Author Jeff Kinney: 'I'm not even the most influential person in my house'

16th Apr 19 | Lifestyle

Blockbuster children's writer Jeff Kinney talks to Hannah Stephenson about meeting David Walliams, fame and his happy small-town life.

Jeff Kinney may be a multi-millionaire thanks to his Diary Of A Wimpy Kid books, but it doesn’t show in his everyday life. Today, he escapes into his garden in Plainville, Massachusetts (population 8,000), away from the noise of his kitchen, where his wife has just switched on the blender.

He’s an amiable, unassuming character, doing the school runs, driving the kids to basketball practice, often stopping off at the local graveyard to find inspiration for his funny stories.

“The longest part of the process is sitting in a chair for half the day trying to think of jokes. Yesterday, I spent a good part of the day in a graveyard, sitting in my car, writing jokes. No-one bothers me there,” he says wryly.

Over the years, he’s gone head-to-head with fellow children’s author David Walliams, as each week one vied with the other for top spot on the bestseller lists.

“Who’s he?” he says, laughing. “I have met him. I like him. He’s incredibly talented and generous. I think his books are great, so I wish him all the success in the world.”

A few years ago, Kinney, 48, ploughed millions of his own dollars into buying an old colonial building in the centre of his town, which he turned into a bookshop, named An Unlikely Story. It opened in 2015 and Walliams has visited twice, although Kinney admits the bookstore has yet to make a profit.

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“He did two events in the bookstore. We appeared on stage together and it was loads of fun. At first, I felt a little intimidated about him coming over, but he’s a true entertainer. He can really command the stage. I’m an author who sometimes pretends to be an entertainer.

“But I like to think on my feet and we got on stage and created something wonderful together. It was a really good experience for me.”

Could there be a collaboration in the offing?

“I don’t think so. I’m guessing he’s not looking for a collaboration at this time and I don’t think I am either.”

The store may not be profitable yet, but the creator of the hugely successful Wimpy Kid series is a draw – he works on the third floor and visitors pop into the bookstore hoping for a glimpse of the man himself.

“I have a studio up there, so I run into kids in the bookstore all the time. Sometimes I’ll take them up to the studio to have a look around. It’s a good life. If I want to be famous, I can go to the first floor and if I want to work, I go to the third floor.”

Indeed, since his first book, Diary Of A Wimpy Kid, was published in 2007, about the comical adventures of 12-year-old schoolboy Greg Heffley and his friend Rowley Jefferson, he has penned another 12 in the series.

Add to that four film adaptions, a musical which toured US regional theatres and the fact that the books are currently available in 70 editions in 59 languages, and you have one big success story.

“The reason it’s so successful is because it’s like a mirror to kids’ experience,” he reflects. “Kids can see themselves in the characters and it’s really culturally agnostic in some ways.”

There are prospects for an animated TV series, although he’s not sure he’d want to be one of the voices, having had bit parts in the second, third and fourth movies, but much was edited out.

“I’m a terrible actor, the worst that ever lived. My screen time is notable because of how out of place I look.”

His latest book, Diary Of An Awesome Friendly Kid, is the first to focus on Greg’s best friend Rowley. He says he likes the voice of Rowley, who is very funny and fresh. The story centres on the premise that Rowley is asked to be Greg’s biographer, which captures their friendship.

“I didn’t write this book because I’d run out of ideas. What I’ve learned from the Wimpy Kid books, the movies and the musical is that the audiences are always rooting for Rowley. Greg is a tangle of knots, of imperfections, whereas Rowley is a pure kid. He’s a kid who likes being a kid. He’s not cynical, he’s more innocent and he can’t be corrupted. That made for an interesting challenge.”

Kinney’s books have sold more than 200 million copies worldwide, but he’s keen to keep his feet on the ground.

“I stay grounded by living in a house where I have to go outside because my wife’s going to turn on the blender,” he chuckles. “My surroundings keep me grounded.

“And every time I write a new book, I’m very humbled, because I’m starting back from the beginning. I always feel that I might not ever write another funny thing. Then I’m thrilled when something funny pops into my head.”

For a man whose dream was to become a newspaper cartoonist but couldn’t get his comic strips syndicated, he hasn’t done badly. He has met American presidents – George W Bush and Barack Obama – and has been voted one of Time magazine’s most influential people.

“That was strange,” he says. “I’m not even the most influential person in my own house.”

He did some events with the Barbara Bush Foundation and ended up having lunch with George W Bush at his home. Then his family met Barack Obama’s family in The White House as part of an event there.

“I’m all good on presidents for now,” he chuckles. “I don’t have Trump in the diary and I don’t expect to have him in the diary any time soon.”

He lives as simple life as a bestselling author can, with his wife Julie and two sons, Will, 16 and Grant, 13.

It’s clear his local community means everything to him. He’s ploughed money into buying crumbling properties in town and renovating them to make it a better place for people to live.

“We live in a small town on purpose, because we like a small-town lifestyle. The downtown can really spur the community.”

He seems slightly embarrassed when asked about how it feels to be seriously rich.

“I like having the options and the security, but what I’m very passionate about is our bookstore, where we have a staff of 25. I’m motivated to make sure that the bookstore thrives, so that my employees can thrive.”

He says he’s still ambitious to see how far the Wimpy Kid series can go, but tempers that with his thoughts on how far it has already come.

“I’ve got a great life, a great family, a bookstore here in Plainville. I get to travel around the world and meet kids from all over. I really can’t ask for more.”

Diary Of An Awesome Friendly Kid by Jeff Kinney is published by Puffin, priced £12.99. Available now.

© Press Association 2019

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