Rick Riordan is the author of the New York Times best-selling "Percy Jackson and the Olympians" series for children and the multiaward-winning "Tres Navarre" mystery series for adults. For 15 years, Riordan 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. Riordan lives in Texas.
Previous National Book Festival Appearances
From the 2009 National Book Festival
What sparked your imagination for your children’s book series - Percy Jackson and the Olympians?
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.
You have worked as an English and History teacher. How have these experiences influenced you as an author?
To understand me as a teacher you have to understand me as a student. I was a very reluctant reader until I hit middle school. The Lord of the Rings was the first thing that I read for pleasure, but I couldn’t find anything else as good. I had a great English teacher in eighth grade who found out I liked Lord of the Rings and showed me how all the archetypes in Tolkien came from Norse mythology. That teacher started me on the path of being a teacher and writer, but still, I was not an avid reader.
Even in high school, I avoided the required books. I basically faked my way through every honors English class by listening to discussions. I was a good writer, so I could give the teacher a decent essay without ever having read the book. I didn’t read a single required text in high school. Of course, my karmic punishment was that I became an English major. I had to go back in college and read all that stuff they tell you to read in high school.
Anyway, this very much informed my attitude as a teacher and later as a writer. I have great sympathy for reluctant readers, because I was one. When a kid says a schoolbook is boring . . . I don’t automatically discount that. Sometimes, the student needs to build up his patience and learn to appreciate literature. But sometimes he’s right. The book IS boring. My goal as an English teacher was very simple: Each student should leave my class with a more positive attitude about reading and writing. They should feel successful and enthusiastic. They should have at least one experience where they read a book they simply couldn’t put down. I used the same philosophy when I began writing for kids. If they don’t enjoy what I’m writing, then I’m wasting my time. That’s why I always test-drive the new manuscripts with my sons first.
You have written adult fiction, short fiction and children’s books – how does the writing process differ for each genre?
I enjoy writing for adults and kids, though over the last few years I have discovered I’m better at writing for kids. I suppose that’s because of my background as a schoolteacher. I know the young audience much better than I know adult readers. Or perhaps it’s because I never grew up myself. My wife would be the first to tell you that!
Conventional wisdom seems to say that writing for kids is easier than writing for adults. At least I’ve heard a lot of adult writers say, “Oh, I should write a kids’ book. How hard could that be?” I certainly have not found that to be the case. If anything, writing for kids is more demanding, because kids are a tougher audience. They don’t have patience for extraneous information or long pointless descriptions. They will let you know if your narrative is getting off track! I have to run a tight ship when I’m writing a children’s book. The payoff is tremendous, however. When kids get excited about a book, they get REALLY excited.
What challenges do you face in your writing process? How do you overcome them?
My favorite part of writing a book is being finished. Everything else is a challenge. Like Percy Jackson, I’m very ADHD and I can’t sit still for a long period of time. I tend to write a little then get up and do something else. The most difficult part is revision. That just never gets easier, but it’s the most important stage in the development of my novels. It’s just a lot of hard work. No tricks. No shortcuts. Just roll up the sleeves and slog through!
What tips or advice can you share with young students who hope to start writing?
It certainly helps if a young writer can find a mentor who believes in his or her talent. Don’t be afraid to ask for help! Find a teacher or another adult you respect. Correspond with authors. One word of caution about sharing your work, however. Personally, I learned the hard way not to share a story until it was finished. If I shared it too early, I would get discouraged if I got any criticism at all, and I would give up on the project. You may be different, but I’ve found this is a very common problem among aspiring writers. Take your time. Finish your project before you ask for advice.
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. Very occasionally, writers get published at a young age, but these are extreme exceptions. Do not get discouraged if you don’t immediately get published at age 11, or 15, or 17. 99% of successful writers need more time to build their skills. I started writing at age 12 and I was 29 before I got published. That’s 17 years of writing and getting rejected! Even after I got published, it took ten more years before I came up with the idea for Percy Jackson and could become a full-time writer. Sometimes it takes a while to learn the craft of storytelling and to find the story that you need to tell. Every writer’s experience is different, but all successful writers share one trait — they did not give up.
Can you suggest a fun writing topic to get them started?
Oh absolutely not! Ideas are something you have to develop yourself, because you have to live with them for a long time if you’re going to turn them into a good story. Me telling you what to write about is like telling you what you want for your birthday. Only one person should answer that question: You.
What is your list of favorite children or teen books?
So many. A few favorites from recent years:
- Gregor the Overlander by Suzanne Collins. My son devoured this series.
- The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. Fantastic adventure novel.
- Airborn and Skybreaker by Kenneth Oppel.
- Adventure novels in the tradition of Treasure Island and Jules Verne, but with a modern sense of storytelling. Again, my son ate these up.
- Skulduggery Pleasant by Derek Landy. My whole family loves these books.
- The Bartimaeus Trilogy by Jonathan Stroud. Brilliant stuff.
- Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney. I’ve never heard my son laugh so much while reading a book.
- Bone by Jeff Smith. A nine-book series of graphic novels. And yes, comics absolutely qualify as reading! My sons and I all enjoyed this series -- coolest red dragon ever.
How do you decide on themes for your books?
I don’t. Seriously, I don’t sit down and say, ‘Today I will explore man’s inhumanity to man.’ I just come up with a story and tell it in the most interesting way I can. For me, themes develop organically. They are things that English teachers pick out after the fact, but the author (at least this author) does not always consciously insert. In the words of Mark Twain, ‘persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished.’
How important is research in the development of your books? Can you explain the process as well?
I love research. It’s a little dangerous, though, because research is a lot more fun than writing a first draft, so I sometimes end up doing more than I need, and getting more information than I will ever use. People ask if I have trouble finding new Greek gods and monsters to write about. In truth, the only problem is narrowing down the subject matter. Even after five books, there is still so much to explore. I usually spend about two months reading and researching on the Internet before I start a new project, keeping notes as I go.
What is your advice to parents for passing the joys of reading on to their children?
My biggest advice to parents: get involved with your kids’ reading. Read with them. There is no such thing as being too old for reading aloud! Find out what they’re interested in and let them pursue it. Make friends with a librarian or a local bookseller. Expect your children to have a reading time at home every day, but let them decide what they will read. Model this behavior by being a reader yourself! If you’re too busy to read, guess what . . . your children will be too. And don’t worry if your child isn’t reading Harry Potter when she’s five, or War and Peace when she’s in eighth grade. This isn’t a race. It isn’t for bragging rights. It’s about getting connected with a good story, and learning to become a lifelong reader and learner.
If you weren’t creating children’s books, what do you think you would be doing?
Still teaching! I love being in the classroom and I was not anxious to leave, so I’d be quite happy doing that again.
Do you have a website where young people can learn more about you and your work?