This is part 1 of a 3-part series in which Vocal interviewed world-famous fantasy author Christopher Paolini. In our interview with Christopher, we talked childhood, Montana, writing, and of course, fantasy and sci fi. It was a joy and education to speak with Christopher and we hope you enjoy his stories, thoughts and advice as much as we did.
Remember to check out Christopher Paolini's Fantasy Fiction Challenge closing November 8th.
Vocal (V): One of the challenges we wrapped recently was called Dads Are No Joke. The prompt was to tell a story about your dad. I thought I’d start by asking if you have any stories that come to mind about your father or a father figure.
Christopher Paolini (CP): My dad’s a badass. You know kids will say “My dad will beat up your dad,” and for most of my childhood, I was absolutely convinced that was true, and I’m still pretty convinced that was true. My dad is one of the most interesting people and one of the most determined people I’ve ever met. He reads widely and he thinks deeply.
I remember one time, we lived on the banks of the Yellowstone River in the state of Montana, and the Yellowstone River comes out of Yellowstone Park, and goes through Montana and then goes down, joins up with the Mississippi River, I think, and ends up heading down to the Gulf of Mexico. So it’s a very long river, actually. But we lived right on the banks of the river, and I got into my head to walk across the river during the height of summer when the water level was at its lowest, because all the snow had melted off the mountains. So I just kept wading out onto the rocks, wading out further and further into the stream, and eventually I got more than half-way across, and then I just kind of went for it, and I kind of floated and half-walked across to the other side of the river.
So there I was on the other side of the river, looking back at our house, trying to figure out how the heck I was going to get back, and at first, it didn’t seem like it was going to be a big problem, but what I didn’t realize is that the river went around a bend by our house, and so the opposite side of the river had dug out the riverbed and the bank and so it was much, much deeper than by our house. So I kind of dipped my toe in the water and realized that I’d be plunging myself into this raging torrent that was quite a bit deeper than I was used to.
And so I hollered for my parents: “Help, help! I’m stuck!” and I was thinking my dad was going to go get the car or something, and, you know, drive around, go to the next bridge and come around the other side of the river. No, no: what my dad did is, he went into our basement and pulled out his old surfboard from when he lived in Hawaii, and he jumped onto the river on the surfboard and came across the river, put me on the surfboard and hauled me back. And I will never forget the sight of a man on a surfboard on the Yellowstone River in Montana, hauling his son across the river!
V: That reminds me so much of so many things that happened in my childhood, as well. One time, I also had a steep bank on the river incident where my friend slid all the way down the bank – I had to take the belt off my pants to throw him an end of the belt and haul him hand-over-hand back up the bank. So I understand that conundrum: those steep, slippery mud banks are unpassable sometimes.
The other challenge we closed recently was called Summer Camp: it was very light-hearted, but we were asking creators to write a light-hearted essay or an argument, telling us about your favorite, most iconic summer dish. What is the food that you look forward to eating the most in summertime? Are you a hotdogs on the grill kind of guy, bowl of fruits, what’s the thing you look forward to about summer cuisine?
CP: The first thing that jumps to mind is remembering all the fresh fruit and vegetables that my family and I grew when I was a child. We had several very large gardens and in the summertime, we would have fresh carrots and sometimes corn, and tomatoes and all sorts of other stuff. There’s just nothing like the taste of fruit and vegetables that you get right out of your own garden, when it’s warm from the sun and it’s perfectly ripe. So I guess fresh produce is what jumps to mind, and I think someone could get that experience going to a farmers’ market in the summer and getting some locally grown produce.
V: We had berry bushes, so for me, it’s picking and eating berries straight from the bush.
CP: We don’t have too many berries in Montana. We have what are known as huckleberries, and huckleberries are similar to blueberries, but they’re smaller and the flavour’s more intense. It’s like – oh, I like this analogy! – the difference between blueberries and huckleberries is like the difference between the colour blue and the colour purple. But the thing is that huckleberries can’t be farmed, because they are very, very short little bushy plants and they live on the forest floor, so they like to be under trees, and that particular combination of low light, a forest environment, high altitude, means that basically you can’t farm them. So, all the huckleberry jam and sauce and other things that sometimes you see, all of it’s been gathered by hand, which is why I have never eaten my fill of huckleberries!
V: They’re native to the Midwest, Midwest-South. We don’t have huckleberries where I’m from, in Pennsylvania, I don’t think.
CP: The Northern/Northwestern part of the United States, yeah.
V: What’s a ridiculous purchase you’ve made that you can’t justify?
CP: I’m looking at it right now! I bought myself a ridiculously nice handmade Damascus hand and a half pseudo-Viking sword a number of years ago.
The first third of the blade on each side is covered with engraving, the metal itself is dark grey, it has this amazing pattern in the metal, it looks like woodgrain almost. It was a complete splurge: I have no reason to need this beautiful sword, I have never been attacked by Vikings, I have no intention of attacking Vikings, and yet I have this beautiful sword. And if I were ever to go into battle with a sword, that would be the weapon I would use.
