Pullman, Tamora Pierce, and Christopher Paolini
Talk Fantasy Fiction
By Dave Weich, Powells.com
course we jumped at the opportunity to host a panel
between these three. Of course we did. But not without
some reservations. The authors had not previously
met, nor would they for this conversation. Instead,
we'd conduct the discussion by phone. Philip Pullman
is the author of more than twenty books, including
The Amber Spyglass, winner of the prestigious Whitbread
Award for Best Book of the Year (2001). Tamora Pierce,
whose work has been translated into German, Danish,
Swedish, Hungarian and Japanese, has published five
full quartets of acclaimed fiction for children
and young adults. Christopher Paolini, meanwhile,
is a nineteen-year-old fantasy writer whose debut,
at the time of our talk, had not yet reached store
it work? One morning in late July, the three authors
spoke from their homes — Pullman in Oxford, England
("If you can hear some hissing and spitting
going on in the background," he warned us,
"it's not because I'm fighting with our cat;
it's because I'm cooking"); Pierce in New York
City (one didn't have to ask which caller brought
the sound of wailing police sirens to the mix);
and Paolini in his family's house in Paradise Valley,
needn't have worried. The breathless back-and-forth
between the authors lasted more than an hour. For
all the fun they were having, the conversation might
have continued well into the afternoon had time
constraints not finally forced its end.
Dave: Each of your new books is set in some kind
of alternative universe. Does that fictional universe
develop as a course of the story finding its direction?
How much is established from the start?
Pierce: For me, it's a little of both. With each
book, in each place, I have to keep an ongoing map
as I write because otherwise I don't know where
Paolini: I'd have to say it's the same for me. I
mean, I've only done this one and a half times,
but the way I've worked so far is I have a fairly
detailed work-up of the land and the rules of the
universe, where Eragon will be going and what he'll
be encountering. Then, as I actually work, ideas
and details and refinements usually suggest themselves
to me during the process.
Pullman: With my work, especially with Lyra's Oxford,
the starting point was the real city of Oxford,
where I happen to live anyway. I'm writing about
an alternative Oxford in an alternative universe,
so I couldn't make it too different or too much
the same. I had to stick with the basic framework
of the old city and add things to it as I thought
was a mixture of making things up to fit the story
I'm telling and fitting in bits of the real city
that I wanted to use. But I don't like starting
with a completely clear idea of where I want to
get to because then it's no fun going.
If I'm stuck for a city and need one in a hurry,
I've also been known to borrow from our real world
landscape. I swiped the layout for St. Petersburg
for Cold Fire and I — ahem — liberated a map of
Jerusalem because, see, I have this problem with
scale. Scale involves… m…m…m…math. So it helps if
I know a real place that I know people can walk
across in a day.
Scale is important. You're quite right. It helps
me a great deal to know roughly how long it would
take to walk from here to there, or whether it's
uphill, and what you could see if you turned this
corner or that corner. In the Victorian thrillers
I wrote, I used old maps of London, which helped
a great deal because it gave me a sense of the solidity,
the reality of the thing I was describing.
you want to do basically is make your scenery solid
enough so that it doesn't sway and rock when people
walk into it. Having a sense of where things are
in the scale is a great help.
I think I'm very lucky in that I live in a valley
just north of Yellowstone Park here in Montana…
Excuse me while I whimper for a moment.
Yes, it's called Paradise Valley, and it's wonderful.
The scenery here cannot be beat, and it's one of
the main sources of inspiration for me. I go hiking
a lot, and oftentimes when I'm in the forest or
in the mountains, sitting down and seeing some of
those little details makes the difference between
having an okay description and having a unique description.
For instance, maybe there's moss there, but maybe
I know from personal experience that the moss feels
like mouse fur when it's being petted. Stuff like
that. It really does help.
Often when readers or critics are talking about
these kinds of novels, they'll talk about the fantastical
elements of them — dragons and daemons and shapeshifters
— but your books are defined as much by what's real
and recognizable from the real world.
I think you have to do that, particularly if you're
working in speculative fiction. You have an audience
that is fairly well grounded in the real world.
