Arts The underworld is in LA 

PI Tres Navarre is alive and well, but author Rick Riordan is branching into children's mythology, too

In A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway writes about how Ezra Pound and Miss Natalie Barney, a rich American girl, conspired in the early '20s to start a fund to save T.S. Eliot who was toiling away in a bank in London and "so had insufficient time and bad hours to function as a poet." In the end, the fund, aptly named Bel Esprit, was a bust and it was a poem that allowed Eliot to walk out of the bank a free man.

Similarly, after 15 years teaching middle-school social studies and English, author Rick Riordan quit his job at St. Mary's Hall to write full-time last summer. And, the focus has paid off: This month he published the seventh Tres Navarre novel, Mission Road, in which the danger-prone PI must clear his good friend Ralph Arguello of murder. He also published The Lightning Thief, a children's book about a 12-year-old dyslexic boy with a strong sense of justice and a knack for getting in trouble who discovers that he is the modern-day son of a Greek god.

click to enlarge arts-riordan_220jpg
Rick Riordan

The next book in the children's series, Sea of Monsters, is due out next April, and the next Tres Navarre novel, Rebel Island, will be published in June or July of 2006.

Riordan recently spoke with the Current about being a full-time writer and his latest projects.

Did you always know you were going to be a writer?

I knew pretty early on that I wanted to write and teach, so I've gotten to live both of the things that I was dreaming about since I was kid. But I didn't know what to write. I had to get to the point where I could really appreciate what I knew to feel like I wanted to write about it.

The idea for the Tres Navarre series came to you in San Francisco?

I was living in the Bay Area at the time and the Tres Navarre series was born of homesickness, `Big Red Tequila` was all about San Antonio and wanting to write about this place as a setting. So, yeah, it was kind of a love letter home, when I wasn't yet sure that I was going to be moving back.

Had you published anything before that?

Only short stories when I was in high school and college. Big Red Tequila was my first attempt to write a novel, and thank goodness it sold. I don't know if I would've had the heart to keep on plugging if it had been rejected by everyone, though I know many writers who have four or five unpublished manuscripts buried in their closets.

Has the transition to writing full-time made you feel more "real" as a writer?

It feels more real to other people, strangely. Everyone seems to treat it as a mark of great success that I was able to quit my day job. This is interesting to me, because I've been telling people for years that I kept teaching because I wanted to, not because I had to. I guess nobody believed me!

Do you miss it?

I miss teaching, but being a full-time writer does allow me to finish two books a year. Has it changed my impression of myself? No. I feel as busy and "part-time" now as I ever have. It's odd. I tell people: if you're waiting for that time in your life when you're not busy anymore to write your novel, don't wait. You will always feel busy.

Do you go back and re-read your own books?

I never read a book after it is done. I have never read Big Red Tequila, so when people ask me what happened on page 34, I have to ask them because I don't remember. If I do go back, I always think, Oh my gosh, who wrote this? Someone once told me a manuscript is never done, it's just due. I have to say, at this point in my life, with the time I have, this is the best I could do, so I'm just going to call it done. Let it speak for itself and hope people like it.

Do you use every idea that comes to you, or do you tuck them away for later?

If I used every idea as it came to me, gosh, I would have to have a 48-hour day in order to write them down. That's the thing about research - every time I ride with a cop or have an interview with an FBI guy I always get so many ideas I can't possibly use them all.

So do you have fans on the police force?

Occasionally I have gotten some e-mails from cops in the SAPD and Austin as well. Not a whole lot, but they've been helpful every time I need to ask for advice or how something should be done.

How do they feel about Tres' relationship to police?

I haven't actually had a sit-down with any of the cops and asked them how they felt. I try to make it `so that` if there is a bad cop, there are also examples of really good, honorable cops. It's funny, whatever you make up, reality always turns out to be crazier than you could possibly imagine. For example?

In Mission Road there's a feeling that the DNA was tampered with, and everyone said well, that's impossible, no one's going to buy that, but then, as I was writing, the Harris County scandal broke where they had to shut down the Houston's DNA lab because so many things were tainted.

