Author Interview: Christopher Paolini Discusses Eragon, Inheritance and his exploration of Sci-Fi
Christopher Paolini is one of the biggest living fantasy authors, having shot to fame with Eragon and The Inheritance Cycle. We interviewed him back in 2015, when he was working on his next great epic, a huge Sci-Fi title shrouded in secrecy.
Since then, he has published To Sleep in a Sea of Stars: a story of enormous intergalactic weight and consequence, but also of deeply personal human strength, compassion, and awe. It has received critical acclaim and won the 2020 Goodreads Choice Award for Best Science Fiction. To celebrate the book's paperback release, we decided to revisit our conversation with this brilliant author.
If you'd prefer to listen to the interview, click here. For the transcript, read on!
You began writing Eragon when you were 15, and then self-published the book. Can you tell us a bit about that journey?
It was a little more complicated than most people understand. I had tried writing some stories prior to Eragon, but I never got more than a couple of pages into them because I didn’t know what was supposed to happen after the beginning of the story. I didn’t have the story, I had the initial incident that sparks the events that followed, but I didn’t have the events that followed.
Prior to writing Eragon, I took time off from writing to read a bunch of books on how to write and then I actually plotted out an entire fantasy novel that I never wrote and wasn’t planning to write — it was simply an exercise to see if I could construct the story for an entire novel. And then I said ‘I know what I’ll do, let me plot out an entire trilogy, because all great fantasy stories are trilogies. Then I’ll write the first book as a practice just to see if I can write 400–600 pages, and then once I’ve written my practice novel I’ll go write a real book’.
Of course, Eragon was my practice novel, and it took about ten years to get to write anything past my practice novel, if you will. But the writing itself was fairly fast, I wrote the first draft in about six months. I sat down, read it through, and was really excited because I was getting to read my first book for the first time. And this is something I think a lot of young writers shouldn’t get discouraged about, because when I read it through, I realised it was awful. It was horrible. The story was pretty much there, but the writing itself was no great shakes.
So I spent almost another year editing the book, I went through and I rewrote it. And then I edited it with my family and, fortunately for me, my family had some experience self-publishing a few small educational books that my mum had written, because my mum is a trained Montessori teacher. So when I dumped this big stack of papers on their desk, they said: ‘well maybe people will want to read this, let’s try and find out’. And that was the start of the journey.
Long answer to a short question, I know [laughs].
And the interesting thing I realised when researching is that if you hadn’t have been successful, you would have been in quite a bit of trouble. This wasn’t just a side venture you were trying as a pet project, this was really betting the farm on it.
Yeah, pretty much. My family has always done things in an unusual manner. None of us like to be employed by anyone else, we like to be self-employed. The problem is that back in the ‘90s in Montana… put it this way, Montana is pretty much the size of Germany and it only has under a million people in the whole state.
So to do any work, you usually end up having to drive long distances, and my parents didn’t want to split up the family, they didn’t want to be gone all the time away from us. They didn’t want to drive these long distances which, especially in our winter, can be quite dangerous. So we were always looking for things we could do together and, yeah, when I gave them Eragon, that was the thing we all decided ‘we could make this a family business’ and really concentrated on it. The downside of that was that, during the year we spent preparing the book for publication — because it wasn’t just the editing, it was formatting the book, it was designing the cover, working on posters so that we had promotional material to put in local businesses, bookstores and that sort of thing.
So during that time, my parents weren’t working on any other jobs that would have been bringing in additional income. Once we started taking Eragon on the road, if it had taken another 3–4 months to start turning a profit, we would have had to pretty much sell our house, move to a city and get jobs.
That makes for a great story after the facts, one of those things you read about and say ‘wow, what a great story’. But when you’re living through it, you have no guarantee that it’s going to turn out for the best.
Like you said, you worked on this series for over a decade, what was it like saying goodbye to that? I know you have said you will go back to it, but you still had to say goodbye, was that difficult?
Difficult, yes, is sort of to be expected. You spend a third of your life working on one thing, from fifteen to twenty eight, although it was longer than that between publication and the touring… it’s hard to let go, it gets deep in your brain. As a result, after I finished the series, it took me a year to cleanse it from my system. I actually wrote a bunch of short stories, I wrote a screenplay which wasn’t very good, but it was all very useful stuff that allowed me to work the style and the characters of the Inheritance cycle out of my system.
