New house, new city, new book: Rick Riordan’s 2013 trifecta is worthy of any hero of Olympus. This week the bestselling author, who has more than 35 million books in print across his three middle-grade series for Disney-Hyperion, gets ready for his eight-city tour for the October 8 release of his latest, The House of Hades.
“When [illustrator] John Rocco read the manuscript and started working on the cover, Riordan recalls, he said, ‘This is the Percabeth book that everyone has been waiting for,’ ” says Riordan. “It really is. It’s at its core about Percy and Annabeth plunged into the worst imaginable circumstances with no one to help them except each other – and how they deal with it.”
Riordan has set the fourth story in his Heroes of Olympus series in the realm of the ancient Greek god of the underworld. “[But] Hades is not himself as big a part of this story as you might imagine,” he says. “What readers will discover is there are things in the underworld that are far worse than Hades.”
Readers who brave those terrors will earn a reward: at the end of The House of Hades, Riordan reveals the title of the fifth and final Heroes of Olympus book, which is scheduled for release on October 14, 2014. “Book five is when everything comes together, when they have to face the horde of giants that has arisen to take on the gods themselves, when they have to face the ultimate villain of the series, who is Gaea, the Earth Mother, who is not a happy lady,” says Riordan. “Gaea is the puppet master, as she is in Greek mythology. She is maybe not center stage, but she is the one who is pulling all the strings, making things happen. There will be giants, there will be spirits of the dead. There’s a lot of drama as the demigods interact with each other.”
October 8 is the laydown date for The House of Hades, when fans can get their hands on the story that Riordan turned in to his editor April 1. On September 30, the author teasingly tweeted a link to a picture of a box filled with the contract copies that just arrived at his home: “Well, well. Just got a special delivery. And yes, I know it’s unfair and mean to show you this, but.” In response to a tweet that said, “What do you u do with so many?”, he posted, “I keep them in a bin by the fireplace. They make great kindling!” Only kidding. “I just like to tease them because they want the book so badly,” he says. “I thought they would find it horrific that I would use these precious books for kindling. I’m not really going to do that.” In reality, he always gives his local library his 20 to 30 contract copies.
Riordan says that The Heroes of Olympus has stretched his writing muscles even further than his original five Percy Jackson books did. “The series has been a real growth experience for me,” he explains. “I’ve never tried to write something so complex before. We have seven main characters, not just one. It’s told from all of their points of view. We have Romans and Greeks, and two different contrasting mythologies at work. The canvas of the action is all over the world, not just confined to the United States.”
“It’s a much bigger portrait than I did with Percy Jackson,” he says. “We’re not just in his head. We’re seeing him from multiple points of view. For me, it’s added a lot of depth and richness to Percy’s world.”
That richness also includes the reappearances of a few favorite characters. (The supporting cast is large because, as Percy tells Zeus near the end of The Lightning Thief, “I had help, sir.”) “One of my big challenges with Heroes of Olympus was to decide who comes back from the Percy Jackson series and who stays on the periphery, and which of the seven demigods gets to speak in any given chapter,” he says. “They [readers] are always really anxious to see their friends again from the first series. I do bring some of them back.”
Previously, Riordan had “sidelined” some characters, such as the goat-legged Grover (“much as I loved him,” he says). The satyr had gotten a nymph girlfriend, accomplished his goals, and went “frolicking off into the forest,” says Riordan. But in The House of Hades, Grover will get a cameo role “He makes a brief appearance, mostly to let the readers know he’s still around and kicking, so to speak.”
Another minor spoiler: Calypso and Bob the Titan will also appear in The House of Hades. “If I’m still wondering about characters from the first series, I imagine that the readers probably are, too,” he says. “Occasionally those characters will crop up.”
But their relationship with Percy – who matures from a troubled kid who gets kicked out of multiple schools into a natural leader who knows he is the son of Poseidon – has changed. “It’s a different thing when you have a narrator who’s a 16-year-old now and has a lot of experience with demigods and monsters, and now he’s interacting with characters he hasn’t seen since he was 12,” he says. “It’s a real chance for Percy to have a do-over and see, ‘Would I do the same thing now as I would if I was a little kid?’ ”
Riordan’s eight-city tour begins on the East Coast, where he will travel by car and train before hopping on a plane for the rest of the country. “We don’t have any fun demigod bus,” he says. The tour stops, one per day, in order beginning October 8: Burlington, Mass.; Symphony Space in New York City; Barnes & Noble in Fairless Hills, Pa., Politics & Prose in Washington, D.C.; St. Louis County Library in St. Louis; Southern Festival of Books in Nashville; Blue Willow Bookshop in Houston; and Minnesota Public Radio’s Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul.)
