Evan Smith: Everyone is comparing your new book, The Maze of Bones, to the first book in the Harry Potter series. No pressure, huh?
Rick Riordan: I wish people would stop doing that, because it’s apples and oranges. I don’t see any comparison to Harry Potter at all. Content-wise, there really is no similarity.
ES: The publisher is the same.
RR: But even when they approached me, nobody at Scholastic ever said, “This is our next Harry Potter.” That wasn’t ever in the conversation. They saw it more as a groundbreaking thing because it’s a multiplatform reading experience: It has a Web component, it has trading cards, and it has the books. Anyway, you just can’t manufacture a phenomenon like Harry Potter.
ES: Another difference is that J. K. Rowling wrote all the Harry Potter books. You’ve written the first book in the 39 Clues series and are keeping watch over the narrative arc of the other nine books, but you’re not actually writing them.
RR: Right. There are a lot of reasons for that. For one thing, the publication schedule is so intense. They’re publishing a new book in the series every two to three months.
ES: Except for Joyce Carol Oates, I’m not sure there’s another author out there who can possibly do all that alone.
RR: Or James Patterson. It wouldn’t be humanly possible for one author to do them all. But the thing is, I think it’s going to be neat to see how each writer puts his or her own stamp on the developing characters. The closest comparisons I can think of would be the Hardy Boys. That was a mystery series for kids that was conceived by the publisher and given to different authors.
ES: But the Hardy Boys books are episodic. The characters might overlap book to book, but the mysteries they’re solving are discrete. Isn’t your series a narrative that goes from A to B to C to D across the books?
RR: It is. There’s a definite chronological development over the ten books, and the story arc is designed as one great race toward the thirty-ninth clue and the solution to the mystery of what makes the Cahill family so powerful.
ES: Aren’t you worried that one of the authors will throw the whole thing off the rails—will take the story in a direction that makes it hard for the next author to pick it up?
RR: The final control rests with the editorial team. They’re the ones making sure the books are consistent and the style doesn’t deviate too much from the parameters of the story. I was dubious as to how this would work, but after having my own manuscript vetted and seeing the sort of feedback they gave me, I’m a lot more confident that they’re going to pull this off. And the authors they picked are just terrific.
ES: Who are some of the others?
RR: Gordon Korman is doing the second book, One False Note. I’ve actually read the manuscript, and he did a great job. That will be out in December. Jude Watson is another of the authors—she’s probably best known for doing the Star Wars: Jedi Apprentice series. And there’s Patrick Carman, who writes the Land of Elyon series. So all good people.
ES: You alluded to the plot of the series. Give us the outline.
RR: The Cahill family is the most important family in world history. Every major figure of any importance in the last five hundred years has secretly been a member of the Cahill clan.
ES: Kind of like the Bushes and the Clintons.
RR: On a huge scale. Amy and Dan Cahill are sister and brother, ages fourteen and eleven. They don’t know the history of the family until their grandmother Grace dies. Cahills from all over the world are summoned to the family mansion, in Massachusetts, for the reading of Grace’s will. She gives her descendants a choice: They can either each choose $1 million for their inheritance or they can have the first clue on a hunt. The first team that finds all 39 clues will discover the secret of Cahill family power, and whichever discovers that secret will become the richest and most influential people in the history of the world.
ES: It’s a little bit like a game show: You can take this prize here, or you can choose what’s behind door number one.
RR: Exactly. When I present this to kids at school visits, that’s all I need to say: It’s a choice between a clue and $1 million. You can feel the energy in the room.
ES: As the parent of an eleven-year-old, I’m assuming they all say, “Oh, I’d take the million dollars.”
RR: Some do. And some say, “Oh, no, I’d take the clue.” It’s a pretty even split. As a reader, you like to put yourself into the story and imagine yourself as the protagonist. So even though we’d take the million in real life, we’d like to believe that if we were given the choice, we would do the bravest, most heroic, most exciting thing.
ES: How did this book and this project come to you?
RR: It was the brainchild of a team of editors at Scholastic. They were sitting around, as I understand it, talking about what kind of multimedia project they could create that would incorporate some of the new ways in which kids are reading, especially on the Internet. How could they make a product that would really push the limits of what we think of as children’s publishing? It was in the confines of that discussion that one of the editors had the idea of an around-the-world scavenger hunt that would teach kids about world history. They had the general idea of this megafamily, the Cahills, and they had some ideas for the main characters. At that point they started looking around for an author who could turn it into a plot.