Author Christopher Paolini not only writes about fantasy, he lives it. When he was a mere fifteen years old, he penned a sweeping epic called Eragon, which was eventually discovered by a New York publisher—and by thousands of readers. In 2003 the book nestled comfortably on bestseller lists, and by 2004 a movie based on the magnificent tale of a boy and a brilliant blue dragon was poised to take flight. Paolini was also hard at work writing the second and third installments in the Inheritance trilogy. In a teenreads.com interview, the author and boy wonder promised fans that future books would include the same "breathtaking locations, thrilling battles, and searching introspection as Eragon—in addition to true love."
In 1984, when Christopher Paolini was born, his mother, Talita, quit her job as a Montessori preschool teacher to devote her time to raising her new son. Montessori is a system of learning developed by Italian educator Maria Montessori (1870–1952); some of its features include a focus on individual instruction and an early development of writing skills. Talita used the Montessori method to teach Christopher at home, and two years later when sister Angela came along, she, too, became part of the Paolini classroom. Since some of the materials in a Montessori school are expensive, Talita experimented and came up with creative alternatives to inspire and educate her children. She was so successful that by the time Christopher, and later Angela, turned three years old, they were both comfortably working at a first-grade level.
When Christopher was old enough to attend public school, his parents were worried that he would be bored by a traditional curriculum, so they thought long and hard and decided to educate him at home. In fact, focusing on their children was such a top priority that the Paolinis made a deliberate choice to live simply, drawing small salaries from Kenneth Paolini's home-based publishing company. In interviews Paolini has talked about the nurturing environment his parents created for him, and he credits them for being his inspiration. He has also admitted that he was not always a receptive student. A particularly interesting note is that Paolini was a reluctant reader. When he was about three or four, he refused to learn to read, but his mother worked patiently with him until one day a door opened that would change his life.
"I enjoy fantasy because it allows me to visit lands that have never existed, to see things that never could exist, to experience daring adventures with interesting characters, and most importantly, to feel the sense of magic in the world."
That door was his first visit to the library. In his essay titled "Dragon Tales," Paolini described going to the library with his mother and being attracted to a series of mystery books with colorful spines. He took one home and, according to Paolini, something clicked. He was spellbound by the characters, the dialogue, and the fascinating situations. "From then on," wrote Paolini, "I've been in love with the written word." He went on to devour books of all kinds—classics, myths, thrillers, science fiction, anything that seemed interesting. In particular, he was drawn to the fantasy genre and to writers who wrote tales about heroes and elves, swordfights and quests and, especially, dragons.
Christopher Paolini was indeed a boy wonder, writing his first book at age fifteen, but American publishing is filled with stories written by young authors. Some have been published quite recently, while others go back a number of years. The following is just a short list of teen writers; the age listed indicates how old the author was when he or she wrote their first work.
Amelia Atwater-Rhodes (14 years old): In the Forests of the Night (1999); Demon in My View (2000); Shattered Mirror (2001); Midnight Predator (2002); Hawksong (2003); Snakecharm (2004).
Walter Farley (15 years old): The Black Stallion (although the book was published in 1941, Farley wrote the first draft of Stallion while still a student at Erasmus High School in New York City).
Miles Franklin (16 years old): My Brilliant Career (1901).
Kimberly Fuller (16 years old): Home (1997). S. E. Hinton (16 years old): Outsiders (1967); That was Then, This is Now (1971); Rumble Fish (1975); Tex (1979); Taming the Star Runner (1988); Hawks Harbor (2004).
Gordan Korman (14 years old): Korman is a prolific writer who began his popular Macdonald Hall series with This Can't Be Happening at Macdonald Hall (1977).
Benjamin Lebert (16 years old): Crazy (2000; first American translation from the German).
Megan McNeil Libby (16 years old): Postcards from France (1998).
Dav Pilkey (19 years old): World War Won (1987); Pilkey went on to achieve fame as the author of the well-known Captain Underpants series.
Trope, Zoe (15 years old): Please Don't Kill the Freshman: A Memoir (c. 2003).
