With middle grade series like the Bartimaeus Trilogy and Heroes of Olympus to their names, Rick Riordan and Jonathan Stroud know adventure. The authors go one-on-one to discuss their many works.
JS: Okay, so the first thing I’d like to know is pretty
simple. Tell me about your working day.
RR: I wish I were a creature of habit. I really do.
It might make my work schedule more predictable. Unfortunately I have yet to
discover what a ‘typical’ writing day looks like for me. I try to write every
day. That’s about as much as I can tell you. Sometimes that means fifteen
minutes. Sometimes it means fifteen hours. That’s not to say I have no system or that I wait for
inspiration to strike. My method for creating a book over the course of a year
is more or less consistent.
JS: One thing that I’m really fascinated by, because it gives me
continual problems, is how other writers balance plot and improvisation. Do you draw up
detailed plans at the outset of each novel and then stick to them, or do you
find yourself veering off course?
outlines are loose, which helps. I usually sketch out a paragraph for each
chapter with the basic ingredients: location, characters involved, and which
mythological monster or situation they will face. Location is very important to
me. As my books tend to be geographic odysseys, I spend a lot of time thinking
about where to take my characters and how that locale will affect the action.
The details of each chapter, however, develop organically, and with every book,
the plot takes turns I didn’t expect. That’s
okay with me. In fact it’s one of the joys of writing. When all the elements
come together, it’s like alchemy – creating something that somehow is greater
than the sum of its parts.
Did you have some of those
“Aha!” moments when you were writing Lockwood & Co.?
JS: I think the ‘Aha’ moments tend to strike most
often when you put two characters together and just let them talk. I bet you’ve
had that when you got Percy bantering with Annabeth, say, or when he faces off
against one or other of the gods. For me, Lockwood & Co ignited with my two
young paranormal investigators just standing on the doorstep of a haunted
house, having a conversation. They bicker gently, name-drop ghosts they’ve
fought, try to mask their rising tension with a few jokes. Those couple of
pages were enough to get me excited: I immediately wanted to find out more.
One of the great
delights of your universe is the lovely fusion of the modern world with the
mythic. Were you a big
fantasy fan, growing up?
RR: The rise of ‘urban fantasy’ is a
fascinating subject. That’s one of things I love about your work, too. The
Bartimaeus books are set in London,
and yet that familiar landscape is rendered into something much more
fantastical. I’ll never look at Westminster Abbey the same way again. In your
new series Lockwood & Co., we’re clearly in modern England, but
then again, we’re not. Ghosts run rampant and children with rapiers patrol the
haunted streets. I love the juxtaposition of familiar and strange.
Like you, I grew up with high fantasy. I had Tolkien’s
map of Middle Earth taped to my bedroom wall. I would spend hours drawing my
own maps of fantasy worlds. But when it came time to write Percy Jackson, I
instinctively set it in modern Manhattan.
I liked the idea of updating Greek mythology for a modern audience. The old
stories are just so . . . well, old.
I wanted to find a way to make them seem fresh and relevant for an audience of
kids who find anything from before last month to be ancient history.
I’m curious, too, about how you chose
the setting for Lockwood & Co.
JS: For me, figuring out
how a new world works is one of the real highlights of the job. It’s so crucial
too: I think one of the ironies of writing good fantasy is that it has to abide by its own laws – it must make sense under its own terms. With Heroes
I was pretty sure from the outset that I wanted something set in a sort-of
Viking age, but Lockwood’s exact period was more taxing. Should it be modern or
Victorian? In the end I decided it was essentially modern (trainers, jeans,
TVs), but set in a world without today’s zippy telecommunications (ie. no
cell-phones for getting you out of a tight spot). Oh, and with a raging
epidemic of ghosts. That’s enough to get me leaping out of bed in the mornings.
I’m looping back into the mists of time for this
question. I’d like to know how it all began for you.
RR: I knew early on that I wanted to write, from
about age twelve. I would design my own comic books and sketch ideas for
fantasy series. I drew maps, too, although sadly I have no artistic talent
whatsoever. Most of my stories were bad knock-offs of Lord of the Rings. I
guess today we’d call it ‘fan fiction.’ Back then it was just, ‘I don’t have
any original ideas so I’ll just use that guy’s!’ Still, it did teach me a lot
about writing. I was also an avid player of Dungeons and Dragons. Laugh if you
will, but my years as a dungeon master taught me a lot about crafting a story
and keeping the elements of a fantasy novel in check without letting the
magical overcome the realistic. Or at least, so I like to hope . . .
I had the urge to be a writer long before I had anything worthwhile to say. I
had to forget I wanted to get published and simply practice my craft until the
right story came along. Then, when the time was right and the story was right,
I found my first novel. It was a reassuringly ‘Zen’ experience.
JS: Okay, last
question. I know that the Percy stories started out as tales that you told your
son, Haley. When you gave your Book Expo talk, you spoke hilariously about many
of the great letters you’d received from kids, and also the advice and
encouragement your pupils gave you when you were starting out on The Lightning Thief. So it sounds as if your
audience was right there, all around you (it must have been thrilling, both for
them and for you). But were you also writing for yourself, or for the child
you’d been? Who are you writing for now?
Rick: When I was a teacher, I used to say that I had to make the
class fun for myself or there was no way the kids would enjoy it. The same is
true of writing. I have to believe in the story I’m telling. I have to chuckle
once in a while at my own stupid jokes. I have to have fun with the characters
and the incredible situations. Yes, absolutely I’m trying to write books that I
would’ve enjoyed as a child. Back in the 70s, I had a hunger for better
entertainment. The cartoons were mostly rubbish. The fantasy novels were mostly
bad imitations of Tolkien. The movies weren’t that great (until Star Wars came
along) and the video games . . . well, Pong
will only take you so far. That hunger led me to create my own entertainment.
I’m trying to write books that I wish I had in the 1970s but could never find.
we seem to be in the middle of a Renaissance of children’s literature.
JS: You’re right,
there’s so much great stuff out there. It seems to me that there’s a wealth of
good choices for everybody now, no
matter what kind of books you enjoy. What have I really loved recently? Jack Gantos’s Dead End in Norvelt, which is a wonderful mix of comic
characterisation, social observation and keen historical sense. Come to think
of it, Gary D Schmidt’s terrific Okay for
Now had the same virtues, so maybe it’s an American thing… Anyway, both books
left me smiling enviously.