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The Prince of Dragons: Christopher Paolini and the Rise of 'Inheritance'

How did a home-schooled fantasy geek from the middle of nowhere become one of the world's bestselling authors?

March 8, 2012 12:00 PM ET
Christopher Paolini promotes 'Inheritance' at Barnes and Noble in Union Square in New York City.
Christopher Paolini promotes 'Inheritance' at Barnes and Noble in Union Square in New York City.
John Lamparski/Getty Images

Christopher Paolini, the 28-year-old author of the bestselling Inheritance series, still lives at home with his parents and his younger sister. The family residence, a swanky cabin, is located in a remote corner of southwestern Montana known as Paradise Valley. It's an enormous, austere home, with plenty of private space for everyone – especially Christopher, who has his own wing.

"This is the lair," Paolini announces proudly, as we enter the two-room suite where he sleeps and works. "Nice place to write, huh?" he says, with a sweep of his hand, palm open, like a game-show host highlighting prizes.

The rooms are scrupulously neat and filled with dragons: There is a dragon coffee table, a dragon side table, a dragon sconce, a dragon shelf, a dragon clock, a dragon mirror, a dragon lamp, a dragon letter holder, a dragon bench and a dragon head mounted outside the door – a fitting design scheme for an author who made his name writing books about a boy named Eragon, who seals his fate as a "Dragon Rider" when he finds a bright-blue egg that hatches a dragon. "I could have gotten more," Paolini says, "but I decided that was enough dragons for one place."

There are also swords, lots of swords. "I want to show you this," he says, lifting up an impressive three-and-a-half-foot broadsword in a black leather sheath. "I bought this as a treat for finishing the book," he says, referring to Inheritance, the fourth and final installment in his epic cycle. The novels recount the adventures of Eragon and his dragon companion, Saphira, with whom he shares a telepathic connection, as they zoom around consorting with elves and dwarves and battling various dark forces dispatched by the evil King Galbatorix. ("I write schmaltz with dragons," says Paolini about his work.) Inheritance, which was published in November, sold 489,500 copies its first day out – more than any other release in 2011.

Impressive as that statistic sounds, it's akin to just another billion burgers on a McDonald's sign. Eragon, Paolini's first work of fantasy, published when he was only 19 years old, debuted at number three on the New York Times bestseller list, then spent 21 weeks at number one. His four books have collectively sold more than 33 million copies worldwide. Given Paolini's geographic isolation, the rudimentary nature of his plots and, of course, his startling youth, this is a powerfully bizarre achievement. But it is not his alone. About a decade ago, the Paolinis made the rather unconventional decision to make their teenage son's fantasy novel the family business. Paolini repeatedly emphasizes that he's spearheading a team effort, with Mom fielding fan mail, Dad turning "the financial wheels," sister acting as girl Friday, and all four editing. Together they have forged a prodigious empire: the Inheritance series is a multimillion-dollar mom and pop – and brother and sister – business run by a clan of introverts living on the prairie. "If it weren't for the support of my parents and sister," Paolini says, "none of this would've been possible for me."

Paolini wears small, round, wire-rimmed spectacles that have earned him endless comparisons to Harry Potter. His dark-brown hair, meticulously combed into place, appears never to move. He has his own tidy uniform of sorts: an ironed button-down shirt securely tucked into belted dark-wash jeans. He's endearingly nerdy – not in the affected, pretentious, nouveau-hipster sense, à la Wes Anderson, but rather in the traditional, unintentional, pale-as-your-inner-thigh sense, à la the kid who plays Dungeons & Dragons or Magic: The Gathering.

"Every fantasy author deserves a good sword, and this is mine," Paolini says. Slowly, dramatically, he removes the weapon from its scabbard. It makes a loud scraping noise on its way out. "This is the real deal," he says, waving the blade, made of high-carbon Damascus steel and etched with an elaborate calligraphic design, in front of him. "I found the only custom sword store in all of New York City," he continues, slicing the air. "It fits me and my body perfectly. I hope never to have a duel, but if I do, I would trust my life to this sword."

"Please remove your shoes," says Paolini's 26-year-old sister, Angela, with dramatic singsong inflection, as she meets me in a foyer that doubles as a home gym. Paolini's mother, Talita, a birdlike woman with a girlish voice and a sweet manner, makes a fluttery motion with her hand to indicate, "Oh, forget it, she can leave them on." But Angela, who is tough and no-nonsense, and acts as her brother's protector, insists: "We don't wear them in the house."

According to Paolini, he and Angela, a petite woman with intelligent dark eyes and a fantastic nest of dark, springy curls, have their own near-telepathic bond, not unlike Eragon and his dragon. Angela is the inspiration for one of Paolini's fictional characters, the quirky, feisty Angela the Herbalist, who plays a pivotal narrative role by telling Eragon his fortune, and is the most captivating character in the books. In one passage from Inheritance, Paolini writes that Angela the Herbalist's expression is "languid and insolent"; the description applies to the real Angela as well. She gives the discomfiting impression that she's mocking you, teasing you, flirting with you and sizing you up all at once.

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