He was a fantasy wunderkind -- a homeschooled teen whose epic struggle for success was as gripping as the dragon tale he conceived at age 15.
Christopher Paolini is 21 now, and he's had his Letterman gig and his Time magazine interviews and the thrill of seeing his fantasy novel, "Eragon," ride the best-seller lists for 100 weeks, in one version or another. There's even a Hollywood film in the works.
But the level-headed Montanan didn't fully grasp "Eragon's" pop-culture impact until a few days ago, when he was crossing light sabers with online opponents in a Jedi knight game.
"One of the players was named Eragon," Paolini said. "Much to my horror, he was actually pretty good and I found a message flashed across the screen -- 'You have been killed by Eragon.' That was when I realized how big this has gotten."
Expect the phenomenon to get even bigger with today's release of "Eldest," the second volume of Paolini's "Inheritance" trilogy. The sequel follows the adventures of 16-year-old Eragon as he comes to terms with his destiny as a Dragon Rider who must battle evil forces in the Empire, aided by his winged dragon Saphira.
Random House, which sprang for a first printing of 1.3 million copies, is betting "Eldest" will rouse teen fantasy buffs from the adrenaline hangover that set in after last month's Scholastic release of "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince."
And though J.K. Rowling's wizard series is a shared cultural experience like no other -- a 10-plus on the frenzy meter -- "Eldest" still ranks as a highly anticipated release, especially for teens who are seriously into fantasy.
"I can't wait for the second book to come out!" said "Eragon" fan Anna Halleen, 14, as she counted the days till she could pick up her preordered copy of "Eldest."
The Mukilteo homeschooler is a Harry Potter devotee as well. Like a parent torn between two distinctively different offspring, she's hard-pressed to choose between the two fantasies.
"I love them both so much!" she said wistfully.
As of last week, 246 readers had placed holds on "Eldest" at the Seattle Public Library. Most are in for an epic wait: The library has ordered only 26 copies, and the book is nearly 700 pages.
For a bright young man from small-town America, it's the stuff of dreams. But Paolini sounds remarkably unruffled by his success.
He has an avuncular, precociously adult manner of speaking -- like a tweedy professor with elbow patches. The effect is startling but ultimately charming, because Paolini is so genuine, with a matter-of-fact self-confidence that's rare for his age. For that, he thanks mom and dad, who homeschooled him and his younger sister, Angela.
"I certainly give credit to my parents," Paolini said, "because they taught us never to be afraid -- to stand up and speak our mind, to talk to people as equals even if they are quite a bit older.
"My sister and I have never been in public schools. We never had the experience of being put down, of being told not to stand out. We were who we were."
Paolini still lives with his family in Paradise Valley, Mont., where he writes and, in his spare time, listens to The Teaching Company's college courses on tape. He just finished The Life of Brahms; now he's studying 5,000 years of Chinese history.
Paolini was 15 and newly graduated from his distance-learning high school when he launched into his ambitious "Inheritance" trilogy, partly because he had some time on his hands.
"I wanted to write a story that used all the elements of fantasy that I enjoyed as a reader," he said. "When I was younger, I daydreamed about having sword fights and adventures and rescuing beautiful elf maidens, like Eragon does.
" 'Eragon,' " he concluded, "is my daydream."
It took Paolini a year to write the first draft and another year to revise it. His parents, who had a small publishing company, bet the farm on their earnest son's literary creation and set out on a cross-country road trip to sell it to the public.
"During that entire year," said Paolini, "my parents didn't get any income from any other endeavors, so when we took it on the road, it was do or die. I was doing three to four one-hour presentations each day."
Knowing that "books sold meant food on the table," young Paolini succumbed to his mother's suggestion that he don flamboyant, period costume for his public appearances.
Gamely, he suited up in knee-high lace-up boots, billowy pantaloons, a black beret and a dazzling red shirt and presented himself to somewhat startled teens in high school gymnasiums. It was a heroic effort -- something worthy of Eragon himself. And something he hopes never to relive.
"At this point," Paolini said dryly, "it would take an extraordinary experience to get me back in that costume!"
The effort paid off in word-of-mouth sales that ultimately caught the attention of Random House, which learned about the book from author Carl Hiaasen, whose son was an "Eragon" fan.
Paolini's back story, as the homeschooled boy wonder who makes it big, had an irresistible cachet. But he said few people realize the work and risks that lay behind his success.
"It makes a great story after the fact," he said. "When you're living through it, you have no idea it's all going to turn out all right."
Not only did "Eragon" soar in sales, it scored the ultimate cultural affirmation -- a Hollywood film, set for release next June. Fox began filming "Eragon" earlier this month in Budapest, with newcomer Ed Speleers cast in the lead. Deals were being finalized last week to place Jeremy Irons and John Malkovich in key roles.
Paolini is curious about the outcome but said he was glad to limit his involvement with the film.
"Even if I had all the time in the world," he said, "I would not wish to write a screenplay for my own book. I cannot envision a more exquisite form of torture."
Other than, perhaps, reading reviews of his work -- which he never does, because "it messes with my head." Even the good reviews.
He knew, though, that some readers -- even some fans -- considered his debut novel a derivative mishmash of Tolkien, Anne McCaffrey and other established fantasy authors. He also took some lumps as a literary stylist. But, hey, he was young -- and fantasy is a genre with firmly rooted conventions.
"There really aren't too many new ideas out there," said Rene Kirkpatrick, buyer at All for Kids Books & Music. She loved the book, despite its rough edges.
" 'Eragon' actually feels at points like a 15- or 16-year-old boy wrote it," Kirkpatrick said. "It's a little rough at times and a little florid at times, but I think that's why kids like it."
Fans say they relate to the series' hard-pressed hero and find it easy to project themselves into the scenes, given Paolini's wealth of descriptive detail.
What teen couldn't relate to the reluctant Dragon Rider's struggle to find his way in a confusing and tumultuous world? Halleen, the Mukilteo fan, says she understands Eragon's feeling of "having your life get all messed up."
"I don't have a messed-up life," she hastened to add, "but it was interesting to read how everything can change so fast. For me, going into high school, I feel like everything is changing and I need to get ahold of it."
Young readers also like "Eragon's" straightforward writing style.
"I got into it immediately," said Simon Minard, 15, an Ingraham High School sophomore, "even though it wasn't crazy-cool action and stuff. The writing was easy to read, and it doesn't confuse you at all. It's hard to come by fantasy that isn't too dense."
Paolini said he has learned a lot about the art of writing since then. "Eldest" is a more complex story, full of changing points of view, and it delves more deeply into Eragon's feelings about his destiny.
"I would say 'Eldest' is a step up from 'Eragon,' " agreed Judy Hobbs, children's book buyer at Third Place Books. "He's learned a lot, and I think it shows in his level of writing."
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