Philip Pullman, Tamora Pierce, and Christopher Paolini Talk Fantasy Fiction
By Dave Weich,

Of 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 shelves.

Would 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, Montana.

We 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?

Tamora 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 I am.

Christopher 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.

Philip 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 of them.

It 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.

Pierce: 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.

Pullman: 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.

What 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.

Paolini: I think I'm very lucky in that I live in a valley just north of Yellowstone Park here in Montana…

Pierce: Excuse me while I whimper for a moment.

Paolini: 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.

Dave: 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.

Pierce: 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 leap.

It 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 corner.

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.

Pullman: That's a good way of putting it. I completely agree with you.

The 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.

Fantasy 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.

Paolini: 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 life.

Pierce: 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.

The 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.

Pullman: I'm glad it had that effect. That's what I was hoping for.

Pierce: It was beautiful.

Pullman: 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, as well.

The 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 it is.

Paolini: 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 her race.

Dave: 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?

Paolini: 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.

For 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 of research.

It's 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, anyway.

Pullman: 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.

Paolini: 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 their horns.

Pierce: Oh!

Pullman: Well, you would, wouldn't you?

Paolini: 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.

Pullman: And the spirit of the animal lives on in the bow and all that. Yes.

Paolini: Right.

Pierce: And I'll bet they must have a lot of tensile strength, since normal horn in any case is more flexible.

Paolini: 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.

I love doing that stuff. I make my own knives and chain mail and stuff like that.

Pullman: Have you made a bow?

Paolini: 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.

Pullman: 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.

Pierce: I learned to spin on a drop-spindle for Magic Steps, the first Circle of Magic book.

Paolini: Wow!

Pierce: 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.

Pullman: 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.

This 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?

Pierce: 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.

That 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.

Paolini: I don't think anyone would read authors' books if we weren't able to rewrite.

Pierce: Anyone who tells you they don't need to rewrite, they're usually the ones who need it worst.

Paolini: 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.

Pullman: 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.

I completely agree, though. That's the way it starts for me, too.

Paolini: 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 never forget.

Pierce: 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.

Pullman: This is where editors come in. Their function is to snatch the book from you and run away quickly!

Pierce: 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.

Dave: 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?

Pierce: 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.

I 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 up to.

Paolini: 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.

Pierce: Large tapestry means many details.

Dave: Philip, you've explained before that you use sticky notes to help organize your storylines.

Pullman: 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.

I find them very useful. They're the best writing technology I've come across.

Pierce: 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.

Pullman: 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.

Paolini: 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.

Pierce: 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.

Pullman: 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.

Many 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 do it.

I 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.

Paolini: 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.

Pullman: 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.

Paolini: 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.

Pullman: I wish I were an illustrator sometimes. Then I could listen to music all the time.

Pierce: 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 screaming.

Dave: 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.

Pullman: 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 more.

Pierce: 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.

Paolini: 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.

Pierce: The hero's journey.

Paolini: 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.

Eragon's 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.

Pullman: 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.

I 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.

Pierce: 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.

Paolini: 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.

Pullman: And that's why readers can do it: because you've done it successfully for them.

Paolini: That's the hope.

Pierce: 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 good.

Paolini: 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?

Pierce: 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.

Pullman: 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 it.

Pierce: 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.

Pullman: That's very true.

Paolini: I think you nailed it with that.

Pierce: Well, I've been thinking about this for a while.

Paolini: 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.

Pullman: 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."

It's 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.

Emma 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.

Pierce: 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.

I 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.

We 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.

Paolini: 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 it.

Pullman: This is what we were saying earlier on about it's got to be real. It's got to be psychologically truthful.

Pierce: 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.

I 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.

Paolini: 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.

Pierce: I'm wrestling with the same thing.

Paolini: 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.

Pullman: Well, I look forward to reading your solution because that's something we all have to deal with at some stage.

Pierce: It's the old slavery paradigm. If you do away with slavery, what happens to the masters?

Paolini: 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.

Pullman: 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.

I 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.

I 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.

Pierce: I'm the person who tells kids at schools, "It's your language. Play with it."

Pullman: Yes.

Pierce: 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.

Where 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.

The 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…

Has 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?"

I 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.

Paolini: 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 with that.

Pullman: 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.

Pierce: 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 useful.

Paolini: I only have one baby name book, but I've found a web site…

Pierce: Kabalarians?

Paolini: Yes!

Pierce: Six hundred eighty seven thousand names!

Paolini: The problem is they have so many names that once you start skimming through none of them seems right.

Pierce: 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.

Paolini: 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.

But 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 resource.

Pullman: 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 dictionary.

Pierce: 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 else.

Pullman: Do your translators consult you very much? I must say, I've only been consulted once and that was on one word into Italian.

Pierce: 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.

Pullman: 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?

Pierce: You really do.

Paolini: 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.

Philip 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 on July 31, 2003. Originally published on, October 2003. Copyright © 2003


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