Rick Riordan never planned to write more books from Percy Jackson's perspective.
Fans first met the character in 2005 with "The Lightning Thief," a middle-grade book about a 12-year-old who discovers he's a half-blood (meaning he's half-human, half-god) and is father is actually Poseidon, the Greek god of water. Casual.
But then one book turned into five, becoming the first in a series called "Percy Jackson and the Olympians." But that wasn't all. The world expanded, introducing readers to figures from Greek and Roman mythology with a follow-up series, "Heroes of Olympus," starring Percy as one of seven demigods tasked with saving the world.
The world last saw Percy in a starring role in 2014's "The Blood of Olympus." It felt like goodbye.
But in October 2022, Riordan announced a new book starring the original trio — Percy, Annabeth and Grover — from "The Lightning Thief" published more than 18 years ago.
"It was like a reunion," Riordan tells TODAY.com.
The book, classified in the middle-grade genre like the rest of the original "Percy Jackson and the Olympians" quintet, was written as part of Riordan's pitch to Disney for a new screen adaptation of the series.
"It turned out that I was able to convince them to do the TV show without that, but by the time I'd done that, I had these three ideas for different adventures that Percy could take during his senior year of high school," he says.
Enter: "The Chalice of the Gods."
This year, Riordan has balanced screenwriting with writing a new novel. He's sticking to the middle-grade genre, but he remains beloved among an older audience of former middle schoolers who fell in love with his world of demigods and half-bloods. (For reference, if someone was 12 years old — like Percy was in the books — and read “The Lightning Thief” when it was first published, they are now at least 30 years old.)
Riordan walks TODAY.com through the process of writing this latest adventure through the eyes of a now high school-age Percy and teases the upcoming Disney+ series, out in December, which starts all the way at the beginning of Percy's story.
This interview is edited and condensed for clarity.
Looking ahead to the new few months — a book tour, the adaptation premiere in December — how are you feeling?
It’s going to be quite a ride. I think it’s going to be amazing fun. It’s going to be breakneck speed. We’re going to be doing a million things at once. But I think it’s an exciting time.
It’s kind of an extension of what I usually feel when I publish a book. It doesn’t matter how many times I’ve done this, every time a book is about to come out, I’m thinking to myself, “Oh, I hope somebody likes it. I hope it’s OK.” That just never goes away, really. With a TV show, it’s the same thing. We’ve worked so hard on this, and I hope everybody loves it, and I’m nervous. But I think it’s going to be great. It’s just a bigger version of what I normally do.When you started writing this story, how did you decide what age group the book was for?
I was a middle school teacher, and that's what I did for many years. I have found out over the years that that's kind of what I do best. I started writing adult novels. And those were OK, but I wouldn't say I really nailed it. And I don't think it would be much different if I tried to write young adult. It's just not where my headspace is at, and I don't think I would do it as well. So it's important to me, in my head, at least, to write what I know best, which is the middle grades, because that's kind of my sense of humor, my mindset.
I just think it's really important for middle school kids to have books to read, too, because if they don't read in middle school, chances are really good they're not going to ever read again. That's the time that we start to lose them.
"If they don’t read in middle school, chances are really good they’re not going to ever read again."Rick Riordan
On the other hand, I'm delighted to know that people are still reading the books, even if they're no longer in that age range. I love it. I've had people come up to me at events that are 80 years old. I'll say like, "Oh, are you getting these signed for your grandkids?" And they're like, "Oh, no, I'm reading them myself."
What I always say is, if you love the books, then you're the right age for them.
Have you ever thought about what a young adult book from Percy's perspective might look like?
No, I really haven't. I don't even know. I mean, somebody else would have to write that, because I just couldn't do it. He just exists in that middle grade space.
It's funny, when I was a teacher, I really loved working with kids at that age. And they'd visit me when they were seniors, and they'd say, "Oh, Mr. Riordan, you should come up and teach my grade." I am so honored by that. But at the same time, I can't go with you. There's always a new group of young kids coming in behind you. There's still so many 12-year-olds out there that are just picking up Percy Jackson. And I kind of feel like I need to be there for them — as much as I love all the readers who have read me before.
