Author Ernie Cline Was Told Video Games Would Rot His Brain, But Who Holds the High Score Now?

“Yeah, sure you drive a DeLorean and Steven Spielberg is gonna direct your first novel!”


Jude Buffum

When he was a baby, 43-year-old author Ernie Cline was ripped from his mother’s arms by a tornado, and that was only the third or fourth most exciting thing that’s happened to him. He would later become the slam poetry champ of Austin, Texas, and see his first original screenplay, Fanboys, made into a feature film. But Ernie’s Big Adventure really began in 2010, when his first novel, Ready Player One, sparked a bidding war—enabling him to buy his Back to the Future dream car, a 1982 DeLorean DMC-12.

In the dystopian future of Cline’s best-selling debut, people spend most of their waking hours plugged into a vast virtual reality called the Oasis—the control of which is left up for grabs by its eccentric creator in a cutthroat scavenger hunt requiring gaming mastery and an encyclopedic knowledge of ’70s and ’80s pop culture. Palmer Luckey, founder of the virtual-reality company Oculus and inventor of its Oculus Rift headset, was so taken with the book that he made it required reading for new employees.

In Cline’s new novel, Armada—optioned by Hollywood before a word was written—protagonist Zack Lightman discovers that a video game he excels at has been used to unwittingly train him and others to defend the planet against a real alien invasion. It’s a great romp. (My 13-year-old absconded with the review copy.) As before, Cline (ever the fanboy) is both reverent of and referential to the books and movies and games of his childhood in Ashland, Ohio. New adventures await: In March, Steven Spielberg signed on to direct the Ready Player One movie—even though Wade Watts, that book’s hero, totally trash-talks Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. “I don’t know what I was thinking,” Cline told me. “Well, I do know what I was thinking: There’s no way in hell Steven Spielberg is going to read this!”

Mother Jones: Your spoken-word stuff is hilarious. Have you tried stand-up comedy?

Ernie Cline: I did try it. I discovered that my sense of humor didn’t work too well with drunk comedy club audiences in Ohio. But something about my weird sense of humor and Austin was a great match. I was just starting out, trying to become a screenwriter, and I became the Austin slam champion three times. For a nerdy, kind of a socially awkward guy, that did wonders for my self esteem.

MJ: But you sound so confident on stage.

EC: It’s totally an act. Like, I don’t really breathe.

MJ: Well, you do talk really fast.

EC: I would never pause or let there be silence, or I would realize I was, you know, on stage! I never had a lot of self-confidence until then, because I grew up with giant Coke-bottle glasses and the same name as a muppet on Sesame Street.

MJ: Tell me about the tornado.

EC: It happened in Wheeler, Ohio, in 1973. I don’t even think I was quite a year old. My mother was maybe seven months pregnant with my little brother. I was sucked out of her arms and she landed 75 yards away from our trailer and had a ruptured disc. The tornado set me down on top of this pile of corrugated lumber and scrap metal. She climbed up there, pulled me off, and with this broken back crawled to a nearby house and gave me to people who were hiding in the basement. Then she went and tried to find my father and passed out. They had to identify me by my footprints.

MJ: Did living in that trailer park give you the idea for the trailer high-rises where Wade lives in Ready Player One?

EC: Growing up in rural Ohio, I knew my way around a double-wide pretty well. I was trying to picture my version of a dystopian future. The idea of a white-trash Blade Runner—like, what could be worse than a trailer park? A stacked trailer park.

MJ: How did the Armada idea occur to you?

EC: From being obsessed with Star Wars from the time I was five. From when it came out, in 1977, until 1983 with Return of the Jedi—that whole period I went as Luke Skywalker for Halloween. I wanted to be Luke so badly. In my living room, I’d build an X-Wing cockpit out of couch pillows and play Space Invaders or Asteroids or Star Invaders or Starship or Star Master—any game with “star” in the title. Ender’s Game was a really formative book for me. I’d always spent a fair amount of time imagining my version of Star Wars or Ender’s Game or The Last Starfighter. But the thing I’m ripping off even more so in my mind is Iron Eagle. It’s one of those great ’80s “kids can do anything” movies like The Goonies or Explorers. I watched it over and over.

MJ: Your novels are so referential to geek culture that it almost seems fair to describe them as fan fiction.

EC: Yeah, I think so. Everybody uses pop culture as a shorthand. You might make an obscure reference to Monty Python or Iron Eagle that only some people will get, but if they do it conveys a world of meaning. I wanted to be able to write in the voice that I talk to my friends and assume that everybody would know what I was talking about. Fanboys is about the way that a love of one facet of pop culture can bond you together with your friends, and I ended up getting it made into a movie with Princess Leia and Captain Kirk in it! That taught me that there’s no geek dream that’s too big.

