This is part 3 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): Was it more challenging to write your science fiction novel To Sleep in a Sea of Stars, since science fiction relies more on knowledge and research than simply imagination? Did it require more planning than writing the Inheritance Cycle? What was your experience jumping from fantasy to sci fi?
Christopher Paolini (CP): Writing science fiction is only as difficult as you want to make it. So I, of course, ended up making it pretty hard for myself! The only real restriction is how real you want to make it. So, how real do you want your setting to feel? If you don’t care about realistic space ships or realistic travel times or realistic difficulties in terms of actually existing off this planet, then writing science fiction is no more difficult than writing fantasy. In Star Wars, being a great example, the writers are not really worried about those sorts of things.
In my case, because To Sleep in a Sea of Stars is set in our potential future, it needed to take into account all of physics as we know it, so I did a lot of research to learn how space ships might function, and what would and wouldn’t be possible, and then I had my leap of faith, my jump of imagination, which was my faster-than-light travel, and how that might work, again, in a realistic setting. And that was an incredibly difficult thing to come up with, because I wanted a technology for my faster-than-light travel that hadn’t been used by some other science fiction franchise, that didn’t contradict physics as we know it, and that didn’t allow for time travel, because physics as we know it tells us that if you travel faster than the speed of light, you automatically have a time machine. And I have nothing against time travel as a story telling device, but I didn’t want all of my space ships to also be time machines – at least, backward-travelling time machines.
So, to figure that out took about a year and a half of research, and I talked with experts and reached out to a lot of people, and I ended up finding a guy by the name of Greg Meholic who actually is helping develop nuclear propulsion for NASA, and he and a number of other guys have come up with this theory it gave me what I needed. And to be clear, their theory has no evidence backing it up, but it’s not disproved, either. But it was unique, gave me what I needed, and that was really helpful. But I spent a lot of time thinking about travel times, physical constraints of the science fiction, how do you defend against lasers, how do you defend against missiles, whether or not true artificial intelligence would be possible, all sorts of things.
The biggest thing I found, in terms of the difference between sci-fi and fantasy was – oh, also, science fiction, I can use a modern vocabulary, which was nice – but the biggest difference was that machines have much less wiggle room than animals or humans, or other living creatures. If I were writing an Inheritance Cycle and I needed Eragon to go from Point A to Point B a little faster than maybe would be realistic, I could always say that he just pushed himself harder or he pushed his horse harder, or Saphira flew a little bit faster, and there’s enough wiggle room with living creatures that that’s sometimes believable. People and creatures are capable of amazing feats when necessary. But, when it comes to space ships or cars or other pieces of technology, there are hard limits. If you have a car that can go 120 miles an hour top speed, you are not pushing that to 200 miles an hour unless you radically alter it. And the same thing’s true of space ships: unless you’re pulling magic tech out of your back pocket, your space ship can do a certain speed and it has a certain amount of propellant and a certain amount of fuel, and those are your hard constraints.
Taking that into account gave me some headaches when plotting the story, but it also gave me new opportunities, and that’s what I’ve really found over the years, it’s easy to come up against a problem and try to hand-wave it away because you feel like it’s interfering with the story you want to tell. And that’s a natural urge; it’s an understandable urge. But so many times, I personally have forced myself to not ignore the issue and ended up with something that was much better as a result. Like with the FTL, most sci-fi franchises hand-wave the time travel question and just ignore it, and I could have done that, but I felt like by not ignoring it, I was going to end up somewhere interesting as far as developing my world, and that proved to be the case.
Same thing in the Inheritance Cycle. In the first book, Eragon is asked to bless a child as part of his position as a dragon rider, and he does, he blesses this baby. In book two, in Eldest, he discovers that he mis-worded that blessing and it’s not a blessing, it’s actually a curse, and that causes lots and lots of difficulties, both for him and that child. Of course, the truth is, he didn’t mis-word the blessing, I mis-worded it. I messed up, and I only discovered it when I was adding and revising some of the rules for my invented languages. I could have fixed the improper word in reprints, but before I did that, I sat down, I said, “OK, I can fix it in reprints, but what if this were true? What if this actually were the case, that he cursed her instead of blessing her? How would that affect things?”
