In-depth Written Interview
with Rick Riordan
Rick Riordan, interviewed in New York, New York, on May 31, 2013.
TEACHINGBOOKS: You are the author of several bestselling series for children including Percy Jackson and the Olympians, The Heroes of Olympus, and the Kane Chronicles. Have you always been drawn to reading and writing about mythology?
RICK RIORDAN: Both my parents were teachers, so they were big readers. But I wasn't a big reader when I was a young kid. I wasn't the kind of kid who would just pick up any book. My parents read to me, and that was great—I liked the storytelling. But I wasn't really a bookish kid until probably middle school when I discovered the Lord of the Rings. That was the first series I remember reading just for fun.
I had a great English teacher in eighth grade who said, "Rick, if you like those, you should really check out the Norse myths because that's where Tolkien got all of his ideas." Her advice opened up the world of Greek and Nose mythology to me. She was the same teacher, actually, who encouraged me to be a writer. I wrote a story for her class, and she said, "This is great, Rick, you should try to get it published." It wasn't, but that was the first time that I ever thought I might want to do this for a living.
TEACHINGBOOKS: How did you keep busy as a kid in San Antonio, Texas?
RICK RIORDAN: Mostly I was an indoor kid, and usually my downtime involved games and hanging out with my friends. But I also loved the guitar. I learned to play when I was in sixth grade, and it was awesome. I liked to travel, too—we used to visit the Frio River and swim and inner tube around, which was always a cool thing to do during the summertime.
We also went on camping trips. At night everyone would be sitting around the fire trading songs and stories, and the stories just got more and more elaborate every time you heard them. I think that's what probably affected me the most growing up and living in Texas: the storytelling tradition. It's very much alive there, and Texas is especially big on tall tales. That exposure to the oral tradition probably explains why I love mythology so much. It was kind of a natural fit for me.
TEACHINGBOOKS: Did your high school years give you an opportunity to explore these newfound interests?
RICK RIORDAN: I did keep writing in high school. I was an editor for the school newspaper, and when I won an award for feature writing, it made me wonder again whether I could be a writer for a living. I also wrote some songs, and for a time I wasn't sure if I'd want to get into songwriting or story writing.
I was also a troublemaker in high school. When I was a junior I got kicked out of class for smarting off to the teacher, and I got kicked out of the marching band for the same reason. But probably the worst thing I ever did was edit an underground newspaper. A friend of mine and I did this sort of National Lampoon spoof of everything going on at school, including making fun of the football team. It was anonymous, but the football team found out, and they ended up egging my car. I still maintain it was worth it.
Fortunately, I had some great English teachers who understood my sense of humor and got me through. My grades were not so super, and I was not the kind of kid who did all the reading that was assigned to me. But, later in college, I decided I wanted to be an English teacher, so I had to go back and read all those books that I never read in high school. So watch out—if you don't read those books, you never know what will happen.
TEACHINGBOOKS: What led you to become a middle-school teacher?
RICK RIORDAN: I could always see myself being a teacher. I remember sitting in class as a kid, listening to the teacher and thinking, you know, I'm pretty sure I could explain that a little bit better. And because my parents were teachers, I kind of knew what that job was like.
When it was time for me to become a teacher myself, I had a lot of sympathy for middle school kids. That's probably because I remembered that when I was in middle school, I spent a lot of time feeling awkward and out of place, and getting teased and bullied. It was a really difficult time, but it was also a very formative time for me. It's when I learned to be a reader, and it's when I started to be a writer.
I've taught in public and private schools in Texas and California, from fourth grade to twelfth grade, but no matter where I was, I always loved the middle grades best. It's such a critical point; it's when kids really need good teachers on their side—ones who understand what they're going through and have some sympathy, and who can talk to them with a little bit of humor and a lot of empathy.
TEACHINGBOOKS: Did your own experience as a reluctant reader influence the way you approached teaching and, eventually, writing for children?
