eMusic Q&A: Ernie Cline
Rise up, geeks of the world.
Cast aside your wireless controllers and mint-condition first-edition whatevers; put a bookmark in your guidebooks, dungeon masters and galactic hitchhikers. Behold, a new chosen one, the lord high supreme master nerd Ernest Cline.
If pop culture heads don’t already know that name — and they might; Cline wrote the screenplay for Fanboys, the 2008 cult comedy about Star Wars dorks desperately seeking George Lucas — they soon will. His debut novel, Ready Player One, is one long love letter to the ’80s, paying tribute to the movies, music, TV shows, video games and just about everything else that made the era so tough for us to leave behind. The book is also a wild dystopian adventure set in 2044 wherein poor-as-dirt underdog misfits battle evil forces in a massive virtual universe for fame, fortune and righteousness.
Before he died, reclusive tech tycoon James Halliday set up a giant treasure hunt full of ’80s-themed puzzles and willed his colossal empire to the first person who could solve it. In this corner we’ve got Wade, a pale, chubby, awkward gamer/hacker/street urchin. In that corner, we’ve got a massive hive-minded corporation willing to cheat and kill to get its hands on Halliday’s fortune. It’s an epic battle of good vs. evil, and positively riddled with subtle and not-so-subtle references to Ghostbusters, Rush, Family Ties, Joust, War Games, Voltron, Blade Runner and seemingly thousands of other touchstones of the Nintendo decade.
Cline was at home in Austin when eMusic’s Patrick Rapa caught up with him to chat about the lifetime of nerdiness that made Ready Player One possible (and why putting it on the big screen will not be easy).
Your nerd pedigree obviously goes back quite a bit. It couldn’t have always been fun.
Yeah. Definitely grade school was not fun; junior high was not fun. But in high school I started to discover the other huge geeks in my town, and we were all playing Dungeons and Dragons and reading comic books and hanging out. Once I found my crowd, it was a lot easier to be a geek. When you’re just a geek all by yourself it’s not nearly as much fun.
Seems like that’s one of the themes in Ready Player One: All these geeks are basically loners who are lucky to have found one another. And they’ve never met face to face.
A theme of the book is coming to grips with your geekiness and also how living your life online is not the best way to live, or the healthiest. I try not to preach. I want the story to be fun, but there are underlying observations about the human condition.
Did you feel isolated in your nerdiness growing up?
Maybe when I was a young kid. I mean, all teenagers feel isolated and full of angst but things never got quite as bad for me as they do for Wade. I tried to make Wade kind of like a Roald Dahl protagonist like in James and the Giant Peach or Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Roald Dahl would always have these great young protagonists who have really horrible circumstances and then something happens to kick them off on this thrilling adventure that lifts them out of their circumstances. That’s what I tried to do with that character. So yeah, Wade’s a little more geeky than me and I also tried to write him as smarter than me, at least as far as book-smart intelligence. Which is tricky — writing a character that you want to seem smarter than you are.
You know, in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, he wasn’t just poor; he was insanely, inventively poor. All four of his grandparents had to share one bed…
And in Ready Player One you have the Stacks — giant trailer parks where all the mobile homes are stacked in towers a dozen high. It’s nuts. You’ve managed to come up with…
A new way for things to suck. Yeah, I wanted a white trash/Blade Runner kind of environment, you know? And I know my way around a trailer park. So in my mind, how could the future get worse? What could be worse than living in a trailer park? How about a vertically stacked, grossly overcrowded trailer park? So I think that’s where that came from. Also as a screenwriter I tend to think really visually and it seemed like a really cool image for a dystopian future.
I think I read somewhere that you grew up in a trailer park?
Oh yeah, when I was very little my family lived in a trailer park in Ohio and there was a tornado. What are the odds of a tornado hitting a trailer park? And I was lifted, you know, I was ripped out of my mom’s arms and separated from my family. I was a lost kid for a few days until they found me and identified me with my footprints.
So yeah, I grew up hearing that story and seeing the newspaper clippings, so I’m certifiably tornado-bait white trash, or was. [Laughs]
I’ve never heard that before, “tornado bait.”
Yeah, I think I picked that up from Silence of the Lambs. I think Hannibal Lector calls Clarice tornado-bait white trash.
When you were writing this, were you thinking cinematically?
I think I’ve written nine or 10 screenplays. Only a few of them have been bought but I’ve written a lot of them and so the three-act structure and screenplay cinematic formatting was really pounded into me. I think that definitely influenced the way that I wrote my first novel.
I was trying to write a book that felt like you were watching a movie but I never in a million years thought it would become a movie. I actually was writing something consciously that I thought would never, could never become a movie. Like: ‘I’m going to write something that could never be a movie.’ And then I sold the movie rights the day after I sold the book. And since I was a screenwriter, then I had to be the one who figured out how to make it into a movie.
To make Ready Player One into a movie would there be all kinds of crazy copyright issues? So many movies, and characters and…
I know, and so many references to songs. You can mention somebody listened to a song in a book and it’s no problem, but if you want to have that song play in your movie then you’re reproducing the song and you have to pay the artist. Same with showing a painting or a TV show clip or anything. In a movie you’re reproducing it, whereas in a book you’re just mentioning it and the reader draws the picture in their head. So it’s a lot easier to make pop references in a book.
I’m lucky that Warner Brothers bought the movie rights and Warner Brothers is the biggest movie studio in the world. They have a huge catalog and they own some of the stuff that I talk about — like Blade Runner. But even so, you really can’t have people acting out another movie in your movie, stuff like that. A lot of it had to be reworked.