So whenever you encounter a difficulty like that in your writing, I really recommend at least entertaining the possibility that the difficulty might lead you in a more interesting way. It won’t always, but it’s worth considering.
V: That’s so interesting to me: obviously, I had no idea that that was a miss-step and not intentional, it’s very interesting. Well, it’s seamless, just so you know, you never could tell. So I know obviously you’ve probably experienced this many times, but are there points at which you’re conflicted about what decision to take at a fork in the road, so to speak, in your own story. How hard is it historically for you to make those decisions and win the fight with yourself about which direction to take?
CP: I mean, it’s not that hard, ultimately. If you feel like you’re making the story better, there’s no question of what choice to make. Sometimes, though, it takes some courage, perhaps, to throw away pre-conceived notions or to go in a different direction than what you were originally thinking. But the audience can tell – readers can tell – if you take the easy way out, and in my experience, and all of this should be taken with a grain of salt, because these are my experiences, other writers have different experiences, but in my experience, whenever I’ve glossed over something and taken the easy route for whatever reason, whether that’s in a character interaction or a plot development, or even a description, it always bites me in the end. It always causes me problems, and I usually have to go back and address it.
V: I’m going to safely assume that over the course of your career, you’ve started to write something and then decided at some point, “This just isn’t worth finishing”. How do you know?
CP: No! I finish what I start. This is maybe a character flaw, but I do not have unfinished projects. I have finished everything I’ve started. It doesn’t mean I’ve published everything I’ve written, because I haven’t, but I don’t believe in giving up, which has gotten me into trouble more than once, but it’s a good trait if you want to write long books, because, for me, at least, there’s always a point where you want to give up, you’ve just been at a project for so long, you really want to give up, and you want to go chase that shiny new idea, but even if you write a bad first draft, at least you can then have something to fix, and you can look back and say, “Where did I go wrong?” If you just get half-way through, it’s a lot harder to reassess.
Now, I’m not saying, “Keep writing if you know you’re doing bad work”. Don’t do that. If you know that something’s not working, stop, reassess, but I’m a big believer in finishing things, one way or another.
V: Are you the same with your reading: have you always finished reading something that you started to read?
CP: No! I mean, I used to be like that when I was younger: I was like, “I start a book, I’m going to finish it,” but life’s too short for that. I’m more generous than some readers I know. I’ll give a book up to 60 pages, if I’m really trying to give it a chance, but that’s dropping even lower. I went to a writing conference with my editor, and as part of the conference, she was reading submission pieces from members of the writing conference and she was giving feedback and helping them improve themselves as a writer. And she made a comment about how she could usually tell if a piece was good or not in the first one to three pages, and usually by the first few paragraphs. And that actually kind of got my hackles up back then. I argued with her because I felt insecure with my own writing, and I was thinking, “Well, you know, just because it’s like that at the first page doesn’t mean the writer doesn’t improve; you don’t know what the story’s going to be like. You can’t judge a story off the first few pages”.
Well, I hate to say it, but my editor was absolutely right. The more experienced you get with reading and writing, darn it, you can tell in the first couple of pages if someone knows what they’re doing, and that really carries over both from the sentence level then to the plot level. It’s very rare to find someone who can plot a really good story but can’t write on a sentence-by-sentence level. The reverse is actually more common: you do sometimes find people who are beautiful prose stylists but can’t plot to save their life, and I think that’s when people are more interested maybe in language and often they don’t tend to be plotters, they tend to be pantsers more.
But if you have to choose, I would say, choose a good story over a good prose style, because you can fix a bad writing style, you can fix bad sentences; it’s really hard to fix a bad story: you usually have to start from scratch.
V: What’s the most magical thing that’s ever happened to you in real life?
CP: [laughs] Publishing Eragon and my entire experience with writing and publishing. It changed my life completely, it has been everything I could have hoped and more, and I would not be the person I am now if not for this.
And it changed my family’s lives, also. The experience of publishing Eragon, it will define me, has defined me: you know, when I pass away, it’s going to say, “Here lies the author of Eragon,” and I’m OK with that. I’m OK with that.