I got it for myself because I felt that as a fantasy author, I kind of should have not a sword-like object, which is what most replicas are these days, but an actual real sword. So I found, on one of my trips to New York City, the only custom knife store that existed in New York City, and they’ve shuttered their doors these days because the property prices are too expensive, but back then, it was the only knife store in New York City, and it was filled with the most amazing odd knives from around the world, and they ranged in price from 20 bucks to $10,000 or more, covered in gems, that sort of thing. And that’s where I found this particular Viking sword.
V: Well, sometimes you just have to be prepared to go into war with Vikings, and sounds like you are well-prepared for that day.
CP: And even better, I have a shield that a fan gave me, which has the standard of the Varden, which is the rebellious group in the Inheritance Cycle, this fan made the shield with that standard on the shield, so I have a perfectly good shield on one hand, I’ve got this sword in the other: I think I’m good.
V: I know you’re very active on social media with your fans and your community. Do you get a lot of gifts and is that something that’s common? This seems like a very special thing, that they made this shield for you.
CP: I do. My fans are incredibly thoughtful. Hanging in my office, I actually have a replica of Eragon’s first sword, Zar’roc, that the fans pulled together a bunch of money and had made for my birthday back in, I want to say this was 2004, 2005, something like that. I have lots of little mementos that fans have given me over the years, and I keep all of them, or as many as I can, because they mean a lot to me, because they meant something to the person giving them to me.
But, like I said, I have a great relationship with my readership, and that’s been nice to have over the years. One of the coolest things someone ever gave me was actually an ostrich egg that they had carved so that it looked like Saphira the dragon was cracking out of it. And then someone gave me an emu egg, carved in a similar fashion, both on the same book tour.
V: So fans just walk up to you after a tour and just present you with these gifts?
CP: Usually during the book signings. I’m signing a book and someone will hand me something. It wasn’t a gift, but one of the ones that really stands out was where this woman asked me to sign her arm with a Sharpie, and then she showed up at my event the next day and she’d had my signature tattooed on her arm. That was a unique experience.
CP: Committed, exactly. I always wondered what her boyfriend or significant other thought of that. Although there is a woman up in Canada who is a tattoo artist, and she posted this a while back: she got a life-sized portrait of me, of my face, tattooed on her thigh, in full colour. Words kind of fail you at that point! Mind you, that was pre-beard, so I don’t know if she’s going to add the beard on or not.
V: That would be so funny, if you get an update someday: I’m keeping this portrait up to date with your physical appearance, I have added a beard. As you age; I have added in some wrinkles. That’s funny. Along those lines, writing is such a solitary endeavour for the most part, right, but what do you think is the importance of community in writing, both as an author with your readership and obviously Vocals community, our whole shtick is building community around these different genres of writing.
CP: Community is incredibly important, which is why I’m participating in this writing contest with Vocal. Because the act of writing – and reading – is so solitary, making connections with other people in that world and in that community becomes all the more crucial. Back in the day, before the Coronavirus, that’s why I would go to conventions: both to meet my readers, but also to hang out with my colleagues, and just to talk about the craft of writing and the experience of being an author and what it’s like to travel around and do this and do that.
And historically you see this, where there would be pockets of all these famous writers who would end up in one place or another during certain historical periods, like Paris after World War Two, with Hemingway and so many other authors. And that’s important, and it’s hard to get these days. The Internet helps bridge that gap, but there really is no substitute for sitting across the table from someone and just talking for hours and hashing things out.
So it’s something that I would like more of, but it is difficult to get, especially since, by temperament, authors tend to be a little more on the introverted side and, as such, it takes a lot to pry us out of our offices and get us to go stand in front of people and be sociable.
I would not have had the success I’ve had without other authors helping me and supporting me, both in giving me feedback on Aragon before it was published by Random House, and then also after I was actually published by Random House. The first convention I ever did was Comic-Con in San Diego, and I was 19, maybe, and I remember I was on a panel with Terry Brooks, and he just took me under his wing and gave me some of the best advice, and that was helpful, that was so helpful. And there have been a number of people in the industry like that. I would hope that I can give back in the same way as those people did for me.
V: Do you still have any kind of writing group that you meet with regularly to bounce ideas off of? What does your network look like?
CP: So my family have always been my first readers, my family, my assistants, my agent and editor, those are my first-round readers. I don’t have very many people outside of that that are a reading/writing circle and, again, I would love to have that, but it just hasn’t worked out. I live in a very isolated area, so it just hasn’t been something that’s been practical. Part of it has been I haven’t put the energy into that because the writing and my career takes so much energy, it’s hard to find extra. But I think it’s incredibly useful for those who have it, and I essentially have that with my family and my close circle. And it’s very useful, because you just cannot see your own work the way other people see it.
V: What’s a scene from a book you’ve read that will always live in your mind, rent-free? Maybe it was when you were younger, something that inspired you to first take up the pen, or is it something you’ve read more recently.
