In another world ... home-schooled Christopher Paolini: "I love making swords and armour."
He forges swords, can read Old Norse and has never been to school. But Christopher Paolini, 19, has knocked J.K. Rowling off the top of the bestseller list. Charles Laurence meets a master of fantasy.
Christopher Paolini wants to show how to tackle monsters at high speed. "Have you read Beowulf?" he cries, springing up from our restaurant table. "The bit where the hero is skating down the glacier on his own feet, slashing away with his sword, lopping off heads on both sides - slash! slash! - as he goes? Wow! How modern is that?"
The waiter flinches. He sees only the over-excited flailings of a bespectacled teenager in T-shirt and jeans. If he knew the truth about the slightly built geek with the imaginary sword, however, he'd be infinitely more respectful.
For the extraordinary feats of derring-do Paolini has just mimed are as nothing to his real achievements. This is the first-time novelist who has just knocked J.K. Rowling and Harry Potter off the top of the American bestseller list.
Paolini, who has never been to school, has read 3000 books, watched 4000 videos and claims to be unbeatable at video games. His parents, fugitives from a doomsday survivalist cult, taught him all he knows in their little wood-and-shingle home in a remote Montana valley.
By the age of 15, their precocious son had learnt a passable version of Old Norse and picked up enough about iron-forging to make his own armour and sword. He had also written the first draft of an epic novel, Eragon.
Eragon is an adventure fantasy in the familiar mould of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, with nods to Thomas Malory's Morte d'Arthur, Wagner's Ring cycle and a clutch of popular children's books, including Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon-Hatcher.
The eponymous hero, Eragon, is a 15-year-old boy who finds a dragon's egg. It hatches: strange, foul creatures attack Eragon's mountain village and kill his uncle and, before long, he is deep into a quest for revenge and redemption against an evil empire. There are elves and dwarves and magic swords, healers and wise old storytellers with long white beards. Paolini is already at work on a sequel, Eldest, and has plotted a third.
Just a week ago, Eragon was at No.3 in the American children's bestseller list. This week it is No.1. It is all happening so fast that even the headlines are blurred. The book was first bought by the Random House imprint, Knopf, for a six-figure sum. Fox has acquired the film rights to the trilogy.
Random House's British division will publish Eragon in January and the rest of the world will follow: the novel was snapped up for translation into eight other languages, from Japanese to Italian, at the Frankfurt book fair. At the age of 19, the boy who started to write fiction four years ago because he "had nothing much else to do" is an instant millionaire.
His parents, Kenneth Paolini and Talita Hodgkinson, met as members of the Church Universal and Triumphant, a cult led by a woman known as Ma Prophet. She made headlines in the 1980s by building the world's largest privately owned nuclear shelter into the side of a mountain in Montana and selling berths as condominiums.
The Paolinis left the cult when Paolini was two and his sister, Angela, was newborn. "We weren't willing to surrender our family to the group," Kenneth Paolini has said. He co-founded a local printing press, wrote a book critical of cults, and earned a living doing something called Rolfing, a form of deep massage.
Paolini's mother also wrote a book about Montessori educational techniques and kept her children at home by the banks of the Yellowstone River. For exercise, they hiked to the top of Emigrant Mountain in the Beartooth range, which inspired Paolini's imaginary world of Alagaesia.
"I've been imagining these things for years, for as long as I can remember," he says. "We live in this beautiful place - they got the name right when they called it Paradise Valley - and my dad always had this great collection of science-fiction books, so it got me started. I got my high school certificate by mail, but my parents weren't about to send me away to college at 15, so I figured I would spend my time writing. I love language, and I love books. I started by doing a plot for all three books - it's still a secret only my sister Angela knows, but the trilogy does have a happy ending, as I couldn't bear to kill all my characters. Then I spent a year writing Eragon. It just poured out.
"I have always loved swords, and stories and legends with swords and armour and mysteries. I gave Eragon a sword called Zar'roc and I drew it because I could see it so clearly in my head. But, with swords, it is not just what I have read in books because I make my own. I love doing that - making swords, knives and my own armour."
Paolini is in New York to sign books as the nation's fastest-selling author, and is eating at Jekyll and Hyde, a theme restaurant decorated with talking ghosts and skeletons and gargoyles with flashing red eyes.
"This is great," he says. "It's like walking into a really bad Conan the Barbarian movie." He leans forward earnestly, lowers his still-boyish voice and adds: "The place must have cost a million."
Most of Paolini's life has been spent in his own private world. Paradise Valley is in the part of Montana where movie stars come to play cowboys, but he doesn't ride and knows little of the local community. His parents were his first editors and publishers. He showed Eragon to his mother, who immediately spotted its energy and conviction, just the ingredients the critics believe have propelled Paolini to the top of the bestseller lists.
She also started an editing process that would take another year: words like "sward" stayed in - it has the same root as "greensward". But others went, and the grammar became more conventional. "Because I learnt everything at home from books, I realise now that there are a lot of words I like that I had no idea how to pronounce. I pronounced 'suede' as 'soo-eed'," he says.
"Actually holding that book was a wonderful thing," says Paolini. "We took it around the local libraries and schools, and then Dad had this idea for marketing it. We worked out a show, with me dressed up in my armour, and I took it around schools and read from the book. We drove as far as Texas one time, and I did hundreds of readings. I can do that reading by heart!"
The Paolinis managed to sell several hundred copies; one was to a teenage boy named Ryan who had come to Montana with his stepfather for a fly-fishing trip.
The stepfather was the Florida crime novelist Carl Hiaasen, who was mystified by Ryan's obsession with this oddball book. Then Hiaasen read it and called his agent.
All this has happened in a few months. Perhaps it is precisely because Paolini has always lived securely in his own world - Paradise Valley, his family and his imagination - that he has been able to absorb the transformation with such apparent ease. It takes only a few minutes of his earnest, hyperactive, teenage nerdy-genius chat to realise that almost everything he says contains a reference to a book or a movie.
Eragon is steeped in quotations: every ingredient, from dwarf to elf, from the brilliant blue stone of the dragon's egg to the old sage with the long white beard, is a stylised cliche. Ask him about Eragon's villain, the wicked emperor Galbatorix, and he will cite Darth Vader of the Star Wars movies because, like him, Galbatorix started off "good" - a Dragon Rider - and turned to the dark side of fear and power. "His name, of course, comes from the Old Norse. It's a rough translation, but it means big king," Paolini adds without a blink. Old Norse is the basis for elfin language in his book.
In New York he autographed 600 copies of his book, pointing out that's a lot of work. He reaches into his satchel and pulls out a gift from one of the bookshops where he has performed: a valuable first-edition copy of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, complete with J.K. Rowling's signature.
"See that? She has streamlined the way she has written her name to make it easier. I have to do that with my signature - I have been doing it like Mom taught me, so you can see all the letters." Christopher the Potter-slayer points to where he has blurred the "opher" of his own name, and smiles with satisfaction. He can do that, too.