Montana Books: Bestselling Author Crafts New Literary Universe
Montana publishing phenomenon Christopher Paolini, who at age 18 launched his New York Times #1 best-selling “Eragon” boy-meets-dragon series, is now propelling readers deep into space with his first adult science-fiction adventure, “To Sleep in a Sea of Stars.”
At the ripe old age of 36, the bright and ever-engaging Paolini, a home-schooled book nerd who passed on college to jump into fiction with the help of his parents’ small press, has spent half his life crafting and promoting three additional “Eragon” volumes in what’s now known as “The Inheritance Cycle.”
He’s now taking the inevitable twin giant leaps from young-adult to adult fiction, and from fantasy to sci-fi.
In “To Sleep in a Sea of Stars,” we meet xenobiologist Kira Navarez, as she discovers an alien relic while exploring a distant planet. As war erupts among the cosmos, Kira finds herself on a journey to save the Earth and its colonies from total annihilation.
Due to the pandemic, Paolini conducted his book tour virtually during the fall or 2020 from his home outside of Livingston. Which, as luck would have it, may save him a good bit of heavy lifting, as the hard-cover of “To Sleep”weighs in at 856 pages.
“To Sleep in a Sea of Stars” was released September 15, 2020 and is available in various formats, from Kindle to an audiobook which includes an afterword read by Christopher Paolini as well as a bonus conversation between Christopher Paolini and narrator Jennifer Hale.
Author Paolini recently spoke with the Montana Press from his home in Paradise Valley.
Montana Press: I’ve been using the advance reading copy of “To Sleep” as a fitness weight.
Paolini: (Laughs) Yeah, it’s a big one, isn’t it? It’s a bit of a brick.
MP: Then again, you were always a book nerd, right?
Paolini: I was really lucky to have parents (Kenneth and Talita Paolini) who encouraged reading and taught me how to read. My mom is a trained Montessori teacher, which really, really helped, and I had a lot of librarians at local libraries here in Livingston that were always recommending books and doing what they could to encourage reading, not just with me but with anyone who came into the library.
I was also fortunate enough to find books that I was interested in reading, which is always a challenge. So, for all those reasons, I definitely fell in love with reading at an early age. Plus, I didn’t have a lot of distractions; the internet was not what it is now and I also didn’t drive. There weren’t a lot of options for entertainment, so reading was cheap and easy and, of course, amazing.
MP: How old were you when you moved to Montana from Southern California?
Paolini: I think we moved here in 1986 and I was born in ’83, so I was two and a half or three.
MP: Did it feel like home for you early on?
Paolini: I do love Montana. I’ve had the privileges and the opportunity to travel and live all across the world and I’ve spent time in New York City and San Diego and Barcelona and Edinburgh and all these other places, but there’s a reason I still live in Paradise Valley, Montana. This is one of the most gorgeous places in the world; the people are nice, and I wouldn’t want to live anyplace else.
MP: Great place to write a book or six, yes?
Paolini: I think Montana provides great inspiration for anyone who is a creative person. The landscape, of course, is world class; there really isn’t a whole lot like this. The wildlife is amazing and just having the sheer amount of space available is something that we lose when we’re in a city where everyone gets crammed in cheek to jowl.
That’s not necessarily a bad way of living; plenty of people live wonderful lives in cities. But for me personally, it’s not how I prefer to live. It’s nice to have lots of space around you. That’s one of the reasons I ended up in Edinburgh in Scotland. I found that the further north in Europe you go, the more personal space people like to have, and I appreciate that. If you’re in Italy – and I have family in Italy, I love Italy – people do just like to crowd in all around you.
MP: And considering the last eight months…
Paolini: (Laughs) Exactly. Indeed.
MP: As your reading expanded, did the fantasy mindset keep you indoors or prompt you to explore the outdoors?
Paolini: My family didn’t actually get any television reception where we lived when I was growing up because of the way the valley was shaped, so the only popular entertainment we really got was movies on VHS and then books. So outside of reading, I had to find ways to entertain myself, and that involved running around playing games and climbing trees.
It was very much a sort of Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn sort of upbringing. I was always making myself slingshots and learning how to make knives and work metal and carve things. And that, honestly, was a great experience because it taught me that if I wanted something and I didn’t have the money to buy it, which usually I didn’t, there was a good chance that I could figure out how to make it myself. Even if I couldn’t make it to a professional level, I would learn something from the process; even if what I made was a bit wonky, it was still something I had made. There was pride of ownership there. That actually carried over into the writing.
