You were a teacher for a long time. Why did you leave the classroom?
That was a hard decision. I love teaching. I love working with kids. For many years, I taught full-time and wrote a book a year in the Tres Navarre mystery series. When I sold the Percy Jackson series to Disney Book Group, I realized that I’d now have to write two books a year to keep up with my deadlines — one adult book, and one children’s book. I just didn’t think I’d be able to keep up that pace and do a good job in the classroom, so I made the reluctant decision to leave teaching.The good part is, I still get to work with kids as a children’s author. Hopefully, I’ll be able to get more kids interested in reading mythology with my books than I ever did as a teacher. They would often say, “Wow, you write books? Can I be a character?” And I did frequently use names of former students for my characters, but the kids were always surprised how long it took to get a name into print. If I meet a student in middle school, he/she will probably be in high school by the time the book is actually written and in the bookstores. My favorite comment from a student: I assigned a five-page paper, and he rolled his eyes and said, “Mr. Riordan, just because you write books doesn’t mean we have to.” I laughed, but he still had to write the essay. Another thing about my books and my students: When I first started writing adult mysteries, it never occurred to me that my middle school students would ask if they could read them. I always told them no — wait until you’re older. The adult books really aren’t appropriate for younger readers. Of course, many of the kids took that as a challenge and immediately went to the bookstore. I could always tell when a kid had read one of my Tres Navarre books because he would come to class with a funny light in his eyes, like, “Wow, Mr. Riordan, I didn’t know you were such a rebel.” I’m glad I have the Percy Jackson series to recommend to kids now, so I don’t have that dilemma anymore. I thought about it for a few minutes. Then I remembered a creative writing project I used to do with my sixth graders — I would let them create their own demigod hero, the son or daughter of any god they wanted, and have them describe a Greek-style quest for that hero. Off the top of my head, I made up Percy Jackson and told Haley all about his quest to recover Zeus’ lightning bolt in modern day America. It took about three nights to tell the whole story, and when I was done, Haley told me I should write it out as a book. I had a lot to do already, but I somehow found the time to write the first Percy Jackson book over the next year. I just really enjoyed writing it. The story was such fun, and so different from my adult fiction, that I found myself spending a lot of time on it. Now, I’m sure glad I did! Fortunately, the kids really liked it. They had some good suggestions, too. They helped me pick the best title for the book. They also had some good ideas on how Percy should act if he had ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder). One student helped me refine the way Percy’s sword, Anaklusmos, worked. I’m very glad I showed the novel to kids first. After all, that’s who it’s written for. I was never serious about writing in college. I focused most of my creative energy on music, and was lead singer in a folk rock band, if you can believe it. After college, I became a teacher, and was quite happy with the idea of doing that the rest of my life. However, I read a lot of mystery books in my spare time, and when my wife and I moved to San Francisco, I started missing Texas. I decided, on a lark, that I would try writing a hard-boiled private eye novel set in my hometown of San Antonio. Ten months later, Big Red Tequila was finished. The strange thing is, I had a feeling that Big Red Tequila was going to get published. It just felt different than anything else I’d ever written, because the novel had practically forced me to write it. The idea took me by the throat and wouldn’t let me go until the manuscript was done. I tell aspiring writers that you have to find what you MUST write. When you find it, you will know, because the subject matter won’t let you go. It’s not enough to write simply because you think it would be neat to be published. You have to be compelled to write. If you’re not, nothing else that you do matters. For me, that meant getting away from home for a while and learning to appreciate what I knew, before I could follow the old axiom, “Write about what you know.” Percy Jackson felt the same way Big Red Tequila did. Percy was a character who just insisted on springing to life. Once I had a completed manuscript, I queried agents. Many said no. One said yes. The only advantage I had at this stage was that a Bay Area creative writing teacher/author had done a line edit for me. She really helped me clean up the final draft, and then let me use her name in my query letter, “So-and-so, author of _____, suggested I contact you.” Any foot in the door is good. Even if the agent doesn’t know the author, she knows