Write on, son! 

Keeping the sword sharp with Christopher Paolini

They say that if you haven’t been published by the time you turn 30, you might as well forget about a career as a writer. It’s not completely true, of course—just look at the career of J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973), the father of modern fantasy literature. Tolkien, an Oxford professor, published rather scantily and then mostly academic papers and works in translation before The Hobbit appeared in 1937. By the time the first two parts of The Lord of the Rings were published in 1954, Tolkien was already in his 60s.

All the same, Christopher Paolini has got a pretty good head start. Just 18 years old, he’s already completed Eragon, the first book in his Inheritance trilogy, and is already working on the next one. Home-schooled from an early age, Paolini began work on the trilogy after graduating from high school at 15. After a rousing game of phone tag, we reached the author at his family’s Paradise Valley home last week and asked him, among other things, what first inspired him to set to work on the ambitious trilogy (minus his notes on language, Eragon is still more than 460 pages long).

“That’s a tough question,” Paolini concedes. “For me, the reason I love stories so much is that when I finish a great book or a great movie, it gives me a sense of awe. A sense of wonder. I basically sit there and just go, Wow! And that excitement, that energy, that emotion is what I wanted to capture in my own story, so that when readers reach the end of the book and put it down, they’re just left saying Wow! That’s what inspired me.”

In fact, Paolini has already left a lot of fantasy readers out there saying Wow. Fans of fantasy literature can be notoriously picky and dismissive when it comes to cliché and derivation, but the reviews of Eragon they’ve posted online are almost frenzied in their enthusiasm. They exult in the vividness of Paolini’s mythical realm, Alagaësia, and his characters, including the 15-year-old protagonist, Eragon, a blue dragon named Saphira and a tyrannical king named Galbatorix.

“Paolini’s story unfolds like the tongue of a dragon, writes John Taliaferro, a former senior editor at Newsweek. “This kid’s pen is as mighty as his sword.” “It’s the best book I’ve ever read,” gushes a precocious 10-year-old fan, “Better than Tolkien.”

A number of these reviews mention Paolini’s “new, fresh style” in a genre admittedly prone to enthusiastic but unoriginal copyists and point out that Paolini largely eschews the usual stock clichés of fantasy literature. An intriguing assertion, given that Eragon includes several of the genre’s most basic elements: a perilous quest, magical powers, companion animals, vile hordes of swarthy bad guys, and so forth. And, of course, a shapely ancient tongue—in this case one that draws primarily on Old Norse as its source language but also includes some Gallic names and lays on plenty of choking, guttural velar fricatives for the language of Eragon’s enemies, the Urgals. There are, of course, precedents in fantasy literature for each of these aspects of Paolini’s work. With this in mind, what sets off his hack klaxons when he’s reading fantasy literature, and how does he avoid the usual clichés in writing his own?

“You know there’s trouble when you’re reading a fantasy book and the hero is climbing a castle wall and encounters razor wire at the top,” he says. “Rank anachronism is a big one, [easily avoided by] knowing the period you’re writing about. But I’ll give you the most basic cliché in fantasy: Young boy living in a village. Nothing special about young boy. Something happens to the village or comes into the village. Young boy’s parents are killed. Young boy sets off on revenge-slash-quest, either to retrieve some holy magic object or to upset the order of the social fabric around him.

“Now, obviously I play with this some myself,” Paolini continues, “Because I wanted to tell the archetypal hero story. But at the same time, there are so many fantasy books that use that type of story that to employ it effectively is extremely difficult. In writing Eragon, I wasn’t trying to come up with a totally original story, and part of the joy of writing this book for me was using the old myths and archetypes in a new way. But what I think pushes the book beyond the mid-level, the stock clichés, is that I really do believe in the characters. I really love what I did with that book.”