V: When did you realise that you were famous, and how did that affect your writing going forward? After that point, did you feel like you had to write up to who you became, or could you still just be kind of a kid who loved fantasy?
CP: Well, that was during the process of writing Eldest, because Eragon became so popular and I was aware that there was this huge audience for it then. And that’s when I was really making an effort to improve my own writing and learn more. I mean, I was doing events with Eldest and then Brisingr and there were, I mean, there were thousands of people showing up. I mean, it was like just standing room only as far as I could see.
Yeah, I’ve had some crazy experiences with that, and I’m very, very grateful for it. But I don’t know what it would be like to not have that experience. I mean, it happened to me so young that it’s my whole life, and only as I’ve gotten older have I been able to really look back on that and appreciate how weird it was. And now I understand why some of the older authors were looking at me going, like, “You just don’t understand” – and I didn’t understand, because how could I? My experience was, “Oh, you publish your first book and this is what happens”: it was like, “No, no, that’s not what happens”. But it did to me, and that was just strange. Really strange.
There’s a term in science fiction called future shock, which is sometimes used to describe when technology and events change so fast around you in your life that you can end up kind of shocked by it over the course of your life, and same thing like if you had a character who went from the 1500s and travelled forward to the modern day or something like that. And I kind of had a version of that. I grew up in a log cabin with a 50 gallon steel drum for a stove, sometimes using chewing gum to plug the holes between the logs when it rained, and after that, we upgraded to a 90-year-old farmhouse with asbestos shingles on the walls, and no one living around us. So to go from that to travelling to New York City, to travelling Europe and the rest of the world, to standing in front of thousands of people, to having a frigging movie made off my book was, yeah, nothing will ever top that in a lot of ways for what it did to me and for me.
V: Do you feel like there was a period there, maybe it was during that period when you were writing Eldest, a point when the pressure prevented you from just being the kid who loved fantasy; was there a point when you felt like you had to really write up to who people saw you as?
CP: Sure. It’s difficult to take something that was your hobby and transition into it being your profession, and to then treat it as such. Even now. I love story telling, I love writing, but it can be difficult to sit down and do it every single day: that’s mentally exhausting at times – that’s why working on different projects can be helpful, but that’s a separate topic. No, it was a difficult transition, and it never really gave me writer’s block, but there were definitely years when it was hard for me to figure out how to do what I needed to do.
I didn’t really feel like I was a professional author until my third book came out. You know, first book was nice, but it could have been a fluke. Second book was nice but, you know, it also could have been a fluke. But three books: OK, three books, I think I can call myself a writer. And then, even after that, I really felt the need to write something that was completely different in order to prove that I could write something outside of the world of Eragon, since that’s all I was really known for, and I now feel as if I’ve done that, I’ve got another sci-fi book coming out next year, and then I have another book with dragons coming out next year, which I think folks are really going to enjoy. So now I finally, after all these years, feel like, “Yes, I can call myself a writer, and maybe even a good writer at times,” but it took a long time.
And I think anyone reading this or listening to this who has the same insecurities should know that they’re very normal. It’s very, very normal. The trick is, you just don’t let them interfere with the work. You can feel as if you don’t know what you’re doing and you can still sit down and do it.
V: You alluded to this a moment ago, but I did want to ask if there’s anything you wanted to share regarding upcoming projects, any hints or teasers that might get people excited.
CP: I think I’ve said about as much as I can say at the moment. The publishers would throttle me if I said any more. But no, next year’s going to be the Year of Paolini, and there’s some other things, big things, going on also that I can’t talk about. But I’m very excited for the future, there’s going to be a lot more in the world of Eragon, and a lot more in general from me. I have my writing process well-honed at this point, and it will never again be years and years between books.
V: So do you think next year will be the most eventful year for you since you were 19?
CP: Pretty close! I wouldn’t be surprised.
V: What will you be looking for in the upcoming Fantasy Fiction Challenge and what can creators do to exercise and prepare their creative muscles?