that someone in the business has endorsed your work. For this reason, I do think it can be helpful to pay someone for a line edit, if you have someone reputable in your area. A good place to look for freelance editors would be writing institutes at your local colleges. Once I had an agent, she began shopping the manuscript around. Many publishers said no, all for different reasons. Some loved the story and disliked the characters. Some loved the characters and disliked the story. There didn’t seem to be any consensus. Finally, however, we got an offer from Bantam Doubleday Dell, and the series was published. I finished the manuscript for Big Red Tequila just before my thirtieth birthday, June, 1994. It was published in June of 1997. So from first query letter to pub date took three years. About a year of that was after I’d signed the contract and Bantam was preparing the book for publication. I became a middle school English teacher largely because of the impact Mrs. Pabst had on me twenty-three years ago, and I love having the chance to encourage kids to write the way I was encouraged. That’s one of the reasons I was not anxious to leave the classroom to pursue full-time writing. The first thing a young writer needs is a mentor who believes in his or her talent. So don’t be afraid to ask for help! Find a teacher you respect. Correspond with authors. You will find that a polite email will almost always get a response. Secondly, read a lot! Read everything you can get your hands on. You will learn the craft of writing by immersing yourself in the voices, styles, and structures of writers who have gone before you. Thirdly, write every day! Keep a journal. Jot down interesting stories you heard. Write descriptions of people you see. It doesn’t really matter what you write, but you must keep up practice. Writing is like a sport — you only get better if you practice. If you don’t keep at it, the writing muscles atrophy. Finally, don’t get discouraged! Rejection is a part of writing, and it hurts. The trick is to keep at it. Wallpaper your room with rejection notes, if you want, but don’t give up. The Lightning Thief explores Greek mythology in a modern setting, but it does so as a humorous work of fantasy. I’m certainly not interested in changing or contradicting anyone’s religious beliefs. Early in the book, the character Chiron makes a distinction between God, capital-G, the creator of the universe, and the Greek gods (lower-case g). Chiron says he doesn’t want to delve into the issue of God, but he has no qualms about discussing the Olympians because they are a “much smaller matter.” The gods of Olympus are archetypes. They are deeply embedded in and inseparable from Western thought. The book pays tribute to the legacy of Olympus as one of the roots of our culture. The magic and fantasy in the novel are also drawn directly from Greek mythology. It’s a modern retelling of the Classical hero’s quest. My goal for the novel is to get kids interested in learning more about Greek mythology. If censors want to challenge Percy Jackson on the grounds that it portrays the Greek gods as real, they’ll have to censor a good portion of the English curriculum in every state. Greek mythology is studied extensively from grades 1-8, not to mention the Iliad and the Odyssey in the upper grades. English literature draws heavily on Greek mythology. It always has — from Chaucer all the way to modern novels. Percy Jackson is part of that tradition. I hope it makes kids want to read — that’s the most important thing! As with any book, I would encourage parents to read Percy Jackson and decide for themselves whether it’s right for their children. That takes time, I know, but it’s the only way to make an informed decision. I didn’t simplify anything to write The Lightning Thief. I didn’t worry about vocabulary or sentence length or book length or any of that. Of course, I tend to write in short, snappy sentences anyway, but I think it would be a mistake to “write down” to kids. They hate that. They want to be treated like intelligent and sophisticated readers, and who can blame them? I made sure the content was appropriate for young readers — after all, my own son was the first reader — but as far as the writing style, I hope Percy Jackson will be just as enjoyable for adults as it is for kids. I did do my best to keep the book interesting. I’ve taught reading for many years, and I know that kids get bored with long descriptions that go on for pages and pages. They get bored with books that don’t seem to have a clear plot. I don’t think adult readers are much different. If anything, writing a children’s book made me a better adult writer, because I forced myself to tighten up my storytelling. As a teacher, I’ve worked with lots of kids who have learning differences. I’ve participated in testing evaluations and made modifications in my classroom. But somehow, it’s different when your child is going through the process. Eventually, my son was enrolled in the Scottish Rite program, which caters to children with reading difficulties