Christopher Paolini Wanted a Job Involving Dragons, So He Created One

In the months before Christopher Paolini wrote the book that made him a star in young adult fantasy, he built a hobbit hole. He’d been home-schooled, and by the time he turned 15 he’d already graduated from high school and read many of the classics — Leo Tolstoy, Alexandre Dumas and Jane Austen among them. So, in his family’s backyard near the banks of the Yellowstone River in Paradise Valley, Mont., he dug a 10-foot hole and converted a massive satellite dish into a makeshift roof. Elaborate plans for a Viking-style mead hall danced through his head.

“It was about that point when I realized that I really needed to find something else to do,” Paolini, who is now 40, said in a video interview from his home. “Riding dragons and fighting monsters wasn’t a career opportunity,” he said, “so I tried writing.”

What came of his effort was “Eragon,” the story of a farm boy of the same name and his dragon, Saphira, and their perilous adventures across Alagaësia — a mythical land based on the mountainous environs of the Paolini family’s farmhouse. His family self-published the book, and for more than a year, he promoted it as he could, hand-selling copies outside bookstores and giving presentations at schools.

Eventually, Carl Hiaasen, a best-selling novelist, picked up a self-published copy at a grocery store while on a family trip to Montana. His stepson — who, according to Hiaasen, said “Eragon” was “better than Harry Potter!” — finished the 500-page book in a day. Hiaasen passed the book to his editor at Random House Children’s Books, connecting Paolini to the New York publishing world.

When “Eragon” was republished in 2003 by Knopf, Paolini’s career took flight, with over a million copies sold in the first six months. By 2011, Paolini had followed it up with three more best selling books — “Eldest,” “Brisingr” and “Inheritance” — that together make up “The Inheritance Cycle,” a cornerstone in the canon of any millennial fan of fantasy. The series — which follows Eragon and his friends as they fight to end the wicked reign of King Galbatorix — spawned a 2006 movie, an upcoming Disney+ series and even a recreation of Alagaësia in Minecraft.

In 2018, Paolini temporarily assuaged fans’ hunger for dragons with “The Fork, the Witch, and the Worm,” a trio of short stories set in Alagaësia. Then, he ventured into science fiction, publishing an unrelated two-part series — “To Sleep in a Sea of Stars” in 2020 and its prequel, “Fractal Noise,” in 2023.

Paolini’s latest book, “Murtagh” — published on Nov. 7 and now topping the young adult hardcover best-seller list — is a sequel to the “Inheritance Cycle.” This time, Murtagh — Eragon’s half brother — takes center stage as he attempts to survive alongside his dragon, Thorn, in exile.

Paolini spoke to The New York Times just after he returned home from the American leg of a 31-city, 11-country promotion tour. With a sword latched to the wall behind him, Paolini discussed his early career, self-publishing and the first full-length novel set in the world of “Eragon” in 12 years. Below are edited excerpts from the conversation.

What do you remember about the early days of writing “Eragon?”

Originally, Eragon was named Kevin and the story was set in the real world. But I only finished around 10 pages. The problem with all of my early writing was that I’d get an idea and just start — I didn’t actually have a plot. But I was a pretty methodical kid, so I started reading about how to write. Fortunately, my parents are observant, and these kinds of books magically began appearing in the house. And I read all of them. I originally saw “Eragon” as a practice novel, which is part of why it’s a very typical hero’s story. I knew that structure worked and it gave me the safety net I needed.

You’ve said that your family was on food stamps at one point. Surely self-publishing and marketing “Eragon” was expensive. As a teenager, you must have felt a lot of pressure.

There was enormous pressure, but nothing was placed on me unwillingly. It was a joint decision that we were going to try to self publish “Eragon” as part of the family business, and I was delighted that I could do something to help. If the book had taken another few months to start turning a profit, we were going to have to sell our house, move to a city and get any jobs we could. We bet everything on making a go of it. That’s why I was willing to do things that would have been uncomfortable otherwise, such as doing daily presentations in black knee-high boots, pantaloons and a billowy swordsman shirt.

Self publishing wasn’t as viable then as a pathway to a career as an author as it is today. Why did it work for you?

Everything completely changed because of e-readers. If you wanted to read an e-book, you had to have a PDF on your computer. There were no distribution systems like Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Back then, the lowest amount you could print and not have the book be too expensive was probably about 10,000 copies. But we were fortunate because print-on-demand had just become a thing, so books were just printed as needed. Self publishing is a lot easier these days. Of course, today’s marketplace is a lot more crowded as a result.

You started “Eragon” at 15, and finished the series in your late 20s. How did it feel to get back into the mindset of a teenager to write “Murtagh?”

It helped that Murtagh is a more complicated character than Eragon. He’s more morally conflicted and has had a different, difficult life. But I could step back into Eragon’s shoes and all the other main characters in the world in a heartbeat, because I spent so long with him. That world was not only 11 years of my life, but 11 formative years.

You just got back from the U.S. leg of your book tour — who’s making up the crowd?

The readership is broad and probably older than it was back in the day. There are still a lot of 8-year-olds, but now there are grandparents, too. I’ve even met some kids who’ve been named after the characters, which is pretty amazing. Because people have been reading the series for so long, I tend to get a mix of incredibly detailed, hyper-focused, deep-dive questions about some of the lore, but also some more general ones about Eragon’s name.

Which books, outside of fantasy, influenced you? What’s on your bookshelf now?

A lot of Mark Twain, which I found very relatable because “Huckleberry Finn” and “Tom Sawyer” were a lot more similar to my life than something set in the city. Today, I find it difficult to read fantasy. I’ve been in it for so long that I want something that’s different or strong in its flavor and execution. I just read “The Murderbot Diaries” by Martha Wells, which was fun. My editor recently gave me “Foster,” a novella by Claire Keegan, and I’ve been meaning to read Tolkien’s translation of “Beowulf” for ages.

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