RICK RIORDAN: Because I wasn't a big reader when I was a kid, I think I really get why kids might be reluctant readers. It can be so hard to get into certain books, especially some of the ones that are assigned in high school. The subject matter can be a little dry and dense, and sometimes it's hard to relate to material like that.
So as a teacher, I always tried to do my best to make the stuff we were reading as relevant and fun as I could for the kids. And I think it's really important for every kid to find a few books that they just love so they can have the experience of reading something for pleasure.
I did this as a dad, too. My own sons were reluctant readers. They didn't get into reading until fairly late, and I had to try as best I could to find books that really appealed to them. We eventually succeeded, but it was a hard struggle.
Now I think I write for reluctant readers. Of course I want everyone to enjoy my books, but if the kids in the back row who normally don't pick up a book are engaged with what I'm writing, along with the kids who are big readers anyway, then I really feel like I've done my job.
In the end, I think there is a lot in common between being a teacher and being a storyteller. They're both about communication. They're both about keeping the audience's interest and trying to engage with the people you're talking to using humor and excitement. Sometimes it can be hard to be humorous and exciting when you're talking about split infinitives, but I do think there's always some way to make what you're learning more fun. And I kind of take the same approach with writing books.
TEACHINGBOOKS: The Percy Jackson and the Olympians series chronicle the modern-day, mythological adventures of a boy who discovers, at twelve years old, that he is a demigod. What inspired you to write the Percy Jackson books?
RICK RIORDAN: The Percy Jackson books began as bedtime stories for my older son when he was in second grade. He was having a really tough time. We had recently found out that he's dyslexic and has ADHD, which made reading and homework very hard for him. He had trouble staying still in the classroom, so he really wasn't that interested in books.
But there was one subject that he loved that year, and it was Greek mythology. All the gods and monsters really appealed to him. So I began telling him Greek stories at home because I, as a teacher myself, had taught them for many years. When I ran out of the stories I knew, he asked me to make up a new Greek myth, which I had never really thought about before. I came up with a demigod named Percy Jackson, who lives in our time in New York and finds out he is the son of Poseidon. Percy also finds out that, like my son, he's ADHD and dyslexic—and those conditions, in my world, are signs that you might have a god for a father or a mother. My son had no trouble believing that.
TEACHINGBOOKS: Percy Jackson and the Olympians became an international bestselling series whose first book, The Lightning Thief, was made into a film in 2010. Can you describe what it was like to have an idea, which started as a bedtime story, undergo such a tremendous evolution?
RICK RIORDAN: When I began The Lightning Thief, it really was just a bedtime story. I didn't know it was going to turn into a book or even get published. Once I decided to write it down, though, I assumed I would make it a series, simply because I personally like reading series. I like to know what's happening with the characters in one book after another. I figured five books would be enough for Percy Jackson because that would allow me to take him from twelve to sixteen years old, and cover most of the major Greek myths.
I had a lot of fun with the writing. And as the books came out, their popularity just started snowballing. One person would recommend it to another person, who would recommend it to another person. The crowds at the signings would get bigger and bigger.
By the time the fifth book came out, the series was so much bigger than I had ever imagined. I was getting hundreds of letters and e-mails and thousands of people showing up at events, all from a little story that I told my son. I certainly never would've anticipated that, but I'm really glad so many kids all around the world have really loved these books.
TEACHINGBOOKS: What kind of effect has the enormous popularity of the Percy Jackson books had on your life?
RICK RIORDAN: As an author, I don't really think too much about being a, quote, celebrity. It's not like being a movie star or a TV star. It's not as if people recognize me when I walk down the street. That hardly ever happens, and it's just as well. But it is great when people know my books, when I walk through an airport and see them in the bookstore, or when I see someone reading a book on a plane or on a train, and it's something I've written. That's a wonderful feeling.
I think the best thing of all, though, about getting the books out there to so many people is the responses I get, the letters from people saying, "You know, I never liked to read, and then I read Percy Jackson, or I read The Kane Chronicles and I learned that books can be really fun, and now I've read everything you've written." That's always going to be the best reward for me.