You serve them and yourself best by making everything
as real as possible. That way, when you ask them
to make that big suspension of disbelief, when you
ask them to believe, at least for the space of the
book, that this sort of magic works, they've saved
all their imaginative energy for that particular
also makes readers feel that even the most mundane
of settings includes possibility. I think we probably
all tinkered with that as we were growing up: We
were all imagining what was happening around the
fantasy that appeals most to people is the kind
that's rooted thoroughly in somebody looking around
a corner and thinking, What if I wandered into this
writer's people here? If you've done your job and
made your people and your settings well enough,
that adds an extra dimension that you can't buy.
That's a good way of putting it. I completely agree
extra point, for me, is that it isn't interesting
to write about if it isn't real, if there isn't
a dimension of reality there, particularly a psychological
reality. If I can believe in the characters I'm
writing about, or if I can find something interesting
to say through the medium of their story about what
it feels like to be a real live human being, then
it's interesting for me. If I can't do that, if
it's so far away from what we know of as real life,
my interest is correspondingly diminished and I
can't bring myself to feel any great passionate
desire to find out more.
for me is just one of many ways to say something
truthful about what it's like to be alive. That's
the subject of all fiction, really.
I know when I'm writing if I happen to get sidetracked
into long pastoral descriptions or too many fantastical
elements, I find that my interest, even as the writer,
diminishes. It doesn't return until somehow I find
a way to get back to the characters' inner lives
and how they're dealing with the questions of everyday
One of the things that really struck me about both
Eragon and the Dark Materials books… I'm touchy
on the subject of animals; I like them to be as
real as possible. But here in one case you have
armored bears, and in the other case, in Eragon,
the dragon herself.
dragon acted in an alien way, in a way that was
not human, and became more believable thereby. She
had her own agenda that had to do with her race
and species — and not humans. The armored bears:
They talk, they make their own armor, and they fight,
but for the rest of it, they live just like bears.
That just blew me away.
I'm glad it had that effect. That's what I was hoping
It was beautiful.
But again, it's this reality thing, isn't it? What
would a bear do? What would a bear be like? What
would be real for a bear? Just to have a character
who's really a person but looks like a bear, well,
that's not good enough. A bear's got to be a bear,
trouble with some works of fantasy is that they're
called animals, but they're really just people.
That's not so interesting for me. As you were saying,
it's got to be an animal as well as whatever else
I decided to go in a more human direction with Saphira,
my dragon, because the more I thought about it,
the more I realized that she is raised away from
her species, away from her race, in close mental
contact with a human. I considered making the dragon
more dragon-like, if you will, in its own society,
but I haven't had a chance to explore that. I went
with a more human element with Saphira while still
trying to get a bit of the magic, the alien, of
Christopher, you say you're halfway through the
second volume of your trilogy. How does it feel
to be heading out into however many hundreds more
pages with these characters?
Well, both of you have more experience with this
than I do, but as far as I can tell, my first novel
was a way to explore the standard fantasy traditions
that I enjoyed reading so much. It was a chance
for me to play in this type of world. My second
book and third book, as I see it, are opportunities
to expand upon the original archetypes and try to
bring a depth to the world that I haven't seen done
or in ways that I want to explore personally.
instance, Eragon is traveling with dwarves for a
while. I've never seen their culture explored too
deeply in fantasy, and I wanted to make them very
real. So he's learning about their religion and
their customs and their world — I did a large amount
daunting to still have a book and a half to go,
but it's also a wonderful experience to have the
characters mature with me as I'm writing them, especially
as I'm pretty much the same age as most of the characters,
There's nothing like setting out on a long voyage,
and beginning a long story is like that. There's
a sense of spaciousness, of amplitude. There's a
large world in front of you, and you don't know
what's in it. You're going to go exploring and you're
going to be disconcerted and maybe you're going
to be frightened, but you're going to be excited
and made happy, too, by what's there. Just this
sense of space and size and lots of room.
One of the things I love about working on a large
story is being able to fill it with interesting
little tidbits from the world. For instance, puzzle
rings. I came across them last year, and I'm putting
them in the book. I gave one to my hero to stymie
him. Then I found out that the American Indians
used to make bows from the horns of mountain sheep.
I have monsters with large horns, so I thought,
Maybe some of my characters are making bows from
Well, you would, wouldn't you?
You would, and they would be highly prized. It meant
you slew a great monster, and now you had the skill
to make the bow.
And the spirit of the animal lives on in the bow
and all that. Yes.
