Three years ago, Jeff Kinney was a cartoonist with the idea of chronicling the life of fictional kid Greg Heffley's adventures through a first-person journal with words and drawings he called Diary of a Wimpy Kid. Now, Kinney's creation has spawned a whole series of books—the fifth and most recent of which, The Ugly Truth, comes out November 9th--, a major motion picture of the same name and even a balloon in this year's Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, territory usually held by iconic stalwarts like Spider-Man and Clifford the Big Red Dog. That's not a bad few years' worth of work!
To celebrate the 5 million copy print run of The Ugly Truth, which publisher Abrams claims to be the biggest release of the year, a series of events are planned, from a seven city book tour by Kinney and appearances on television to giveaways and kits for stores to throw their own release parties. The book tour kicks off on November 8th when Kinney makes an appearance at the Barbara Bush Celebration of Reading in Dallas, TX and ends on November 14th in San Diego, CA at the United Through Reading Charity Ball with in-between stops in Austin, Little Rock, Memphis, Nashville and Birmingham. For a full rundown of appearances check out WimpyKid.com. We talked to Kinney the night before his November 5th appearance on CNN's American Morning and CNBC's Power Lunch. The author talked about everything from his hand in creating the parade balloon to his involvement with the first two movies in the Wimpy Kid movie series, plus he gave a few details on the highly anticipated Ugly Truth.
MTV Geek: What was your reaction when you first heard about the Diary of a Wimpy Kid Thanksgiving Day balloon?
Jeff Kinney: I was really excited about that because in the history of the parade there haven't been that many balloons especially featuring a cartoon character. So, to be part of that pantheon that includes Clifford and Snoopy and Spider-Man, it's just really cool. I'm also a little depressed about it because I know for certain that I've peaked at 39, so there's some humility that comes with it.
Geek: Did you ever, in your wildest dreams, think something you created would be in the Macy's parade?
JK: You know, I never even thought I had a chance to get published. In the years after college I tried to get my cartoons accepted by newspapers and was met with really tough and ominous rejection letters so I thought, and still believe that,, I don't have what it takes to produce a professional cartoon so everything past that point has just been things getting sillier and sillier and sillier and the balloon might just take the cake.
Geek: What kind of involvement did you have in the creation of the balloon?
JK: I did. I sketched out what the balloon should look like on a napkin and submitted that to the Macy's folks. In fact, I submitted one design and they said it was impossible because I had no understanding or appreciation for balloons or dynamics or safety and where the helium goes, but I think I got it right the second time around. Then I walked into their studio and they had this three-or-four foot sculpture [of the balloon] that was pretty perfect, so that was a really nice moment.
Geek: So you've seen it along various stages of development.
JK: Yeah, I actually got to help with the sculpting a little bit. I got to touch it up and draw the mouth on the character and [noted] where the eyes should be and move the hands and things like that, so it was definitely very hands on.
Geek: Will you be in New York for the parade?
JK: I will, I'll be in the grand stand watching it with everyone else.
Geek: Moving from the parade to the new book, what can you tell us about Ugly Truth?
JK: I can tell you that the book, The Ugly Truth is about puberty and all the awfulness that comes with that time in a person's life. It was definitely some different subject matter to be writing about especially knowing some of my audience are second and third graders. I had to pull the Seinfeld trick and write about the thing without really saying what I was writing about. Hopefully I walked that line.
Geek: Does this book pick up where the previous summer-spanning Dog Days ended?
JK: Right, Greg and Rowley--best friends--had a falling out in the fourth book and Greg wants his old friendship back because they had a pretty good thing going, but Rowley is hooked up with a big brother for hire named Cool Brian who's paid for by Rowley's wealthy parents and so Greg can't find his way back into the friendship.
Geek: Do you draw from your childhood or past experiences when coming up with these stories?
JK: I can't divorce myself from my childhood. I try to write as much fiction as I possibly can, but there are so many things that are touchstones of my childhood like being on the swim team and playing soccer and the particularities of sports season and environments that make their way into my books. There are some moments that are explicitly from my childhood like, in the second book [Rodrick Rules], Greg hides out from his swim coach by ducking into the boys locker room and sits there and wraps himself in toilet paper to keep himself warm and that's pulled straight from my childhood.
Geek: Do you dream up the rest or borrow from other experiences you've heard about?
JK: It's a mix. I try, first and foremost to remember what it's like to be a kid and then I try to see things from this kid's perspective.
Geek: Do you find it difficult, being an adult, to put yourself in the mindset of a kid who doesn't necessarily understand the ways of the world?
JK: I feel, as an adult, I'm very similar to how I was as a pre-teen. Maybe it's a case of arrested development, but I feel like it's easy to slip back into those shoes and I feel like if we were all magically transported back to our middle school years, we'd all act like we did in middle school.
Geek: The books are filled with observations by Greg that feel familiar from childhood, but come across as funny to adults, that's an impressive balance to reach.
