Rick Riordan is not J. K. Rowling.
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.
ES: The online part of it was in there all along.
RR: It dovetails with the action in the book, though the two can be experienced as totally separate things. It is completely possible to just read the ten-book series and enjoy it.
ES: And never go on the Internet.
RR: And never pick up a trading card. That’s my job: to make sure the books stand alone. However, if you choose to go online, you can immerse yourself in the story by becoming a Cahill. There’s a game in which you create your own identity, choose your branch of the family, and go off searching for clues and building your reputation and gaining money and power and access. And there’s a real-time race that started the same day for the English-speaking world: the UK, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, and the United States. The first kids who start finding clues will win prizes. It’s something like $100,000 worth of prizes, just in the U.S.
ES: We who write and edit tend to think of the Internet as an interloper in our world. This feels like an “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” deal.
RR: It’s recognition that, whether it’s social networking, researching a paper for school, or text-messaging friends, the vast majority of kids read and write online today. Publishers recognize that and are trying to tap into that. But I don’t think there is any sense that the Internet will replace books. It’s a complementary arrangement rather than an either-or. A lot of kids who are very savvy about the Internet will find themselves drawn into the books. That, at least, is my hope. I have two boys who are reluctant readers, but they’re great gamers, and they’re online all the time.
ES: Are your kids the audience for your books?
RR: Oh, absolutely. I always think of my sons first. If it’s a book they’ll like, it’s probably a project I’ll go forward with. I would never think about sending a manuscript to my editor before I read it to my sons. Because if it doesn’t work for kids, I’m wasting my time. It’s one thing for a book to fly with adults, but the kid test is a much tougher litmus test.
ES: By my calculation, about half of the twelve books you’ve written have been for adults and half have been for kids. What’s the difference when it comes to writing for those audiences?
RR: People have said for many years that writing for kids is easier. I haven’t found that to be true at all. If anything, writing for young readers is more demanding because they don’t have as much patience as adults. Adults will stay with you if you have paragraph after paragraph of extraneous descriptions. Kids won’t do that. They’ll let you know right away if your story is losing them. So you have to be a better storyteller. Your narrative has to be more compact and more gripping. You have to make sure the characters are empathetic, that kids can relate to them. And you have to include all of the things that storytelling should include: You have to have action, you have to have humor, and you have to have emotional situations. And you have no time to waste. You have to get it all in there economically.
ES: How heavy is the burden to create an alternate universe that your readers may never have a chance to experience, a universe that relies entirely on their imagination?
RR: It’s very important to give the reader the opportunity to become part of the story. When I was a kid, that was always the mark of whether I got into a book. Could I imagine myself being James in James and the Giant Peach? Could I imagine myself being a character in the Lord of the Rings?
ES: Even though those are fantastical situations?
RR: Oh, absolutely. Sometimes the more fantastical it is, the better, because it’s sort of a vacation from real life. It’s nice to get out of the grind of being an elementary or middle school student. Maybe your pen can turn into a sword. Maybe your teacher really could turn into a monster.
ES: For a lot of kids, the idea that their teacher could be a monster is not that fantastical.
RR: Not so much of a stretch.
ES: What was your childhood like? Describe yourself as a kid when you were roughly the age of the kids in your audience.
RR: I was born in San Antonio and lived here most of my life. Growing up, I attended the Alamo Heights public schools. I was a reluctant reader—I didn’t like books until I was probably in the fifth or sixth grade. The books that were recommended to me just didn’t connect with me. That changed when I discovered mythology, around sixth grade or so, and I had a series of very good English teachers. From mythology I got into fantasy. The first series of books I really remember loving was the Lord of the Rings.
ES: At what point did you begin to think to yourself, “This is something I might do as a career”?
RR: From about the time I was twelve or thirteen, I knew that I wanted to be both a teacher and a writer. And I was very fortunate that I got to do both. The most powerful experience for me, in terms of writing, was when my eighth-grade English teacher read a story that I wrote for class and encouraged me to try to get it published. I still have the rejection note from Asimov’s Science Fiction magazine.
ES: Did you come to UT still thinking about teaching and writing?
RR: Yeah. For a while there I was a musician. That was how I worked my way through UT: playing in cover bands. That’s where my energy went for a while. We played folk rock, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan—that kind of thing. It was the mid-eighties. We had long Tony Orlando hair. Very embarrassing. But I kept coming back to writing short stories. I didn’t get serious about it until I was out of college and my wife and I moved to San Francisco. I was teaching at a private school and got homesick for Texas, and that’s where the idea for my first detective novel, Big Red Tequila, came from. It was a love letter to San Antonio. I couldn’t be home, so I wrote a book about it.
ES: Eventually, though, you did come back home. It was while you were teaching at Saint Mary’s Hall that you wrote the first book in the Percy Jackson series.
RR: During that time, I was continuing to teach both social studies and English, and my students would always ask me why I didn’t write for kids. They knew that I wrote books for adults. They thought it was really interesting when I told them that they couldn’t read them because they weren’t appropriate. Of course, as middle schoolers, that meant they had to go out and buy them right away.
ES: Not Henry and June inappropriate?
RR: No, the equivalent of an R-rated action film. All my adult books are. Anyway, they would ask me why I wouldn’t write something that was gauged toward middle schoolers, and I never really had a good answer for them. At the time, my older son, Haley, was in the second grade, and he was having a lot of trouble with reading and writing. We found out that he has ADHD and is dyslexic, which explained a lot. The only thing he enjoyed in school that year was Greek mythology—
ES: And that was the genesis of The Lightning Thief. You thought, “I need to do something that speaks to him directly.”
RR: It really was, in the beginning, a story for my son.
ES: For the uninitiated, say a few words about the plot of this series, which is now at four books, with a fifth coming.
RR: In fact we just announced the title of the fifth book: The Last Olympian. It will be out next May 5. Overall, the Percy Jackson series is about a young modern-day kid in New York who discovers that his father is actually Poseidon, the god of the sea.
ES: Daddy issues!
RR: Yeah, no kidding. He goes off to a summer camp for demigods, where they train to defend themselves against monster attacks, and Percy goes on a series of quests to help the Olympian gods against their mortal enemies, the Titans.
ES: If a series is going to be compared to Harry Potter, this is clearly the one. But regardless, there seems to be a common thread between the Percy Jackson books and The Maze of Bones. You’ve got kids in modern times who discover some extraordinary thing in their family’s history and go off on a quest to wrestle with it.
RR: The quest is a pretty powerful and a pretty standard element in a lot of young-adult fiction.
ES: The Lightning Thief and the other books in that series were successful enough that you no longer have to earn a living as a teacher. You can write full-time.
RR: It’s an amazing chance that very few writers ever get, so I think of myself as being very blessed. On the other hand, I miss the classroom quite a bit, and I did feel that teaching was my calling. Nobody ever believes me when I say I didn’t want to quit my day job, but it’s true. The upside of that is that I still feel very much like a teacher, because I’m doing school visits all the time. I’m always talking to kids. The big difference, as my wife likes to say, is that instead of having thirty kids in my classroom, I have millions of kids in my classroom. And I don’t have to grade their papers.