Paolini often found himself daydreaming about dragons when he was riding in the car, when he was taking a shower, when he was supposed to be doing his homework. While he was growing up he captured some of his daydreams on paper, writing poems and short stories that featured dragons and were set in magical places. Paolini did not take a real stab at writing a longer piece until he graduated from high school in 1999, at the age of fifteen. According to Paolini, he did not set out to get published; instead, he viewed writing a book-length work as a kind of personal challenge.
Paolini had ideas swimming around in his head, but he realized that he knew very little about the actual art of writing—for example, how to construct a plot line. So he set out to do some research. He studied several books on writing, including Characters and Viewpoint (1988) by Orson Scott Card and Robert McKee's Story (1997), which helped him to sketch out a nine-page summary. Paolini then spent the next year fleshing out his story, writing sporadically at first, but then picking up the pace. The task went much more quickly after he learned how to type.
As Paolini explained in "Dragon Tales," he tried to imbue his story with the same elements he found most compelling in books: "an intelligent hero; lavish descriptions; exotic locations; dragons; elves; dwarves; magic; and above all else, a sense of awe and wonder." In particular, he drew upon the works of some of his favorite fantasy authors for inspiration, including J. R. R. Tolkien (1892–1973), author of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and Anne McCaffrey (1926–), an American writer famous for her Dragonriders of Pern series. The result was a book called Eragon.
Eragon follows the adventures of a fifteen-year-old farm boy who finds a mysterious gemstone covered with white veins. It is actually a dragon's egg, and when the egg hatches and a magnificent blue dragon emerges, the boy's life is changed forever. Eragon names the dragon Saphira, and the two become so inseparable that they share their innermost thoughts and feelings. Their bond is challenged, however, by an evil tyrant named King Galbatorix. A hundred years earlier, Galbatorix had outlawed dragons and destroyed the Dragon Riders, the lodge of dragon-riding warriors who protected them. When the king becomes aware that Eragon is the first of a new generation of Dragon Riders, he has his family killed and plots to capture the boy and his blue-scaled companion. Eragon and Saphira embark on a journey of escape and revenge, and along the way meet up with a wise magician, elves, dwarves, and several beautiful maidens.
Paolini spent the bulk of 2000 reworking his first draft, smoothing out problems and fine-tuning such things as language and landscape. The young author introduces no less than three languages in Eragon : the elves speak a language based on Old Norse (the languages of medieval Scandinavia), which Paolini spent months studying; and the dwarves and Urgals (the fanged army of King Galbarotix) each speak a language made up entirely by Paolini. To help readers along, Paolini created a glossary that appears at the end of the finished book.
For the mythical setting of Alagaësia, Paolini turned to the natural landscape of his own home state. The Paolinis live in Livingston, Montana, located in the scenic Paradise Valley just north of Yellowstone Park. Years of hiking through such rugged and beautiful terrain helped Paolini create a vivid world that is both fantastic and true-to-life. For example, the Beor Mountains that are featured in Eragon are an exaggerated version of the Beartooth Mountains of Montana.
By 2001 Paolini had a second draft, but he was still not satisfied, so he turned the book over to his parents for editing. They helped him streamline some of the plot sequences, clarify some of the concepts, and pare back some of what Paolini called "the bloat." Kenneth and Talita Paolini were so impressed by the finished product, and believed in the manuscript so much, that they decided to throw themselves into publishing it. Instead of going the traditional route and shopping the book around to established publishing houses, they decided to publish it themselves. As Paolini told teenreads.com, "We wanted to retain financial and creative control over the book. Also, we were excited by the prospect of working on this project as a family." Kenneth formatted the book on his computer, and the young Paolini, who is also a budding artist, drew the maps to accompany the text. He designed the book's front cover and produced a self-portrait to grace the back cover.
In 2002 the Paolinis had Eragon published privately, and with ten thousand copies in hand, they set out to promote the book for the rest of the year. Paolini and his mother became the marketing masterminds, but the entire family traveled across the country, stopping at bookstores, schools, libraries, and fairs. Paolini even decided to forego college to promote his book. He had previously been accepted to Reed College in Portland, Oregon. In an interview with Kit Spring of The UK Guardian Unlimited, Paolini described the book's promotion as a stressful experience. The young author gave presentations dressed as a medieval storyteller, and he found himself spending entire days talking ceaselessly about his book.