Making a book really is kind of like doing a piece of carpentry or putting up a fence or doing some metalworking; you’re laying out your tools, you’re collecting your materials and you’re actually constructing something. It’s definitely more abstract and it certainly isn’t as hard physically, but conceptually a lot of it is the same. So, having that experience growing up and making things and learning how to do things was very helpful when it came to actually writing a book.
MP: “To Sleep” is a huge step out of the young adult world and into a very mature and nuanced adult science-fiction world. Did you have this adult sci-fi whopper done in your head before you put pen to paper?
Paolini: Well, I thought I did. But I was mistaken. I got the idea for the book back in 2006-7, but I was busy finishing “The Inheritance Cycle” and that took the bulk of my attention up until the end of 2011, and then a good chunk of 2012 when I was touring for the series. And then once that was finished, I started doing the research. I needed to sort of get my head around the science and technology that a science-fiction story would require, and specifically the sort of story I wanted to tell.
When I actually started writing “To Sleep,” I don’t want to say I was cocky but I definitely was overconfident, because from my point of view at that time, I had written these four novels that had been quite successful, and I’d been doing it for over a decade at that point, and I think I sort of got the attitude that, well hey, I know what I’m doing, I can sort of wing it as I go and it’s all going to work out.
What I didn’t realize at the time is that my storytelling skills had basically gotten rusty, because while I was working on “The Inheritance Cycle,” I was essentially working from a story that I’d worked out in great detail when I began the series, and then in the years after that, some of my plotting chops had atrophied a bit.
With “To Sleep in a Sea of Stars,” I wrote the first draft and then my family – my first readers and specifically my sister Angela, who has an excellent editorial eye – read the book and kindly informed me that it just wasn’t working. I attempted to salvage what I could, but a couple of rewrites on that version of the book ultimately led me to realize that I was essentially rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic; I needed to fundamentally rethink my approach to the story or I needed to walk away from it and do something completely different.
I’d been working on the book for a long time; it was the end of 2017 when I had this realization, but I hate to give up on stuff. So what I did was this: I took a notebook and a fountain pen that I like writing with, and I wrote 200 pages of notes in a week and a half by hand, and I ripped apart every assumption I had made about the story, the characters, even the universe itself where the story is set. Once I felt as if I had a deeper understanding of what I was trying to accomplish with the story and what the story itself actually was, that’s when I sort of jumped into a massive, massive rewrite.
MP: Were you tempted to revert to fantasy at any point?
Paolini: (Laughs) Well no; the story itself is inherently science fiction. If I was going to write fantasy, that would have been just saying I’d given up on the story, I’m going to go write fantasy instead. I did do some fantasy while I was working on “To Sleep.” I actually published a collection of short stories (“The Fork, the Witch and the Worm”) set in the world of “Eragon,” and that was a wonderful palate cleanser between rewrites and editing and all of that.
I think what I wanted to do in this book was to tell a complete story in one novel, because I had the experience of writing a story over the course of four very large books.
It was a wonderful experience but as I get older and get more experience as both a writer and a reader, I find myself increasingly appreciating authors who can tell a complete story in one book. That is a talent. You know, it is a huge commitment of time to sit down to read a series from an author where there are five, six, eight books or more just to tell one story. And that can be a wonderful experience;
I love quite a few very long series. But the other thing is, life is short. Once I’ve read a book or two of an author, a lot of times I want to try reading a new author and see what else is going on in the industry or the genre.
So with “To Sleep,” that was my goal: one complete story in one book, even though the universe itself, the ‘fractalverse’ that was the setting of this story, is going to be the home of many future stories of mine that will tie into “To Sleep.” That sort of necessitated a certain size for the book. I want the readers, when they get to the end, to feel like they’ve gone on this epic, transformative journey
Hopefully when they finish that last page, that last chapter, that last line, that last scene, they’re going to get a tingle up their spine and have a sense of awe and wonder and maybe a sense of hope, and hopefully a bittersweet ache that it’s finally come to an end.
MP: How does your publisher feel about the likely page count of your next epic?
Paolini: Well, first of all, science fiction and fantasy tend to run long these days, so that was to my benefit. And two, I had the strangest editorial experience with this book, which is that, along with the various edits and changes that I would normally make during the course of editing, my two editors had me add about 30,000 words to the manuscript!
I’ve never had that happen. Usually, when I go into editing, I drop 10 to 15 percent of the size of the manuscript; you trim out the fluff, you make it run faster, you just clean it up. And I did a lot of that fluff removal and clarification. But then along with that, my editors kept saying, “You know, we want to understand more about this ‘fractalverse’ universe. We want to know more about the characters. Give us more, give us more!” And that’s what ended up happening.