We are so excited to have a chance to get to know Christopher Paolini ahead of his upcoming novel, To Sleep in a Sea of Stars, coming out in September 2020.
When you wrote Eragon, you were a teenager writing a book that other kids like you would want to read. What was the driving force behind To Sleep in a Sea of Stars?
The same as with Eragon: to tell a good story. Yes, the plots are different, but with both books, I was trying to (a) capture the sense of spine-tingling emotion that great stories give me, and (b) write the best possible version of that particular narrative. I never thought of Eragon as young adult fiction. If I had, I don’t think I would have treated it quite so seriously.
Of course, there are major differences between the books. Eragon is classic heroic fantasy, and To Sleep is . . . an adult story, although just as epic and hopefully just as moving. With it, I really wanted to evoke a sense of hope, struggle, and wonder—and all set against the vastness of space. Moreover, I wanted to grapple with questions of bodily autonomy, the relationship of the individual vs. society, and the mastery of self . . . while also telling a rip-roaring adventure full of spaceships, lasers, aliens, explosions, and tentacles.
After writing Inheritance, you said you had 20-30 books mapped out in your mind, from mysteries, thrillers, horror, romance and science fiction. What made you gravitate toward science fiction?
Growing up, I read as much science fiction as fantasy, so it was a natural transition. Plus, I’ve always had a deep interest in physics, space exploration, and what I believe will be humanity’s inevitable future out among the stars. I’m just sorry I won’t live to see as much of it as I would like! For all the struggles we face as a species on this planet, right now is the greatest golden age humanity has ever known. Could it be better? Sure, but I think it’s important not to lose sight of how much we’ve achieved, nor how much we can still build and accomplish.
In an otherwise barren universe, life is the most precious thing. It is our responsibility to nurture and protect it . . . and in the long term, that means establishing self-sustaining populations offworld and, eventually, outside of the solar system.
On a more pragmatic note, sci-fi/fantasy are close cousins as genres. There’s a lot of crossover, and people who read one are likely to, on occasion, read the other, so I felt confident that most of the fans of the Inheritance Cycle would be willing to give To Sleep in a Sea of Stars a look.
What is the most exciting thing about writing for an adult audience after writing such a successful Young Adult series?
Hmm. Not having to censor myself as much, I suppose. Mind you, I never set out to be gratuitous or vulgar, but it was freeing to be able to write openly about whatever I wanted without having to worry about how that might affect my ten-year-old readers (or those who were even younger).
On a related note, another fun thing about switching to science fiction was getting to use a modern vocabulary. When working on the Inheritance Cycle, there were a whole bunch of words and phrases that I couldn’t use without breaking readers’ suspension of disbelief. Words are a writer’s tools, after all, so its nice to be able to employ the full range of them.
Another grand, epic adventure. And unlike Eragon, To Sleep in a Sea of Stars is a complete story in one novel. Although the book is huge, it’s more like an entire series in one novel! As with any author, I have certain storytelling obsessions, and they have certainly made their mark on To Sleep. If readers enjoyed what I did in the Inheritance Cycle, I think they’ll really like this book as well, even if it does have spaceships instead of dragons.
Also, I’ve learned a heck of a lot about writing in the past ten years, and I’ve done my best to use every bit of that knowledge in To Sleep. As of 2020, I’ve been writing professionally for twenty-two years, and I’ve devoted a large portion of that time to mastering this craft.
If forced to choose, what subgenre of science fiction would you classify To Sleep in a Sea of Stars under and why?
Space opera! There’s definitely some hard science underpinning the story, but I didn’t want to overwhelm readers with unnecessary jargon (the technobabble has been relegated to the glossary). The story and the characters take center stage, and it’s those that I focused on. Given that and the grand sweep of the plot, space opera is definitely the correct description for this book.
Your main character is a xenobiologist. What made you choose this occupation?
The story starts on a moon that’s being surveyed for a planned human colony, so I had to think of jobs/occupations that the survey team would likely have. Since a large portion of the story revolves around the discovery of intelligent life here in the Milky Way, having my main character, Kira Navárez, be a xenobiologist seemed like the fitting thing to do.
In an early draft of the book, Kira was actually a geologist, but . . . that just didn’t work as well with the themes of the story. (One remnant of this is the name of her computer system: “Petra” which is Greek for “stone”.)
Who are your top three fictional aliens?
It’s hard to choose only three! However, if I must . . .
How has your writing process changed as you’ve grown and published your books?
I’ve gotten more methodical. Through painful experience I’ve learned that the more work I put into developing a story before I start, the easier it will be to actually write. When I was younger, I’d get excited about a new idea and want to dive right into the writing. The problem with that approach is that an idea isn’t a story. “A young man finds a dragon egg in the forest.” Cool idea, but it’s not a story. Learning how to develop ideas into fully fledged plots/worlds/characters has been invaluable.
Also, I make a conscious effort to work on the things I’m bad at, instead of avoiding them because of discomfort. Writing is my craft and my career, and I want to be the best darn storyteller that I can be. As part of that, I also exercise regularly in order to make sure my brain and body stay healthy.
Finally, who are your biggest influences in the science fiction world?
Star Trek, the Hyperion series by Dan Simmons, Dune, Asimov, Heinlein, Le Guin, Octavia Butler, Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, Jack Vance, Philip K. Dick, Alien(s), Babylon 5, The Prisoner TV show, 2001, the Mass Effect series, Halo, Iain M. Banks, C. J. Cherryh, Andre Norton, Smilla’s Sense of Snow, and many, many more.