After Percy Jackson, Rick Riordan had a plan. Once he’d finished The Tower of Nero, the final novel in his hugely popular 15-book arc about demigod teens descended from ancient Greek gods and goddesses, the YA author was aiming for “semi-retirement”, in the form of a Celtic mythology PhD at Harvard, just down the road from him. Then Disney came calling with a plan of their own: to adapt the Percy Jackson books for Disney+.
Riordan has a particularly thorny history with adaptations. When Chris Columbus was adapting the first Jackson book, The Lightning Thief, in 2009, Riordan sent producers an excoriating and now legendary note laying out his issues with the script. In the manner of the high school teacher he once was, Riordan begins with faint praise (“there are things I like about this adaptation”) before an abrupt volte face.
“Having said that, here’s the bad news: The script as a whole is terrible,” he wrote, in a letter so beloved by his fans that it’s even been given dramatic readings. “I don’t simply mean that it deviates from the book, though certainly it does that to point of being almost unrecognisable as the same story. Fans of the books will be angry and disappointed. They will leave the theater in droves and generate horrible word of mouth.”
It had been 10 years since The Lightning Thief hit screens (it was a box-office success and spawned a sequel, despite mediocre reviews from fans and critics). Riordan was understandably nervous when Disney called. But then Netflix was also interested in adapting The Kane Chronicles, in which siblings Sadie and Carter Kane take on the gods of ancient Egypt. And Fox, which owned the rights to the Percy Jackson books, had been sold to Disney. It felt like a sea change was coming.
“Because of the streaming wars, there is a new sense in Hollywood that they need content badly. There’s a new willingness to work with the content creators that perhaps hasn’t been present before,” he says. “So we had to make kind of a soul-searching decision. I had a plan for what the next few years would look like. I was ready to be a PhD student. And I’m not a fan of Hollywood, I’ve never been starstruck. I could[n’t] care less about TV and film, honestly. But that’s not true of my fans. They really wanted new adaptations, and they felt bitterly disappointed by the movies.”
Riordan and his wife, Becky, decided they “owed it to the fans to try one more time”. Both of them are now producers on the Carter Kane and Percy Jackson series, and are working on the script for the pilot of the latter.
“So instead of learning Celtic languages, I’m now learning the language of the film industry, which definitely has its own lingo,” Riordan says. “But I do feel excited. I’m guardedly optimistic.”
Riordan is speaking by Zoom from Boston, with a pile of copies of The Tower of Nero behind him. The fifth and final book in The Trials of Apollo series sees the god, sent to Earth in the form of teenager Lester Papadopoulos, trying to regain his place on Mount Olympus. It’s the last book set in the world of Percy Jackson, although Riordan doesn’t rule out visiting the world again.
“What started with The Lightning Thief ends with The Trials of Apollo. If I do go back to this world, it might be for the occasional one-off, but I like the feeling of being able to pivot more quickly from one idea to the other,” he says. In the absence of that PhD, this is another kind of graduation, he thinks, “in the sense that there’s a sense of accomplishment and excitement, I’m glad to have finished it, and I’m excited for what comes next. But it is also the last time I’m with these characters and it’s bittersweet to say goodbye. I hope I’ve given the readers a good send-off.”
The Tower of Nero features appearances from some of Riordan’s most beloved characters: Nico di Angelo, the son of Hades; Annabeth Chase, daughter of Athena; and Percy Jackson himself, of course. Riordan’s young hero first appeared in the author’s debut children’s novel, 2005’s The Lightning Thief, dreamed up by Riordan for his son Haley’s bedtime story. Out of myths to retell, the teacher remembered a task he used to set his sixth-graders, where he asked them to create a demigod hero and give them a quest. He came up with Percy Jackson, son of Poseidon and a mortal woman, and sent him on a quest to recover Zeus’s lightning bolt in modern America.
