Teen author wins readers book by book
A lot of writers prefer to remain above the actual business of selling books. Christopher Paolini is not numbered among those. In fact, the young author has gone to great personal lengths to get his book into the hands of as many people as possible.
Take the time he arm-wrestled a Montana farmhand at an outdoor festival in Livingston.
"Fantasy wasn't his thing. Actually, I don't think reading was his thing," Paolini says. So he threw down his challenge. "We cleared off the table right there in the middle of the park. He was 6 ft. something, and I'm 5 ft., 8 in., and I ended up beating him."
Another copy sold.
This kind of take-charge entrepreneurial spirit helped Paolini and his parents, who published the book for him, sell about 10,000 copies of his fantasy epic "Eragon." As if writing around 500 pages about a 15-year-old who discovers a dragon's egg wasn't enough, Paolini designed the cover art and drew the illustrated map of his kingdom, marketed the book, and acted as chief salesman. And the 19-year-old did it all by the time most teens are filling out freshman orientation packets for college.
Paolini started writing "Eragon" when he was 15 - the same year he got his GED. He didn't want to go to college right away, and the nearest town to his family's farmhouse is 18 miles away. "So there was not a whole lot ... to take up big chunks of my time," he says. "I decided to try to write a story I would enjoy reading." For Paolini, who admires authors like Mervyn Peake, Philip Pullman, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Octavia Butler, that meant fantasy.
He worked a year on the first draft - and was less than impressed by the results. "I know what a book is supposed to read like, and this wasn't it," he says. Draft No. 2 took another year, at which point his parents, who own a small publishing firm, helped him edit the book.
Around that time, Paolini had to make a choice. He had been accepted on a full scholarship to Reed College in Portland, Ore. "I literally had the orientation papers on my desk," he says.
Instead of moving into a dorm, he and his parents took "Eragon" on the road.
Paolini made more than 130 presentations at bookstores, schools, libraries, and fairs around the United States - dressed in leather lace-up boots, black pantaloons, a red swordsman's shirt, and a black beret. "The first time I spoke in public was [at] my local high school, which I never attended," says Paolini, who was home-schooled by his mom. "I find out they're going to cycle the whole school through in three batches. It's a farming community and there are all these ranchers' sons, and there I am standing on stage in medieval costume. I was petrified."
After about a year on the road, public speaking held few terrors and Paolini had picked up a new hobby on the long car rides: making chainmail - a process he says involves galvanized fencing wire, metal snips, and a lot of patience.
But the book's success was becoming logistically overwhelming for the family. And Paolini was so busy selling Book 1, he wasn't making much headway on Book 2, "Eldest."
"In 2002, I literally only got 60 pages written," he says. "I've been working on the trilogy already for about five years. I do kind of want to get it out of my system."
As it happened, one of those 10,000 copies the Paolinis had sold landed in the hands of Carl Hiaasen's stepson, when the family was vacationing in Montana. Hiaasen, author of "Striptease" and the Newbery-winning "Hoot," called his editor at Alfred A. Knopf and suggested the firm might want to take a look.
It did, and at the end of this month, a newly edited hardcover edition of "Eragon" hits bookstores. The first printing is more than 100,000 copies. Paolini's original drawing is no longer on the cover, but he doesn't sound terribly upset. The new cover was designed by John Jude Palencar, an artist Paolini admired so much he named Eragon's home, Palancar Valley, after him.
Paolini's own home of Paradise Valley - and the Beartooth Mountains - served as a model for his book. But Paolini says there's only one character that he drew from real life: Angela the herbalist, the funniest and warmest of his female characters. Paolini, as it happens, has a younger sister, Angela, who he says knows the Latin names of all the plants in their valley. She got her GED at 14. "She was determined to beat what I did," says Paolini.
"I put her in as a joke," he adds. But "her appearance ended up giving me the solution for the entire story arc."
The real Angela, now 17, has returned the favor, he says, installing him as a character in her first fantasy novel. In fact, all the Paolinis are working on books. "We all have computers and sit in our rooms typing all day," says Paolini, who, while he doesn't see college in his immediate future, listens to university lectures from The Teaching Co. "We come down to dinner, watch a movie or something, and then go back up."
So far, aside from plush advances, covers designed by his artistic heroes, and opportunities to talk to authors like Mr. Pullman and Tamora Pierce, Paolini says life has actually gotten quieter since his deal with Knopf. But that's only until the end of this month. After that, Paolini goes back on tour.
This time, though, he says, "I won't be in costume."