Let’s start with the obvious question. Are you the wimpy kid? I think in the worst ways I’m the wimpy kid. Greg is the sum of my worst parts. I was more of an average kid. I had my good moments and I had had my bad, and the bad are captured in Greg Heffley.
What was your childhood like? I grew up in Washington DC, in a sort of average middleclass household. My father was a military analyst, my mother was an educator. I have an older sister, and an older brother and a younger brother, but I felt like a middle child. I think most people who have an older sibling and a younger sibling can relate to Greg. They are archetypes; they’re exaggerated versions of siblings.
Are there any significant incidents from the book that are from your own experience? Many of the incidents that happen to Greg Heffley have their origins in my boyhood. Once, I remember going to a party as a kid with my parents and the food that they had was very fancy. I knew that my parents wouldn’t let me walk away from the table without eating anything, so I knew that I could eat a devilled egg, so I got like eight devilled eggs and sat down with my plate. I bit into one and it didn’t taste anything like my grandmother’s and I didn’t know what to do so I dumped the eggs in this plant pot in the house. Every time I drove past that house for the rest of my life, I imagined the day they must have found those rotten eggs because they would have smelt something… That’s the sort of thing that would happen to Greg.
How would you define “wimpy”? I would say it's being powerless but self-aware. Kids can relate to the character because they know enough to recognise that they don’t have power over their own lives. Kids always aspire to the next stage, because the next stage always allows them more freedom. Being wimpy is not a physical designation as much as an emotional designation status.
You are the father of two boys. What’s their reaction to the books? My older son sort of weirdly skipped over my books. He went right from Captain Underpants to Harry Potter. He has read my books, but not in the same way that lots of kids do over and over again. My younger son hasn’t quite got there yet – he’s just nibbling at the age.
Surely your son must be impressed that Diary Of A Wimpy Kid was voted The Best Children’s Book of the Last Decade by UK children, beating Harry Potter? When I told my oldest son that I had won that award, he said “Well, dad. Your books are not as good as Harry Potter,” and I said “I know, but they’re funnier than Harry Potter, right?” He thought about it and then said “No, they’re not, actually” so I don’ t think he’s that impressed.
Some of Greg’s experiences have shades of The Wonder Years and Stand By Me. Do you think it’s about being a boy? I think there is something universal about childhood, and boyhood. I was really trying to capture that timeless feeling of childhood and upbringing.
How did Diary Of A Wimpy Kid come about? It started off with failure and rejection. I wanted to be a newspaper cartoonist and I couldn’t break in. Eventually I realised that the problem with my work is that I don’t draw like a pro. I draw like a kid so I thought maybe I could make that work so I came up with the idea of the wimpy kid and worked on that for a long time. Finally, I got published so I feel very fortunate.
You’ve sold more than 75 millions Wimpy Kid books, in 41 languages in more than 44 countries. How does that feel? Everything feels very surreal to me. It feels like it’s a ride and I don’t know how long the ride will last, but I’m enjoying it.
How does “wimpy” translate globally? In Germany, it’s called Gregg’s Journal: I’m Surrounded by Idiots, because they don’t have a word for wimpy, which I thought was very funny. So there aren’t any wimps in Germany. Well, there is one now. In Brazil, it’s called O Diario De Um Banana, which I think is a word that they almost made up to mean ineffectual.
You’ve been on tour to promote the books. How does your young audience relate to it in different countries? What surprises me is how similar the reaction is in different countries. You really can take almost any culture and the kids seem to be the same.
What sort of questions do children ask you? They always want to know how I come up with my ideas. I wish I knew, because they come to me very randomly. For example, today I visited a school and they had a sign in the playground that read: Wait here if you want someone to come and play with you. I thought that was such a cute idea, that kids who need a playmate will just wait there for a friend.
The last time I was in the UK I saw a sign that said ‘the bully reporting station’ where a kid who’s being bullied can go and report the bully. It struck me that it’s a great place for bullies to hang out and wait for their next victim! Some of the ideas come from my experiences, but a lot come from my imagination, so when I’m at home I’ll lay on the couch and just think for hours. Sometimes ideas come, but most of the time they don’t.
Do you think Greg will ever grow up? With the purple book, The Ugly Truth, the fifth book in the series, I’ve decided that Greg is going to be a cartoon character forever. He’s frozen at his age for the rest of his life. That was very liberating for me. I thought of him as a literary character, because he’s coming to life in books, but I realised that the DNA of the character is in comics, and cartoon characters don’t often change.
Who is your inspiration for the cartoon images? My father introduced me to classic comics as a kid, things that he had read. My favourite comics, in fact my favourite storytelling of any sort to this day, is the Carl Barks’ Donald Duck and The Three Stooges comics from the 1950s. I love those and I’ve enjoyed passing those onto my sons.
Do you think in some quarters cartoons for children are frowned upon because they’re not “proper reading”? I think it’s the fact that my cartoons are in book form that is elevating them from comic books to something that feels a little bit more like literature, but I don’t think anyone really takes these books seriously, including myself. These books are a gateway to reading and I think that they teach kids that reading can be fun and that’s why adults find them entertaining.
Your books have been made into three very successful films. How did you find the book-to-screen experience? I felt scared at first. Anybody who hands over a book is going to be surprised along the way, but as executive producer I really became a part of the process. I was on set for about half of the filming, and even appeared in the film as Holly Hills’ father – it’s a non-speaking role, so I’m just starting out.
What’s been the highlight of your success so far? I got the meet the Obamas at the White House with my parents. The Obama daughters are fans of my books. We actually saw them walk out of a bookstore with the last Wimpy Kid book, so Barack Obama’s name is on a credit card slip somewhere for my book. That’s pretty cool. I also got to meet other presidents, George Bush Senior and Junior, and I got to speak at the Sydney Opera House and just a lot of different crazy things.
The Diary Of A Wimpy Kid series is published by Puffin, £6.99; The Third Wheel (Puffin, £12.99)
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