CP: I’ll be looking for a couple of things. One will be linguistic ability: how well the writers are able to manipulate the language and use it, and I don’t mean fancy language, I just mean how well they can use the language to tell the story. Another thing I’ll be looking for is the story itself, the story and the characters, and, again, I would pick a good story over just a beautifully written piece of prose. Story is hard, and that ultimately is what I would like to see, is some interesting stories.
And, as a corollary to that, things that are unique, not [long pause] I am open to ideas that we have seen before, but I want to see them done in your voice, in the writer’s voice, in a way that is unique and special to the individual. I can’t write like, you know, Some Other Author; it probably would be difficult for some other author to write like me, we’re different people. So same thing with these entries: I want to see stories that are about topics that are important to these writers, and it can be fun topics, it can be moving topics, it can be whatever, but it should be something that they care about, because that’s the reason I write. I write because I care about the things I’m actually writing about.
So I want to see some sincerity, I want to see some honesty, I want to see some earnestness, I want to see some cool dragons and some adventure and some interesting stories and some moving moments. I mean, isn’t that why we read: all of those things.
So, I would say for whoever’s starting out is, start with your point of enthusiasm, whatever that is, for the topic. What is it that excites you about this? And then try to apply your craft to that idea.
V: Is there anything creators can do to prepare: writing exercises? Is there anything you can recommend?
CP: Outline! Outline! Outline your story! Plot your story out! I mean, the best writing exercise is actually writing, so, you know, outline your story, if you need to write a version or two of it, do that. Do a little bit of reading, as always: pick up some good fantasy books, get the feel of the language in your mind; or, if not fantasy books, pick up some books that have a prose style that you find inspiring. Try to learn a bit from it and make sure you finish whatever it is you start, so that you can go back and fix it.
V: Is there anything that over the years you’ve just grown tired of seeing in fantasy? And as the flip side of that, I’d also love to hear is there a trend that you’re happy to be seeing in fantasy?
CP: You know, I hate to say there’s anything I’m tired of, because if done well, any idea is entertaining or interesting or moving. Ideas are cheap: execution is everything. You could give the same idea to a hundred different authors and get a hundred different novels of wildly differing quality. You could even give a detailed plot outline to a hundred different authors and have a similar effect. So I hesitate to pick on any one trend. But I would say I’d like to see some optimistic stories. You know, there are so many grim, dark stories out there, and my feeling is that life is difficult enough for all of us: let’s not make it harder for anyone. Even if we’re talking about difficult things, let’s try to find the ray of light in the dark; let’s try to find the path forward; let’s try to be optimistic and hopeful. I think those are incredibly important things.
V: Final question… Are there any Easter eggs that you’ve hidden in your books? Is there anything you’ve ever just written for your own amusement, nobody would ever know that it was there for a reason, but it made you laugh while you were writing it?
CP: Oh, yeah, I mean, tons. I love bad jokes, so there are lots of little puns and hidden things. Eragon visits a village named Yazuak, which is an anagram for the Yakuza, the Japanese Mafia. I think I quoted – yeah, I did quote – Blazing Saddles/Treasures of the Sierra Madre in I think it was Eldest, when Roran and the villagers from Carvahall are trying to get some barges, and one of the guys goes, “Barges? Barges? We don’t need those stinking barges!” which is a reference to those films.
There are lots of things like that, and there are quite a few in To Sleep in a Sea of Stars, as well, although they tend to be a little more serious references to works I’ve enjoyed. One of them is, I had fun with my space ship names, and that is definitely something I was inspired with from Iain M. Banks, who wrote a lot of science fiction with his Culture novels, and he had a tendency of using the word gravitas in a whole series of space ship names, like Not Enough Gravitas, or Too Much Gravitas or things like that. So, I have a battleship named the Surfeit of Gravitas in To Sleep in a Sea of Stars, he had passed by that point, so it was a bit of a tribute to him.
