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An Interview with Rick Riordan

Rick Riordan is the author of the #1 New York Times bestselling ‘Percy Jackson and the Olympians’ series for children and the multi-award-winning ‘Tres Navarre’ mystery series for adults.

For fifteen years, Rick taught English and history at public and private middle schools in the San Francisco Bay Area and in Texas. In 2002, Saint Mary’s Hall honored him with the school’s first Master Teacher Award.

His adult fiction has won the top three national awards in the mystery genre – the Edgar, the Anthony and the Shamus. His short fiction has appeared in Mary Higgins Clark Mystery Magazine and Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine.

Rick lives in San Antonio with his wife and two sons.

Interview conducted via email.

EB:    Where did the idea for Percy and his adventures with the ancient Greek Gods come from?

Rick: My son Haley was studying the Greek myths in second grade when he asked me to tell him some bedtime stories about the 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.
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.

EB:    Percy has ADHD and dyslexia, something he shares with many children – what prompted you to include ADHD and dyslexia in the storyline and what has been the response to this from your readers?

R: 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.
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’.

EB:    What values do you feel ancient mythology (especially the Greek myths) has for us here and now?

R: Greek mythology is everywhere in modern culture. You see it in movies, television, books, architecture, music, drama. The more one knows about Greek mythology, the more one appreciates the modern world and where we’ve come from. The stories are timeless. Not only are they fun and interesting for young readers, but they also explore such important themes as loyalty, friendship, jealousy, family, patriotism, and the horrors of war.

EB:    You’ve written books for both children (Percy Jackson) and adults (Tres Navarre and Percy Jackson).  How do you write?  Is there much research involved, or do you allow the creative ideas to come first, and does the writing process differ when it comes to writing for children vs. writing for adults?

R: I enjoy writing for both kids and adults, though I think I’m better at children’s stories because I was a teacher for so long, and I know that audience well. I do constant research, and I’m always learning new things about Greek mythology. I usually outline the story for about a month, spend about five months on a rough draft, and the rest of the year revising. The process is no different whether I’m writing for children or adults. Really, the elements of making a good story are the same.

EB:    How have your sons dealt with the fact that their dad writes brilliant stories, one of which is now being turned into a movie?

R: They vacillate between being proud and being a bit embarrassed. They are, after all, teenagers now. They get a little chagrined when classmates ask them to get books signed for them, or ask if their dad can read their manuscripts. Most of the time, though, I think they’re pleased to see that the series has been successful.

EB:    You began writing at a very young age. Can you tell us a little about what drew you to writing, and how you got published?

R: 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.
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. It took about one year to find a publisher, which was actually fast for the publishing world.

EB:    Have you any advice for aspiring young writers?

R: 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.

Secondly, 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.

EB:    Are you excited about seeing Percy being ‘fleshed out’ on the cinema screen?  Have you had any creative input in the film-making process?

R: Selling one’s book to Hollywood is rather like selling someone your house. After it’s sold, it isn’t yours anymore. They can paint it a different color, tear it down and build something new, or do anything they want. Hopefully the movie is great, but no, I had no participation in the project and have not seen the film.

EB:    Will we see any other Percy Jackson books turned into movies?

R: That’s entirely up to the studio. I have no idea. I would assume it depends on how the first movie does.

EB:    You taught middle-school level English for several years, before leaving the classroom to write full-time.  Do you miss teaching, and do you think that you will one day return to the classroom?

R: I do miss teaching. I doubt I will ever go back to the classroom, though I console myself with the thought that I still am a teacher in a way, only now I have several million kids reading my books!

EB:    What advice do you have for young people who want to read, but find the school prescribed books boring?

R: That is a problem I had as a student. Find something you love to read – anything, and try to make time for it daily. It very much helps if the family can make reading time a shared experience. If the parents are too busy to read in the evening, the children are likely to feel the same way.

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