But even now I can’t stop thinking about the world or the characters. They’re like old friends, so I still occasionally wake up and think ‘hmm, I wonder what Saphira is up to’ or ‘wouldn’t it be cool if I did this with Angela?’ The itch is still there to go back and do some stuff with the world and characters.
What did you draw on when you first built Alagaësia [the fictional world in which the Inheritance Cycle is set]? What inspired you?
Well physically, the location where I live, I live in the mountains here. So that’s been a big inspiration. In terms of books, a lot of the usual suspects. I was a big fan of Tolkien of course, also David Eddings, Raymond Feist, Ursula Le Guin, Dune by Frank Herbert, The Gormenghast Trilogy by Mervyn Peake, The Worm Ouroboros by E.R. Eddison, Tad Williams, Lord Dunsany, Andre Norton, The Redwall Series by Brian Jacques… I could go on and on and on. Anne McCaffrey of course.
Specifically, there was one book that’s sort of responsible for Eragon, and that was Jeremy Thatcher Dragon Hatcher by Bruce Coville. It’s responsible because it gave me the idea of a young boy finding a dragon egg. His book is set in the real world, and of course mine isn’t, but I liked the idea and ran with it. I started asking myself questions like, ‘what sort of world would the dragon come from?’ and ‘who would find the dragon out in the middle of nowhere? How did the egg end up in the middle of nowhere?’ and so forth and so on.
And you’re probably going to be coy with this one, but equally, with your upcoming sci-fi book, were there texts that inspired you?
Sure, it is directly inspired by a sort of equal parts combination of Dune, Alien, Starship Troopers and the Hyperion series by Dan Simmons. So if I achieve even a small portion of any one of those in terms of import or artistic accomplishment, I’d be very happy.
Can you give us any little clues?
I’m getting really close to being able to talk about it in a more comprehensive manner, but all I can say is that it’s my attempt to write a love letter to science fiction in the same way that Eragon was a love letter to fantasy.
And it’s set in this world, in the future?
In the future, yeah. My sister and I have actually created this giant shared universe that encompasses the real world, but also the future and the past. Basically any stories that we write in the real world can be tied to this universe.
To do that, though, and this is why it’s taken me a bit longer, I had to spend — well I didn’t have to, I wanted to — I spent a year and a half almost creating a fairly comprehensive system of physics for this universe, which, and this is the important part, does not contradict physics as we know it.
I wanted certain things as a sci-fi writer to be able to tell the stories that I wanted to tell, however I didn’t want to do it in the way that most other sci-fi writers have done. In cases of ignoring the consequences of faster than light travel, for example, if you’re going to have faster than light travel.
So I was spending long and voluminous emails going back and forth with various physicists and rocket engineers trying to figure this out. And I’m very happy with what I did sort out, and the cool thing is that probably no one is actually going to notice what I did for the most part. It’s the sort of stuff that’s in the background of the book, but just like with a system of magic for a fantasy series, it’s what provides a framework for a lot of the events to hang on. If you don’t have that, you end up with arbitrary constraints that oftentimes end up allowing a looseness in the story that doesn’t give the sense of reality that you want.
I think in books often it’s the little details that are the best bits, because it just shows that level of care.
Yeah, I think for example one writer I really enjoy with that regard is Neil Stephenson, because he goes so far in that direction that I’ll be reading it going ‘wow, man you really thought that out.’
Going back to Eragon, that started out as a Young Adult book, and I feel the series matured as it went on. With your upcoming sci-fi book, what sort of age genre were you thinking, what kind of target audience, or just anyone?
Well I feel like anyone could read the book, but from a publishing standpoint, the main character is not under 18. So, technically, that’s all that publishers care about when they say ‘is it YA, or is it not YA?’
You could have a main character who is under 18, and have all the horrible things you want in your book, and it’s still considered a YA book.
I’m writing the book as the sort of adventure I would want to read. As to how appropriate it will be for different audiences, I think that’s just going to depend on how it turns out once I’ve finished editing.
What I do is, and I did this with Inheritance, I don’t censor myself when I write the first draft. I write the first draft, and anything that seems appropriate for the story, I put in the book. And then when I go back, I’ll read it and say ‘well, does this match the tone of the book? Does this accomplish what I’m trying to accomplish?’ Sometimes it does, and sometimes I’ll take it out.
