11/25/2014 04:17 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Jeff Kinney Gets Boys to Read Books. What's His Secret?

Time Magazine named Jeff Kinney one of the 100 most influential people in the world, but if you have adolescent sons, he's probably among the 10 most influential people in your household. That's because he's the creator of the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, which has sold 150 million books in print world wide and has become three feature films.

Kinney was traveling to Virginia to for a signing of The Long Haul, the 9th Wimpy Kid installment, when he took time out to speak to me about his highly unexpected (at least to himself) success.

jeff kinney

Diary Of A Wimpy Kid does the impossible - it gets boys to read books. How'd you accomplish that feat?

Sometimes people call me an evangelist for kids reading. I can't claim credit for that because it's not what I set out to do. I had always dreamed of becoming a newspaper cartoonist. I worked at that for about three years, and I just got rejected. I finally realized that my illustrations just weren't up to snuff.

I then started writing for adults, offering a nostalgic look back on childhood, something akin to Wonder Years, where it's childhood but seen through an adult lens. I sent the manuscript to a publisher and they came back and said that I had actually written a children's book. That caused acute shock. I never for a second considered that I was writing for kids. It actually took me a lot of time to sort of recalibrate.

When you realized you were going to be a writer for children, what did you have to change in your work?

My sensibilities are really G-rated anyway, so I didn't need to change the content at all. I just needed to change my frame of mind. My big worry was that kids wouldn't understand that Greg is an unreliable narrator. I worried that they wouldn't understand that he is flawed, and that's where the humor comes from. But I've been pleasantly surprised on that front. Kids seem to get it. They understand that he's not a role model but that his foibles are what make the books funny.

Greg, the Wimpy Kid, has been compared to Holden Caulfield. Did you have Holden in mind as a role model?

I don't think I would have made that connection myself, but I've wondered about it. I've wondered if it snuck into my subconscious. When we designed the cover for Diary of a Wimpy Kid, we had that shade of red, which was meant to lightly call to mind Catcher in the Rye. Of course, we put our own twist on it. I certainly wasn't consciously making a decision to make Greg Heffley like Holden Caulfield. And yet, the idea of an unreliable narrator or the idea of a character who criticizes everyone around him but is imperfect himself -- that type of character was probably born of Holden Caulfield.

You went alone to Puerto Rico last winter to work on the newest Diary. How'd you sell that idea to your family?

I do most of my work on Diary of a Wimpy Kid on the nights and weekends. So this year, for the first time ever, I went away for a few days. I told my wife and kids in the middle of February when there was a lot of snow on the ground, "I'm going on vacation by myself."

My goal was to write 20 jokes a day. A hundred jokes represents a big chunk of all the material I need for a book. As soon as I sat down on a lounge chair, I started thinking of ideas and I hit my goal every day. I was really worried that I was going to come back with a suntan and nothing to show for myself, but it worked out. And I'm sure I'll be doing that again this winter.

I end up working on my books throughout the summer, so I miss a lot of normal family time during the summer. So if I can jump ahead a month in terms of idea generation, it's going to pay off when I want to spend time with the kids during the summer.

You're building a bookstore in your hometown.

I used to work as a computer programmer. On my way to work each day, I'd walk by a church being built. It struck me that if I unplugged my computer, I wouldn't have anything to show for myself. But this church was going to be there, not just for the next ten years but for a few hundred years. That appealed to me.

Plainville's a small town of about 8,000 and the downtown is really depressed. In the middle of the town was an old market that had been there since the late 1800s. The market was last owned by a guy named Merrill Falk, who had a heart of gold. The store was really the social hub of the community. Everybody in Plainville has great memories of Falk's Market. But he passed away and it fell into disrepair and sat there for about 17 years, just falling apart. Everybody in our town was really bothered by that, because it stood as a symbol of our town.

When Diary of a Wimpy Kid broke out, my wife and I purchased the market, which had to be torn down because it was so structurally unsound. Now we're creating a new building that looks like it's from the 1800s, a Federal-style building. We're building it out of mostly old materials, and it's going to become a bookstore, café, and a cultural/arts center for the community. It's something I'm really excited about. It's 2EastBacon on Facebook, and you can see all the stages of development.

It remains to be seen if there's an appetite for a bookstore in a town like ours. We have a used bookstore in Plainville, but we'll have to see if people are willing to spend their money on new books in a brick-and-mortar store. The bookstore is much more symbolic, though. When a town has a bookstore, it says something about how the people see themselves.

I never set out to be rich. That was never the goal. I just wanted to be a cartoonist. But now I have this opportunity to make something real. This building is going to be there for seven generations if it's built solidly. There's enough steel in it to build a bridge. So it's going to last beyond me. And one day, maybe one day soon, I'll be forgotten, but this building won't. It'll serve as a representation of the town and I hope it will create a lot of good memories. So it gives the earnings from the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books some real tangible purpose.

You sound very sane, considering how much success has come your way.

Most of the time, my life is pretty normal. I'm a dad in Plainville, Massachusetts and people here are pretty unpretentious. They don't seem too impressed by the fact that I'm an author. And that's the bulk of my life. The part where I get out on the road and I meet all these fans and go on television -- that feels like a false identity. It feels like I'm getting away with something.

But it's always easy to kind of slip back into my normal life. I did a literacy event with Barbara Bush, so I ended up having lunch one day in George W. Bush's house with him, his father, Barbara Bush, Laura Bush, and Condoleezza Rice. When I came back to Plainville later that week, I got out of the car, and two neighborhood dogs, one of which was mine, were fighting over a dead rabbit. I had to break up the fight. I came crashing back to earth pretty quickly after my experience with the Bushes.

Sounds pretty normal to me.

My wife and I were being interviewed by CBS Sunday Morning the other day. And they said, "We would like to film you and Julie doing something that you would normally do together." And we were really scratching our heads for a minute there. We're trying to figure out, what do we do together? It caused a crisis in our conception of our marriage.

We have a lawn service that takes care of the mowing and leaf clean-up and everything like that.

And we thought, well, maybe we could like rake leaves together. That might present the right image. And then, we thought, our neighbors would laugh us out of town if they saw us like raking leaves in front of news cameras!

A friend of mine was hoping to get married one day, and I said, "Basically, if you want to get married, you need to find somebody who's going to be nice to kids and you can watch TV with." Those are the basics of a marriage. You want somebody who's decent and who you can share a favorite cable television program with.

Any regrets that you never became the newspaper cartoonist or novelist for adults?

I'm sort of at a crossroad in my career. Either I'm a one-property creator or a multiple property creator. And sometimes I think it's really not up to the artist to decide that. It's up to the public.

If you look at somebody like Charles Schulz, Peanuts is really the only thing he did, but he was working on another newspaper strip that was about a family and about grownups. I wonder if the world would have allowed him to have done that.

Then you take somebody like Shel Silverstein, who created lots of different types of characters and lots of different types of stories, and I admire that. In that case, the world let him do different things and really stretch his wings. I'm hoping that I can do something other than Diary of a Wimpy Kid. But if I find that that's not popular, I'll be very happy working within this universe I've created.

In some ways, I'm the opposite of somebody like J.K. Rowling. She wrote a kid's series, but in her heart, she's more of a writer for adults. And I was aiming my work at adults and I found out that I'm a kids' writer, and now I'm very comfortable with that. I think that that's what I'll do for the rest of my life as long as people are willing to read what I have to write about.