What was it like finding Percy's voice again and writing from his perspective?
I was worried, honestly. I didn't know if I could recapture that, and I was keenly aware that people would be looking at this and looking at "The Lightning Thief" and saying, "Oh no, not as good." I knew that that was a danger. But as I got into it, I realized that Percy is so much a part of myself, so much a part of my family, he's modeled after my son to some extent — I know him so well that it really wasn't a problem to recapture his voice. At least I hope that it wasn't. I hope that readers will read it and recognize, "Oh, yeah, this is Percy."
Was it difficult to age the character of Percy up for "The Chalice of the Gods"?
Seniors in high school are very different than middle schoolers. I think it's far enough in my wheelhouse that I can remember what that was like. And I have taught high school as well, so I had something to go on. And my own sons who are in their 20s, they're not that far removed from those times in their life. I remember very well — stress in the college application process, all of that.
I drew on that and what I know about Percy and I tried to make it a day in the life of a senior demigod in high school — you're juggling all these things, your social life and your grades and your hopes for the future.
I've read on your website that you've called your wife, Becky, "your Annabeth." To what extent was the relationship between Percy and Annabeth inspired by your relationship with your wife?
Becky and I got together when we were 16. We've been together a long time. She is in many ways, in every way really, my better half, my Annabeth, the person who keeps me from doing the dumb seaweed brain things that I would otherwise do.
When I draw on Percy and Annabeth, that is straight out of my own relationship with Becky.
Does she read drafts of your work?
All the time. She has been my first editor for years and years. And it's especially important for the female voice, and that's obviously something that I don't do naturally. So I rely on her heavily to kind of report back to me, "Does this seem authentic? Does it seem realistic? Does it seem positive and uplifting, rather than not?" And she's very honest with me. She's very blunt. She will let me know, "No, you can't say that, that doesn't work." So she's really helpful. She was the first reader for "The Chalice of the Gods" as well. So everything I do is, I hope, Becky-approved.
As you were writing "The Chalice of the Gods," continuing the Percy and Annabeth romance, do you have a favorite memory you thought of from being high-school sweethearts?
I think the memory I always go back to is: Becky is a visual artist, and that's what she went to college for. She's a painter. She's a drawer. I remember a time when we were in high school, and we were in the park, and I was playing my guitar and trying to write songs, and she was sketching in her sketchbook, and we were just having a lovely little picnic when we were 16.
I always remember that because it was an example of both of us doing our own thing and exploring our creativity and supporting each other simply by being in the same space. And I like to think of Annabeth and Percy that way. They have these different goals — well, Annabeth has goals, Percy doesn't know what he's going to do — but I do think they're trying to support each other and find a future that is big enough and flexible enough for both of them.
There's still so many 12-year-olds out there that are just picking up Percy Jackson. And I kinda feel like I need to be there for them, as much as I love all the readers who have read me before.
At the beginning of the book, there's an acknowledgement to the upcoming cast of the show. What inspired that?
Oh, Walker (Scobell) and Aryan (Simhadri) and Leah (Jeffries) are so great.
Going back into my teacher perspective, they're the kind of kids that just make the whole year. They're so bright and dedicated and funny and just really just nice people. They kind of solicit in the adults around them this feeling like, we really need to support these kids. This is our big extended family, this production. If we make a great TV show, that's fantastic. But our first goal has to be to support the kids and make sure that they feel that we've got them, that we're going to do everything we can to make sure that they go through this process feeling like we did everything we could to make it easier for them and help them succeed.
It just seemed — here we are at this moment where Percy's being reinvented in a couple of different ways at once, that I would dedicate the book to them. Because I respect their work. And I just think they're fantastic kids.
Did it feel like the past and future was happening at the same time, working on this show and this new book?
It does. The multiverses are all kind of converging. But it's really wonderful.
I definitely, writing this book, had Walker (Percy), Aryan (Grover) and Leah (Annabeth) in mind, in terms of their voices and them blending in my head with the older, traditional voices of Percy from the books. Their enthusiasm, excitement and energy is something I definitely fed off and helped motivate me.
It's a well-earned dedication. They helped me write the book just as much as they helped us make the TV show.