This one’s a little bit more adult in that sense, I think.
And you’ve also said that it’s a shame to put so much effort and energy into creating these worlds and then just have one book.
Can we extrapolate from that?
Ohh… That’s a dangerous question. I think I’m just going to say ‘No comment’ for that one. But I will say that that’s an intelligent and perceptive conclusion to draw [laughs].
As we talked about, you started when you were very young. Have you changed as an author?
Yeah. When I started writing, I didn’t have the technical skills to do the sort of things that I wanted to do, and that was enormously frustrating. Also, because I was writing in the genre of fantasy and I grew up reading a lot of these books with amazing over-the-top language - like The Gormenghast Trilogy, or Tolkien, or many, many others - I was really tempted, and fell into the trap of, always pursuing ever more elaborate language. And I got out of that, I think Eldest was probably the worst with that, maybe a few parts of Brisingr.
But I got out of that later on, and I’ve really gotten out of that with my non-fantasy writing. I’ve really been pursuing a clean prose, hopefully it still sounds like me, but it’s nice to do something a little bit different.
Probably the biggest change is that when I started writing the series, if I wanted to accomplish a certain effect, let’s say I wanted to write a funny scene, or sad scene, or happy scene, I might have been able to do it. But if I did it, it would have been more likely to occur by chance than actual skill. Nowadays I feel much more confident in being able to accomplish what I actually am trying to accomplish.
But I guess the converse side is that there’s much more expectation, as you’re now this very established author.
True. I can’t really think about that too much because there’s nothing I can do about that. I mean, it’s a great position to be in, but if I worry about disappointing the fans I’m just going to drive myself insane. All I can do is write the best stories I can, and hopefully people will still enjoy reading them.
Eragon and the series, and even your house - which is famed for all its awesome dragon memorabilia and swords you have - show a strong interest in that type of fantasy. What was it that drew you to that world first? To dragons?
Well first off the easy answer is, ‘Because dragons are cool’. I was also very much interested in dinosaurs when I was growing up. So, if you like dinosaurs as a kid, dragons are an easy jump. They’re just dinosaurs that fly and breathe fire.
Probably though, seriously, I think the answer is three-fold.
1) Language: I love that fantasy novels do interesting things with language which, for whatever reason, I like that. It tickles some part of my brain when I come across an interesting word or poetic phrase. And fantasy tends toward that more than, say, a Tom Clancy novel (nothing against Tom Clancy since he is very accomplished with what he did, but it’s a different thing).
2) Growing up where I grew up, and living the lifestyle I did for many years, was not… I had more of a Tom Sawyer upbringing, let’s put it that way, than a city upbringing. And so, fantasy novels tend to be set outdoors, in pre-industrial civilisations, and even when they’re in cities, they’re not modern cities.
I related to that a lot more, because here were characters who were surviving, who were seeing these beautiful vistas out in amazing lands, and all I had to do was look out my window and I’d see these gigantic mountains with the sunlight streaming low across them in the autumn. Sometimes there’d be lightning between the peaks and it’d look like a dragon was about to fly out.
3) The third element, which might actually be the most important one, is that much of fantasy — not all of it, by any stretch of the imagination — deals with coming of age stories. 'Bildungsroman’, as they say. Everyone, assuming you live long enough, goes through adolescence — you’re either about to go through adolescence, or you’re going through it, or you’ve gone through it. It’s a universal experience that pretty much everyone can relate to. It really is the experience of going from someone who has very little personal power, to becoming an adult and gaining power, autonomy and independence in your life.
Fantasy stories tend to deal with that in both an explicit and implicit way. One of the great things about fantasy is that you can externalise things that otherwise would have been internalised. So if your character is afraid of spiders, in a fantasy novel they can run into a spider as big as a house.
For me, a lot of these books were guides on how to grow up, how to be a moral person, how to go on an adventure, how to become an adult. And I think also that’s one of the reasons why the Harry Potter novels have been so popular and The Lord of the Rings to a lesser degree, but many of the other big YA franchises like Twilight and The Hunger Games and that sort of thing. It’s not the only explanation for their popularity of course, but I do think it is one of the main ones.
Would you recommend self-publishing now? It’s very different from the days of Eragon.