And I'll bet they must have a lot of tensile strength,
since normal horn in any case is more flexible.
Actually, these are the most powerful bows you can
make without modern material. The all-time record
held for a distance shot is held by a Turkish compound
bow made out of wood and horn.
love doing that stuff. I make my own knives and
chain mail and stuff like that.
Have you made a bow?
I'm in the process of making a bow. It takes so
much skill, it's probably not going to be any good,
but it's good for writing fantasy.
Absolutely. Because the sense of having something
in your hands, and twisting it and turning it and
feeling the texture of it… there's nothing to match
that actual concrete experience when it comes to
writing about it.
I learned to spin on a drop-spindle for Magic Steps,
the first Circle of Magic book.
Not well, though. It varies from floss to rope.
But not only did I fully know all the problems my
character would have had, learning to spin, I also
found that it had become a metaphor. The whole physical
presentation of the spindle and the whole thought
of spinning had become a metaphor for the book,
and in fact for the whole quartet.
That's very interesting. Has that happened in other
books for you? In the book I'm doing at the moment,
I didn't discover the governing metaphor until…
well, I'm about two-thirds of the way through, and
suddenly I can see what it is.
means of course you can go back and make it richer
and all that sort of stuff, but I very often don't
discover this stuff till I'm quite a ways through.
Is it the same for you?
Actually, most of the time it is. It's the old archeological
or paleontological method for writing: You sit there
with a little brush and maybe a little pick, and
you keep excavating until suddenly you discover
you've dug up a T Rex — and you're at the end of
the first draft. That's what rewrites are for. Thank
God. Then you can go back and saturate the metaphor.
This is what I was really writing about all along.
happens to me more often then not. Sandry's Book
was actually the first time I deliberately set out
to learn something that transferred over as I wrote
the first time around.
I don't think anyone would read authors' books if
we weren't able to rewrite.
Anyone who tells you they don't need to rewrite,
they're usually the ones who need it worst.
I've found that the story ideas I get tend to come
to me as a single image or feeling. It's very hard
to convey through just words, but it's usually like
the end of a symphony or the end of a great movie
when you're just left with a sense of awe and wonder.
These images will come to me, and then usually what
I end up doing is constructing a whole story around
it just to support that one image.
That's exactly my experience, but the analogy I
would use is not so much the end of a symphony as
waking from a dream. You know what it's like when
you try and tell someone what your dream is like?
It's so boring because it evaporates in the telling
somehow. A novel for me is an attempt to build a
kind of hermetic vessel that can contain this essence
you've been dreaming about, this feeling that you
don't want to evaporate. You keep it enclosed and
you don't tell anyone about it until you build a
vessel that can contain it and keep it at its maximum
intensity and purity — that's the novel.
completely agree, though. That's the way it starts
for me, too.
I have to admit, I just got the audio book version
of Eragon yesterday. I've never heard my work read
like this. I was listening to the end of the book
and I was on the floor with my jaw open, thinking,
I can't believe how many details I put in the book.
And I can't believe how overwrought it is! But it
was an attempt, like you said, to bring the story
to a full boil and capture the magic and the feeling
at the very end. You do want to go over the top
when it really counts. You want to take the reader
over the cliff and leave them with something they'll
But at the same time, what you were saying about
going, Oh, my God, I did this… My fans always look
at me like I just shot their pony when I tell them
I cannot bear to look at my first four books. Of
course, they're in print and I can't make them better
now. But there always comes that moment when you
think, This is as good as I'm going to get with
this. I have to let it go.
This is where editors come in. Their function is
to snatch the book from you and run away quickly!
Yes, and then to come back and say, "Okay,
here's what you were doing." And you're sitting
there: Wow. I'm smarter than I thought.
Tamora, you're coming back now to a storyline that
you left years and years ago, with the Lioness books.
I assume you went back and reread the original books,
right? Or how much were you able to work from memory?
Memory only gets me so far — unless it's my husband's
because he remembers far more about my books than
I do. But what we did, in the intervening years
between my second quartet, The Immortals [including
Wild Magic, Wolf-Speaker, The Emperor Mage, and
The Realms of the Gods] and The Protector of the
Small quartet [First Test, Page, Squire, and Lady
Knight] at night we'd be sitting around, and we'd
end up talking about the different characters, what
they'd be doing now and what their kids were doing.