like dyslexia. He’s doing much better now, but it wasn’t an easy process. While this was happening, I did a lot of reading about dyslexia and ADHD. I especially liked the books Getting a Head in School and Driven to Distraction. I was surprised to learn that ADHD and dyslexia frequently go together. The books also confirmed something I already knew: that dyslexic/ADHD kids are creative, “outside-the-box” thinkers. They have to be, because they don’t see or solve problems the same way other kids do. In school, unfortunately, they are sometimes written off as lazy, unmotivated, rude, or even stupid. They aren’t. If they can get through their rough school years, they often go on to become very successful adults. Employers love them, because they come up with original, fresh ideas. Making Percy ADHD/dyslexic was my way of honoring the potential of all the kids I’ve known who have those conditions. It’s not a bad thing to be different. Sometimes, it’s the mark of being very, very talented. That’s what Percy discovers about himself in The Lightning Thief. As far as similarities between Percy and Harry, I would say a couple of things: First, recognize that Percy Jackson and Harry Potter are similar because they draw on the same sources in folklore and mythology. The idea of a young boy finding out he is special, training to use his abilities, and defeating an evil villain to take his rightful place in the world -- this is the story of both Harry and Percy. It's also the story of Perseus, Theseus and Hercules -- narratives that are over three thousand years old. Most of the elements people point out as similarities between the two series come straight from mythology. The Harry Potter series uses folklore and mythology to beautiful effect, but J.K. Rowling did not invent these elements. Secondly, Percy and Harry are very different kids, who live in very different worlds. Camp Half-Blood is full of magic and mystery, yes, but it has a unique flavor that is totally unlike Hogwart’s. Percy and Harry come from different backgrounds. They don’t have the same issues with parents. Percy’s a bit more of a troublemaker than Harry, I think. He’s used to being labeled the “bad boy” and has gotten kicked out of numerous schools (though this is never entirely his fault). Harry is likely to restrain his friends if they get in a fight. Percy is more likely to punch a bully in the nose. They do share common ground — both have enormous power and responsibility thrust upon them before they are ready. Both are brave. Both have to face their worst fears and rely on a small group of loyal friends. But their stories are quite different. I think readers will see that when they read The Lightning Thief. Having said that, do I hope readers of Harry Potter will enjoy my series? Of course. Any comparison to Rowling is high praise, because I’m a huge fan of her work. I totally understand why kids love Harry Potter. The effect those books have had on young readers is hard to overestimate. In my years as a teacher, I’ve never seen anything that energizes students like Harry Potter. I used to come into my classroom and find students reading Sorcerer’s Stone for the thirteenth or fourteenth time, just because they wanted to. I would say, “That’s a great book, but aren’t you getting tired of it?” The student would always look at me sadly and say, “Yes, but there just isn’t anything else this good.” After hearing that for a few years, I realized there was an unfulfilled need for more children’s literature that impacted kids the way Harry Potter did. I decided to try doing something about it — I knew young readers. I understood what they liked. The Lightning Thief is the result. Whether I succeeded or not, I’ll let the kids decide.
We never talked about it much in the classroom, but most of them were aware that I wrote books. I suppose they thought it was cool, but they had a lot of other stuff to think about, being in middle school. Homework, peer pressure, who likes whom — all these tend to take priority over what their teacher does.
My son Haley asked me to tell him some bedtime stories about the Greek gods and heroes. I had taught Greek myths for many years at the middle school level, so I was glad to comply. When I ran out of myths, he was disappointed and asked me if I could make up something new with the same characters.
Yes. Once my son heard the manuscript and said it was great, I wanted to be sure it would interest older kids — the middle school ages that I taught. I picked a few of my sixth, seventh and eighth graders and asked them if they’d be willing to “test drive” the novel. I was nervous! I’m used to showing my work to adults, but I had no idea if kids would like Percy. I finally understood what it must be like for them, turning in an essay to me and waiting to get their grades back!
I wrote a lot of short stories when I was young, and even sent a few in (to get rejected). My very first rejection note was from Isaac Asimov Science Fiction Magazine in 1978. My mother saved this for years, and brought it out after I got published.