Riordan’s favorite part of tours? “The questions from kids,” he says. “They still surprise me.” He also appreciates the sartorial commitment they bring to his appearances: “They dress up like demigods and gods and musicians and everything you can imagine.”
The New Home
In June, the Riordans left Texas, their home for the past 13 years, and moved to a townhouse in Boston. What of his writing area, which in the old home was a converted guest bedroom? (His description: “white walls, a couple of windows that looked out over the AC condenser units, a few pieces of John Rocco cover art on the walls, a chair, a desk, and not much else.”) His space in the new house “ is not quite as plain as it was,” he says. “The new office has a wall of bookshelves, a huge window looking out over the Charles River Esplanade, wood-paneled wainscoting around the walls, and a fireplace with a carved lion face – I call him my Nemean lion – on the mantelpiece. It’s much more – what’s the word? Elegant? Writerly? – than I am used to.” The home may not date back to Zeus, but it’s a century older – 1870 vs. 1970 – than the family’s previous suburban house. With its old-fashioned bookshelves, the writing room itself “looks like a Victorian library,” he says. “ It’s a very different setup for me.”
Haley, Riordan’s older son – and the inspiration for the original Percy Jackson series – just turned 19 and started at a Boston-area college, “a big reason for our move,” says Riordan. “It’s very bittersweet to have him move past the age range that I write for. That’s how it should be. He’s doing his own thing with college.”
And Patrick, the younger son, is now a freshman in high school. He read previous books for typos and other errors, but now he is occupied with homework. “And he was too busy reading his favorite fantasy series, Derek Landy’s Skulduggery Pleasant,” says Riordan. “Dad’s books are absolutely nowhere on the priority list when a new Skulduggery is out.” Riordan, known for turning in extremely clean copy, jokes that if the new title contains “more spelling and usage mistakes,” it’s because Patrick wasn’t on duty.
But don’t expect many slip-ups. Riordan goes over his copy at least 10 times before he turns it in. “One of the things that’s always astonished me about Rick is he delivers these incredible manuscripts,” says his agent, Nancy Gallt. “He can keep all this stuff in his head and weave it together.”
His two boys provide feedback on everything, not just his books. “Both of my sons really think it’s their mission in life to keep me from getting a big head,” he says. “That’s how it should be, and they do their job very well.” The other day, Riordan explains, he was taking a writing break and playing his guitar in his office. Haley walked in and said, “Don’t quit your day job.”
Greek Gods Guidebook
As if nearing the end of The Heroes of Olympus series weren’t enough, Riordan – as soon as he turned in The House of Hades in April – started working on Percy Jackson’s Greek Gods, a guide that he finished in August and which Disney expects to publish in summer 2014. “I wanted to see what it would be like to make a new anthology aimed at the middle grades but told in Percy Jackson’s voice, one kid talking to other kids about these old, crazy, completely messed-up myths, and trying to explain it with the sensibility of a middle-school kid,” says Riordan. Fans can expect interior illustrations by Rocco. “I haven’t seen all of them yet, but the ones I’ve seen are wonderful,” says Riordan.
“I always seem to find more work for myself than I think I can do,” Riordan says. An accessible, modern guide to the Greek gods had been in the back of his mind for a long time. “It’s something I’ve always wanted to do, going back to my years as a teacher,” he says. “I always had trouble finding a good anthology.”
Several exist – D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths, Bernard Evslin’s Heroes, Gods and Monsters of the Greek Myths, and Edith Hamilton’s Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes among them. But they’re not contemporary. “D’Aulaires’, I love it, but it’s just a little dated,” says Riordan. “The illustrations, they just don’t resonate with kids today.” Evslin “does a great series,” he says. “But you can tell it was written in the ’60s.”
“I jettisoned all the previous anthologies,” he says. “I didn’t go back to Hamilton or D’Aulaires’. I read Homer, I read Ovid. I thought about how to make these myths really immediate, really funny, but staying true to the way the story is presented.”
Expect one chapter for each of “the major Gods” – the 12 Olympians, plus Hades, he says. “This is a novel-length read,” says Riordan, who plans to also write a guide to either the minor gods, like Hecate and Iris, or the heroes, like Theseus.