So when I came back, in some ways, it was as if
I hadn't left at all.
have directories and subdirectories and sub-subdirectories
of national customs. I have cast lists so I don't
use the same name twice. I have all these copious
notes and maps and everything that I go back and
check, because the minutia will escape me. But I'll
remember what people have been doing in the intervening
time because I've been telling my husband what they're
I've found the same thing. Even though I finished
Eragon fairly recently, I'm having to do the same
thing you mentioned, which is keep copious notes
and lists of all the names and places. Especially
with a trilogy, it builds up with each book. Before
you know it, you have half a thousand names.
Large tapestry means many details.
Philip, you've explained before that you use sticky
notes to help organize your storylines.
That comes with the rewriting stage, my little Post-It
Notes habit. To keep track of what's happening in
a long book, what I do, after I've finished the
first draft, is I get a very, very large piece of
paper, the largest I can find, and a whole stack
of very small, yellow Post-It Notes. I go through
the whole thing and write down on a Post-It Note
each scene I have. Will meets the bear - that's
a scene. I stick each one on the paper in the order
in which they come, so I have a great big piece
of paper covered with hundreds and hundreds of these
little yellow stickies. Then I can move them around,
you see, and they don't blow away when you open
a window. It's easy to pick this one up and move
it down there where it really ought to be and to
group these two together because the same thing
happens, sort of. Then get rid of that one because
something similar has already happened.
find them very useful. They're the best writing
technology I've come across.
Before you said you do this for rewrites, I was
thinking, Now, there is a man who has faith in the
3M company. I can't get my sticky notes to stay.
I can just imagine losing a whole chapter because
the note ended up stuck to a cat.
I wouldn't start from them, but once the book is
there already it's a good way of seeing a great
big map of it from above.
I have a question for both of you. I was wondering
if either of you listen to anything while you work.
I'm a devotee of classical music and such things,
and I find that they often help capture the mood
of a certain scene.
It kind of varies for me. For a long time, I did
need music, but when I'm working I can't listen
to music with words in a language I understand.
Since I understand words from a bunch of European
languages, if I'm not listening to classical, if
I'm not listening to symphonic movie soundtracks,
I'd better be getting some really esoteric music.
Bagpipes are a big favorite. And for the Circle
of Magic books, since I was working in a universe
rather like the Medieval Middle East and Central
Asia, I was listening to Arabic and Hindi and Tuvan
throat singing and Balinese and Gamelan and any
Japanese or Chinese, you name it. Then I hit a stage
recently, I think with my last two books, where
I couldn't be listening to anything at all. I needed
silence. But now I'm getting back. Respighi's Pines
of Rome has been beating me over the head. I've
been listening, working on the book I'm doing now.
I love music, classical music in particular, but
jazz and all kinds of stuff as well — but not when
I'm working. The rhythm, whatever the rhythm is,
interferes with the rhythm of what I'm writing.
When I'm doing prose, which is what I'm doing almost
all the time — occasionally I've been known to write
verse — I need to hear what I'm doing in my head,
and I can't if there's music playing.
years ago, when my oldest son, who's now a professional
musician — he plays the viola — when he was practicing
his violin, this was generally the time I'd be writing,
and I'd be listening to that instead of listening
to what I was doing, so I had a shed built at the
bottom of the garden and I went to work there just
for the sake of the silence. It's not so much words
that I might understand, as it is with Tamora; it's
simply the rhythm. I can hear, very often, the rhythm
of the next sentence before I know what the words
are that go in it, and I will find words to fit
the rhythm. Dum-dum-dum-da-DUM-da-dum - something
like that, you see. I can hear the sound I want
before I hear the words. If there's music playing,
music of any sort, it's very distracting and I can't
found though that when I was doing the illustrations
for the first two volumes of His Dark Materials
— they were published at first in the United States
without the illustrations, but every chapter heading
has a little vignette, which I did — I found that
I could listen to music while I was doing it, and
I loved it. I loved doing the illustrations. Unfortunately,
I'm not a very good illustrator, so I didn't get
the chance to do much more than that.
I envy you, Mr. Pullman, the ability to hear the
beats in the sentences, the rhythm, because I happen
to be rather tone deaf and I find it incredibly
difficult to manipulate those types of rhythms.