What is your favorite piece of feedback you've gotten from a fan?
It's usually something from a reader who will say how much the book meant to them. One that Becky always mentions is — it's not just one, we've had quite a few letters like this — are people who say something along the lines of, "When I first read the 'House of Hades,' and I saw that Nico was gay, I was angry, and I didn't like it. And I stopped reading for a while."
Then they're writing five years later, and they're saying, "Now I get it. Now, I'm really glad you did that, because that changed the way I thought about some people in my life. And it opened up a conversation with people that I might not otherwise have had. And it expanded my world. I'd like to apologize for being angry. But thank you for doing that."
That takes such a level of self awareness and self reflection to be able to write something like that. I think that's really beautiful.
How early in the process of writing this TV adaptation did you decide to add diversity to "The Lightning Thief"?
I needed to make sure that kids throughout the viewership, which is global, could feel connected to this world and these characters. And that's something I think that ... were I to go back to 2005 and write "The Lightning Thief" again, I would be more careful and mindful of doing. So I had that in my head.
The primary goal wasn't to find this kind of representation or this kind of representation, but rather hold in my head an idea that this is a pluralistic world, and it needs to look like that, and it needs to speak to all kids. To do that, it needs to reflect the world.
We did completely open casting, We had the ages down, so you need to be able to play a character who's 12, that's important for the plot. But beyond that, we put no guidelines on it.
We looked at thousands of Percys and Annabeths and Grovers from every possible background you can imagine. And then we had to not only pick the best, but pick the ones that worked the best together so that the chemistry between the trio was just right. And that's what we ended up getting, as we got the trio that rose to the top out of thousands and thousands of different, wonderful actors that we saw.
Going back to the types of letters you received after the publication of "House of Hades," and the backlash against that character development, now it's happening again with the casting of a Black actor as Annabeth Chase. How do you handle having to continuously respond to backlash?
I mean, it's unfortunate, but it does underscore for me how much worse it is for an actor of color. What I'm dealing with is nothing compared to what the direct target of this backlash will have to deal with on a daily basis. And it's a shame.
My most positive hope for it is that, as with Nico, it will start a conversation. It will start people thinking. I hope, maybe those people who are angry now, five years from now will be writing back and saying, "You know, I didn't like it when you did that. But now I'm starting to understand."
Honestly, I've already seen some of that. People are saying, "OK, I will confess, I was disappointed in your choices. But I now realize that was a superficial way of looking at it. I shouldn't judge anyone until I've seen them act."
So that's what I'm hoping for. But honestly, the show should speak for itself. I think most of the people, when they see the show — they'll get it right away. They'll say, "OK, I see. I see why you cast them. They're wonderful."
Is there anything in particular you’re most excited for fans to see in the adaptation?
The acting, obviously. But I think there’s a couple of things. There are some scenes in "The Lightning Thief" that were never in the movie adaptations, and you’re going to get to see them now finally adapted. Just from the content level, I think that is pretty exciting.
I also think that it’s been really fun to go back and tell the story faithfully, but with additional nuance and additional depth. For instance, how did Sally and Poseidon interact with one another when Percy was young? What was that like? And you get a glimpse of that in the series. What was the background between Grover and Annabeth and Luke? And you get to a deeper understanding of the characters, I think, by looking into their backstories.
From working on both "The Chalice of the Gods" and this new adaptation, was there anything new that you learned about the characters?
I think Annabeth's character — seeing Leah (Jeffries) inhabit Annabeth Chase was really powerful for me. It gave a new resonance to the character of this young girl who is forced to take on so much and do so while leaving home. She’s seven years old, and somehow making her way and surviving. That kind of resilience, that kind of stamina and determination — when I see Leah in that character, it makes it so much more powerful, when it’s a real person expressing who this character is.
One last question I couldn't find answered on your website — who do you consider to be your godly parent?
I don’t know. I think if I could choose somebody, probably Apollo. As much of a diva as he is, I hope I’m not a diva, but he does so many different things. He’s a dabbler. He’s into music. He’s into medicine. He’s into poetry. He's into archery. And I kind of respect that. I like that he's a creative that doesn’t tie himself down.