One night last summer, author Jeff Kinney was astounded to see that the upcoming book in his Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, The Ugly Truth, was number two on Amazon’s bestseller list.
“I didn’t even know what ‘The Ugly Truth’ was yet,” he remembers. “They’re printing five million of these things, and I hadn’t even decided.”
His series chronicling the adventures of middle school student Greg Heffley is definitely a publishing phenomenon, having sold more than 37 million copies in the U.S. and millions more in 30 countries around the world, inspired a movie and eagerly anticipated sequel (for which he is executive producer) and catapulted this quiet cartoonist to sudden fame.
“It feels like I go off and pretend to be an author, and pretend to make movies, and then come back to my normal life.”
“It’s been a strange life so far,” Kinney says.
And no doubt getting stranger. On November 8, the day before The Ugly Truth goes on sale, Kinney will share the podium with Laura Bush and Condoleezza Rice at Barbara Bush’s “Celebration of Reading” in Dallas. Later in the month he’ll watch a Wimpy Kid balloon float by in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade.
All of this might not have happened had not a savvy editor, Charles Kochman of Abrams, recognized his talent. While a student at the University of Maryland, Kinney cartooned for the campus newspaper and studied (of all things) computer science and criminal justice. He planned to become a federal law enforcement agent until a hiring freeze squashed that idea. While trying to break into syndicate cartooning, he collected several years’ worth of what he calls “soul-crushing” rejection letters.
The problem was his drawing style: “I could never get a consistent line,” Kinney says. “My hand would never obey what my mind wanted it to do. And still, it’s very hard for me to draw.” That’s why he draws Greg as a middle schooler, although he originally had an adult audience in mind. After Kochman saw Kinney’s work at Comic-Con in 2006, Abrams decided to publish Diary of a Wimpy Kid as a children’s book, and the rest, as they say, is history.
The resulting hoopla feels “make-believe,” Kinney says, adding, “It feels like I go off and pretend to be an author, and pretend to make movies, and then come back to my normal life.”
His normal life takes place on a quiet street in Plainville, Massachusetts, where he lives with his wife and two sons, ages five and seven. From there Kinney heads off to a day job as executive producer and creative director of a website called Poptropica, and returns to be assistant soccer coach for his son’s team.
Through it all, Kinney remains remarkably grounded, seeming as if he has all the time in the world, despite the fact that a film crew from CNN would soon arrive on the cloudy autumn day when we talked. At times, however, the balancing act is worrisome. “If I were throwing the football with my son and hurt my hand, then that would really send everything upside down,” Kinney says.
Now that he’s finished writing, what is The Ugly Truth?
“If I said that, it would blow the ending,” Kinney says, “but I’ll say that this book is about growing up. The book is sort of a metaphor for my decision on whether or not to move forward. . . . Is Greg going to move on, or is he going to stay in a state of arrested development forever?”
Will there be more Wimpy Kid books?
“I truly haven’t decided that,” Kinney says. “I’m trying to take a few weeks to really think about this. These books look like you could put them together in a day or two, but they take about nine months of really hard work.”
The work takes place in his small upstairs office, usually at night or on weekends. The walls are purposely bare to minimize distraction, and Kinney’s concentration method is decidedly unconventional.
“I sit right here,” he says, pointing to a corner of a small couch. “I usually put a blanket over my head.”
“Sensory deprivation,” he explains. “I’ve tried all sorts of different things . . . to help get my mind into a thinking mode. To make a good book I need maybe 700 ideas, so it’s about four hours a night of just thinking, for about four months. Most of the time I fall asleep.”
Kinney next labels each idea A, B or C, depending on how he judges its worth. He tries to throw out all of the “C” ideas, and then strings the rest together. Finally, he’s ready to draw, necessitating another four months of 8- to 12-hour days, and sometimes 13- and 14-hour days. He listens to books on tape, usually history or historical fiction, or sometimes political books about the CIA and terrorism. “It’s very strange,” he notes of his selections. “It doesn’t really compute with what I’m drawing.”
“I do all of my drawings on that tablet,” he says, pointing to a device that links to his computer. “I just draw like mad. In fact, my eyes still can’t focus even though it’s been about 10 days since I drew my last drawing [for The Ugly Truth].”
The merging of text and drawings comes late in the process, much like a giant puzzle, Kinney says. “A drawing might end up falling halfway on one page and half on the other, so sometimes you’ll change the story itself just to make the drawings fit.”
After a tour to promote the new book, Kinney looks forward to getting back to his daily routine, putting his sons on the school bus each morning, and waiting for them when they get off.
“I’m happiest when I’m leading a normal life,” he says. “That’s what I strive for.”