Alliteration and repetition are no problem, but
beyond that I'm at a loss.
I'm not sure it's a good thing to be able to do.
It's just the way I do it. Maybe it's a limitation.
But it does mean that I can't listen to music while
I'm actually working, much as I love music otherwise.
Well, I listen to music while I draw, as well. I
did the maps for Eragon, and I find that listening
to music always helps me draw better.
I wish I were an illustrator sometimes. Then I could
listen to music all the time.
And I can't draw for beans. When I do my maps, I
have to hand them over to art departments in order
that real people can follow them. I have a friend
that I ask because he's a bit of a geography wonk.
I sent him the map for Cold Fire, and I told him,
"Okay, from Point A to Point B takes five minutes
skating. From Point C to Point F takes twenty minutes
walking. And from Point D to Point A it takes ten
minutes by sleigh." And I swear, he's three
thousand miles away, but I swear I could hear him
A point of contrast between the protagonists of
your books: In His Dark Materials, Lyra must retain
her innocence for the bulk of the trilogy; she must
act without realizing exactly what she's doing.
Aly, on the other hand, in Trickster's Choice, is
very much ahead of the people around her; she in
fact becomes their guide. And Eragon is learning
as he goes, basically.
Until a particular point in the story, Lyra has
to remain, as it were, innocent — innocent of motives,
innocent of understanding things. It's not that
she must act without knowing what she's doing, because
that makes her sound like an automaton, as if she's
obeying instructions from outside. It isn't so much
that. Her understanding comes at a particular point
in the story and in a particular way, which is important
for her and for the rest of us. Until that point,
she has to preserve, or I have to preserve for her…
well, the only word for it is innocence, really.
But it's not easy to arrange, and sometimes you
find yourself wishing she were able to know a bit
Aly, unlike most of my characters, was raised to
this from the cradle. She inhaled code and search
techniques and picking pockets and sign language
at her nursemaid's knee. She is raised to the game.
So at least in the confines of Tanair, where she's
working throughout Trickster's Choice, she is savvier
than the people around her. She is more fly to the
time of day. This gets her into trouble because
other people don't act as she was taught sensible
spies should. It will really become a problem for
her in Trickster's Queen, where she knows how the
game is played, and she's really relieved to find
others who play it, too. The problem is all those
people who aren't raised to know how it should be
done because they keep going off and doing things
on their own.
I chose to have Eragon mature and learn throughout
the course of my story because, for one thing, it's
one of the archetypal fantasy elements.
The hero's journey.
Right, the hero's journey. I wanted to play with
that. And also, I started writing this at fifteen.
I'd just graduated from high school. It was the
easiest type of story for me to write at the time
because I was so close to it, myself.
growth and maturation throughout the book sort of
mirrored my own growing abilities as a writer and
as a person, too. So it was a very personal choice
for that book. In Book Two, I switch viewpoint to
Eragon's cousin, Roran. For a large part of the
book, I'm flipping back and forth. That gave me
the ability to move to a more mature character and
explore some stuff I really can't deal with with
Eragon at this point.
It's an advantage for the reader, too, because it
provides the reader with a number of different viewpoints
and a number of different friends.
often think that we misuse the term "identify
with" when we talk about readers identifying
with a particular character. I don't think it happens
so much like that. I don't think they say, "I
want to be so and so." I think what a reader
says is, "I want to be their friend. I want
to be in the story, but I want to remain me."
That's often the way we read. And when you have
characters like yours, that's what the reader is
doing, I think.
My studied aim as a writer… From the very beginning,
I mean, I bowed to Tolkien; he was the master. He's
where I started with fantasy — him and Robert Howard
and Michael Moorcock — but the thing that really
bothered me about so much of what I was reading
in middle school and high school was that these
were not people I knew. I knew no pale, elegant,
noble suffering persons. I knew no black, gnarly,
evil, icky persons. So I started writing as an adult
with the deliberate attention of wanting people
to feel they could turn a corner, find my characters
there, and hang with them awhile. I wanted people
to find friends in my books. These were people it
was fun to be with.
It's interesting that both of you say this in a
similar manner because, for me, Eragon and Eldest
and other stories I've envisioned one day getting
to have all been a direct outgrowth of wanting to
be in a story or to be doing something, myself.
