From home school to hit author
Paolini takes wing with dragon series
Even superstars get the jitters. Christopher Paolini tries not to dwell on the huge expectations surrounding Brisingr, the third book in his blockbuster Inheritance Cycle fantasy series.
With the first two books in the series selling 15.5 million copies worldwide, Knopf is preparing for Brisingr's September 20 release with a 2.5 million-copy first printing, its biggest ever for a children's book. Meanwhile, fans are squealing messages like, "I can't wait!" and "OMG. I need it!" on web discussion boards."As an author, I found that I can't really allow myself to think about those things," 24-year-old Paolini says, speaking by phone from his home in Montana. "I actually fell into that trap with the first part of Brisingr... sat there and I started obsessing about every single word."
He worked past it by turning away from the keyboard and writing with an ink-dip pen on 80-pound parchment paper. His mother transcribed the pages. Now it's readers who are obsessing, spinning the meager bits of information Paolini has teased out to them into full-blown speculation about what will happen to Eragon, Saphira and the rest of the inhabitants of Alagaësia.
Among the clues: Eragon will meet a new and terrifying enemy ("He likes to laugh a lot and not in a good way," says Paolini), Eragon will meet a god and one of the characters gets pregnant.
Paolini says Brisingr is more complex than the two books that preceded it, Eragon and Eldest, in part because of its multiple points of view. For the first time, portions of the story are told through Saphira's eyes. How did he find the voice of the smart, loyal and brilliantly sapphire female dragon? "I drew upon my own experience of the pets and animals that I grew up around, especially some of the cats I had," he says. "I thought a dragon would be like a cat in some ways, that same sort of self-satisfied attitude."
Beyond that, weighty moral dilemmas and the sheer number of events make for a rich narrative, he says. The story is so complex, in fact, that halfway through the writing of the book, Paolini decided to turn it into two books. "At a certain point, I realized that if I wrote the rest of Brisingr as I'd planned, it was going to end up being about 2,000 pages," he says.
What had been billed for years as a trilogy became a four-book cycle. As it is, Brisingr is no lightweight at 784 pages. Paolini acknowledges that the book's sophistication reflects his growth as a writer, but he also sees it as the inevitable result of having spent nearly a decade immersed in the fictional world he created when he was just 15.
The home-schooled teenager had earned his high school diploma early and wasn't ready to plunge into college yet when he began writing Eragon. Two years later, he gave it to his parents to read. They decided to self-publish the book and by the age of 18, the boy who'd grown up sheltered, living in the shadow of Montana's Beartooth Mountains with his parents and younger sister, suddenly found himself touring libraries, bookstores and schools to peddle his book. And he did it while wearing a medieval costume.
Eventually, the book ended up in the hands of Michelle Frey, executive editor at Knopf Books for Young Readers, who offered Paolini a publishing contract. After that, success came at Paolini so hard and so fast that he found it difficult to fully grasp what he'd become.
"When Eragon came out I was—I'm going to use a cliché—pleased as punch, of course, and delighted, but I didn't really feel like I was a writer," he says. In fact, it's only been recently that he's felt comfortable using that word to describe himself.
Now that he has embraced the label, he's eager to keep growing and proving his abilities to himself. He knows that once he completes the fourth and final book in the cycle he will deeply miss Eragon and the land of Alagaësia, but he's looking forward to exploring other fictional worlds. He's already experimented with writing in different genres, including science fiction and noir.
And even as fans wait breathlessly to get their hands on Brisingr, Paolini is taking nothing for granted. "There's always this feeling like, well, I still remember when I didn't have this and it still might not stick around," he says. "It's good not to be 100 percent comfortable, because if you're 100 percent comfortable, you can lose your edge."
Karen Holt is a freelance writer who lives in Connecticut.