swirling chaos. But, you know, as a failed cartoonist, what I really wanted to be was a newspaper cartoonist and I couldn't break in, and then to have this blessing of an abundance of opportunities, it's very hard to let that go. You know, in my day job I reach about 10 million kids a month on my website, and then with the Wimpy Kid books many, many more millions of kids. And that's, you know, I see it as a privilege and so I want to make sure I take advantage of that opportunity.

When I was picked to be one of Time Magazine's most influential people, I thought it was a practical joke. I didn't think I deserved it and I still don't think I deserved it, but looking back, that was a few years ago and now I've reached a lot more kids and I think I've gotten kids into reading. So I feel a little bit more comfortable with it now, but I think that that's a neat idea that they would pick somebody who was a kid's author that's turning kids on to reading. So a real honor, a real privilege.

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Jeff Kinney reads an excerpt from his first Wimpy Kid book

My name's Jeff Kinney and I'm the author of the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, and I'm going to read to you from the first few pages of my first book.

First of all, let me get something straight. This is a journal, not a diary. I know what it says on the cover, but when mom went out to buy this thing, I specifically told her to get one that didn't say diary on it. Great. All I need is for some jerk to catch me carrying this book around and get the wrong idea. Here we have a bully punching Greg. The other thing I want to clear up right away is that this was Mom's idea, not mine.

But if she thinks I'm going to write down my feelings in here or whatever, she's crazy. So just don't expect me to be all dear diary this and dear diary that. The only reason I agreed to do this at all is because I figure that later on when I'm rich and famous, I'll have better things to do than answer people's stupid questions all day long. So this book is going to come in handy. We have a picture where there's a bunch of reporters. Gregory, tell us about your childhood. Were you always so smart and handsome? And Greg from his podium hands down his book and says, "Here's my journal. Now shoo, shoo."

Like I said, I'll be famous one day, but for now I'm stuck in middle school with a bunch of morons. Let me just say for the record that I think middle school is the dumbest idea ever invented. You got kids like me who haven't hit their growth spurt yet mixed in with these gorillas who need to shave twice a day. And then they wonder why bullying is such a big problem in middle school. If it was up to me, grade levels would be based on height, not age. But then again, I guess that would mean kids like Chirag Gupta would still be in the first grade. We have a very tiny friend of Greg's.

Today is the first day of school and right now we're just waiting around for the teacher to hurry up and finish the seating chart. So I figure I might as well write in this book to pass the time. By the way, let me give you some good advice. On the first day of school you got to be real careful where you sit. You walk into the classroom and just plunk your stuff down on any old desk and the next thing you know the teacher is saying, "I hope you all like where you're sitting because these are your permanent seats." And Greg is seated between two particularly goofy-looking kids and screams.

So in this class I got stuck with Chris Hosey in front of me and Lionel James in back of me. Jason Brill came in late and almost sat to my right, but luckily I stopped that from happening at the last second. So this kid says, "Is this seat taken?" And Greg says, "Yes, yes." Next period I think I should just sit in the middle of a bunch of hot girls as soon as I step in the room, but I guess if I do that, it just proves I didn't learn anything from last year. Here's Greg from last year. He sits between two girls and this girl says, "Greg, will you pass this note to Shelly?" And Greg says, "Why certainly. Heh, heh." And the note says, "Greg is a dork."

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"Writing is thinking on paper. " — William Zinsser