JK: That's good to hear. It took a long time to write the first one, it took me--from the time I thought of it to the time it came out--eight or nine years, and all the time I was writing the book I thought I was writing for an adult audience and in fact it was picked up by my publisher with adults in mind and then everybody got smart and made it into a kids' series. That it actually reads well for adults is very gratifying.
Geek: When you tackle a new book like Ugly Truth, do you have an outline of events in mind or just start writing and see where it takes you?
JK: I don't. I'm really a terrible spot writer. I'm not good at narrative, I'm really a gag writer and that comes from being in the newspaper comic strip world for a while in college. What I do is I just write tons of jokes, then I sort them out in terms of quality and then pick the best of the jokes and then try to form them into a plot. If I get a good theme going I feel lucky.
Geek: Have you gotten much feedback from kids or adults reading the books, possibly on wimpykid.com?
JK: I don't have that many interactions with my fans unless they're local. Every so often I get out there and tour and I'm getting ready to do that in a few weeks here where I'm going to go through the south on a giant bus and we're going to play to some big theaters, so that's really fun. I almost didn't tour and then I realized that it wasn't fair to the people who are loyal to the book series and I wanted to go out and meet them.
Geek: Do you have a mix of kid and adult fans at those events?
JK: I do, but I don't think that's the adults' choice, the kids just need a ride. [laughs] They're my captive audience.
Geek: Have you heard kids say they started journaling after reading the books?
JK: I see and hear that a lot. I wrote a book called the [Diary of a Wimpy Kid] Do-It-Yourself Book which is the half-empty book or half-full depending on how you look at the world. Kids can get inspired by the book and then write their own. I see it a lot where kids start writing with a mix of text and cartoons. That's very gratifying.
Geek: From books to flicks, what was your experience with the Diary of a Wimpy Kid movie like?
JK: I actually just got back from set where we wrapped the second movie and my experience has been very complete. I was very involved with everything from casting to helping with the writing to actually being on set when the movie was being made. I probably had as complete an experience as you can as an author. It's really very different than writing a book where you have complete control but in a movie you have input but no control because there's so much at stake and so much riding on it. I definitely got my licks in, feel edified by the whole process and am eager to do it again.
Geek: Did you have an idea of what a human version of your cartoons would look like when you went into the casting process?
JK: I really didn't, especially with Greg who's bald with three hairs sticking up, if you get a kid who looks like that, it might look a bit odd on the screen. You kind of have to let go on a lot of different cases, sometimes the real life character matches very well with the illustrated character. I can say that of Robert Capron who plays Rowley Jefferson, he looks like Rowley, what more can you say?
Geek: What do you think it is about Greg that makes him lovable and relatable even while he's a bit self absorbed and arrogant?
JK: That's good to hear. It's tricky writing a character who's a jerk and I think you have trouble writing from that character's point-of-view. There's a show on Showtime called Dexter about a serial killer and if you're telling things from the point of view of that character, you're making a lot of allowances. But, I think Greg isn't such a bad character, he's just a kid who's not fully grown up yet. I think people understand that and that he'll probably change over time.
Geek: From your perspective, has Greg changed or grown since the beginning of the series?
JK: Hopefully not at all, I'm very strident in trying to make sure my characters don't develop or change too much. I think they're similar to sitcom characters or maybe characters on the comic page who need to act a certain way, always. If they develop, they lose some of their flavor so I always try to return things to center by the end so that readers can have a reliable experience.
Geek: That sounds like the traditional comic strip approach to characters.
JK: Absolutely, Charlie Brown has the first day of school every year, that's just part of the conceit of the medium and you don't question that.
Geek: Have any of the secondary characters surprised you with how much you like to write about them?
JK: I really like writing about Rowley. I think he's not afraid to be a pure kid. He's kind of the kid I hope my children grow up to be even though he's a bit of a doofus he also isn't corrupted. I have the most fun writing about him.
Geek: He seems like a very relatable character, I remember knowing kids like him when I was younger.
JK: I think the world is full of Greg/Rowley pairings, these kind of unhealthy friendships that seem to thrive and I've definitely been the Greg in a lot of relationships, but I don't think I've been the Rowley.
Geek: Have you seen a lot of the promotional materials for the release of Ugly Truth?
JK: I've seen the event launch kit for this book. I wrote the first few launch kits and then it was taken over by someone with more time and energy. I read it over and it's great that so many people are getting excited about this book.
Geek: Out of the posters, standees, bracelets, water bottle and the rest, do you have a favorite piece?
JK: Right, Silly Bands. It's the world we live in, I guess. My favorite thing has to be the balloon.
Geek: Do you have another project in mind after this, more Wimpy Kid or possibly something else?
JK: That is a good question. I've had some ideas and sometimes you have to let things sit to see if they're good ideas or just an idea. I'm thinking through things, I definitely would like to have another Kid down the road. I like Wimpy Kid very much and can imagine that universe expanding but I'd like to do something else as well.