Saturday, March 12, 2011

An Interview with Jeff Kinney, Author of the Diary of a Wimpy Kid Series

To celebrate the debut of the upcoming movie, Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules, on March 25, I was honored to be one of 10 bloggers invited to participate in an interview with the series’ creator, Jeff Kinney! For an hour, we had free rein to ask Jeff any question we liked, and he graciously answered every single one of them. Unfortunately, I don’t have room here to post the entire interview, but here are some of the highlights of our discussion. And please stay tuned because I am going to be hosting a very awesome Wimpy Kid giveaway in just a few days!

Q: Why do you think your books resonate with kids across grade levels?

Jeff Kinney: That’s a really good question, and it’s something that I ask myself a lot, especially because I had intended these books to be for adults. I wrote Diary of a Wimpy Kid over a period of about eight years, and I really had an adult audience in mind the whole time. And I thought, I’m going to publish this huge book of about 700 pages and put it in the humor section, and hopefully, adults will see it as a nostalgia piece. And what happened instead was my publisher said that they saw this as a children’s series. I think there’s a comedian named Steven Wright that said, “I wrote a children’s book, but I didn’t do it on purpose.” And that definitely happened to me, as well.

Reflecting on what’s happening, I think that what the kids like is that they’re not being talked down to. The books aren’t didactic in any sort of way. They’re entertainment. And in a sense, I feel very proud of that because I feel that as adults, we’re always trying to manipulate the kids into doing what we want them to. That’s part of parenting, and that’s an appropriate part of parenting. I feel that what’s good about the books is that they get kids to see that reading can be fun, and then they move onto something more substantial. I’m seeing it with my own child, Will, who reads my books or had them read to him, and he’s become a reader. And now, he’s reading a whole series about puppies. I think it’s funny; it was sort of like a bait and switch in a way. I don’t think my books are worthless. I think that they’re good entertainment. But I love it that they’re turning kids into readers.

Q: Since you said that you started out as looking at Diary of a Wimpy Kid as a book for adults and that you were writing with an adult kind of sensibility and mindset, is it different now when you’re thinking of going forward in the series? Have you had to change a little bit of what you were gonna write so that it’s for the younger audience?

Jeff Kinney: Well, when I found out that my books were going to be published as a kids’ series, I was a little bit shocked. And then, I thought, boy, what am I going to have to change? I looked back over my work, and I barely had to change anything. I realized that my sensibilities are very G rated, anyway. As I’m writing now, my greatest fear is losing my touch. Just like any band or artist has their period where they’re creating, doing good work, and then it suddenly seems to go away. And I’m trying to figure out what it is that makes it go away. Is it apathy or just a natural occurrence? Sometimes I think this joke’s not good enough. And then, my next thought is, but kids will like it. That’s when I have to pull myself back and say that’s a slippery slope. I still try to write with an adult audience in mind or maybe myself in mind. I try to keep the work to a high standard because I think that kids will meet you at that level and that you don’t have to write down to children.

Q: What do you think about the Diary of a Wimpy Kid movies? Do you like them? And also, how much input do you have in the casting and the way the movies are made?

Jeff Kinney: I do like the movies. If we made movies that just retold the same stories in the same format, I don’t think that they would have been worthwhile. What the movies do is they bring a totally different dimension into the storytelling. What I’ve really learned is that movies speak in the language of emotion and that if you don’t cause your audience to root for the protagonist, you’re going to lose your audience. I think that the approach is very different. I feel great that we’re making live action movies, with real kids who are actually in middle school. It’s quite different than the rest of the field, which is mostly 3D and computer generated. I think there is something almost retro about these movies.

As far as the input I’ve had, I’ve really had a unique relationship with the studio and with the producers. And I’m very involved from the very early stages helping develop the script and I give some input on casting. Then, I’m there for about half of the filming. I get to be there with the actors and develop relationships with them and contribute gags as the movie’s being made. I’m also really involved in post-production with the animation and also a great deal with the marketing. So, it’s a very complete experience. It’s very different than writing a book where you’re in control of the content. It’s purely a collaborative process, which has been edifying. It’s really been a life changer.

Q: What are your future plans?

Jeff Kinney: I’m definitely working on another Diary of a Wimpy Kid book now. When I started this up and realized that the books were going to be in a series, I had a definite end goal in mind, which I think probably was about either book three or book five. And what I really have realized was that kids don’t take my books very seriously, that they’re not Harry Potter or that the DNA of the books is not in storytelling. It’s in jokes.

I’ve realized that as long as I have good ideas, I should keep writing, and maybe take some time off down the road. But I’m gonna keep it going and I’m having fun. It doesn’t feel like it’s the end of something. It feels like the middle. So, I hope kids will still enjoy it down the line.

Q: Is your idea of the parents a generality of what other kids see parents as or how you had seen your parents?

Jeff Kinney: The well-meaning mom is a great archetype because she loves her kids but is sort of very eager to connect, and sometimes misses a key component. For example, I was reading the Washington Post a few months ago, and I saw an article that said, “Mother/Son Book Club Sure to Be a Hit.” And to me, that’s like comic gold. You can’t really get any better than that because, of course, the mothers organize this, and they have the best intentions for their kids. I had some fun with that in my own books where I have the mom create the Reading Is Fun Club and the boys all bring in their ideas on what legitimate reading is, which is a video game guide and a crossword puzzle book and that sort of thing. And then, the mother brings in Little Women and Old Yeller and books like those. Most moms aren’t that extreme. But it’s fun.

My wife, for example, recently had a birthday party for my son. And she told all the parents not to bring toys but to bring books as gifts. That’s a wonderfully practical idea because we need more books and books are always a good thing. But for a kid who’s counting on those toys, it’s just devastating. I love moms and I love it when they sort of get it slightly wrong.

Q: Jeff, what is the wimpiest thing you’ve ever done?

Jeff Kinney: The wimpiest thing I’ve ever done is documented in the second book and in the second movie, which is that I was on the swim team and I didn’t want to practice. And so, every day, I’d ask my coach in the first few minutes of practice if I could go to the bathroom. I would go into the bathroom, freeze my tail off and wrap myself in toilet paper to prevent hypothermia.

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