Very different. The biggest difference nowadays of course are the iPads, Kindles and Nooks. And Amazon has allowed probably hundreds of thousands of people to self-publish their stuff with e-books. I don’t know, I think if you’re going to self-publish, you have to treat it with the same professionalism that you would if you were working with a regular publishing company. Try to put out the best possible product you can, because people will, rightly or wrongly, judge you on it, and they’ll compare you to the very best, most polished product that some big publishing house is putting out.
The most important thing if you are self-publishing is gaining the attention of your readers. And that is the hardest part. That means, maybe you have to go out and do promotional events. Maybe you have to do talks and presentations and interviews. And I know, as an author, that’s not necessarily what you want to be doing, you might want to just be writing.
No, no, writing tends to attract people who - not to stereotype, because there are exceptions - in many cases who, like me, enjoy curling up in the corner and not talking with a lot of people. And so, then they write a book and are told ‘you have to go stand in front of a bunch of people and entertain them’ and they’re going ‘What?! No, this isn’t what I signed up for’.
But it is part of the job, and learning to do it well, and enjoy it, will help gain the attention that your writing hopefully deserves. None of us are writing books just to stick them in a safe somewhere, well Salinger was [laughs], but you want an audience.
The thing is, publicity alone will not make a book, people have to want to read the book. But they’ll never find out about it if you don’t get the word out.
You mentioned that you have to be prepared for criticism. What is that like? No matter how successful you are - in fact the more successful you get - there will always be people that criticise you. Is that difficult?
I think it’s harder actually when you are less successful, because when you’re less successful, like when I was starting out and stuff, if you get criticised it can cause you a lot more harm. If you get a couple of bad reviews on Amazon or something, it could seriously affect your sales.
When you get really successful, you have to kinda accept it as part of the territory. There is no way to be a successful writer and not have some portion of readers who really don’t like your work. It was quite liberating to realise that, that it doesn’t matter how good you are, someone somewhere is going to hate what you wrote.
There are people who don’t like Dickens, and Tolstoy and Jane Austen. And I can’t stand ‘Wuthering Heights’ [laughs]. But, that doesn’t mean the writer is a bad person, it doesn’t mean that the book itself is necessarily bad. It means that there are some people for whom that book is not something that they enjoy. And it is hard to accept that, it is hard to let go of that, mainly because I think writers pour so much of their personality and heart and soul into the books.
I’ve met, I can’t tell you how many actors and writers and other public personalities that I’ve met, and pretty much everybody that’s been in the industry more than a few years will tell you that they never read reviews of their work, that they never read interviews that they’ve been in, or watch themselves, or listen to themselves on the radio. Because if you do, you will go insane.
[Laughs] And final question, you mentioned that you wrote that screenplay. Is that something that you’re interesting in doing more?
It is, but my bread and butter really is the books, and screenplays take a different set of skills than writing books, and I have spent a very long time honing my skills writing books. So I don’t really want to walk away from that entirely.
That said, I always wanted to make movies. Eragon started off as a movie idea rather than a book idea. So it’s something that I may pursue in the future.
Unfortunately there’s a limited amount of time in each day, and it’s a balancing act. I’ll say this: who knows?
And final, final question: What are you reading at the moment?
I’m actually reading a pre-release copy by Bruce Coville that got sent to me for a blurb, and I’m enjoying it at the moment. And I’m reading one of the 44 Scotland Street books by Alexander McCall Smith. I’m working my way through a compendium of HP Lovecraft’s short stories, up until the beginning of this year, I hadn’t really read any of them. And I got this book on the history of scientific discoveries. So I tend to have a number of books at any given moment, to keep myself entertained.
Okay brilliant, thank you so much, and I can’t wait to hear about your sci-fi book.
Thank you, I’m very excited about the sci-fi book, I don’t know what sort of reception it will get because it’s a different kind of book, it’s not as warm and cuddly as the Inheritance Cycle perhaps. But I’m very pleased with it so far, very proud of it, and I’m very excited to find out what people are going to think of it. Excited/terrified.
And with that, thank you again.
My pleasure, thank you, and I would just say to any young person who wants to write or loves reading and is thinking about writing - don’t give up, that’s the main thing. There are plenty of talented writers who’ve never produced anything because they gave up, so be persistent, keep reading and I’m sure you’ll get where you want to go.
That’s my excuse, I’m just a talented writer who gave up.
[Laughs] We all are some days.
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Interview conducted by Sebastian Moss, published 13th October 2015. Updated by Emily Pye.