The time I spent waiting to get published was mercifully brief compared to some. I’ll be the first to admit I was lucky. However, the process I went through was the same as it is for many writers.
I started writing seriously when I was in eighth grade. I had an English teacher who encouraged me to submit my work for publication.
No, they’re not designed for kids. They have adult situations, language, etc. They aren’t any worse than a typical R-rated movie, but I do not recommend them for readers under 17. I’m not sure younger readers would enjoy them anyway. They are very different from Percy Jackson.
In Western Civilization, we’ve always had an uneasy mix between Classical mythology and Judeo-Christian values. As a culture, we tend to believe in one God, but we also grow up steeped in these wonderful old stories about the Olympians. As long as we recognize them as stories that are part of our heritage and long-since stopped being any kind of serious religion, I don’t see the harm in learning mythology. In fact, I think you have to know Greek myths to understand where our modern culture came from. It’s part of being an educated member of society.
You know, when I was writing Percy Jackson, I didn’t find it much different than writing an adult Tres Navarre novel. I think kids want the same thing from a book that adults want — a fast-paced story, characters worth caring about, humor, surprises and mystery. A good book always keeps you asking questions, and makes you keep turning pages so you can find out the answers.
• Why did you choose to make Percy Jackson have ADHD and dyslexia?
When I was writing Percy Jackson, my own son was in the process of being tested for learning differences. He was having trouble reading, and some trouble focusing in the classroom. The teachers were wondering about ADHD and dyslexia. He was frustrated about learning to read, and we had to explain to him that the testing was designed to help the teachers help him, not to make him feel bad.
With any new children’s fantasy, comparisons to Harry Potter are inevitable. J.K. Rowling sets the standard for books that connect with kids (and adults, too, for that matter).
My most recent adult book, Rebel Island, came out August 28, 2007. Right now the children’s books are keeping me very busy, but who knows? I may go back to the adult books at some point. We’ll have to wait and see.
Young readers especially like to escape reality and slip into a fantasy world. It’s easier to read about people doing amazing things like casting spells and riding dragons that about people doing mundane things like going to school. Kids already know that life. It’s nice to pretend you are someone else once in a while.
Yes, I’ve been to both Italy and Greece, but only after I finished the Percy Jackson series, which is ironic. One doesn’t need to travel there, however, to appreciate the stories from mythology. Those are quite universal.
• Care for the environment pops up in The Lightning Thief. Do you have any other messages for your young adult readers?
I don’t consciously put messages in the books, because my job is telling a good story, not preaching. However, I do pick up on themes from Greek mythology that still resonate in the modern world, and certainly man’s relationship to nature is one of those. I’ve always been fascinated by the god Pan, and his reported death in ancient times. It seemed a very relevant theme for modern readers.
Percy has my sense of humor. Like him, I was not always a good student in school. Percy is also based on many students I have taught in the past, and partly on my son’s own struggle with ADHD/dyslexia.
I’ve loved the Norse myths for just as long as I’ve loved Greek myths. I had a wonderful teacher when I was 13 who showed me that the Lord of the Rings, my favorite series, was based on the Norse myths. I'd love to do a Norse-based book some day, but I have so many other projects to do first, it will be several years before I can even start.
I hoped the stories would get kids reading, but I never anticipated such exponential growth. It was not an overnight success, nor was it heavily marketed at the beginning. The Lightning Thief was passed around from kid to kid, teacher to teacher, parent to parent, and the series got bigger with each book. It really was a grassroots phenomenon. I owe a special debt to the librarians of Texas, who embraced the books early on and did a huge amount of book-talking with their kids. Without them, I doubt the momentum would've built nearly as much or as quickly. Still, I have trouble thinking in terms of millions. I measure success by anecdotes -- the kid who told me he never liked books until he found the Lightning Thief, the parent who thanked me for turning her daughter into a reader, the teacher who said I turned her class around because they bonded over reading Percy Jackson every day. That's what it's all about for me.