Big Interview Rick Riordan  

Author Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series has taken the world by storm and is bringing in a new generation of readers to the joy of books. LESLEY FINLAY caught up with him as he enjoyed a sunny day at home in Texas...

What goes on in the mind of a children’s novelist? Extraordinary thoughts and incredible connections, if the work of Rick Riordan is used as evidence. You would never know just by speaking to him that he has created a complex world that unites Greek mythology with modern day New York, for the author is measured, unassuming, and humbled by his success. 

It is also surprising to learn that Rick, whose books have sold, in his words ‘an unreal amount’, was a reluctant reader as a child. He did not study well at school – causing his mother, in particular, no end of concern. The author says: ‘My mother was an English and art teacher and was fairly mortified that I wasn’t a big reader. It was difficult for her to understand that I had a very short attention span.’

Rick puts his early reading troubles down to a family link to dyslexia – but also credits this with his ability to write for a young audience because he understands what is required to encourage children to read. He says: ‘My father didn’t know until he was an adult that he was dyslexic. I was never diagnosed but I would imagine I have a bit of that because reading was always very difficult for me. It is why today I am sympathetic to reluctant readers because I was one.

‘But my parents read to me – James and the Giant Peach was one of the first books I remember, and mythology of course.’ Like many people, Rick’s life changed when a teacher ‘discovered’ him and changed his life. He recalls: ‘When I was 13 I had a wonderful English teacher – Mrs Pabst – who taught Norse mythology and opened my eyes to the world of fantasy with Lord of the Rings. I finally understood that reading can be pleasurable rather than assigned. 

‘Mrs Pabst encouraged me to write so I wrote a story for her and we sent it off to a magazine. It wasn’t published but my mother still has the rejection slip!’

Rick is a true advocate for the power of education, having been a teacher himself. He reluctantly gave up the job when Percy Jackson took off. He says: ‘It only takes one good teacher to completely change a life. I became a teacher myself largely because I had a few teachers like her that encouraged me. I still feel teaching is my calling. It really was what I was meant to do. I miss teaching. I miss having my own classroom but I console myself with the idea that I am still a teacher in a way. I visit schools all the time and interact with students. The difference is my classroom has millions of children rather than 20 or 30!’

Like all authors, success was slow in coming. Rick, who lives in the same house in San Antonio in Texas with his wife and two sons, Patrick and Haley, started writing short stories for adults. Percy Jackson came to life as a bedtime story for his son Haley. In fact Percy takes on some of his son’s traits – including his ADHD and dyslexic tendencies. And how did that go down with Haley? 

Rick explains: ‘I don’t think it bothered him, in fact I think he was quite honoured. Part of him feels that it was just his story and that it was a very personal father/son experience. The ADHD and dyslexia are something he’s struggled with but he’s a good reader now and is even writing his own novels. That is just amazing.’

Teaching pupils with ADHD and dyslexia is a challenge but Rick’s personal experience at home gives him a great insight on how best to deal with them. ‘Teachers are much more open to the idea of accommodating learning differences – after all they have at their heart a desire for all their students to do well. ADHD is a spectrum and can present in so many different ways. There is no test other than evaluation so our understanding of it is very imperfect and how it manifests in different children can be vastly different.  I remember one of the big revelations for me as a teacher is that girls with ADHD are typically not noticed because they don’t act up, they become introspective and withdrawn.’

The Riordans tried a variety of strategies to ameliorate their son’s conditions, including medication. But Rick says: ‘This can be wonderful but we struggled with this and it didn’t work for my son at all.’

When the film of the first novel was released, Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief, the books were opened up to another cohort of youngsters.  To hardcore Percy fans, the movie was a disappointment – the director Chris Columbus (who worked on the first two Harry Potter films) missed out key plotlines and even characters, causing consternation among readers looking forward to seeing their hero’s tale on the big screen. 

Rick understands this and, while he naturally feels honoured to have his work realised on celluloid, he has never seen the film, for this reason, knowing that any adaptation is likely to be a Hollywood version of the author’s creation. He explains: ‘Movies and books are completely different. As a reader I feel that if you have a book version of the story, you already have the best version and there is no way a film can be that good. It’s difficult for people who have read the books to understand why it can’t be the same.

‘I chose not to see the movie because I didn’t want my images of Camp Half-Blood and the characters to be affected by this other version.’

Rick, who finds the concept of selling books in their millions ‘mind-boggling’, is working on two new series of books. This will bring his children’s work to three series, a genre he has chosen consciously for good reason: ‘Reading a series is very comforting, especially for kids who are not big readers. Once they find a book they enjoy, they want to go back to that because they know the characters and the situation – making it easier for them to keep reading them.’

This is where the young Rick, the reluctant reader’s personal experiences come to bear – Rick liked to read series because he knew the characters and turned to the adventure books he now writes. ‘Children will not sit with you through pages of extraneous information – they just don’t have the patience and will tell you right away if they are unhappy with the story. It’s taught me to tell a much tighter story, to stay on point, to write with a lot of clarity, a lot of humour, to make sure the characters are engaging, that the plot never flags.

‘I want to write a ripping yarn, a story that will pull you through and entertain you and if children learn about Greek mythology along the way – great; but you cannot make them feel they’re being lectured.’

So has life changed? Not much, as Rick explains: ‘We have tried to keep things fairly simple.  My kids go to the same school, we live in the same neighbourhood. None of that has really changed, especially having children in the house who are excitable, we try to keep things calm and normal as far as we can.’

One of the greatest pleasures for this natural teacher is knowing that he can reach out to an individual in his world classroom. Rick adds: ‘When I get a letter from a student saying “you’ve helped me to become a reader”, the teacher in me says, “My life is complete – how could I want
any more?”’

Further reading 

The Percy Jackson and the Olympians Series is published by Puffin. The Lost Hero was published in hardback on

October 12.


And you are? Rick Riordan

How do you say that? Pronounce the ‘Rior’ like Fire 

Also known as: The Myth Master

Known for: Percy Jackson and The Olympians series 

Becoming known for: The Kane Chronicles and Heroes of Olympus

Achievement: The Percy Jackson sequence has sold 500,000 copies in the UK alone to date. Since the release of the movie in February this year, Rick’s UK sales have increased by a staggering 2000%.

A few of my favourite things

Fiction: Lord of the Rings – Tolkien, because it turned me into a reader and a writer

Non-fiction: The Poison King – an ancient history about one of Rome’s great enemies

Movie: I’m a sci-fi geek so I liked Star Wars and James Bond. I also love the Marx Brothers.

Favourite TV: We’re big Dr Who fans. 

Music:  Anything from blues to jazz to rock and roll

To relax: My favourite thing is to travel. We enjoy taking cruises in the Caribbean and we have just got back from Alaska – we flew into Anchorage and cruised down to Vancouver.