CP: That’s a good question! There are a lot. I loved – I haven’t read it in years, so I’m going off memory here – I loved in the Appendix for The Return of the King, when Tolkien tells us the story of what happens to Aragorn and Arwen after the events of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and I thought it was a very touching and beautiful little short story, one of the more beautiful things he’s written. I remember bits from the Wizard of Earthsea trilogy, especially the last book, The Furthest Shore, when Ged is travelling into the land of the dead, and it’s rather intense and, again, beautifully written.
Lots of scenes from Ursula K. Le Guin, I’m having difficulty picking any one scene, though, because so many have influenced me. For the Inheritance Cycle, there was a book called Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher, by Bruce Coville, and it’s a lovely young adult book about a young man in the real world who goes into this antique shop and finds a stone that he buys, and of course that stone ends up being a dragon egg, and a dragon hatches for him. That had an effect on me, and that’s why I wrote the Inheritance Cycle, because I became obsessed with that idea of a boy finding a dragon egg.
V: I remember reading about you being influenced by that story in another interview, but that makes me think of something else that I read: you said that inspiration only strikes once every blue moon, and that you have to be ready to take advantage of that white-hot creative intensity that can be fleeting. How does someone who doesn’t have the luxury of being a full-time writer replicate the success of someone who has a lot more flexibility and can just live to wait for those moments? So many members in our community, they do this not even part time, less than part time, because they have so much going on. How do you take advantage of that inspiration strike?
CP: Well, the point of that story when I told it was that you shouldn’t wait for inspiration: it’s nice when it happens, but you can’t wait for it, because it happens too infrequently. And, by the way, scientifically, a blue moon happens about once every three months, so maybe that’ll give some people hope. But as far as how to do this part time, I’m probably a bad person to ask, because I’ve been doing this full time since I was a teenager, and I don’t have a lot of experience outside of that. However, it is true that most writers are only really productive for a short period during the day, and a lot of the work is getting yourself to that point of being productive. So you have to do your emails, you’ve got to have breakfast, you’ve got to do this, you’ve got to do that, and then finally, you get to the right moment, and hopefully you have a stretch of time undisturbed so you can sink into the work and do what you need to. But you might do the bulk of your daily work in two or three hours, all things considered, maybe less: depends how fast you think, how well you’ve planned things out and how fast you type.
I have had times in my life, like when I’m book-touring or when I’m travelling and doing other things, when I haven’t had my usual writing time, so I spend a lot of time during the day pre-planning in my head, so that when I actually sit down at the computer or pad of paper, I’m able to write fairly clean first-draft prose and just run through the scenes fairly quickly.
And having those sorts of breaks, having a time limit for how much time you can actually write, is not necessarily a bad thing, as long as you know what you want to say and as long as you have time to do the pre-planning work. And a lot of that can just be day-dreaming: you’re falling asleep, you’re sitting on the bus, you’re doing this, you’re doing that, you can do some of that work in your head, then, when you sit down to write, you should be able to be fairly productive.
And a large part of that, again, goes to how much you’ve plotted out, how much you’ve worked out what you need to actually do. If I have, as an example, the plot of a story fully worked out, no gaps, I know it’s good, it’s fully worked out, the writing itself is not that big of a deal, all things considered. It’s still challenging, it’s still work, but it’s not that big of a deal. Same thing for writing a screenplay: if you have the story fully mapped out, writing the screenplay is the matter of a week, if that: it’s a couple of days if you’re really blasting away at it. But it’s that structure.
Plotting is to writing what – OK, in the film industry, for example, film and television – plotting is to writing what writing is for everyone else in the industry. So you can’t make a TV show or a film without a script, and that script hopefully is good, but you can’t write the script itself without the plan for the script.
V: So you don’t subscribe to the – I think it’s called pantsing – where you just kind of make it up as you go: that’s not an effective strategy for creating a long-form story.
CP: It can be. I’m not going to say that you shouldn’t do it, because it works for some people. But it works mostly if you’re willing to … basically do draft after draft and find what you are trying to say through the process of resaying it and repeatedly revising. I find revision far more mentally taxing than actually writing, partly because – and this may be true for most people – once you’ve written something, it sets down a preconceived notion of what this project should be, how these characters act, what they say, what they do. To then change that means changing the patterns in your brain, and the longer you work on a project, the more ingrained those patterns become.
So, if you enjoy that process and if you enjoy, again, having the characters talk to each other and interact without necessarily a rigid plan for where they should be going, then go for it. But the larger your project and the more speculative it is, the more difficult that can be. If you’re creating a world from scratch and you have all these pieces that have to tie together, some pre-planning can really save you some heartache down the road, especially when you have things like magic or, with science fiction, technology that changes what is actually possible in your world. You don’t want to get 500 pages into your book and suddenly realise that, “Hey, the magic I’ve created means that they could actually do x, y, z and that invalidates the rest of my story”. You don’t want that sort of thing to happen.
So at the very least, knowing what makes you world different from the real world, if anything, and how that makes what the characters do and how that affects what the characters can or can’t do, those to me are basic questions that, if they are not answered, represent a problem for the story.
Stay tuned for the next 2 parts of the interview and remember to check out the exclusive Vocal Challenge here.
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