When Christopher Paolini enters the pine forests of the rugged Absaroka mountains, he passes into the fantasy world of Alagaesia — the setting of his popular "Inheritance" series of children's books.
"That's Emigrant Peak. I climbed that one," Paolini says, pointing to a triangular spire.
The rocky, snowcapped mountain towers over Montana's Paradise Valley, where the 24-year-old with a mop of dark hair and a passing resemblance to Harry Potter lives alone with his parents. Readers might recognize it as inspiration for Alagaesia's Tronjheim, a mile-high, underground peak that figures prominently in Paolini's stories.
"For 'Eragon,' I took these mountains and jacked them up a bit," he says of his first book. "When the clouds touch the top of the mountains, the scale changes and they literally look twice as big."
Leading up to this weekend's debut of his series' latest installment, "Brisingr," the author recently hiked into the Absarokas (ab-SORE-kas) to soak up a last bit of Montana sunshine. A monthlong, 10-city book tour awaited that would separate him from the valley where he's spent most of his life.
"I need to get sunlight while I can," Paolini says, adding his book tours leave him longing for the solitude of the Paradise Valley.
The "Inheritance" series chronicles the adventures of Eragon, a young boy whose discovery of a blue dragon egg launches him onto a quest as a Dragon Rider, destined to battle the evil Empire.
Paolini was just 15 when he started writing the first book — the same age as its namesake hero. His parents helped him edit and polish the story and then self-published the work before it was picked up by Random House.
Despite mixed reviews, "Eragon" and the second book, "Eldest," have sold 15.5 million copies. "Brisingr" will have a first press run of 2.5 million books — the largest ever for Random House's children's books division, according to the publisher. It will be printed in 50 languages.
In 2006, 20th Century Fox released an "Eragon" movie, a widely panned production that nevertheless grossed an estimated $170 million worldwide.
Riding high on the series' success, the Paolinis moved into a larger house in the Paradise Valley about three years ago. The sprawling residence, at the end of a winding gravel road, sits upon a stark, sagebrush covered hillside, where vultures can be seen tracing endless circles in the midday heat.
Notwithstanding his legions of fans, Paolini remains firmly ensconced in the family life he credits with launching his career. The house has a separate wing where the author sleeps and works, and he has no plans to move.
"I just need a few square feet to sleep in, a quiet place to write, a place to do exercise and good food," he says. "And I've got good food here."
Paolini is intensely private about his personal life. In interviews and on book tours, he holds tight to details such as where his younger sister attends college, whether he is involved in a romantic relationship and how his family ended up in the Paradise Valley two decades ago.
"I don't talk about my private life," he says.
Growing up under the tutelage of his parents, Ken and Talita, Paolini had only infrequent contact with children other than his only sibling, Angela, now 22. His parents shared in teaching the children in their early years, then turned to a distance learning program, the American School, for their high school studies.
Within a year of graduating at 15, an age when most kids are plodding through their second year of high school, Paolini finished "Eragon." He was soon touring the country with his parents to self-promote the book.
"I grew up accustomed to interacting with adults," he says. "A lot of kids get traumatized in school and get beat down for being different. When I went out in public, I was not afraid. I was never afraid to pursue my interests because of what other people would think."
With his dark hair, glasses and boyish face, comparisons between Paolini and J.K. Rowling's boy wizard are frequent. But this boy prodigy is no longer a child; he has the thin whiskers of early manhood and is eager to dispel the notion that his writing is the stuff of boys, too.
With "Brisingr," he tried to streamline his prose, using fewer adverbs to let the action speak for itself. He also says he experimented with new points of view, including several chapters told through the eyes of Saphira, Eragon's dragon companion.
Standing about five feet eight inches tall, Paolini sports the athletic shoulders of an exercise devotee and is prone to sudden bursts of energy. During his recent hike in the mountains, he scaled an eight-foot-tall trailhead sign and balanced atop it while talking about his writing.
Still, his chalky skin betrays the significant time he spends indoors, fine-tuning his craft.
Seven days a week, he writes of swords and magic, elves and hideous Urgal monsters. After rising in the morning, he settles into a corner nook in his office, surrounded by bookshelves, replica swords and statuettes of dragons wrought from glass, ceramic and pewter.
While most of the writing is done on a laptop computer, about a third of "Brisingr" was written longhand, with a dip ink pen on thick parchment paper.
Paolini also produced the iconic dragon's eye drawing at the front of each of his books. While drawing, he listens to self-paced college courses on an iPod. "I think it's an economics course now," he says.
His hobbies revolve around the fantasy world he's created. They include making chain mail, a flexible medieval armor composed of interlocking metal rings. Paolini crafts the rings by wrapping lengths of fencing wire around a wooden rod, then cutting the coil into individual circles. Pliers are used to hook the pieces together. It is a painstaking process.
"Making chain mail and woodworking are not the things everybody in this country is doing, but I don't care," he says. "It's something I like and I put it to use."
As he heads out the door for his hike in the Absarokas, Talita Paolini makes sure her son is prepared. Over his objections, she gives him a bottle of water and a bag of mixed nuts. "Got to feed the beast," she says.
On the trail, the young author walks briskly, wearing a pair of flip-flops and carrying a wooden staff. He talks of how the grizzly bears and wolves that roam Montana's mountains shaped his books' "unsentimental" view of nature, where death by sword or monster comes at a moment's notice.
"I might have written fantasy if I grew up in New York, but it would have been a different fantasy," he says.
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