Haley had been struggling in school, having been diagnosed with dyslexia and ADHD. So was Percy: but in Riordan’s world, ADHD is a sign you might be a demigod, while Percy’s dyslexia is attributed to his being hard-wired to read ancient Greek.
Riordan showed the novel to the kids he was teaching: they approved. Riordan quit his job as a teacher after landing his book deal – “it was not enormous, but it was a lot of money for a middle-school teacher” – and spent the first few years touring relentlessly. By the third book, Riordan was starting to top the charts.
“I thought five books would be all I would need to completely cover Greek mythology. Of course, I was wrong. I barely scratched the surface,” he says.
As well as the five Percy Jackson books – which take place around Camp Half-Blood, a training camp for the descendants of the Greek gods – Riordan wrote the Heroes of Olympus series, focusing on the Roman Camp Jupiter. Then there’s the Kane Chronicles, set in the same world but with Egyptian myth; the Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard trilogy, set around Norse myth; and the five Trials of Apollo novels. Today, millions of copies of his books have sold throughout the world (and Haley has a master’s in higher education specialising in learning differences, of which Riordan is very proud).
“There were a lot of reasons I decided to keep going,” Riordan says. “But as more readers discovered it and wanted to be included in the world, I felt like it was a really special and important opportunity to expand the range of characters in Percy’s world.”
Riordan’s cast is notably diverse, in terms of race, gender and sexuality. When he made it clear that Nico di Angelo was gay (his boyfriend is the son of Apollo), there was some backlash. “I’d been writing his character long enough to realise this is simply who he is,” Riordan says. “I lost some readers on that. But some of them came back and told me they’d had a conversation with, say, a brother who they later found out was gay. Nico was the way that we found to communicate with each other, and for me to learn a bit more and to become more accepting.”
His Gods of Asgard books feature the character Alex Fierro, the gender-fluid child of the Norse god Loki, who shifts gender frequently in myths. Riordan created Alex after remembering children he had taught who were not comfortable with their assigned gender, for whom he wished he had done more at the time.
“I tried to be there for them, but I wish I had understood what those students were dealing with, and had the language and the emotional capacity to help them more than I did. So that’s always sat with me,” he says. “It made perfect sense to me that a child of Loki would be gender-fluid.”
Alex, he says, wrote herself – she uses the pronouns she and her, “unless she is in a place where she feels like her pronouns are he and him, in which case Alex will tell you that”. He read a lot, spoke to a lot of people, “and just tried to do the best job I could, knowing, of course, that as a straight, cis, white guy, I wasn’t going to be able to inhabit her experience totally. But I did the best job I could. And I got a lot of feedback that people felt really empowered by having a character like that in a mainstream children’s book.” In 2017, he won a Stonewall award for The Hammer of Thor, for exceptional merit in his depiction of LGBTQ teenagers.
“All of the kids that I write about, at one time or another, have been in my classroom. I feel very protective of them. I am very aware of my responsibility to do right by them, to make them feel safe,” he says. “One of the greatest things about interacting with the fans is when they come up to me and they say, ‘This the first time that I saw a character like me and I felt so validated, it helped me through a really rough time.’ To think that maybe, at least in some cases, I had some role in building a sense of acceptance, is amazing.”
Since The Lightning Thief in 2005, Riordan has published around two books a year. He currently has nothing under contract at all, and feels somewhat relieved. He’s still writing, of course, but all he will reveal is that it is “not a mythology book”.
“When I have a manuscript that I want to share, I’ll send it off to my agent, and we’ll see where it goes,” he says.
But for all his successes, he still misses teaching. At least once a week, he dreams he is standing in the classroom and realises he’s forgotten to do a lesson plan, or grade a bunch of essays.
“Once a teacher, always a teacher,” he says. “But the good news is, I still feel like I am a teacher. I just have millions of kids in the classroom now. And I don’t have to mark the papers, which is nice.”
The Tower of Nero by Rick Riordan is published by Puffin. To order a copy, go to guardianbookshop.com.