Publishers always hope for a new author to create a buzz, but few could imagine the level and intensity of attention that 20-year-old Christopher Paolini has generated. He began work on his debut novel Eragon (Knopf), the first in a planned trilogy, when he was only 15 years old; when it was finished, his family had the book printed by on-demand printer Lightning Source.

It was a rare self-publishing success story—not only did the book gain a cult following and attract a major publishing house, but the first edition itself has become a collector's item, with mint copies fetching upward of $300 at online auctions.

Knopf signed up the title and published it in hardcover earlier this season; Eragon debuted at #3 on the New York Times bestseller list, which was followed by an appearance on the Today show. According to Paolini, it's been a whirlwind ever since.

"There wasn't a lot of publicity leading up to the publication of the book, because they weren't sure if it was really going to do anything," he says. "But it has gotten pretty insane. There have been a huge amount of interviews." He recently finished a 16-city tour for Knopf, and is going back out on the road to do 10 more cities—that is, after he gets back from a month in Britain for the U.K. release of the book.

"I'm still trying to get used to it—but I'm not sure if I really want to get used to it, because there's no guarantee it will last," he says. "It's been an extraordinary experience. Readers have fallen in love with the book, thousands of people are reading it—I really can't ask for more as an author."

While Paolini acknowledges that the Harry Potter books have opened the field for YA fantasy novelists, he can honestly say that they didn't influence Eragon at all. "I actually didn't read the Potter books until the fourth one came out, and by then I had already written Eragon," he recalls. "Of course, once I started, I devoured them. What Rowling has done is really wonderful."

So which authors did play a role in shaping him? While Tolkien was an influence on Paolini, he was not the biggest—he lists his three most influential authors as Anne McCaffrey, Ursula K. LeGuin, and Raymond Feist. He enjoyed Tolkien, but says that Feist's novel Magician made a particularly strong impact on him.

Paolini, who was home-schooled, received his high school degree at age 15. That left him with the time he needed to work on the book. But there's another side to that coin: while most teenage boys were worried about who to ask to the prom, Paolini was thinking about print runs and publicity junkets.

"I wouldn't have changed it," he says. "Something a lot of people don't realize is that in order to write a book, you have to have time. When I graduated from high school, I had time to just write. I think I had a wonderful childhood—my parents put a lot of work into my sister and me, and it's all turned out for the best so far."

Eragon, an enormous tome in its own right, is only one-third of the story—and Paolini says he is about halfway finished with Book Two. "I'm very happy to be working on it," he says. "By the end of this year, I will have been working on or talking about Eragon for five years. I mean, five years—that's a quarter of my entire life!" he says with a laugh. "I think it's going to be a lot better than Book One, because I learned so much about editing that I get to put to use. I think technically I'm a lot stronger now."