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Montana teen's fantasy novel becomes a bestseller

New York Times/October 19, 2003
By Dinitia Smith

Paradise Valley, Mont.-- Christopher Paolini, who has never been to school, was only 15 when he wrote his fantasy novel "Eragon," about a boy who finds a magic stone that is transformed into a dragon and who then sets out to avenge the death of his uncle and to defeat an evil king. Now, four years later, "Eragon," published by Alfred A. Knopf, is third on the New York Times hardcover children's chapter books best-seller list, outselling four of the five Harry Potter books.

Paolini, who was home-schooled by his parents, Kenneth and Talita, lives with them and his 17-year-old sister, Angela, in a modest beige-shingled house on the edge of the Yellowstone River. He invented a magical land for "Eragon" inspired by the jagged Beartooth Mountains.

The story of the title character, Eragon, who has a mysterious parentage and wields a magic sword, was inspired, he said, by "Le Morte d'Arthur," "Beowulf," Norse and Icelandic sagas, Wagner's "Ring" cycle and the fantasy books he loves, such as Anne McCaffrey's "Dragonriders of Pern" series. The key to the children, inevitably, lies partly with their parents. Kenneth Paolini and Talita Hodgkinson met as members of the Church Universal and Triumphant, a survivalist group with a doomsday philosophy.

In 1987, they left the group, and in 1991 settled in Paradise Valley.In 1997 the Paolinis started a publishing company, Paolini International LLC. Meanwhile, they home-schooled Christopher and Angela, because, they said, the children were precocious; their parents worried that they would feel out out of place in a formal school.

Christopher said he had read more than 3,000 books but knows "nothing about math." The children watched little television but every night screened one of the family's collection of some 4,000 movies. Christopher said that "Eragon" began as a film idea.

Paolini began "Eragon" after obtaining his high school diploma through an accredited correspondence course. He was accepted at Reed College in Oregon but deferred entrance.

"I didn't have too many activities aside from the ones I invented," he said. "A lot of writing is about getting the time and space."

Two years and two drafts after starting the book he showed it to his parents. His father recalled, "Talita read it and said, 'Ken, you really need to take a look at this.' I was amazed."

The family began editing it. "My parents didn't suggest changes in the plot line," Paolini said, but suggested moving sentences, correcting grammar, fixing continuity.

In 2002, the Paolinis published it. The Paolinis contracted out the printing and began marketing it.

They contacted hundreds of schools and bookstores, setting up readings.

"We went to places that never had an author," he said, "places hungry for this." Soon the house was filled with books for shipment.

Then, last summer, novelist Carl Hiaasen was fly-fishing in Montana with his wife and stepson, Ryan. Ryan read a copy of "Eragon." He seemed captivated, and Hiaasen told his publisher, Knopf, about it. Knopf made an offer. The Paolinis found an agent through a chat group online, and the book was sold. A spokeswoman for Knopf said the price was in "the middle six figures."

Christopher's editor at Knopf, Michelle Frey, left the plot in place, but cut 20,000 words, Paolini said. As for the money, his father said, "We are operating a family business, and we will all share in the proceeds." So far, the publisher has printed 250,000 copies.

Now Paolini is writing the second volume of what he says will be called the "Inheritance" trilogy. After the trilogy is finished, "I might go to college," Paolini said. "Or I might take a vacation and have a nervous breakdown. I have a lot of reading to do, 'Ulysses,' Dostoyevsky, the rest of Tolstoy."

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