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Greg Heffley is back, in Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Hard Luck, the eighth in Jeff Kinney’s mega-popular novels about the middle-school antihero. The format, in which hand-printed journal entries on lined-paper pages are expertly punctuated by cartoons, has proven irresistible to ten-year-olds everywhere and of every stripe, a meeting place for eager and reluctant readers alike. While kids must hope that they would demonstrate more grace under pressure than does Greg, his problems — what do you do when your best friend gets interested in girls? How do I fit in when my mom makes me wear a sweater vest? — are their own. Jeff has been very busy this month touring in support of Hard Luck, but I finally managed to catch up with him on the Wimpy Kid bus via phone.
RS: Hi Jeff. You’re out on tour?
JK: Yes, I’m on tour, on a bus.
RS: You have a bus?
JK: It’s a giant lime-green Wimpy Kid bus, with something like eight bunks and eleven televisions. It’s pretty fun.
RS: You’re like a country-western star.
JK: I think this bus was actually used by Willie Nelson.
JK: They’re kindred spirits, in a way. All cartoonists owe a debt of gratitude to Charles Schulz.
RS: I find myself doing the same thing with Greg as I do with Charlie Brown, which is you’re reading along, and something happens, and you think, “Oh, God, what a loser.” And then five minutes later something else happens, and you think, “Oh, God, that’s me.” So then you think, “Am I a loser?”
JK: Yes. A lot of protagonists in children’s literature are on the heroic side, and I wanted to create a character that was more like I was.
RS: One of the measures of Wimpy Kid’s success — and there are many — is that its enjoyment by kids is matched by its disapproval from adults. I’m not saying universally, but you do get these people who say, “Oh, it’s too nihilistic. It’s too snarky.”
JK: I always thought that anyone who felt that way wasn’t in on the joke. You don’t want to be too heavy-handed when writing for kids, because they pick up on that. If you moralize they’re going to reject it. So I let my readers make up their own minds about Greg Heffley.
RS: Greg’s actions speak for themselves. Sometimes he’ll do something foolish, but more often than not, things seem to work out for him.
JK: Right. There have been moments in my books when Greg does the wrong thing, even when he knew that he was doing the right thing. There’s a reason there’s a frown on his face on every cover. He’s an unhappy kid, just because of his own actions.
RS: Do you think he’s essentially an unhappy kid?
JK: Yeah, I think he feels put-upon. I never like it when somebody describes him as whiny, because that’s not at all how I feel about him.
RS: My mother would have called him fresh.
JK: That’s a good word. He’s a kid who’s in middle school, and a kid who’s in middle school is, generally speaking, not that happy.
RS: Yes, middle school is miserable. I assume you drew upon your own experiences to create Greg’s persona and situation?
JK: I spent about four years trying to remember exactly what it was like to think like a kid, to rationalize like a kid. I really wanted the character to feel authentic. In a way, how a kid behaves is just the way an adult behaves, but an adult has learned to mask it. Greg is sort of the worst version of myself, or the side of myself that I’m not so proud of.
RS: Who do you think of as the typical Wimpy Kid reader? It does seem to be the kind of series that non-readers enjoy as well as readers.
JK: I would say the average fan that comes to a book signing is eleven years old, fifth grader, maybe 60 percent boys, 40 percent girls. It’s exactly who I’d like to be writing for, so I’m happy about that.
RS: What’s the secret to writing for boys? Everyone’s trying to crack that.
JK: I lucked into the secret to writing for boys, which is that I didn’t write for kids to begin with. I wrote the Wimpy Kid books for adults. I wasn’t thinking of kids as an audience at all. It was my publisher who made that decision. So by not having a kid in mind when I was writing, I didn’t try to impart some sort of lesson. I think I would have written quite differently if I were thinking about the audience.
RS: Did anything have to change when the publisher said, No, Jeff, this is really for kids?
JK: Maybe one or two jokes had to change. And even so, they didn’t have to change much. My sensibilities are really G- or PG-rated.
RS: How do you know when to leave a joke to the picture and when to put it in the text? I think you do that brilliantly.
JK: Thank you. The DNA of these books is in comic strips. In comic strips there’s a setup and then a payoff, and I like it when I can pay the joke off in the image.
RS: Which do you think you are more naturally, a writer or a drawer?
JK: I think I’m more naturally a cartoonist. I don’t consider myself to be a good writer or a good illustrator. But I think I’m a pretty good cartoonist.
RS: How far do you think you can take Wimpy Kid? How many volumes can we expect?
JK: I’m not really sure. I was just having this discussion with my editor. We reached number one on all the bestseller charts for this week — thank you very much — and I think that’s the sixth year in a row. It’s very hard to walk away when you feel that there’s an audience, or you feel like you have something to say. I think I’ll know because the interest will start to wane, but for now it feels pretty good.
RS: Does Greg age at all, or is it this perpetual middle-school time?
JK: He doesn’t age. The best cartoon characters don’t ever age. They stay the same. I made that decision with the fifth book, The Ugly Truth. Greg is frustrated that he can’t seem to get older when his classmates are going through puberty. What he doesn’t know is that he’s a cartoon character. He can’t move on.
RS: Sadist. Do you get suggestions from kids about any particular behavior that he might exhibit or situations he should be in?
JK: Kids are always wondering if Greg will get a girlfriend. I’m not so sure that’s where I want to take the books. In fact, I really strive for sameness between books. I want them to be very even. There’s some innocence lost, in a way, when your beloved characters change.
RS: What kind of recreational reading do you like to do?
JK: I listen to a lot of biographies, some autobiographies. You can always learn from somebody else’s life experience.
RS: One thing you can learn from Greg is empathy.
JK: A lot of parents of kids who are autistic reach out to me and say that the Wimpy Kid books are very important for their kids. I think it’s because they learn a lot about emotions by reading the text and seeing what plays out in the images.
RS: I have one last question, from the young woman who transcribes all my interviews. She said: “Ask him if he’s going to open that bookstore.”
JK: We’re planning on opening a bookstore. Hopefully it will all work out. It’s in a small town that can’t really support it on its own, but that’s our plan.
RS: I’ll come and visit from Boston.
JK: Okay, good. Please do.