Originally published online in 2004, Diary of a Wimpy Kid is a series of fiction books that share the story of Greg Heffney, a teenage character, and his journal entries as he navigates middle school. When it was published into a print series in 2006, it became an instant bestseller across the world. Now, author Jeff Kinney is trying something different.
His latest book, called Rowley Jefferson's Awesome Friendly Spooky Stories, pivots to zombies, vampires, and ghosts. Kinney held a drive-thru book tour throughout the Mountain West region including stops in Casper and Rock Springs this month.
Wyoming Public Radio's Naina Rao sat down with the author to talk about his new book, what inspired him to create this series, and the magnitude of success he's experienced with his work.
Jeff Kinney: I am a regular guy who got really lucky and got published, I had this idea for Diary of a Wimpy Kid, which is basically a journal, a kid's journal interspersed with cartoon drawings. I worked on it for a long time, eight years, when it was published, I thought that it would suffer the fate of most books, which is: appear on bookshelves for a little while and then vanish. And it stuck around it, you know, it struck a nerve early on. So, the books have done well. And I think I'm about 14 years into this. It's very exciting.
Naina Rao: So, what inspired the idea, specifically for the Diary of a Wimpy Kid?
Jeff Kinney: Yeah, it was my own journal. So, when I was in my 20s, I started keeping a journal. What really inspired it was the normal events that happened in my life. I grew up in the United States in a middle-class family situation. And you know, lots of funny things happen along the way in your life. And so, I tried to record everything, write everything down, that I could remember. And that's why it took so long for me to get my first draft out... because I spent a lot of time just trying to gather material. And once I thought I had enough, that's when I started writing the journals. If you saw them and opened them up, you'd say, 'Oh, this is just Diary of a Wimpy Kid; write a little bit and then draw a little bit and then keep going. And when I looked at that format, I said, 'you know what this might actually work.' And I'd never seen at that point, a book like that, where there was kind of handwritten text and then cartoon drawings that had DNA and newspaper comics. You know, most books that are illustrated books have illustrations that are sort of descriptive of what's happening in the text. My books are a little bit different, because the cartoon drawings supplement the texts, or they kind of add to the story or carry the story forward. So, that's why they're a little bit different from regular illustrated chapter bill books.
Naina Rao: So, tell us what this new book is about.
Jeff Kinney: The new book is a collection of short stories. It is about and the stories are all over the place. There are stories about zombie invasions, and vampires, and werewolves, and kind of I cover all of the horror tropes that you would expect. But it's been really interesting actually, as I've written these stories, I've kind of come to understand what the stories are really about and why they've been so enduring. So, for example, you know, a werewolf story is about, you know, this unwanted transformation of your body, you know, and I'm like, 'Oh, the werewolf story is really about puberty.' You know, it's about the awkwardness of the change, as well as the powers that come with the change. Just about every one of these horror tropes has some sort of really deep something at the center of it. You know, it's not a zombie story is really this story of the fear of others, you know, and, and that's pretty elemental.
Naina Rao: What made you want to use the supernatural element, adding vampires and zombies and werewolves to it?
Jeff Kinney: Yeah, it's funny, it sort of happened accidentally and organically. It would usually start with a question, right? Like, I would take something like the zombie story. And I would say, 'Okay, what, usually happens in a zombie story?' Well, the zombies tried to get in, and then the zombies get in, and then they eat all the people. And there's a few people left, that's just about every, every zombie story it's ever been told, follows that pattern, right? And the zombies outnumber the regular people. And as I was writing that story, I said, 'Okay, wouldn't it be funny, if the people rather than trying to keep the zombies out, they'd let the zombies in.' Right? And so, then you end up with this kind of interesting story, which is about assimilation. And it's, you know, the zombies in this story they come to live with, with the regular people, right? And so, zombies in regular humans are living side by side in harmony, which was kind of a fun story to write. And I was like, 'you know, and then, everything that comes with that, like, what would happen if zombies and people live side by side?' That's the question. And it turns into something a little bit deeper because it turns into a story of attic acceptance and assimilation.
Naina Rao: You're coming to Wyoming?
Jeff Kinney: Yeah, my first time ever. I've done you know, two tours now that went up through the Northeast. And I think right now I'm, I'm one of the only touring authors because most authors are doing virtual tours, which I fully support and understand, we own a bookstore here and we do lots and lots of author visits that are virtual, but I really needed to get out of here and we wanted to do something big and live large. And so we're taking a trip that's going to take us from Colorado to Wyoming to Arizona and Nevada. We want to put a lot of distance under our wheels and see a lot of the country before we're done.
Naina Rao: Why in person?
Jeff Kinney: Why in person... because I think that it's really important to connect with readers. It's important to show kids that there's an author behind the books that they read. And it's also important for kids to have something to do that's not canceled, something that's physical, something that's not on a screen. And so that's, it's a combination of those things. That's like, yes, do it.
Naina Rao: Jeff, thank you so much for talking to me today.
Jeff Kinney: I really appreciate it.