People think you can do anything in a movie that you can do in a book but in my experience, in this case anyway, there’s still a lot of stuff you can do in a book that’s impossible to do in a movie.
I know Albert Brooks recently wrote his debut novel after years and years of filmmaking, and it’s a futuristic dystopian thing, very different from yours. His is about healthcare and debt going out of control. It’s not the wackiest thing in the world but…
Sounds good; I love Albert Brooks.
Yeah, it’s a good book. And the reason he said he wrote it was he’d never get the movie version made. As a book, he was suddenly free of all budget constraints.
And you’re someone who’s worked on films so was there an I-can-do-anything freedom?
Yeah, Fanboys was a very geeky referential movie full of pop culture stuff but it was nowhere near as nerdy as I originally envisioned and it got watered down a lot by the studio. Because when you make a movie you’re making a product for mass consumption that they want to appeal to as many people as possible. That’s just effective business, but that seemed really frustrating to me. So when I was working on my book I’m like, “Well, I don’t have to answer to a studio. I don’t have to worry about budget or casting or financing or any of that, I can just do whatever I want and let my imagination run wild.”
Did you have to do a lot of research? Did you know a lot of this stuff already?
I did know all of it or almost all of it. Often when I threw in something, I would Google it real quick just to make sure I was remembering something correctly. But part of the fun of the book was just throwing in references to all of the pop culture stuff that I love. I’m a huge movie nerd and I love science fiction and fantasy novels and all kinds of video games, so that was just stuff from my life that I threw in.
How excited were you to get Wil Wheaton to narrate the audiobook?
Terribly excited. They actually made a deal for me to do the audiobook myself, because I’ve done some spoken word and live performance. But I’m not an actor by any stretch and all of my favorite audiobooks are ones that are read by actors. Oftentimes the ones that are read by authors I don’t like so much because authors aren’t usually the best performers. So I wanted somebody else to do it and he was my first choice.
I needed somebody who is about my age and who would be able to pronounce all of the different references and understand them in context so they wouldn’t be speaking gibberish. That narrows the list down big time. [Laughs] And Wil Wheaton’s birthday is two months from mine and he grew up playing role playing games and video games and he’s a writer, too. He wrote a column about classic Atari video games and all of that stuff, so I knew he would totally understand the characters because he’s a huge geek too.
When I heard his first recordings, I had to be by myself a little bit and squeal like a little girl because I was so excited.
I won’t spoil it with specifics, but Wil Wheaton gets a shout out in the book.
I wanted to keep it a secret. Wil didn’t read the book ahead of time because it’s part of his process, so he reads the book for the first time as he’s recording the audiobook usually because it helps his performance. And so he didn’t know that he was mentioned in the book until he actually got to his name, which was awesome.
Let’s talk about Rush 2112. What was it back then that drew you to that album and what sticks with you now?
Rush is like the band for the nerdy outcast kids of the ’70s and ’80s. Their lyrics are all about being an outcast. Really smart lyrics, too — stuff aimed at more literate people.
 was this epic space fantasy story about a revolt against this totalitarian Federation of Solar Federations. Which was just awesome for a kid who’s into Dungeons and Dragons, science fiction and Rush. It’s not my favorite Rush [album]; it’s not that listenable, but I just appreciate it for its grandiosity and overall epic nerdiness.
Do you think there was a more unified pop culture in the ’80s?
I do, a little bit. We almost had an American monoculture where American culture was getting shipped all around the world and in Russia and Norway, they still have Magnum PI and Knight Rider and stuff. It was before the Internet and before foreign countries were making a lot of their own shows and stuff. So American culture was getting shipped everywhere.
I remember my Norwegian publishers told me that nothing ever gets translated into Norwegian. So all of their shows and stuff came from America; as did the books they read and video games they played. Which fascinated me; like how does this book even work for guys who grew up in Norway? It works for them perfectly because they had pretty much all the same stuff. I think that’s helping me out. I never imagined the book would be published overseas.
I love that the douchey rival in the beginning is named Irok. That was the car of choice in the ’80s.
For the douches, yeah. The douchemobile. I love that you got that. You’re the first person to get that I was referring to the crappy Trans Am rip-off.
I wonder how They Might Be Giants would feel getting a reference? They’re lifelong nerds.
I know. I hope they dig it. They were one of my favorite bands, too. And if you’re going to pay tribute to nerdy music you’ve got to give a shout out to Rush and Devo and They Might Be Giants; they’re like the holy trinity of nerd bands.
And it wasn’t all nerdy stuff. Some Billy Idol turns up in Ready Player One.
Part of being a geek now, it’s not all about geek culture. Part of it is this accelerated nostalgia of my whole generation. If you grew up in the ’70s and ’80s it seems like quicker than any other generation, we became nostalgic for our childhood. By the late ’90s we were already nostalgic for the ’80s. I remember people riffing on old movies and TV shows less than 10 years after the decade was over. We were already reminiscing. So I was fascinated with that, people who weren’t even 40 yet being really nostalgic for the decade they grew up in.
Any idea why that is? Was stuff just cooler back then?
I don’t know. I’ve heard different theories about this and one [guess] is that our whole lives have been so accelerated. Like, we’re the first kids to have home computers, video game consoles and VCRs and all of that, so we were getting an accelerated dose of all this pop culture, whereas maybe our parents got things at a slower pace. I’ve also heard people theorize that our generation has seen so much horrible stuff happen in the last 10 years that we all need our cartoons again.
We need to rebuild our comfort zones.
Exactly, yeah. We need to surround ourselves with Captain Crunch cereal and Transformers and then everything will be okay again.