Christopher Paolini spent nearly half of his life writing the epic Inheritance cycle, which has sold 25 million copies to date. And he's still yet to celebrate his 30th birthday.
Home-schooled in Montana and a high school graduate at 15, Paolini set to work on his debut novel, a fantasy tale called Eragon, which was initially self-published. After the book earned the notice of editors at Alfred A. Knopf, it was republished and Paolini, still in his teens, was contracted to finish what was to be a trilogy. Last winter, Knopf released the final book in the series, now grown to include a fourth title, Inheritance.
Paolini visits the Triangle this Friday for a discussion and signing of the Inheritance Deluxe Edition. We spoke with him recently.
Indy Week: One thing you've talked about a lot is how you grew up in Paradise Valley, Mont., a very isolated area, and how that was a major influence on your writing. You've done a lot of touring since the books came out—how has that affected your perspective of the world?
Christopher Paolini: It's odd—the first few times I went to places that were flatter, it was so strange to be able to see this flat, flat horizon, all the way off into the distance. In a way, it felt safer in the mountains, because they provide a sort of wall for the world, an edge for the world. You're in a secure little spot, and you constantly get the play of light over the foothills and the crags and the ridges and ravines and all the topography of the mountains.
I think if I'd grown up elsewhere, I'd have still wound up writing fantasy, but it would have been a different kind of fantasy. It certainly wouldn't have had some of the descriptions I was able to put into the books because of having grown up here.
Well, it's a very Joseph Campbell thing—the hero starting in a smaller, limited world and going out into a wider, unfamiliar universe.
I read a lot of Joseph Campbell growing up, along with a lot of myths and legends and folktales from around the world.
How much do you really see yourself in Eragon?
When I started writing the series, I probably based Eragon very much off myself, just because when you're 15, writing about yourself is probably the easiest thing to do. However, even over the course of the first novel, Eragon very much became his own character, because he did things—like riding a dragon and fighting monsters—that I've never experienced, just as I've gone through experiences he's never gone through. So we're very different people at this point.
You've finished what's an elaborate series while still at a young age. Have you had an opportunity to take a step back and look at the experience at this point?
Not quite as much as I would have liked. It's a complicated thing for me, because I spent so long working on the series. And in all honestly, I spent longer than I would have liked on the series. I'm glad I wrote it, it was a story I needed to tell and wanted to tell. But it's also a story I devised at 15. And I think there are very few people who are the same person at 27—which is how old I was when I finished the series—as they were when they were 15.
So I'm glad I got it out of my system, but I really don't want to write another big epic fantasy, at least not right away. I love fantasy, and I'll continue to write fantasy, along with other genres. But I want to try different kinds of stories now. And I do believe the books I'll write in the future will be different from the Inheritance cycle, but readers who enjoyed those will enjoy these as much if not as more. But they will be different in very specific ways. I have certain occupations as an author that will crop up in all my stories, but I want to challenge myself as an artist and a writer and try new things.
You mentioned your preoccupations as an author—what are some of those?
I'd say the biggest theme in all my books is one of personal transformation. You'll find it in all the books of the Inheritance cycle, all of the characters go through a metamorphosis—some are slow, some are fast, but all go through a change on a very basic level. That comes from my own experience of adolescence, but also from the experience of writing the series and how who I was changed as a result of that experience.
I've discovered that all the stories I want to write, even though they cover many different themes and many different genres, at their core they always seem to be about a person going through an upheaval of their personality and coming out the other end as a new person.
You've spent almost half your life writing about Eragon's world, and I have to ask if you ever feel like the James Caan character in Misery [Paolini laughs], where he just wants to kill off that character and be free?
I never wanted to kill off the characters, but while I was writing the series—especially the last two books—I felt the urge more than once to just move on to new projects. But I didn't, because I cared about the characters and I cared about the story, and readers would never forgive me for not finishing it.
I think the persistence needed to finish a book and a long series is probably the hardest part of being an author. And it's that persistence that often separates the amateurs from the professionals. Not so much talent; you can make up for talent with persistence. But without the persistence, even talent won't succeed.
It's very easy to think that large, dramatic actions and large, dramatic gestures will change your life. But it's actually the small, habitual actions that change your life. If every day you take an hour and you do something in that hour—and that can be writing, that can be playing the guitar, that can be learning pottery, math, science, anything—if you do something for an hour every day, then in three years you're going to be better than 90 percent of the people who work on that subject, especially if you really put your mind into it during that hour. It's the small habits we have day-to-day over a long period of time that build up into something more.
I'm not going to try to write a book in a day. I'm never going to be able to write a book in a day. What I can do is sit down and try to write a good chunk of words every day, and after a certain amount of time, I've got a giant novel.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Boy wizard."