The unlikely story of the best-selling author who opened his own bookstore
Diary Of A Wimpy Kid creator Jeff Kinney talks to Hannah Stephenson about his desire to help his local community and recalls a day a plane crashed into his neighbour's home killing three people
Jeff Kinney had taken his 12-year-old son to his local cinema when his mobile phone started buzzing. "I'd left my younger son at home with my wife, because I didn't think the film would be suitable. By the time I got outside, the phone was full of images of the crash. My younger son at home saw the explosion."
It emerged that a small plane had crashed into Kinney's next-door neighbour's house, killing three people - the pilot, his wife and daughter - but, miraculously, his neighbours, a family-of-four inside the house, escaped unhurt.
The creator of the best-selling Wimpy Kid series arrived home to see the house next door ablaze.
"We had police and media camped out in our yard for almost a week-and-a-half," he recalls. "It was a terrible shock."
"I don't think it had an effect on us directly other than disruption during that week," he continues.
Kinney (44) rallied with the rest of the community in Plainville, Massachusetts (population 8,000), where he lives, to help his neighbours. The author owns two houses next door to each other - one which he uses for guests - and has loaned that house to his neighbours while theirs is being rebuilt. But he plays down his generosity.
"The community at large rallied, so we put together a fund where people could make contributions. The family is doing well. It showed the power of community. We all helped them in different ways."
Kinney, whose Wimpy Kid series about the exploits of 12-year-old schoolboy Greg Heffley and his friend Rowley has made him a multi-millionaire, could live a life of luxury, but he'd rather live a simple life with his wife Julie and two sons, Will (12) and 10-year-old Grant, and his sense of community is all-pervading.
He has ploughed millions into converting the main old building in the centre of his town into a fantastic bookshop, An Unlikely Story, which opened earlier this year.
"It's a three-storey colonial building in the heart of downtown and it's become this oasis for people in the region. It's really good to see the parking lot filling up every day with people who love books. I think it will make some money.
"But it's a low margin business. The building was expensive and financially foolish in a way, but it's the best thing we've ever done. People do come to see me sometimes. I pop in and out a lot - I'm there every day in a room that's shut off. But a lot of people also come because they like bookstores. I don't feel they're coming because of me."
Other crises this year could have hampered the progress of his latest Wimpy Kid book. First his mother had major spinal surgery, then Kinney - who was on a tight deadline, drawing for 15 hours a day - contracted shingles.
But he has managed to deliver his 10th Wimpy Kid instalment, Old School, which sees how Greg and his friends cope when the town unplugs for a week to create an old-school electronics-free environment.
With the book out this week, Kinney realises that he could well be up against David Walliams' Grandpa's Great Escape for a Christmas number one. But there's room for everyone, he says genially, and he's just glad to have more children reading books.
"Do I see him as competition? Sure, but not like competition in that I'm going head-to-head with him. Our books are very different. His seem like really good quality books and I've a lot of respect for David Walliams."
He agrees that each book presents a new challenge. "It gets harder to tell funny stories because you always feel you're paddling in the same waters, but it's also a great creative challenge, so I'm up for it."
The first instalment of the phenomenally successful Wimpy Kid series was published in 2007 and became a best-seller. There are now more than 150 million copies of the books in print in 45 languages, and three film adaptations, while the 10th book is being published in more than 90 countries.
He may have two houses and an amazing book store, but otherwise he lives quite simply, he says.
"We have a sports court where the kids can play basketball. Otherwise, I drive a scooter, my car is a Prius. We have the office house where I work, but our lifestyle is pretty normal. It's pretty important to me to remain a normal guy with an ordinary lifestyle."
He hates being away from home, even though he's currently on a six-week world tour taking in 15 different countries.
"I'm homesick from the moment I leave. I hate missing out on my kids' lives. The biggest strain on my life is not being there for everything that my kids do."
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 sketchbook 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.
He has kept his 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 hope there are more films on the cards. I'm writing a screenplay for a new movie. I've turned in the first draft. I would love to be filming next year, but that's a studio decision."
Thanks to Wimpy Kid, at times his life has seemed surreal, he admits. He has met American presidents including Barack Obama and was even voted one of Time magazine's most influential people.
He tries to maintain a normal life, yet surreal things keep happening, he agrees: "The latest is that my book was translated into Latin a few months ago. The person who translated the book was the Latin tweeter for the Pope."
- Diary Of A Wimpy Kid: Old School by Jeff Kinney is published by Puffin, £12.99