Christopher Paolini Interview
After graduating from high school at 15, Christopher Paolini began writing Eragon, the first novel of the Inheritance Cycle set in the mythical land of Alagaësia. In 2002, the Paolini family self-published Eragon and began an aggressive campaign to promote Christopher’s work. He and his family toured countless schools and libraries to discuss reading and writing.
In summer 2002, the stepson of author Carl Hiaasen found Eragon in a bookstore and loved it, and Hiaasen brought it to the attention of his publisher, Alfred A. Knopf. Knopf subsequently made an offer to publish Eragon and the rest of the Inheritance Cycle. The second edition of Eragon was published by Knopf in August 2003 and went on to top the New York Times bestselling list.
Originally planned as a trilogy, the story grew into a four-book series. Eldest, Brisingr, and Inheritance followed Eragon, with the final novel released worldwide last fall. To date, the Inheritance Cycle has sold more than 25 million copies.
In the midst of a European and Australian tour, visiting fans across the world, Christopher took a few moments from his busy schedule to answer some questions for us.
This might be akin to asking a parent to choose a favorite child, but which of the four books in the Inheritance Cycle is your favorite? Which one gave you the most difficulty as you wrote it?
Well, Eragon was the first book I ever wrote, and it will always have a soft spot in my heart as a result. However, the answer to both your questions is … Inheritance. Because of its length and the fact that it was my first attempt to end a story, well and truly; it was by far the hardest book of the series to write. And it’s my favorite because I employed every technique I learned while writing the rest of the cycle, and—like all artists—I like to believe that I improve from piece to piece and that my latest work is my best. Of course, I might be mistaken, but it’s a useful fiction to maintain. Truth be told, my favorite book is always the one I’m working on at the moment, not any of the ones I’ve already published.
Writers evolve. Often, an author will look back at his or her earlier work and say, “Had I known then what I know now…” Do you ever feel that way? Are there things about Eragon or Eldest you would change if you could?
Sure. I think every artist feels that way. There aren’t many structural changes I would make to the series—I told the story I wanted to tell, and I’m pleased with it—but I would rework the prose in the first few books quite a bit if I were to revisit them. I know a lot more now about writing than I did when I was fifteen. And thank goodness for that! Given the chance, I’m sure I could do a better job with the descriptions, dialogue, pacing, etc. Still, it seems pointless to retread old ground when so many people around the world have enjoyed the series. And in any case, I would rather move on to new projects.
What were the last few weeks as you wrapped Inheritance like? You had put years of thought, effort, and your life into the series, and the end was nearing. What were you feeling?
The last few weeks were madness, sheer madness. I was under enormous pressure to finish the first draft of the book—my deadline had long since passed, and it was beginning to look as if the book might not be published that year, which would have been a personal and professional disaster.
What’s more, the mental and emotional demands of wrapping up a story that I had been working on for fourteen years were tremendous. Every scene I was writing was one I had been dreaming about for over a decade, and to finally write those scenes, to finally put words to thoughts, images, and feelings that I had obsessed over for so long was … frightening. I wanted each word to be perfect, but I didn’t have the time to pursue perfection, and even if I had, perfection is of course, impossible. All I could do was put down what was in my head as honestly as I could and hope that it worked.
The funny thing is, I didn’t think that writing the last scene would affect me very much. I outlined the series before I began Eragon, so I always knew how the story was going to end, and from a distance, it didn’t seem to be that big of a deal. Just another sequence of events to describe. However, when I started the last chapter, I felt a wave of heat pass through me, and I began to shake, almost as if I had a fever or a chill. The closer I got to the last sentence, the worse my shaking got, until I found it almost impossible to concentrate.
When I reached that final sentence, I couldn’t capture what was in my mind. The words came out snarled and wrong, and I was too agitated to figure out what I should do. So, I stopped then, and spent two-and-a-half months editing the rest of the book. And when my mind was somewhat clearer, and my emotions were calmer, and I’d had more than four hours of sleep the previous night, I looked at that last sentence again.
And I completely changed it.
I added one word … dark.
And then the sentence was perfect. And then the series was concluded, and with it, one of the most significant series of events in my life.
A lot has been made of your start going the self-published route with Eragon. And there are plenty of misconceptions about how hard you and your family worked in the early days. Can you tell us a little about what it was like for you then?
Heh. Our so-called publishing company consisted of my parents, my sister, and myself, sitting around our kitchen table and trying to figure out how we could possible convince anyone we didn’t know to buy a copy of Eragon. The four of us designed the layout of the book, we wrote up promotional pamphlets, and last but not least, we traveled all across the western half of the U.S., visiting schools, libraries, and bookstores. I ended up doing three to four hour-long presentations every day for months on end at various times. Our house turned into a warehouse filled with towers of books, boxed and unboxed, each of which we had to inspect for quality control.
Why did we go to such lengths? Because we wanted to work together and be self-employed, and because the alternative was having to sell our house, move to a city, and all get jobs. It makes for a great story now, but it was a terrifying experience to live through.
What is it like to know that millions of people have read your books?
