Q. In your latest novel Fire Will Fall (sequel to Streams of Babel), four teens–the Trinity Four–survive a bioterrorist attack in Trinity Falls, a fictional town based on the one you live in. Why did you set it there?
A. I’d heard some readers wondering why I set so many stories at the shore, and hence, I wanted to give them something new. I believe, however, that setting is like a character, and hence I wanted places where I’d actually breathed the air and enjoyed the surroundings.
Trinity Falls is actually a take off of a town just behind the South Jersey barrier islands (where many of my stories are set) called Linwood. It’s a really pretty place and is true to the form of Streams of Babel, mostly white-collar professionals, very staid and lovely scenery. It’s sort of a microcosm of the American Dream, which plays into the plot, of course.
Fire Will Fall, set in an old mansion in the Pine Barrens, is actually a takeoff on a property on the historical register in South Jersey called Batsto. However by necessity, I had to move it closer to the water, so it’s like Batsto, but sitting on the Back Bay instead of inland (Ah, what we can do in fiction!).
Q. Despite the horror of their experiences, the Trinity Four still manage to find love. Do you think that love can sometimes help heal emotional trauma?
A. I’m sure love can heal trauma. I just couldn’t resist romances with ongoing characters. I don’t know too many teenagers who aren’t either in love, looking for love, or dreaming of love in spite of any horrible situations they’re dealing with. It’s just the age of love, and the way it’s played out, not too smarmy, I thought even guys would relate to what goes on.
Q. Do you think that teens fall in love differently from adults? What are the challenges of writing about teens falling in love?
A. Teens fall in love differently; they’ve often not yet learned to guard their hearts and emotions. This “what if someone dies” question that underlies the story creates that necessity to guard the heart.
Q. What is your favorite scene in Fire Will Fall?
A. Wow, that’s a tough one. I’d say it’s a toss up between a couple. In one scene, Scott has to dress a mystery wound that Rain got while touching some strange animal carcass she found on the property (the implication is that the terrorists killed the animal with an experimental Weapon of Mass Destruction). Cora is in love with him, and it’s told from her viewpoint of watching our “ultimate healer” in action. I kind of have a crush on Scott myself, so the scene just spilled out.
The other is a scene on Rain’s bed between Rain and Owen, where she’s trying to whiten his teeth, and they have a very frank discussion about sex. It cracked me up because I can hear a million teenagers having conversations like this. There’s a thread that runs through the manuscript between Rain and Owen, and Rain’s infernal curiosity that’s just recently hit her. The subplot totally cracked me up whenever I came back to it.
In real life, I’m what parents might call a “success story” in the teaching of abstinence by one’s family. Hence, I’ve never been comfortable writing about teenagers having sex (I think it can only hurt them, don’t find it normal, don’t find it funny in the least). The illness caused by the WMD gives me an excuse to keep my characters out of trouble when, surely, trouble would be found otherwise. But they’re human, too, and they enjoy the same very frank discussions I did with my friends.
Q. Are there any particular challenges to writing a sequel versus the first novel in a series?
A. It’s really fun to write a sequel because you already know the characters totally, and they tend to write their own lines very easily. I felt like the sequel gave me more time to be with those guys, whom I loved and missed. The challenge is where to leave off the first one/where to pick up with the next so that the story feels seamless and keeps building.
Q. In your essay, “Q: How Does a Fifteen-Year-Old Do This? A: The Same Way a Fifty-Year-Old Does” in Secrets of the Dragon Riders, you discuss how Paolini has an edge over older writers in that younger people tend to have more dynamic imaginations. Do you think teens get written off for their youth more often than their youth is seen as an asset?
A. Teenagers do have greater imaginations than adults, and many more could do what Chris did. The challenge is that they’re spending so much time either in school or in front of electronics (both artificial assimilations of reality) that they don’t have much time to (a) be alone and imagine, and (b) jump full force into reality, which means spending time around real-world adults who are not their parents or teachers. They’re kind of living in a misty Limbo: Nothing’s quite real, nothing’s quite the full-blown imaginary world that requires time alone to erect for fun and escape. (Obviously there are exceptions.) I get these kids as freshman in college, as I teach English Composition. It’s tragic to see how the best minds are often burned out and discouraged (historically, the best writers are fair-to-good students but not great students). They’re often what I call “toxic” from learning methods that they couldn’t adapt to. It leaves images in my mind of dogs chained up in the backyard for life because they’re just too hard to walk.
Chris Paolini opted to write novels and learn from home instead of going to traditional high school. The situation put him in contact with many more adults than most teenagers are exposed to (schools have to protect kids from those who aren’t school employees due to fear of predators, etc.). It also gave him enough time alone to develop the imagination needed for a novel-length work.
As a home schooling mom for five years, my message to lots of kids and their families is that you don’t have to be a teacher in order to home school, and that friends who are worth having will not drop a kid like a hot potato if he opts not to go. It’s all in a little memoir I put out called Homeschooling Abbey, about my years with my daughter. It used to be that the best writers got their careers together in their twenties. Nowadays, the best writers are first publishing in their late thirties/early forties, and I think that Chris got a jump on that by some of the decisions he made about how he was going to spend his time. It takes a lot less time to school at home than to school with a host of others who all learn differently than you do.
Q. In your essay you also discuss symbolism in dreams, and how an “artist’s conscious mind works with his subconscious to create.” Have you ever found inspiration for one of your books in a dream?
A. The Body of Christopher Creed was sparked by a dream I had of kids I went to school with who were picked on a lot. I dreamed that I was my current age, but these kids were in front of me as they were when I was with them–perhaps ages nine through high school. They all looked very sad, almost crying, like they used to when picked on. An adult of some sort was with them who looked like a very nice gym teacher (or maybe an angel) who comforted one and said, “You can talk to her; she won’t hurt you now.”
I was all, “WOW,” because the implication was that at one time I might have hurt one of them. I had never picked on any of the bullied kids when I was in school, but I had never reached out to help one either. As an adult, I had to look back and ask, “Where are these kids now? Are they all right?” and know those questions would never be answered. Most were gone from the area without leaving any forwarding address. It was haunting.
I wrote Creed to sort of exorcise those demons about never having been very nice to those kids.
Q. Which book in the Inheritance Cycle is your favorite so far?
A. I’d say Eragon. I have yet to see where any later book in a series exceeds the first–so I’m hoping I’ll be a first with Fire will Fall.
Q. What are you working on right now?
A. I just finished a sequel to The Body of Christopher Creed, which was ten years coming. People always asked if I would write a sequel, and I always said no, because I couldn’t think of anything good that would happen. I held out for “that good thing” to come into my mind and didn’t try to write something simply because the first book was doing well. It’s a roller coaster ride, a long time coming, but I kept my integrity.
Q. If you could tell us to read one book this year, what would it be?
A. The Bible. I just reread it this year and found a great theme I hadn’t noticed in earlier reads: Nearly all of God’s chosen people, from Noah to Moses to Gideon to the prophets, had this moment of “Why me? You gotta be kidding…” None could believe that God would use them for great things. It’s a great walk through some great stories, most with a reminder that we’re all incredibly valuable, regardless of what we think about ourselves…