To celebrate the publication of his second novel Armada, Ernest Cline (Ready Player One) spoke at a Barnes & Noble in Manhattan, revealing fascinating details about his friendship with George R.R. Martin, his DeLorean, and how Star Wars and video games changed his life. Below, some things we learned.
Bookstores are one of his favorite places in the world. “I like to get lost and wander around.”
Ender’s Game is one of his favorite novels. “It’s the first novel I read in one sitting and it also inspired my second novel and my first a little bit of my second one, too. Also Galapagos, by Kurt Vonnegut. It’s one of my all time favorites. All of his books are favorites of mine.
One writing tip: Write what you know and love, and write the book you’ve always wanted to read. I’ve done that twice now. if you can’t please yourself with the story and you’re not having fun, then it’s very unlikely that the reader will have fun.
He was born and raised in a little town called Ashland, Ohio. “It’s often described as like the town from Footloose we were allowed to dance, but there was no reason to. I felt very isolated. We didn’t have our own movie theater or arcade. Now looking back, it seemed like an idyllic place to grow up. It was a place where the outside world only reached me through TV, music, and media.”
Star Wars changed his destiny. “When I was five years old I saw Star Wars for the first time. Go ahead and applaud for Star Wars. Like a lot of people, it changed my life, got me interested in sci-fi and film making. It made me realize making movies was a job! My love of cinema led me to writing my own screen play.”
Video games also changed his life. “I played my first video game, Space Invaders, in 1978, right when it first arrived in America. This was when I first saw Star Wars. This was back before the VCR when you had to wait for the movie to come back to your town to see it again. So I had been waiting a year to see Luke blow up the Death Star. One time I walked out of the cinema and there was Space Invaders in the lobby of the theater. I went up and put what was left of my allowance in the game and it was my first experience in controlling the information on a screen. Before that, looking at a TV was a passive experience.”
He was part of the first generation to have video games as his house. “To me that was like having a training simulator or combat simulator or a star ship simulator in my living. I remember building a cock pit out of couch pillows in front of my television and I would pull the Atari inside and play Star Raiders or Star Ship or Star Hawk or anything with Star in the title and pretend I was like Luke Skywalker. Then I got my home computer, my TRS80 It was like getting to look behind the curtain of how video games were made and I’d try to program my own.”
“The VCR dropped on my childhood like a nuclear bomb. Up until then I had limited access to movies, just the ones that were playing in local theaters. But this opened up a new world. Suddenly in my small town of Ashland, Ohio, I had access to the entire history of cinema. It inspired me to write my screenplay, which was really just glorified fan fiction.”
About that screen play: “I was fascinated with this movie, Buckaroo Banzai. I spent so much time imagining what that sequel would be like that one day I just decided I was going to write it as a screen writing exercise—it was an excuse to nerd out on Buckaroo Banzai more than I already had. The whole story poured out of me in a month and a half and I had so much fun writing it. This was in the early days of the internet and when I put it out into the world the reaction stunned me. All these Buckaroo Banzai fans around the world, who I didn’t even know existed, started emailing me. That inspired me to create something with my own characters.”
He was really, really excited about the 1998 release of The Phantom Menace, the first Star Wars movie released in 17 years. “For me it was like a new chapter of the Bible had been discovered. I had been waiting for it since I was eleven years old. I started to worry, though. I thought, ‘what it would be like if I was dying and I wouldn’t live to see this movie that I’d been waiting my entire life to see?’ Then I said to myself, ‘that is the dumbest idea that has ever passed through your head. That’s why you wanna stay alive? To see some movie?’ But I also felt serious fear. That would be awful! Part of being happy in life is having something to look forward to and I had so much fun looking forward to that movie.”
He thinks the book is always better than the movie. “When you’re a screenwriter, you have to worry about budget, and if there are roles for movie stars, and special effects, and all kinds of things. Books play out in the mind’s eye. The special effects are always perfect because you, the reader, do all the work. When you see a movie even, it if’s really wonderful, it’s never quite as wonderful because it was never quite as wonderful as when it played out in your imagination.”
He owns a DeLorean. (Seriously.) “Nobody ever applauds for my Toyota.”
Crown Publishing let him hide an Easter Egg in Armada. “If you find it, it leads you to a web address, where we have the first of three increasingly difficult video challenges. I wanted to think of a cool prize and I couldn’t think of anything cooler than a DeLorean. But I didn’t want to give away my DeLorean. So I ended up buying a second DeLorean on eBay for the prize. A super-fan named Craig in Kentucky ended up being the first to clear all three challenges and so he won the DeLorean.
Steven Spielberg has signed on to direct a film adaptation of Ready Player One. “I would go visit colleges to talk about the book and say, “Everything you would want to happen to you when you publish your first novel has happened to me.” But it turns out that was not true because I had not had Steven Spielberg sign on to direct it yet. But that’s happening now, too.”
George R.R. Martin is his friend. “While I was writing Armada I made friends with him. He sat with me in my DeLorean at a convention in Texas, got a kick out of it, and then he called me, which was like the coolest thing ever. He was like, ‘you still got that time machine?’ I was like ‘yeah, it doesn’t work. I don’t know what you have planned.’ And he said, “can I borrow it?” And I said, “can I tell people you’re borrowing it?’ And he said ‘yes,’ so like, done deal! The next day I went to go pick up the car and we went out to breakfast. I forgot who I was talking to and he said, ‘so how’s your second book coming’?” And I go, “Aw, so much pressure! Every day I get all these emails!” And I look up and he’s just playing the tiniest violin.”
Ready Player One readers always look for the one thing they from the 1980s love and then they wonder why he left it out. The 80s is a very long decade. ‘Why didn’t you mention Garbage Pail Kids?’ I did not get to it, dude, I dunno. Ready Player Nine will have a whole Garbage Pail Kid section.”