It never ceases to amaze me. When I started Eragon, I didn’t think that anyone outside of my family would read it—heck, I wasn’t even sure my sister would read it—and to know that millions of people around the world have enjoyed the series is … humbling. Every day I’m grateful for the support of my readers, because it’s allowed me to do what I love, which is tell stories.
You are on/recently completed a whirlwind tour through Italy, Germany, Spain, the UK, Australia, and NZ. What was your favorite city to visit? Food to eat? Sight to see?
Hmm. Every country and every city has its own charms: Prague has beautiful architecture, Paris amazing food, Germany more blood sausage and spargle than you can shake a stick at, and so on. I can’t pick a favorite. I enjoy traveling, and wherever I go, there are always interesting things to do. That said, I think I would like to return to Tasmania some day, as the landscape is truly gorgeous.
When your life settles down and you have time to write again, what do you plan to work on? Have you thought about writing outside of the fantasy genre?
Yup. Over the past ten years, I’ve thought of a whole bunch of stories that I would like to write, stories in all different genres. Last I’ve looked, I have between twenty to thirty completely new books all plotted out. I’m pretty sure that I’m going to tackle science fiction next, but who knows? I’ll see how I feel once I’m home. In the long term, though, I definitely intend to return to Eragon’s world and write a fifth book. After spending so long with the world and the characters of the Inheritance Cycle, I can’t bring myself to walk away from them for the rest of my life.
What advice would you give to aspiring fantasy authors looking to advance their craft? What one or two things do you feel are crucial?
The same advice I would give to any aspiring writer:
1. Read, read, read, read. Good writers are good readers. Read what you love, but also read things outside your comfort zone, because you’ll learn more than if you just stick with what you’re familiar with.
2. Write every single day. Don’t wait for inspiration. I only get inspiration about once every three months. In the meantime, I write. I write on weekends, I write on holidays, and I write on my birthday. In short, I write. I do take Christmas off—and, of course, I can’t really write when I’m traveling—but that’s the extent of it.
Writing is like playing a musical instrument: if you want to get good at it, then you have to practice every single day, even when you don’t feel like it. So unless you’re in the hospital—and maybe even then—you’d better write.
Of all the traits an author can possess, persistence is the most important. It doesn’t matter how talented you are. If you don’t practice, you’ll never master your craft. As Calvin Coolidge said:
“Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful people with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan “press on” has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race”
3. Write about whatever it is you care about the most. Writing is often difficult, but if you truly care about the subject material, that’ll help you through the rough patches.
And it doesn’t matter what your interests are. Just don’t let someone else tell you what you should or shouldn’t write. If you want to compose a twelve-volume epic about singing toasters and flying unicorns … then go for it! There are over six billion people on this planet. Through sheer odds, I guarantee that there are lots of other people out there who like the same things you do, no matter how obscure they might be.
4. Learn everything you can about the language you’re writing in. Grammar is boring, I know, but the better you understand your language, the better you’ll be able to get what’s in your head onto the page and into someone else’s head.
5. Find someone in your life—friend, family member, teacher, librarian, etc.—someone who is a good reader, who likes the sort of thing you’re writing, and who can help edit your work. As painful as editing can be, I guarantee that you’ll learn more from editing than you ever will from just writing. The trick isn’t just to perform (and make no mistake, writing is a performance), the trick is to perform and to consciously evaluate what you’re doing so that you can improve.
For example, when singing, it’s sometimes hard to hear if you have poor vocal technique. That’s why every professional singer goes to a voice coach. Sometimes more than one. Writing is no different. Your trusted readers, your editors, are your voice coaches. Listen to them, and you’ll improve at your craft far faster than you would otherwise.
6. This doesn’t work for every author, but I would also recommend plotting out your stories beforehand. Again, a musical analogy may serve: it’s hard to compose a piece of music while performing it, so first you compose it, and then you can concentrate upon performing it as beautifully as possible. So too with writing. Also, read the book Story by Robert McKee. It’s highly useful when it comes to learning how to understand the underlying structure of stories.
If I try to write without knowing where the story is going, I get instant writer’s block.
7. As a corollary to No. 2 – don’t give up. It’s incredibly easy to give up, and there are many, many people in the world who will tell you that you can’t do something. Well, I’m here to tell you that you can, assuming you’re reasonably intelligent and willing to put in the work. Sure, you’re going to get discouraged, and there are going to be days when it seems impossible to finish a book or get it published. That happens to all of us. Even once we’re published. The trick is to keep plugging away and trying to get better.
8. And lastly, try to have fun. You don’t have to have fun every day, but try to have fun more days than you don’t. If you can’t, maybe it’s time to think of a profession in a different line of work.
Aaaand, that’s it! Whew! Great questions. Hopefully I was able to provide some interesting answers. Thank you for reading my books, and I hope you enjoy my future ones even more.
And as Eragon himself would say, “Sé onr sverdar sitja hvass!”
May your swords stay sharp.
Thank you for your time and answers, Christopher. We really appreciate it and cannot wait to see what the future holds for you.