So lots of little things like that. That’s always the fun bit for me, too, is once you have your outline and once you actually write a story, is then putting in all these tiny little hooks and references to both your own work, future events that you hope to write, and sometimes the real world, also. It’s been said that the great art form of the 20th century or 21st century is the remix, and I don’t know how true that is, but I think that culture works when it’s in conversation with itself, when creators are commenting on each other’s work and taking inspiration and building off of it, and unfortunately, our current copyright laws put a bit of a damper on that, to a degree, and that’s not entirely a bad thing, just because as a creator you need to be able to support yourself off your work, and so you do need that protected to a degree, but at the same time, again, we draw inspiration from each other, and our works are not created in a vacuum.
I always love the story of Cervantes with Don Quixote, because Don Quixote was written in two parts. So, he wrote the first part and published it, and it was a big success, but then he didn’t write the second part. So some other author wrote a sequel to the first part of Don Quixote, and Cervantes was so annoyed by this that he finally sat himself down and wrote the second part of the book, wrote the sequel, and made fun of the other author in the sequel, and that’s the Don Quixote that we now have, the one volume, because of that experience. So it’s not that I want someone to necessarily be able to publish a sequel to Eragon that I didn’t write, but, in general, being able to take inspiration and look at what other people are doing and then move the conversation forward with genre, with story, with characters, is a wonderful thing.
I mean, the genre of science fiction and the genre of fantasy is radically different now than it was in the 90s, when I was a kid, or even the early 2000s. There are so many more voices and people with different experiences writing science fiction and fantasy, and it’s a wonderful thing. With speculative fiction, the only real limit is your imagination, which means that what you write shows the limits of your imagination very clearly and with genres that supposedly allow for everything, it’s amazing how constrained we so often are. That said, limitations and constraints often lead to great work, so that’s not a bad thing. But it’s worth being aware of when you create.
V: So do you support the trend of fan fiction, creating stories within someone else’s universe?
CP: I’m an enormous supporter of fan fiction; I think it’s a wonderful thing. If someone enjoys your work so much that they’re willing to sit down and write more in your world with your characters, I mean, how could you ask for any greater commitment from a reader or a fan? And that said, you know … there’s a difference between doing that and then trying to publish it, and that starts crossing the line with commercial exploitation, but if you’re doing it for your own enjoyment, sharing it online, go for it. I do, I know authors who’ve had issues with it: frankly, I don’t understand them, I really don’t get what’s going on with that reaction. Maybe it’s just that they feel such a strong attachment to their characters that they can’t understand or let go to let someone else play with them.
And it’s changed: when fan fiction as we know it now started to emerge on the Internet, it wasn’t a new thing – fan fiction had always existed and especially sort of more in the underground fan community it had always been around – but it really came to prominence with the Internet, and I think some authors just had to get used to the idea and just had never really considered it and were not used to it. But I grew up on the Internet and I think that fan fiction’s an awesome thing. I love knowing that my fans are writing it. I don’t read it, because, you know, there are legal reasons for that, and I just don’t really want to spend more time in my world outside of my actual work, so I don’t read it, but I think it’s a wonderful thing.
And, there are quite a few published authors who got their start in fan fiction. We were talking about writing circles and writing groups earlier: fan communities can actually provide some of that for some people who find a good group, so you’re writing Harry Potter fanfic, you’ve got feedback from people, you’re learning your skills as a writer. The main thing I would warn people against is if you want to be a published writer, don’t sort of spend a massive amount of time on a project that ultimately can’t be published commercially, because –
I’ll tell a story that I don’t usually tell. Before I wrote Eragon, I actually, I was a fan of a certain videogame series, and my friend had some novels set in the world of this videogame series. So I read the books, and, not to put too fine a point on it, they were kind of horrible: they were just not well-written, which was especially disappointing, given that the setting of this game revolved a lot around writing and things like that, so you would have expected the books themselves to be decently written. And I decided I was going to rewrite the first book, because I knew I could do it better. And I was 14 at the time. So I opened up a Word document page and I wrote two sentences. And I sat there, and I was thinking, “I know I can write a better version of this book that got published, so why am I going to rewrite 200-some pages of fiction for something I can’t publish?” So that’s when I decided to go write Eragon instead.
V: What a great story to end on! Christopher, thank you so much for taking the time.
CP: My pleasure: I hope this was useful.
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