The nonstop tour was exhausting, but Paolini also felt the added pressure of becoming his family's breadwinner. As he explained to Spring, "Selling the book meant putting food on the table." Sales were going well, but not well enough, and by the end of 2002, the Paolinis were afraid that they might have to sell their home to make ends meet. Just when things looked bleak, providence stepped in by way of a famous fan. Author Carl Hiaasen (1953–) and his family were on vacation in Montana, and when they stopped at a local bookstore, Hiaasen's stepson picked up a copy of Eragon. He loved it so much that he showed it to Hiaasen, who promptly sent the book to his editor at Alfred A. Knopf Publishers in New York City.
Knopf purchased the book for an undisclosed six-figure sum, along with the rights to the next two books in the trilogy. Paolini had always envisioned Eragon as the first in a series of three books. When the book was released in August of 2003, it debuted at number three on the New York Times children's bestseller list, and Paolini was off on another whirlwind round of promotions. This time, however, things were a bit different, since he was appearing on such high-profile television programs as the Today Show, and being interviewed by national magazines including People Weekly, Newsweek, and Time. In 2004, Paolini extended his tour to Great Britain.
Eragon was also making the rounds of critics, who gave the book mixed reviews. Some focused on flaws and weaknesses, claiming that the book was a novelty and that its success was actually the result of the author's young age. Others pointed out faults, but still felt that Eragon was an appealing fantasy novel that showed great promise. For example, Liz Rosenberg of the New York Times Book Review claimed that the "plot stumbles and jerks along, with gaps in logic." But she also admitted that "for all its flaws, [the book] is an authentic work of great talent."
Fans agreed with Rosenberg's final pronouncement, and Eragon quickly developed a cult following. In mid-2004 it remained at the top of the New York Times bestseller list, flip-flopping between the number one and the number two spots, vying for the top spot with Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, by popular British author J. K. Rowling (c. 1966–). The privately published editions of Eragon became hot collectors' items, bringing up to $1,000 per copy. Even the first Knopf edition became sought after, selling for close to $300.
Throughout his many interviews, Paolini seemed thrilled by all the attention, but the slightly built, bespectacled young man still kept his feet firmly planted on the ground. After all, he had to stay focused because he had two books in the wings: Eldest, which was expected to be released in August of 2005, and Empire, slated to be published in the fall of 2006. In the meantime, Paolini was also hard at work writing the screenplay for Eragon, tentatively scheduled to hit theaters in time for Christmas of 2005.
Although the pressure was on to perform, the financial pressure was lightened and the Paolinis were living comfortably. Again, Christopher Paolini kept things in perspective. He claimed that he has allowed himself one extravagance, a replica Viking sword, which he carries with him around the house. He told Book Browse, "There's no guarantee it will last.... Readers have fallen in love with [Eragon], thousands of people are reading it. I can't really ask for more."
Paolini, Christopher. Eragon. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003.
Paolini, Christopher. "How I Write: Interview with Christopher Paolini." Writer (March 2004): p. 66.
Rosenberg, Liz. Review of Eragon. New York Times Book Review (November 16, 2003): p. 58.
"Author Profile: Christopher Paolini." teenreads.com (September 2003). http://www.teenreads.com/authors/au-paolini-christopher.asp (accessed on July 12, 2004).
"Christopher Paolini: Biography and Interview." Bookbrowse.com (September 2003). http://www.bookbrowse.com/index.cfm?page=author&authorID=934 (accessed on July 12, 2004).
Eragon. http://www.randomhouse.com/teens/eragon (accessed on July 12, 2004).
Paolini, Christopher. "Dragon Tales: An Essay on Becoming a Writer." Eragon. http://www.randomhouse.com/teens/eragon/dragontales.htm (accessed on July 12, 2004).
Spring, Kit. "Elf and Efficiency." UK Guardian Unlimited (January 25, 2004). http://books.guardian.co.uk/departments/childrenandteens/story/0,6000,1130351,00.html (accessed on July 12, 2004).
Weich, David. "Author Interviews: Philip Pullman, Tamora Pierce, and Christopher Paolini Talk Fantasy Fiction." Powells.com (June 31, 2003). http://www.powells.com/authors/paolini.html (accessed on July 12, 2004).