Like Saphira, the gem-scaled, fire-breathing, starter-home-sized dragon of his Inheritance fantasy series, teen publishing phenom Christopher Paolini is exceptionally bright, well spoken, irrepressibly optimistic and possessed of a quick wit that is swift to strike any hint of self-importance from his conversation. Not since Stephen King has the publishing world seen a wunderkind of his like, a rabid reader who, thanks in part to enlightened homeschooling in the idyllic setting of Paradise Valley, Montana, took up writing only after blazing through every fantasy novel in his local library. His journey from rural obscurity to cult hero is every bit as fantastic as the imaginary world of Alagaesia he creates.
"If I wrote a book where what's happened to me happened to a character, no one would believe it," Paolini says by phone. "People would literally say, where's the downside? Where's the conflict? There's nothing bad happening in this story! Fortunately, I've had my parents here to help not only keep the home environment safe and sheltered but also help deal with all the publicity and attention that comes with it."
Put yourself in Christopher's sneakers: he receives his high school degree at 15, passes on college to write his debut, Eragon, and at 18, self-publishes it through his parents' small publishing company. After promoting it at Northwest book fairs, Paolini suddenly receives a magical call from publishing house Knopf, whose best-selling novelist Carl Hiaasen had stumbled upon the book during a fly-fishing trip to Montana and loved it. Faster than you can say "Ahgrat ukmar" (that's Urgal for "It is done"), Eragon is hotter than dragon's breath; it sells 1.5 million copies in North America alone and remains on the New York Times bestseller list for 85 weeks. The film version, starring Djimon Hounsou, John Malkovich and Jeremy Irons, is being shot on location in Budapest for release in 2006.
Knopf has just published Eldest, book two in the Inheritance trilogy, with an announced first printing of 1 million copies, a stratospheric number for a "children's" book. This fall, Paolini, 21, and his 19-year-old sister Angela hit the book-tour road to adventure on their first trip to Europe. Angela, an aspiring screenwriter ("She's actually smarter than me," Paolini humbly allows), helped him invent languages for the dwarves, elves and beast-like Urgals from Old Norse and Teutonic sources. He thanked her by creating a character in her honor, Angela the Herbalist.
Eldest continues the saga of Eragon, a peasant boy whose life is changed forever when he discovers a lost and coveted sapphire-blue dragon egg. In book one, he raised the highly intelligent hatchling, named her Saphira, and began his apprenticeship under the ancient sage Brom to become a Dragon Rider after the forces of evil King Galbatorix destroyed his home and killed his uncle. In Eldest, Eragon travels with major elf babe Arya to Ellesmera, land of the elves, to continue his training as a Dragon Rider, hone his magical skills and overcome his resistance to fighting. Paolini expands the narrative to include Eragon's cousin Roran, whose fiancée Katrina has been nabbed by the evil Galbatorix.
Paolini saves a couple of key revelations until the end of the book, including the appearance of the menacing red dragon on the book's cover and a big surprise concerning Eragon's family tree (hint: it's reflected in the book's title.)
Will Arya continue to spurn Eragon's romantic intentions? Will Roran be reunited with his beloved Katrina? Will the Varden overthrow the brutal Galbatorix? Book three, as yet unnamed, will have all the answers, Paolini assures us.
"That's actually one of the things that truly bugs me as a reader, the fact that so many series drag on and on without achieving a true end. You can't have a good story without a good end," he says.
Like Eragon, Paolini is learning by doing. Editing, a chore he dreads like a Shade (Eragon's very bad adversary), has gone "from intense to more intense" with the second book. "I didn't make the same mistakes as I made in Eragon; I made entirely new mistakes," he admits.
Sudden success has turned Paolini's fantasies into reality. He is routinely mobbed by hundreds of fans at book signings. "You would not believe the things I've signed, pretty much every outer article of clothing you can imagine—coats, hats, socks, shoes," he says. He's been able to meet his literary heroes, including Cornelia Funke (Dragon Rider) and Bruce Coville (Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher). And of course he's been able to continue writing without financial concerns.
So what about his social life?
Christopher cracks up. "What was that phrase you used? Social life? No, the way my life tends to run is, I'm either sitting in my room writing or I'm out on a book tour."
So there's no real-life Arya in his life?
"Well, it is epic fantasy!" he chuckles. "My love interest? Just as writers can write about murder without being a murderer, I'm writing about romance without being a great . . . well, I'm a romantic in the traditional sense, but I'm writing about this without much personal experience. One of the disadvantages of writing a series like this at my age is that it really requires your complete focus. You can't spend too much time going out to bars and whatnot, not that I would want to in any case."
If age has its advantages for a writer, sometimes youth holds the trump card. "I never imagined being a writer. I always imagined myself off fighting monsters with a sword or something. But I can't complain about the results. At least I'm young enough that the odds are I'll be able to finish it before I die."
Jay MacDonald does what he can from rural Mississippi to save the universe.