TEACHINGBOOKS: You incorporate a lot of humor in your books.
RICK RIORDAN: Yes, humor has always been very important to me. Certainly as a teacher, I found that humor was one of my best tools for getting students to stay interested in whatever we were studying. And humor in storytelling has always been important to me, too. I think without it, you're really missing a key ingredient of whatever story you're trying to write. So Percy's snarky, irreverent type of humor pretty much came naturally to me. It's the kind of humor most middle school kids demonstrate and can relate to. And how did I know it would work? I would read it to my kids aloud, and if it was a good joke, they would laugh, and it wasn't, I would cut the joke.
TEACHINGBOOKS: Your books are action-packed and full of powerful characters—both male and female. How do these elements of your stories resonate with readers, particularly girls?
RICK RIORDAN: My books definitely have a lot of action. I like to keep the pages turning, to keep things happening. I think that's important for both boy and girl readers. All readers like a strong plot.
A lot of people say that my books are great for boys, and that's good to hear because I have two boys. Certainly I have them in mind when I write. But any time I speak at an event, you'll notice right away that the audience is almost always 50/50 boys and girls. So my books actually appeal to both genders.
Annabeth Chase, from the Percy Jackson series, is one of the strongest and smartest characters I've ever written. Without Annabeth, Percy would be in extremely deep trouble. It's very important to me that my books have strong girl characters like Annabeth, as well as strong boy characters. And one of the things I try to communicate through these characters is that part of being a hero is really about finding your inner strength, your own power and your own identity.
TEACHINGBOOKS: You continue the adventures of the Greek demigods in your Heroes of Olympus series.
RICK RIORDAN: Yes. The Percy Jackson series introduced a demigod in the modern world—Percy is the son of Poseidon, and he goes on all these adventures. I always knew that series would be five books, and I wanted it to have a nice, strong ending. But I also knew that the readers who loved Percy Jackson weren't ready to let that world go. That's where I got the idea for The Heroes of Olympus.
In this new five-book series, we're back in Percy Jackson's world, among the sons and daughters of the Greek gods in the modern world, but now, we're seeing that world from many different perspectives. Seven demigods, some from the Greek camp, some from the Roman camp, have to come together to stop an ancient evil that's rising and threatening to destroy the world. Whether they succeed or not is going to depend on how the gods react, and on how well the heroes can work together.
TEACHINGBOOKS: What led you to write the Kane Chronicles, which focus on Egyptian mythology?
RICK RIORDAN: I started writing for kids with the Percy Jackson books, which focused on Greek myths. But as I was going around the country, talking in different schools about Percy's stories, the kids would always say, "Why don't you do something on another kind of mythology? What about Egypt?"
Their question resonated with me. When I was a teacher, Egypt was always one of the best units we did. There's so much to love—mummies and hieroglyphs and pyramids—but the mythology of Egypt really isn't as well known as the Greek mythology. So I started looking into it, and I found these great stories that I wanted to tell. And that's where the Kane Chronicles came from.
In the Kane Chronicles, you have a brother and sister, Carter and Sadie Kane, who find out they are descended from an ancient order of Egyptian magicians. There's a horrible accident one day, and the old gods of Egypt are unleashed into the twenty-first century, and only Carter and Sadie have the power to put them back.
TEACHINGBOOKS: You wrote The Maze of Bones, the first of The 39 Clues books. How did you become involved in developing and contributing to this bestselling series?
RICK RIORDAN: A few years ago, Scholastic Books asked me if I would take part in this new kind of multiplatform experience they were developing called the 39 Clues. They were planning a website, trading cards, and, most importantly, a series of books about a family called the Cahills, whose young descendants discover that a certain secret has made the family very powerful and influential over the course of human history. In fact, some of the names you'd recognize most from the history books were members of the Cahill family. The secret that has made them so powerful can be revealed in 39 clues that have been hidden around the world. It's up to these two young Cahill siblings, Dan and Amy, to find out what the secret is.
