To draw and write the enormously popular "Diary of a Wimpy Kid" series, Jeff Kinney spent four years mining his memories and putting himself in the mind and shoes of a middle school student.
"As a kid, you're a real narcissist. I think that's the nature of human beings, but then we layer it with artifice and make it seem like we're good people," the author said in a telephone interview from his home outside of Boston in Plainville, Mass.
"There are some people who are just good. I admire those people, but I can't relate to them," he said. "I feel like I started off a little bit rotten. People think I'm a nice guy but it's just years of practice."
The series' success and a movie based on it means the 38-year-old author's work load is anything but wimpy. A March deadline looms for the book Kinney is writing about the making of the movie opening April 2.
"It's live action with little bits of animation in it. I was heavily involved from the beginning. I worked with the writers throughout. It's challenging trying to adapt something," said the author, who attended all of the writers' meetings in Studio City, Calif. and watched half of the shoot in Vancouver.
Zachary Gordon, 11, plays Greg Heffley, Steve Zahn plays his father and Robert Capron, Rachael Harris and Devon Bostick round out the cast.
"It was a challenge to bring this cartoon world to real life. We were committed to making sure that the essence of the books transferred onto the screen," the author said.
Gordon, who has appeared in television commercials, "pulls off the trick of making an unlikable character likable. It was essential to find somebody who could play this character and keep that quality while still making you root for him," Kinney said.
The author and his wife, Julie, have two sons, 7-year-old Will and 4-year-old Grant, who met Gordon after thousands of youngsters auditioned for the part.
"My kids swam with him in the hotel pool. We really got to know his mom, who was there and consider both of them to be good friends," the author said.
A fifth book about Greg Heffley and his middle school adventures is due out this fall. In addition, Kinney works a full-time day job managing two websites -- Funbrain.com and Poptropica.com, where the Wimpy Kid first appeared. During public appearances like the one scheduled Sunday at 2 p.m. in Oakland's Carnegie Music Hall, he discusses his work with fans. He's also in charge of merchandising "Wimpy Kid" items.
The third of four children who grew up in Maryland, Kinney dreamed of being an astronaut, quarterback or cartoonist. A student slotted into the gifted program, he pokes fun at those educational initiatives in his recent fourth book, "Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days."
"Greg's mom starts this boys reading club. All the boys bring their books . . . sudoku, video game cheat guides."
Then, Greg's mom brings out "Little Women" and "Little House on the Prairie."
"A kid can sniff that out. They are absolutely powerless to stop it. I'm trying to give voice to the kid who knows the deal but still can't change his situation," the author said.
While growing up, the author said, "I was witnessing my childhood more than experiencing it," recalling that he was "a mediocre talent on the soccer team."
"I was sort of like a prop to be used by the good kids to humiliate and to score on so that their stature might be elevated. I played defender, the lowest risk position for screwing things up."
As a student at the University of Maryland, he drew a cartoon strip. Efforts to sell his work to newspapers and syndicates were unsuccessful.
"I got a heavy dose of reality when I got rejected for a few years. I feel like I was rejected for good reason. My illustrations just weren't good enough. They weren't professional grade."
He devotes four or five hours to writing one joke for his book, trying them out regularly on his younger brother, Patrick, who is 33 and lives in Virginia.
"He's good for me because he doesn't laugh at much. He actually gets mad at me if my ideas are stupid. That's the kind of opinion that helps me," the author said.
But he still thinks of himself as a cartoonist because, "I speak in the language of cartoons. It's not just an illustrated novel. It's got more comic DNA in it. I have a cheat in that my books have cartoon illustrations in them."
He's made 100 appearances and the crowds are increasing.
"On this last leg, by the end, we had close to 5,000 people showing up. That's a six-hour signing, sometimes on a school night. Nobody should ever have to wait more than an hour to get anything signed."
And he's realistic about how his young fans react to meeting him.
"I think they may be disappointed. I'm just some goofball sitting there in a chair. They probably think 'I waited six hours for this?'
Marylynne Pitz can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1648. First Published January 21, 2010 5:00 AM