And Now, Norse
As he mentioned at the 15th annual Literary Lights for Children tea party, hosted by the Associates of the Boston Public Library, this past weekend, he is setting his forthcoming Norse trilogy in Boston. “Kind of by living here, I’ve started my research,” he says. “I’ve found some fascinating connections between the Vikings and New England.
In the summer of 2011, he, his wife, and his sons took a cruise to Denmark, Finland, and Sweden, which “doubled as a research trip,” he says. They have yet to make it to Norway, though it’s possible, he says. “With Percy Jackson, I never managed to get to Greece until I’d finished the first five books!”
Immediately after he submits the final Heroes of Olympus book in April 2014, Riordan will focus his attention on the Norse series. “I have a feeling I will devote a full year to the first Norse book to get that world off the ground,” he says. He may write more quickly after that first one, he says, “if things are going well.”
A “Lost” Passage
Like most authors, Riordan can’t squeeze everything into his books. (If he did, they would be so heavy that middle-grade readers would need Greek and Roman gods to help them carry them.) But the omitted passages can be gems, deleted simply because of lack of space, not lack of quality. Riordan shares a deleted 500-word passage from The Last Olympian, the fifth and final Percy Jackson title, with PW readers here. In it, Percy sees the bully Nancy Bobofit from the first book, passed out with the other humans. (In the book, the god Morpheus has put all the mortals in Manhattan to sleep.)“The challenge with wrapping everything up is tying all the loose ends, making sure everyone has a good resolution, that we’ve gone back into the past and looked at how our hero has changed,” says Riordan. “With Percy, with The Last Olympian, I thought it would be a good idea to see that bully and use that as a marker for how far Percy has come.” As it turns out, rather far.
Percy seeks no revenge on Nancy Bobofit. “It’s a moment for him to reflect on what a different kind of person he is now,” says Riordan. “He has gone from being the bullied, defensive kid who’s an outsider, just trying to figure out who he is and trying to get by, to a leader who’s in a position of authority and who’s in a position to protect other people. It’s a striking moment.”
And yet, he and Jennifer Besser, who edited the Percy Jackson series and the beginning of Kane Chronicles and The Lost Hero before moving to Penguin, agreed that the scene slowed down the action, so they removed it. “We decided to cut for the sake of the pacing, to keep things moving and to keep the intensity where it needed to be for that final critical battle,” he says. “Even though I think it was the right choice for the narrative, it’s a scene that’s haunted me.”
(Riordan’s editor now is Stephanie Lurie, editorial director at Disney. “She is also awesome,” he says. “I have been blessed with wonderful editors.”)
The scene shows how much Percy has matured. “Percy thinks to himself, ’Back when I was 12, I would have wanted revenge on her. Now I have to save her,’ ” says Riordan. Grover suggests at least drawing a moustache on her, but Percy says no. “He’s taking the high ground,” says Riordan. “He’s being the responsible one, which is a real change for this kid who’s been kicked out of so many schools.”
Riordan says he is not thinking about movies right now. Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief was released in February 2010, and Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters was released in August 2013 – both to mixed reviews but decent box-office sales. So far, no one has announced plans for a third film. “If there was anything new, I’d be the last one to know,” he says. “Anything that has Percy Jackson in it, that’s basically Fox’s bailiwick now. They’re going to do what they’re going to do or not.” So far he has declined to sell the Kane Chronicles, his trilogy based on Egyptian mythology. “I’m not exactly anxious to let it go,” he says.
Riordan sold the film rights to Percy Jackson before the book became a bestseller and without J.K. Rowling-like protections, says Gallt. “If there’s one disappointment that Rick has expressed over the course of time, it’s that kids don’t understand that he had no control.” She liked the second movie, she says. “Sadly a lot of the reviews came out and said, ‘It’s just not Harry Potter,’ which of course infuriates everyone. They do that with the books all the time as well.” She “would not mind” a third movie. “It just helps the franchise,” she says. “But we really don’t need it. The books have been doing beautifully.”
Somehow, Riordan still finds time to read voraciously – from Veronica Roth’s Divergent to Rick Atkinson’s An Army at Dawn, a book for adult readers about World War II. Recently he finished Sarwat Chadda’s The Savage Fortress (Scholastic/Levine), which he calls a “great, great modern-day take on the gods of India.”
Does that interest in yet another universe of deities signal more mythology to come from the author? Says Riordan (with, one might imagine, a nod to the Hindu concept of reincarnation): “It’s just a question of how many will I be able to tackle in a lifetime.”
To watch a video interview PW conducted with Riordan at BEA 2013, click here.