I guess I project myself into the books or the movies
I happen to be watching.
And that's why readers can do it: because you've
done it successfully for them.
That's the hope.
You give them the road to follow. Also, you're doing
something a bit more archetypal than I do these
days. I started out doing the hero's journey, too.
I still like it. It still appeals to me. You have
a bit more leeway where people can imagine themselves
as the hero from the beginning because the hero
is fumbling just as much as they would. That works
beautifully. Anything that will bring the reader
into your universe, your imagination, is always
And I think one of the great advantages of fantasy
and fiction is that it can show people how we can
respond to the great questions and quandaries of
life. What is the meaning of life and death? How
do we deal with sorrow and joy?
If you think about it, and you probably have, fantasy
is probably the only literature around for adults
— kids' books, not so much so — fantasy is the only
literature silly enough, as my relatives would say,
to talk about issues like honor and courage and
making the best decisions.
That's very true. We don't take those things seriously
in the world anymore. It's not so easy now — not
that it ever was easy to write War and Peace, but
somehow we've grown cynical or tired or jaded about
those things in the real world. We just don't believe
it if a character takes seriously honor or courage
in a real setting anymore. In fantasy you can believe
The best we can come up with in the modern age is
"try to do the right thing," which doesn't
have anywhere near the resonance of honor. And I
think people turn to fantasy gladly because we'll
still talk about those truths, and they still have
a powerful effect on the heart. And they're not
hearing about them anywhere else.
That's very true.
I think you nailed it with that.
Well, I've been thinking about this for a while.
But I think you're right. Honor or dignity… dignity
is another point. It's very hard to live in this
world. Life is a give and take between pain and
pleasure, suffering and joy. Finding a way to live
with dignity is one of the eternal themes of human
existence, and you're right: Writing fantasy is
a way to explore that. To try and share with the
readers the solutions that you or I have happened
to think of to some of those quandaries. It makes
reading worthwhile, too.
It's always seemed to me that one of the great things
literature of any sort can do… Well, it's an old
phrase I saw on my favorite tombstone, which is
in my birth city, Norwich, in England. It's a tombstone
of an actress who died in 1801. The stone is dedicated
to "the talents and virtues of Miss Sophia
Anne Godard." Imagine your stone being dedicated
to your talents and virtues! It goes on to say,
"The former" — that is, her talents —
"shone with superior luster and effect in the
great school of morals, the theater."
always seemed to me that this is what literature
does: it is a kind of school of morals. Just as
you were saying about readers learning about what
it's like to be honorable, they can also learn through
literature what it's like to be cowardly and see
the consequences of that. And see what it is like
to be a murderer, and to feel what that is like.
It is a kind of place where moral conundrums, moral
dilemmas, moral puzzles are acted out. Where moral
solutions are found. It's a safe place where this
can happen, but it's also a very truthful place.
And it's a place where we can suffer in absentia,
as it were, by proxy — we can suffer, we can learn,
we can grow by proxy, whether it is a great issue
of life and death or whether it is, in the case
of one of my favorite books, Jane Austen's Emma,
what it feels like to be unthinkingly rude to an
old person who's kind and rather poor.
is unthinkingly rude, and is mortified when this
is pointed out by the man she doesn't yet know that
she loves. This is an unforgettable moment for anybody
who has ever done it themselves. You think, Oh my
God, what have I done? I must never ever do this
again. There are no great issues of life and death
or blood and thunder. It's a quiet little moment,
but it strikes right to the heart of what it is
like to be unkind. This is what literature of every
sort does. Perhaps in fantasy we're doing it in
a different way, but we're fundamentally doing the
same thing. It is, in a way, a school of morals.
It's learning what life is like when you live it
and when you suffer from it.
One of the points I like to make with my heroes,
especially with Kel, is that it's possible to be
scared out of your pants and still do a heroic thing.
Maybe not because you are setting out to do a wonderful
heroic thing, but because there's a job that has
to be done and you're the one who can get her courage
to the point where you can take a stab at it.
want my readers to take away the idea that heroes
are not marble models. Fear, love, terror, and shame
do not slip off their surface. Heroic things are
done by real human beings who feel every bit as
inept as you do. And the nature of courage is not
defined by your fear; it's defined by what you do
with it. That's something I've learned over and
over and over again as I grow older.
all do things from mixed motives. We all do things
imperfectly because we're all people. Those who
read our books can come away with that reassurance
that Hey, even in fantasy, even in science fiction,
there are just regular people there doing their
best. And if it gets you all jacked-up and happy
and enthusiastic for these people, maybe you can
do that here in your own life. You can achieve those
heights of emotion by your own human self.
