Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Rick Riordan and the Olympians

The San Antonio author and UT grad brings the latest volume of his wildly popular children's series to Austin

Special to the American-Statesman
Tuesday, May 01, 2007

With the Harry Potter finale fast approaching and J.K. Rowling hinting that she might kill off her main character, readers are increasingly protective of their literary heroes. According to San Antonio author Rick Riordan, the question he hears over and over again from worried fans across the country is: "Are you going to kill Percy Jackson?

Jackson is the eponymous hero of Riordan's "Percy Jackson and the Olympians," a projected five-volume series chronicling the adventures of contemporary teenagers who happen to be the children of Greek gods. Much to the relief of hundreds of thousands of children — many of them in Austin, where the books are very popular — the third book in the series, "The Titan's Curse," brings good news: Percy lives. (Though not everyone does.)

Riordan is not fond of series that kill off their main character at the end. "For a reader to put all the investment in a character and to write 'And then he dies' feels a little cheap to me," he says. "I think it's better to let the character live on in the reader's imagination."

The dilemma of how to end a series is something Riordan will have to face up to twice in the next few years, first with Percy Jackson and then with his award-winning Tres Navarre mystery series. Navarre, a San Antonio private investigator, debuted in 1997's "Big Red Tequila" and has appeared in five more books, including 1999's Edgar Award-winning "The Widower's Two-Step." The penultimate Tres Navarre mystery, "Rebel Island," will land in bookstores in August.

"Once the Percy Jackson books took off, they became a huge demand on my time," admits Riordan. "But I feel a responsibility to wrap up the Tres Navarre story for all the people who have been following the series over the years. They deserve closure."

While Tres Navarre brought Riordan critical acclaim and modest success, Percy Jackson offered a far larger audience. Together, the first two Jackson books have sold nearly 400,000 copies in hardcover and paperback combined. Riordan's publisher, Hyperion, is betting big on "The Titan's Curse," publishing 150,000 copies of the new hardcover, which arrives in stores today.

Granted, these numbers are no match for Harry Potter. The sixth Potter book, "Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince'' sold 6.9 million copies in the United States in the first 24 hours it was on sale, and Scholastic is printing some 12 million copies of the finale, "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows." Nevertheless, Riordan's numbers make him one of the top-selling children's authors of the last two years.

His own Percy

The appeal of the Percy Jackson books can be attributed to Riordan's savvy adaptation of Greek myths to a contemporary setting. Percy has dyslexia and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, which have helped him attract "reluctant readers," especially boys, who identify with the hero.

It might come as no surprise to learn Percy Jackson was inspired by one of Riordan's two sons, who was diagnosed with dyslexia and ADHD in the second grade. "At the time, he was only interested in Greek mythology," says Riordan. "When I ran out of the original stories, he told me to make one up."

Riordan, who taught middle school for 15 years, most recently at St. Mary's Hall in San Antonio, found the transition to writing for children suited him. "I was always a storyteller in the classroom, and my students would ask me why I wasn't writing for children," he says. "It took me a long time to figure out that they were right."

Storyteller emerges

The books are gripping from the start. The first book in the series, "The Lightning Thief," begins during a field trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where Percy's math teacher transforms into a Fury and attacks him.

It's a perfect concoction of fast-paced action (as well as humor) for a generation raised on video games and the Internet.

Riordan says the one thing that surprises the students he meets during his many school visits, which he does to promote his books and "test out his jokes," is that he plays video games. "I'm 42 years old and was raised on 'Dungeons & Dragons' and 'The Lord of the Rings' books," he says. "Now, I play 'World of Warcraft' with my sons. When adolescent boys find this out, they are blown away and always try to find out my screen name."

A San Antonio native and University of Texas grad, Riordan found an early champion right here in Austin in Topher Bradfield, a bookseller at BookPeople. Bradfield, the store's 36-year-old children's outreach coordinator, is responsible for visiting Austin-area elementary schools to do readings and run book fairs. "Often," he says, "I found myself reading from the first chapter of 'The Lightning Thief,' " he says. "It was a great way to get the boys to pay attention."

Bradfield's relentless pushing of the books has paid off; BookPeople has sold nearly 2,000 copies of "The Lightning Thief" and nearly 1,000 of the sequel, "The Sea of Monsters." For Riordan's appearance at BookPeople tonight, the store has ordered 900 copies of "The Titan's Curse."

Enthusiasm for the book has run so high locally that last year Bradfield was inspired to create "Camp Half-Blood," a summer "book camp" that took place last year in Zilker Park. The event, which was based on a camp of the same name that Percy attends in the books, offered mythology lessons, Greek dancing and drumming, sword fighting and a weeklong quest to refashion "The Apple of Discord" (which was in part responsible for the Trojan War).

In a suitably postmodern twist, Percy Jackson's Camp Half-Blood was modeled on the real-life Camp Capers, an Episcopal summer camp in Waring, where Riordan spent three summers during college as musical director. "I incorporated all the goofiness and practical jokes I saw there into the books," he says.

With two of three sessions planned for this summer already sold out, Camp Half-Blood has become something of a phenomenon. It has even inspired imitators, with another Camp Half-Blood taking place this summer in Atlanta. (As a show of appreciation for all he has done, Riordan dedicated "The Titan's Curse" to Bradfield and Toni Davis, a bookseller in the U.K.)

The fourth, as-yet-unnamed, book in the series is all but finished and, says Riordan, "concerns the most dangerous place in all Greek mythology: the labyrinth."

Readers can rest assured that even book five won't be the end of the story: Two weeks ago, Chris Columbus, who directed the first two Harry Potter movies, signed on to direct the film version of "The Lightning Thief."

As for Riordan, he says he's hooked on adapting classic myths to a contemporary setting. "Next, I'm toying with the idea of modernizing the Norse myths," he says, adding, "We Texans have a reputation to uphold for telling tall tales. Mythmaking is in our blood."

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