Wimpy Kid author keeps it real in a surreal world
Since his Diary Of A Wimpy Kid series, about the exploits of 12-year-old schoolboy Greg Heffley and his friend Rowley hit the bookshelves – and the big screen – the life of Jeff Kinney has become increasingly surreal.
Kinney has met George W Bush, Barack Obama and even been voted one of Time magazine's most influential people.
"That was strange," the 41-year-old author reflects. "I'm not even the most influential person in my own house.
"I was invited to the White House Easter Egg roll, to be part of their festivities, I got to go with my family and we met the President and his family and their dog," says Kinney, who began his career as a cartoonist and online games developer. "It was a mad flurry of meetings and greetings and handshakes and kind words. I think he said, 'Good book.' I know that he had bought one of my books for one of his daughters."
Kinney, whose father was a military analyst and mother a nursery school teacher, is married to Julie and they have two sons, Will, 10, and 7-year-old Grant.
"My kids provide inspiration in just allowing me to see childhood for a second time," he says. "My kids have a very normal life. We live in a small town and are well integrated into our community. But sometimes my kids get to do special things. They've been on movie sets and have travelled to places we wouldn't have gone to otherwise.
"It's pretty important to me to remain a normal guy with an ordinary lifestyle. I'm the cub master of our local cub scout pack and the coach of my kids' sports teams. That's when I'm at my happiest, living in Plainville and going about my business."
Yet his publishing success has been anything but ordinary. In its second week of publication, his seventh Diary Of A Wimpy Kid book, The Third Wheel, was the best-selling book in the UK across all adult and children's titles.
He has now sold more than 75 million books in 40 languages. And earlier this year his first Wimpy Kid offering was voted best children's book of the decade by Blue Peter viewers, beating Harry Potter.
"It wasn't deserved, but I'm very grateful for it, especially with Harry Potter on the list," says Kinney. "I think I benefited from having my book published more recently. Most of the kids who were voting didn't grow up when the Harry Potter titles were released."
Kinney originally wanted to be a newspaper cartoonist but after receiving a string of rejection letters, reconsidered his approach. With Wimpy Kid in mind, he started a journal, carrying a sketch book round with him. It took him four years to fill it up with jokes and another four for the plot line.
While working as an online games developer, he started publishing Greg Heffley's diary in 2004 on funbrain.com, a website he managed But it was another three years before the book was published. Indeed, the first book took nine years, the subsequent ones an average of nine months.
Kinney has kept his full-time job as creative director of Poptropica, a virtual world website for kids featuring games and stories, and has also been executive producer of the three Wimpy Kid films starring Zachary Gordon as Greg Heffley and Robert Capron as Rowley.
"I wanted to preserve the voice of the series as much as I could and to have as much of an impact as I could," he says.
On Greg Heffley's latest outing he is looking for love before a big Valentine's Day dance. Greg is frozen in time, so will remain aged 12 forever. The books are aimed at nine-year-olds upwards, but there are many younger – and older – readers who've become fans.
"To have such huge audiences is very gratifying and it's hard to let that go," says Kinney. "I know one day I'll fall back down to earth and then go on with the rest of my life."
Diary Of A Wimpy Kid: The Third Wheel (Book Seven) by Jeff Kinney. Publisher: Puffin, £12.99.