Actually, I think that's one of my biggest complaints
with the majority of fantasy I've read, where you
do have a hero or sometimes heroine who does not
seem to experience the majority of human emotions
and runs around hacking monsters and all this stuff.
There's no reaction to it. There's no emotion about
This is what we were saying earlier on about it's
got to be real. It's got to be psychologically truthful.
Fantasy can be littered with laughing thieves and
witty assassins, even though in the real world we
can see that thieves prey on the easiest prey, like
any predator, and assassins are soulless. You see
so much of this, and it just creeps me out. That's
scary, to say that killing doesn't have meaning
and theft doesn't have meaning.
started out with my own laughing thief, too, before
I realized that he'd be looking at his noble friends'
things and thinking, Well, I'm here. I could take
them. I realized I didn't like the thief as much
anymore, so I arranged for him to retire.
It's interesting that you mention that because I
was considering how Book Three is going to wrap
up, and I don't want to give away the details, of
course, but it involved what you do with the people
who once held power. Now they're out of power. What
do you do with them? You can't have them sitting
around, and yet I can't have a mass murder on my
hands because I would hate myself for writing it,
and I would hate my characters, and I know my readers
would just throw the books in the trash.
I'm wrestling with the same thing.
Fortunately, I managed to come up with a solution
that works within the rules of magic and the laws
of my world that I've already established, but for
a long while I was feeling very badly because I
knew realistically you can't have a threat to the
power structure hanging around without it being
dealt with one way or another.
Well, I look forward to reading your solution because
that's something we all have to deal with at some
It's the old slavery paradigm. If you do away with
slavery, what happens to the masters?
This is perhaps on a lighter note, but it's something
I've always wanted to ask. I've been very curious
about the way both of you view the language because,
for me, one of the great joys of writing is getting
to actually use the words. To use words like scintillating
and carnelian. All these words have such great feel.
I wondered how much of that is part of your writing.
I love all that kind of thing. I have several dictionaries
and I can't resist reference books of any sort,
especially those that have to do with language.
Publishers send me new dictionaries now, which is
great. I had a great big new dictionary the other
day to comment on, and I'm still trying it out.
love not just the meaning of the words but the sound
and the feel of them in the mouth, the shape of
them, the taste, the weight, the heft, the history
of them, the way they've changed. It's a great sensual
pleasure to manipulate this extraordinarily rich
language that we have, but at the same time you
have to keep it in perspective because the main
thing I think you're dealing with as a storyteller…
the main materials you're working with are not actually
language but events. You're working with scenes
and characters and things that don't necessarily
present themselves initially in the form of words,
although words are the medium you use in order to
convey them to the reader.
was reading recently one of the Maigret novels of
George Simenon, and I found it tremendously impressive
and full of atmosphere and very skillfully put together.
And I read in a little commentary, maybe it was
in the introduction to the book, that Simenon deliberately
restricted his vocabulary to two thousand words.
He never used more than that. So you can do all
sorts of things with a very simple vocabulary. It's
not only the richness of the language but the things
you talk about, the things you invent. You have
to keep the two things in balance. We can all think
of writers whose prose is majestically jeweled and
wonderful, but who can't really tell a story.
I'm the person who tells kids at schools, "It's
your language. Play with it."
My primary drive as a writer is that I'm a storyteller.
I come from a long line of them, so for me the way
it sounds aloud is always what determines where
I go and what I use.
I have my fun is actually with other languages.
Since I'm working in so many different cultures
that I'm looting freely from the real world, I have
phrasebooks and dictionaries, and I when need a
new word and sense that it's a good time for a word
in that culture's language, I hit the books. I start
looking up words that correspond to what I'm getting
at and come up with a created one that still feels
like it came from a different language.
other area where I revolve totally around language
is dialogue, which has been an area of contention
between me and my copy editors. I'm a pretty good
sport about most things, but I've gently and then
not-so-gently requested my editors to inform my
copy editors that unless the sentence is out-and-out
unclear, do not touch my dialogue. People speak
in bad grammar, they use partial sentences, they
trail off, they use slang and incorrectness all
over the place, and when it's in dialogue…
either of you heard of the old Raymond Chandler
quote? "I'm a professor of English and if I
split an infinitive, it goddamn well stays split."