I got to design the entire story art for the ten-book series and write the first book. Then other authors came in and took on the next installments as the series progressed. It was a really exciting project to do, and it was great to team up with other authors.
TEACHINGBOOKS: The 39 Clues series has many contributing authors, including Gordon Korman and Linda Sure Park. What was it like for you, not having total control over the storylines?
RICK RIORDAN: Because the 39 Clues really was a team effort, rather than just being solely my series, it was hard to write the first book and then have to give Dan and Amy over to other people to write about. But at the same time, it was really fun and cool to see all these different writers have their own take on the characters and their adventures. It was kind of like having somebody do a riff on a song that you really like, and they interpret the song in a way that you never thought of before.
TEACHINGBOOKS: A number of your books, including the 39 Clues, present readers with story-related multimedia experiences like movies, websites, and games. Do multimedia connections like these affect how you write, or how you think about your stories?
RICK RIORDAN: In the publishing world right now, everybody's talking about what we can do with multimedia, whether it's going to be an app or an enhanced eBook, or whether there's going to be some sort of online game to go along with the books. I think that's all really great and fun stuff, and if it's something that the readers like to do, that's awesome.
But I think at the end of the day, it's still about having a good story. You have to have a good story as your anchor, as your main focus. So for me, personally, I just like to concentrate on writing the best book I can, and if there's other stuff that goes along with it, that's awesome, as long as the story is central.
TEACHINGBOOKS: What do you do when you get stuck?
RICK RIORDAN: You know, writer's block is something that a lot of people talk about. I don't really have writer's block all that much. Occasionally, I'll get stuck on something very small, like a description or one paragraph that's just not working. Normally, in that situation, it's enough for me to just get up, walk around, do something different, and come back to it later.
One thing I've found that really helps me avoid writer's block is to plan what I'm going to say ahead of time. So I outline, just really roughly, what I'm going to do in each chapter before I start writing, and then I just force myself to keep going. Even if I don't think it's good, that's okay, it's a first draft. I just get everything down on the screen, save it, and then I can go back later and revise.
TEACHINGBOOKS: What's a typical day like for you?
RICK RIORDAN: I have yet to find a typical day for me as a writer. Every day is different. It really depends on where I am and what I'm doing. It depends on what part of the book I'm working on. If I'm working on the first draft, that can go pretty quick, and I can work maybe four or five hours a day. If I'm revising a second draft, that's really slow and hard work. If I get through five pages in a day, that's a pretty good day.
But for the final draft, the third draft, if I'm especially close to the deadline, I can write sixteen hours in a day without getting tired. So it really varies wildly. And I think every writer is different. The key is, if you're going to write, you have to find whatever pattern works for you.
TEACHINGBOOKS: You frequently speak to students. What do you like to talk to them about?
RICK RIORDAN: I think the thing I most like talking to them about is their point of view. Sometimes they point out things in my books that I never thought of, and they ask really good questions.
Like, if Annabeth is the daughter of Athena and she was magically born, then does she have a bellybutton? Well, geez, I don't know. I never really thought about that. What happens to Percy's magical sword that turns into a pen if he loses the cap? You know, these are great questions that your typical young reader will think of that authors like me might not have thought of before.
TEACHINGBOOKS: What do you like to tell educators?
RICK RIORDAN: Teachers and librarians are some of my favorite people, especially since I was a teacher myself. I love talking to them because they have wonderful ideas about how to share books, and especially about how to share my books with kids. I'm always hearing about great projects and about special cases where they had one kid who just didn't like to read, but then a book of mine really caught that kid's attention and turned them into a reader.
I like to remind teachers that even though we're all overwhelmed and we're all overloaded, and it's easy to get burned out, it really is about the kids. And it only takes one good teacher to change a life—one time, and one book. That's what happened when I was a kid. I had one good teacher that came in at the right time and turned me into a writer. I am who I am today because of that one person. So never lose sight of that—you could be that teacher.
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