When Christopher Paolini walks on the high school stage for his book signing appearance, wearing jeans and carrying a black backpack, he could be mistaken for a student. But he gets a rock star reception from his fans, with wild cheers and flashing cameras.
Paolini, just 21, is the author of two best-selling fantasy epics aimed at children — “Eragon” and the new best seller “Eldest.” He’s under contract to write the third book of what is called his “Inheritance Trilogy,” and a movie version of “Eragon” is currently filming in Hungary, starring John Malkovich and Jeremy Irons.
Not bad for a project Paolini began when he was just 15.
Paolini was homeschooled in Montana for most of his life by his parents, although he earned his diploma at age 15 from a correspondence high school. His parents thought he was too young to start college, and so he took up a hobby — writing “Eragon,” the story of a boy and a dragon.
Paolini’s family self-published “Eragon” in 2002 before it captivated a young stepson of author Carl Hiassen, who brought the book to the attention of his publisher. “Eragon” was republished in 2003 by Random House’s Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers, which also acquired the rights to the rest of the series.
Now, Paolini doubts he’ll ever attend college.
“To be honest about it, I make my living right now writing down my daydreams, which is a wonderful job. As far as I’m concerned, it’s the best job in the world,” he said during an interview in a Chicago hotel before his appearance in suburban Naperville.
Paolini has short dark hair and wears wire-rimmed glasses, and while he looks younger than 21, he speaks with the thoughtfulness and vocabulary of a college professor.
Still, like many technology-loving young men, he excitedly discusses Chicago’s mammoth Apple store and confesses to playing the computer game “Jedi Knight.” (In fact, when a player unwittingly took the name of Eragon and then defeated Paolini, a screen message told him, “You have been killed by Eragon.”)
Stellar salesPaolini’s books tell the journey of a poor farm boy who finds a polished blue stone that hatches into a dragon. Able to communicate telepathically, Eragon and the dragon Saphira embark on an adventure to free those suffering under the evil King Galbatorix.
Some reviewers have accused Paolini’s “hero on a quest” plot line and characters that include dwarfs and elves of being derivative of fantasy classics such as “The Lord of the Rings.” But such criticism has done nothing to keep the book from flying off the shelves.
In its first week of release last month, “Eldest” sold more than 425,000 hardcover copies, making it the biggest single-week sale ever recorded for a Random House Children’s Books title, according to the publisher. There are 1.8 million copies in print.
“Eldest” has topped The New York Times’ best-seller list for children’s chapter books since it was released, and is No. 1 on The Wall Street Journal and USA Today fiction charts. “Eragon,” which has sold 2.5 million copies, currently tops the Times’ paperback list of best sellers for children.
Such literary success, coupled with the movie, has inspired talk of J.K. Rowling and her Harry Potter series.
“I’m flattered to be compared to (J.K.) Rowling because I think she’s done an incredible amount for readers and fantasy. I’m a huge fan of hers,” Paolini says. “But the story and the world that I write about is completely different from Hogwarts and present-day Britain.”
Michelle Frey, Paolini’s editor at Random House, said she knew that buying a trilogy from such a young author would be seen as a risk, but reading “Eragon” she fell in love with the story and Paolini’s writing.
“Every time you buy a book it’s a risk,” she said. “But we were so confident in his writing and his skills, and speaking with him we were so impressed with his intelligence and his level of maturity that we felt really confident it was going to be a terrific adventure.”
Despite his age, Frey said that working with Paolini was like editing any other author — each brings a different style to the process. Although, she said that Paolini is open to changes and eager to hone his craft.
Paolini is currently on a 24-city book tour; many of the events are being held in high school auditoriums or performing arts centers because he attracts so many people. Paolini has stayed more than four hours at some events to make sure every book gets signed — he shows off the dozens of special pens he keeps in his backpack for inking his name.
It’s quite a different tour than the one on which he embarked in 2002 when he and his parents were promoting the self-published “Eragon.” To get attention, he recounts with horror his costume for presentations at libraries and schools — lace-up leather boots, black pantaloons, a billowy shirt and a black beret.
He chose more casual attire of jeans and a long-sleeved red shirt for a recent appearance in this suburb west of Chicago. He drew 800 fans to the Naperville Central High School auditorium, including 11-year-old Stanley Yuan, who said he can’t wait to devour each chapter in Paolini’s books.
“I was reading ’Eldest’ at 10:30 on a school night, and I was like, ’Oh, must go to sleep. But I must read more!”’ Stanley said.
His best friend, Aadi Tolappa, said he thinks it is “really cool” that Paolini started writing the books when he was just three years older than Tolappa is now.
“It makes you want to keep reading because of how it ends each chapter pretty suspensefully,” said Aadi, carrying both “Eldest” and “Eragon” to have signed.
‘A way of interpreting the real world’Parents in the audience loved Paolini, too. In between making jokes about dwarfs and answering questions about plot points, Paolini repeatedly referenced advice his mother gave him and thanked his parents for their support. He still lives with his parents and younger sister Angela in Montana’s Paradise Valley, near the Beartooth Mountains; he thinks both his experience of being homeschooled and where he was raised have influenced him immensely.
“If I had lived in a city, I know I would have written a different kind of fantasy, if it was fantasy at all. ... By basing some of the landscape in my imaginary world on our real world, the one near the place where I grew up, it’s a way of writing about nature in an indirect way and describing the beauties of the place (where) I live.”
Paolini has written just the first sentence of the final book in his trilogy — the title hasn’t been chosen yet — but he’s always known how the story would end ever since he spent a month outlining the trilogy’s plot as a 15-year-old.
He expects to have a long career as a writer, and is grateful that he was allowed to discover his passion. Despite making his name as a fantasy writer, he does not expect all of his work to be in the genre.
“I think good fantasy is a way of interpreting the real world — that it talks about archetypal issues that apply to any time or any place or any people,” he says. “I do have other stories I want to write, not all of which are in fantasy. Once I finish the trilogy, I’ll have to figure out which story to dive into next.”