Wimpy Kid creator Jeff Kinney has been to the White House and hob-nobbed with American presidents. But, as he tells Hannah Stephenson, his heart's still in his hometown.
By Hannah Stephenson
In the past few years, author and cartoonist Jeff Kinney's life has become increasingly surreal...
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 then the big screen - 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."
Kinney, who began his career as a cartoonist and online games developer, is a modest, unassuming character who endeavours to keep his life in the aptly named town of Plainville, Massachusetts, as normal as he possibly can.
Only, the mammoth success of his comical Wimpy Kid diaries and cartoon drawings have created a life removed from that.
"I've met three presidents, I've spoken at the Sydney Opera House, I've got to walk the Wimpy Kid balloon in the Macy's Day parade. Much else has stayed the same," he says of the past two years.
Earlier this year the author, who originally wrote his series for adults while working as an online games developer, was a guest of Barack Obama at the White House.
"I was invited to the White House Easter Egg roll, to be part of their festivities," he explains. "I got to go with my family and we met the president and his family and their dog.
"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."
He has found himself at literary dinners with ex-president George W Bush, former US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice and the rest of the Bush clan.
"Barbara Bush has a literary foundation and I've been invited to these events, which are a celebration of reading. I've sat next to her a few times now.
"I'm very curious to know how she raised her kids to have any sense of normality in extraordinary circumstances because that's what I'm striving to do with my own kids. Her take is that you should embrace having extraordinary circumstances instead."
He's taken that on-board, but more so in his thoughts than in his actions, he admits.
"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," he says. "They've been on movie sets and have travelled to places we wouldn't have gone to otherwise."
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 seven-year-old Grant. "My kids provide inspiration in just allowing me to see childhood for a second time," he says.
As for the money, aside from buying the house next door, which he uses as an office, and becoming involved with charities, Kinney has ploughed some of his fortune back into renovating a decrepit building in the centre of Plainville, to help stimulate local economic development. He's also had a swimming pool built in his back garden, and been able to take the wider family on holiday, but that's about the sum of his extravagance.
"It's pretty important to me to remain a normal guy with an ordinary lifestyle," he says. "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 still 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 in total. 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. I can't believe that my books are better than the JK Rowling books."
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.
He thinks that the third film, Dog Days, will be the last as the actors are becoming too old for the roles. But he's currently working with Fox on an animated Wimpy Kid special for television.
But much of his time is spent lounging around trying to think of good jokes for Greg Heffley who, on the latest outing, is looking for love before a big Valentine's Day dance.
Greg is frozen in time, so will remain aged 12 forever, Kinney reflects. And while there are more Wimpy Kid books on the cards, he thinks the tenth may be the last. "But I don't want to put a limit on it and be like one of those athletes who retires and then un-retires," he muses.
Between Poptropica and Wimpy Kid, he reckons he reaches 95% of children in a certain age group. 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 7) by Jeff Kinney, is published by Puffin, priced £12.99. Available now