So you've had a transition, but so has Tres: In Mission Road a major character dies, and his relationship with Maia intensifies. Is this a sign the series is winding down?

`There will be` at least two more books because I've contracted for two more. I think series do get old and stale; you need to be conscious about it and stop before that happens. I know series that have gone on 16 or 17 volumes, and after a while it becomes clear the author is just kind of tired of it.

Was it hard for you to kill a character?

Well, it was a bit, because `it's` a character I know very well. But for the book it just made sense, it needed to happen. It was not something I was planning on when I started but, as I was writing, it just kind of became clear to me that's what needed to happen.

Do you work with an outline?

I always have an outline and I know where `the book` is going, but it always surprises me anyway. It's interesting, I found that having an outline doesn't solve organizational problems, it just makes them different. If there is an easy way to write a book I haven't found it yet.

Is Tres growing up?

Somebody said he's finally growing up and, yeah, that's true. The readership of the series is kind of divided. Some have said, I'm so glad he's finally acting like an adult; some have said they wished he could be 25 forever. But he's got to change and the series has to change, that's what makes it interesting for me to keep writing. If I tried to write Big Red Tequila over and over again I would have stopped a long time ago.

In Mission Road it feels like the characters are starting to come together in a community family, is that intentional?

Mission Road
By Rick Riordan
Bantam
$24, 304 pages
0553801856

Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief
By Rick Riordan
Miramax
$17.95, 384 pages
0786856297
They are all about family. In a way, you couldn't have it any other way, San Antonio being as it is; it's a tight-knit community, where it seems like everyone knows everyone. It still has an odd sort of small-town feel as large as it is, and that's what I like about the town - you have a conversation with anybody and it turns out you know their cousins; there's connections all over the place.

Is there a movie in the works for the Tres Navarre series?

There hasn't been as much interest in making Tres into a movie as there has been with the children's series.

The children's series has been optioned for almost a year already. 20th Century Fox is working on the movie, and the screenplay has been written already. The guy who's writing the screenplay on that is Joe Stillman - he's the guy who wrote the Shrek movies.

What is The Lightning Thief about?

Percy Jackson is the 12-year-old protagonist of a children series. It's based on the Greek myths, and came out of a bedtime story that I was telling my son when he was in second grade, a couple of years ago. I was telling him the Greek myths, which he really loved. I told him about all the Gods and the monsters and when I ran out, eventually, he said "Couldn't you make one up?"

So, I modernized a myth. I made up a 12-year-old boy and the premise is that the Greek Gods are still around and they are still having children with mortals like they did in the old myths. Percy is the modern-day son of the Greek god Poseidon, and he has to go on this huge quest across country to retrieve a lightning bolt from the god Zeus.

It's interesting that the seat of the mythological world in The Lightning Thief is in the U.S. and not Greece or Turkey.

The premise of the book is that the Greek gods are integrally tied to Western Civilization. They follow the West around, dwelling in whatever country happens to be the strongest at the time, the "heart of the West." They went from Greece to Rome to Germany to France to England, etc. Now, naturally, they live in the U.S. because America is the heart of the West. This doesn't mean America is all good. Neither was the Roman Empire. But there's no denying this is the most powerful country in Western Civilization. That's why Olympus hovers over the Empire State Building and the Underworld is under Los Angeles.

Los Angeles? I can see that ...

Yeah, I don't have any problem selling that theory to people.

What do your kids think about The Lightning Thief?

They are really excited about it; they talk it up at school all the time, and most of their friends have already read it. At St. Mary's Hall they have really gotten behind it. They had a fifth-grade musical and a Fiesta float based on The Lightning Thief.

Patrick, my youngest son, likes to tell me stories rather than listening to tell me stories. Haley, my older son, is the one who wants to hear stories. It's ironic that Haley was the one more involved in The Lightning Thief, but I think that if one of my sons is going to be a novelist it's probably going to be Patrick.

Text and interview by Susan Pagani


Calendar

Newsletters

Never miss a beat

Sign Up Now

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.