Some three and a half years in the making, Eragon became something of a family project for the Paolinis: Christopher, who also drew the cover illustration and a map of Alagaësia; sister Angela, who appears in the book as a frog-loving herbalist and is now helping him draft a screenplay version; and parents Talita and Kenneth, both published authors, who edited Christopher’s work and formatted it for publication. Eragon, incidentally, is print-on-demand, meaning that prospective readers can order it through a bookstore and the printer, Lightning Source, will dash off a custom copy. Paolini and his family don’t have to worry about keeping a huge inventory of the book around or mortgaging their home to finance it.

“It was incredibly painful,” Paolini says of the no-punches-pulled editing his mother did on his second draft of the novel. “It was like going through a college course. That’s where I learned my style of writing and how to write properly. The book went through six or seven edits, and by the last two it was down to just a few minor things that had to be worked out correctly.

“But it was amazing,” he recalls. “Two whole years I’d been working on it, and they hadn’t seen a thing. I would have shown them if they’d asked, but they never did. The more I think back on it, the more I realize what amazing freedom they gave me. And then they put everything aside to help me with the book.”

Not that Eragon and the two forthcoming books in the trilogy sprang fully-formed from Paolini’s imagination. Earlier attempts at writing a longer work “flatlined,” as Paolini puts it, until he learned to map out the plot of the trilogy in advance after reading Robert McKee’s influential book on screenwriting, Story.

“I’d been writing for a long time,” Paolini says. “I’d actually started a few books before Eragon, but I hadn’t actually learned how to plot out an entire novel. I’d get 10 pages into my story and it would peter out.

“[Story] is not for novelists, but it really taught me basically how to structure an entire book, an entire novel. I spent basically a month plotting out Eragon and the next two books in the trilogy. In fact, I’ve got over 60 single-spaced pages of notes—just notes—on this book and the next two. Once the first book was completely plotted out, that’s when I actually started down and put pen to paper, so to say.” Apart from his family, whom he is quick to cite as a driving force behind the completion of what is referred to in his brief author bio as “The Book that Ate Him Alive,” Paolini also credits home-schooling and his rural upbringing for firing both his imagination and his literary aspirations.

“When I reached high school,” he says, “My mom essentially said, ‘Well, it’s time for you to start learning on your own.’ Both me and my sister basically put ourselves through high school, and that really taught me the discipline to get up every day and sit down at the computer and hammer away at whatever my project happened to be. “It’s not even so much discipline, either,” Paolini adds. “When you’re into it so much, it’s like an obsession. You want to tell the story so much that it’s not even discipline anymore. You don’t have to force yourself to do anything. You just get up in the morning and that’s what you want to do.”

Paolini, whose tastes in non-fiction reading run to philosophy and “outdoor novels, sort of survival stuff,” also finds inspiration in his extra-literary hobbies. Right now, he says, he’s building a half-underground yurt, a hole about seven feet deep and six feet wide, covered by an old satellite dish and insulated with “grass and leaves and stuff.”

“I’m also working on making my own ash bow,” he says. “And I make my own arrows and knives. You might say I’m a world-class scavenger. I’ve made them out of bone, glass, stone, metal—anything I can get my hands on and don’t have to buy. “And it’s great research for the book. For instance, I was reading about the horn bows the Turks used to make. When these Turkish bows were unstrung, the tips bent backward so much that they actually touched. And the world record for sending a hand-held arrow for the longest distance was made with a 17th century Turkish bow. I have these monsters in my book called the Urgals, and they have big horns on their heads, and the American Indians also used to make bows out of rams’ horns, and well? Someone in my book can make a bow out of Urgal horn. I’m going to have that show up in the second book.”

Before coming out with Eragon, Paolini admits he didn’t have much interaction with people his own age. But as he spends more and more time promoting Eragon, and recently these efforts have spilled into the screenplay treatment and discussions with a Livingston-area film producer, that seems to be changing.

“Going through high school, the only people I really had any interaction with were adults, which certainly shaped my speech patterns to some degree. But since Eragon has come out I’ve definitely come into contact with some interesting people my own age. It seems to have been an advantage not having gone through high school the normal way. You live out in the middle of nowhere, you have to find your own projects and entertainment.”

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