In 1993, Jeff Kinney was a 22-year-old senior at the University of Maryland, College Park with dreams of evolving from a cartoonist at his campus newspaper to one who was nationally syndicated.
He didn't quite get his wish, but Kinney, now 45, is close.
The Plainville, Massachusetts resident, who originally hails from Fort Washington, Prince George's County, is the author and illustrator behind the mega-selling book series "Diary of a Wimpy Kid," which is available in 61 editions in 52 languages. Tuesday, Kinney releases his 11th book in the series.
The Halloween-themed "Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Double Down" continues the adventures of middle-schooler Greg Heffley with his mother's push for him to improve and focus on creative endeavors.
"That puts Greg out of his comfort zone," Kinney said.
But the book's title goes deeper than Greg's storyline, according to Kinney.
The father of two, who also owns bookstore An Unlikely Story in Plainville with his wife, Julie, is doubling down, too, as he preps for his fourth movie, an animated television series and stage musical while also creating virtual worlds for Poptropica, an online gaming system for kids.
He returns to Maryland this week to launch his latest release, with appearances at his former schools, the Library of Congress and a sold-out event at Politics and Prose in Washington. But first, he chatted with The Baltimore Sun about the latest book and the new journey for both him and his series.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
How does it feel to be coming back home to Maryland?
It was a really important for me for this book to just start at home. Last year, we started traveling around the world. We did a global tour and went to Brazil, China and Japan, and all sorts of other places — some of which I had never been to before. I thought it'd be really great if before I went on my international leg that we start where I started off — in Fort Washington.
What are you looking forward to while you're here in Maryland?
I did a speech last week at the University of Maryland, and I made sure to go to Ledo Pizza. At least twice a year, I come back home specifically to go to Ledo's.
Where do your ideas typically come from when it comes to writing your books?
Greg is loosely based on my life or, what I like to say, everything has been through the fiction blender. It's not all autobiographical, but most things are rooted in spirit, not fact. The filmmaking is very true to the experiences that I had with my childhood best friend, Ryan. We used to make films together. I'm trying to cover childhood from every angle, and being a creator is something that was a really big part of my life growing up.
I read that you were once at a crossroads after writing your 10th book. Tell me a little about that.
I always had wanted to be a syndicated newspaper cartoonist. In fact, the first newspaper to ever cover that desire was The Baltimore Sun. That was an initial dream and goal, and instead, I became a children's author writing long-form cartoons. Once I became published, I wanted to make sure I didn't vanish or drop off the radar, so I kept writing books and eventually I got to book 10, which was a big milestone. Then, I was sort of looking out into the void and wondering what's next. Should I do something new, or should I keep doing what I was doing? Ultimately, I decided that 'Diary of a Wimpy Kid' is a good thing. There's a big readership, and I think that 2017 is going to mark kind of a resurgence.
How do you continue to keep the series fresh?
I think any creative endeavor has a life span, but it's not as clear what the life span is for a cartoon property. Charles Schulz wrote "Peanuts" for 50 years, and I think people still enjoyed it all the way to the end. I think it's a great challenge to keep the writing fresh and to try to kind of swim in these same waters but do it in a different way. I feel good about this book, and I think it'll be really fun for kids. That's what motivates me.
What do you think keeps you writing and producing content for children?
It's really cool to think that when I'm writing a 'Diary of a Wimpy Kid' book or creating an island on Poptropica that the work is ultimately going to reach millions of kids around the world. Really, when you're able to get an audience, it becomes an addiction. You want to keep it going.
With you being a dad who is also an author and cartoonist, are your children as enamored with your work as the rest of the world, or are they like, 'This is just my dad'?
I think my kids have a very mixed reaction. They're fans in the way a kid would be. They'll read them when they come out, and they'll reread the books over the course of the year, but we've really tried not to overdo it, and I think that's working out. But every so often, there are interesting perks. They've been to the White House. They've gotten to go on movie sets. They've gotten to do some really cool things because of "Diary of a Wimpy Kid," so hopefully we're striking the right balance.
What's up next?
We're making a movie right now in Atlanta based on my ninth book "The Long Haul," which will come out in May. We're about three-quarters of the way through. The musical is in development. I'm going to be working on an animated television series, so it feels like everything is blooming right now. I decided to call the book "Double Down" because it reflects my state of mind. I'm doubling down on this plan. I know what I am now: I'm a cartoonist, and this is my cartoon. I'm very lucky to have one thing that works, and I'm going to keep doing it.