That's how I feel about my dialogue. Every now and
then I'll get a copy-edited manuscript, and I'll
have to call my publisher and very gently say, "Did
my former editor there warn you about me and dialogue?"
did eight years in radio, so at least I come by
it natural. People speak like people speak, and
for me that's fun. To find the different ways that
people say the same thing? I love that.
It's interesting you mention invented languages
because the ancient language, the language used
by the elves in Eragon, I based almost entirely
on Old Norse. I did a god-awful amount of research
into the subject when I was composing it. I found
that it gave the world a much richer feel, a much
older feel, using these words that had been around
for centuries and centuries. I had a lot of fun
It is a lot of fun you can have with language. It's
one of the most pleasurable things. Names for characters
are a way you can play with languages. You mentioned
Old Norse. My bear is called Iorek Byrnison. I got
his name from a glossary of Old Norse. I just looked
through it until I found a word that meant roughly
bear, which is kind of a natural way of finding
a name for a bear, I think.
I have twenty-two baby name books, plus urls for
three baby name databases and CD-Roms and my own
personal lists. You never know what will come in
I only have one baby name book, but I've found a
Six hundred eighty seven thousand names!
The problem is they have so many names that once
you start skimming through none of them seems right.
For me, my cast list helps because I can go through
and see how many names I have starting with that
letter, and if I have too many I don't use that
letter again. You narrow it down as you can.
I was really lucky with Eragon because it's just
dragon with one letter changed. It fits the story
perfectly, but some other names have caused me real
headaches. Days and days of searching.
I was looking recently in a few supposedly very
comprehensive thesauruses and I was dismayed by
how pale and wan the language was in these thesauruses.
They seemed to be lacking a lot of the richness.
And I was able to find in an ancient thesaurus dating
from the early nineteen hundreds words in there
you cannot find anywhere else. Not that you would
maybe want to use them, but it's been a wonderful
I'm always a little wary of the thesaurus because
it's just a list of words. It comes without the
meanings or the history attached. I have got a thesaurus,
but it's the one reference book I almost never use.
If I can't find a word, I'll flick through the dictionary
at random — probably Chambers Dictionary, which
is my favorite because it's got a lot of old Scottish
words and old English words in it — but I'm always
a little careful with a thesaurus because I've seen
people take a word at random without really considering
the history of the word or the implications or the
alternative meanings of the word. I just like to
have all that extra stuff that you get in a big
I got trapped that way, not by linguistic problems
in my own language, but my German translator emailed
me and said they wanted to change ogre in my books
to something else, and they didn't tell me why.
I said no. I was already ticked off at them over
something else. And when the book came out I saw
that ogre in German is Menschenfresser, which is
man-eater. And I thought, If you'd have told me
that's what the word was I would have found something
Do your translators consult you very much? I must
say, I've only been consulted once and that was
on one word into Italian.
No. Arayna, the German publisher, consulted me four
or five times, and I corresponded with my Danish
publisher but that's just for fun. Usually, I don't
hear from them. And German I feel a little personally
about just because I took it in college so I can
sort of muddle my way through. But none of the others
have, and frankly if the Japanese came to me I would
just blink at them like a startled fawn.
I can only read the French, and I can't read much
of that either. You just have to cross your fingers
and hope, don't you?
You really do.
We have Monty Python and the Search for the Holy
Grail on DVD. In the extras, they have an example
of the film as it was dubbed in Japanese. But not
only that, they subtitled it with the Japanese translation
back into English. Instead of searching for the
Holy Grail, they're searching for the Holy Sake
Cup. And instead of shrubbery, it's, "We want
bonsai!" It wasn't quite the same.
Pullman (in Oxford, England), Tamora Pierce (in
New York City), and Christopher Paolini (in Paradise
Valley, Montana) spoke by phone on July 31, 2003.
This interview was conducted by David Weich for
Powells.com on July 31, 2003. Originally published
on Powells.com, October 2003. Copyright © 2003