In a way, Jeff Kinney has never grown up -- his life is all about video games, cartoons and middle school angst.
In college, at the University of Maryland, he was a cartoonist for the campus newspaper. In 2004, he began publishing the illustrated, cartoony online diary of wimpy middle-school kid Greg Heffley. The diary became a book, and then a series of books, and then a movie.
Kinney continues to write about the wimpy kid -- book No. 9, "The Third Wheel," is being released today -- and he also spends a lot of time creating the website Poptropica.com, a lively kid-friendly site that's packed with games and graphics. In between, he designs computer games. If it wasn't for the fact that he's 41 years old, married and has two children, he could be your sweatshirt-wearing little brother.
Kinney will be in town Wednesday to sign copies of his new book at the Mall of America. Here, he talks about napping when he should be writing, the importance of a fog machine while working on a book, and his love for Judy Blume.
Q Your books are wildly popular, particularly with middle-school boys. How hard is it to channel the brain of middle-school boys? How do you do it?
A It's easy for me. It's much harder to live my life with an adult mind-set.
Q Were you a wimpy kid?
A I had my wimpy moments. So Greg and I have that in common!
Q Describe your writing room.
A My writing room is a large space in the house next door to where I live. It's where I work but also where I have fun when I'm done working. It's got a large TV for watching the Celtics and Patriots, and it's got a full karaoke setup, including disco balls, a strobe light and a fog machine.
Q What is your writing strategy -- do you have rituals that you maintain?
A Nothing really seems to work well for me. I often spend hours trying to come up with a single joke. I need about 350 jokes to make a good book, and the jokes don't flow easily.
Q Do you have a favorite book from childhood?
A My favorite book as a kid was "Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing," by Judy Blume.
Q What books do you re-read?
A There are just a few books I've re-read as an adult. "Born Standing Up," by Steve Martin, "Bossypants," by Tina Fey, and "The Devil in the White City," by Erik Larson.
Q What's on your desk?
A My new book in hardcover and paperback, a gigantic monitor, and three types of medicine for some mysterious bumps.
Q Where are you right now? Describe what you see.
A In my office, where the view out my window is blocked by my giant monitor. The scene behind the monitor is snowy. I overlook a retention pond and some woods; there's snow on the ground and the wind is just howling. Not a pretty scene for early November.
Q What are you reading right now?
A I just finished listening to Bill Bryson's "In a Sunburned Country." I liked it very much.
Q What's been the best place so far to do a reading?
A I don't typically read my books to kids, but the smaller the setting, the better.
Q Which authors have inspired you?
A I'm inspired by cartoonists. My favorite all-time cartoonist was Carl Barks, who wrote Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge stories in the 1950s and '60s.
Q How do you get past writer's block (or the distraction of the Internet)?
A I haven't figured out how to get past writer's block. I sometimes lie on the couch with a blanket over my head to block out the world, but oftentimes, I just fall asleep.
Laurie Hertzel • 612-673-7302