“He called me after the first meeting with Spielberg, and he’s like, ‘Ernie, it was a good thing you were not there, dude. Your brain would have exploded!'”

MJ: Still, you must have been blown away by the reception to Ready Player One.

EC: Yeah! It’s the craziest thing that not just one publisher but all of the publishers were interested in it, and that got all the movie studios interested. I tell people it’s like An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, where I’ve just been making all this shit up in my head—yeah, sure you drive a DeLorean and Steven Spielberg is gonna direct your first novel! [Laughs.]

MJ: Tell me about the moment you found out.

EC: Well, I found out it was a possibility around five weeks before the deal closed. It was a lot of negotiating; Spielberg owns Dreamworks, so he doesn’t need to make movies for other studios. I never even put him on my wish list, ’cause he’s on everybody’s wish list! The screenwriter is actually a friend of mine. He called me after the first meeting with Spielberg, and he’s like, “Ernie, it was a good thing you were not there, dude. Your brain would have exploded! He came in with a copy of your book full of little tiny Post-Its—like 50 of them. It was an hour of Steven Spielberg reads aloud from Ready Player One. And there were all these specific things that he wanted back in there.” I couldn’t help myself: I started re-watching all of his movies and also looking at my book again in horror at the way Spielberg would read it.

MJ: Your protagonists are socially isolated kids with missing or dead parents who find refuge in video games and nerd culture. How does that jibe with your childhood?

EC: Very similar. My brother and I were born to teenage parents and ended up being raised by our grandparents. It was kind of a weird childhood, but not a rough, Oliver Twist childhood by any means. I had plenty of food. I had an Atari. I had money to go see Star Wars and the Last Starfighter three or four times. It seems pretty idyllic—despite hanging out in trailer parks.

A young Cline (glasses) with his kid brother ErnestCline.com

MJ: Did your grandparents nurture your passions?

EC: They had already raised their kids and weren’t too interested in raising another set, so they kind of let movies and television and video games entertain me and my brother. But they also said these things were going to rot your brain. My brother loves to echo that. When I got on the New York Times bestseller list, he’s like, “These video games are going to rot your brain.”

MJ: Wade Watts and Zack Lightman are super smart, but not too into school. What kind of student were you?

EC: Terrible. They recently invited me back to speak at academic scholar night at my high school, and the irony was thick. [Laughs.]

MJ: So I noticed this photo on your website of you playing guitar in what looked like a high school rock band.

EC: Oh my god! We were called the VIPs, which is a Revenge of the Nerds II reference: “very immense penises.” Everybody thought it was “very important person” so we got away with it. That was our one gig. We played “What I Like About You” by the Romantics and “We Didn’t Start the Fire” by Billy Joel. It was like five chords all told. 

MJ: Did you ever go to college? You don’t mention it anywhere.

“I’ve been invited to speak at about 20 colleges. There’s always this moment when I’m having dinner with the college president: ‘Ernie, where’d you go to school?'”

EC: I went but dropped out. Which is weird, because in the last two years I’ve been invited to speak at about 20 colleges. There’s always this moment when I’m having dinner with the college president and the provost and the whole staff: “Ernie, where’d you go to school?” And I tell them, “I went to Akron University—for a semester.” [Laughs.] I’m like, “Don’t worry, though. I dropped out and went to Alaska to cut fish.” I thought I was Jack Kerouac or Jack London. I was just traveling around and hitchhiking in the early ’90s before I settled in Columbus, Ohio, and got a job at CompuServe. That’s why Wade ends up working in tech support in Columbus.

MJ: You write what you know.

EC: I do. I’ve heard Stephen King say that when you write a novel you end up revealing everything about yourself.

MJ: Right, and then what?

EC: Yeah. It’s so much better to hand over a finished book than having all these people waiting. I met George R.R. Martin during the course of this last two years because he borrowed my DeLorean for a Back to the Future screening. He took me to breakfast and was asking about my second book. I was like, “I should just title it Lackluster Followup or Sophomore Slump, ’cause there’s no way it’s going to live up.” I’m just going on and on not realizing whom I’m talking to. I look up and he’s playing the tiniest violin in the world for me, because he’s got it worse than anybody. He went to the Emmys last year and they put a typewriter in front of him.

MJ: Finish Game of Thrones!

EC: Yeah, well, it’s the people telling you you’re going to die before you finish. Like, you owe us! Neil Gaiman wrote about this. He was offended. He’s like, “George R.R. Martin is not your bitch.”

MJ: So what’s this I hear about Ready Player One being required reading at Oculus?

EC: Is that not crazy? Palmer loved it and started recommending it to everybody who came to work there, including John Carmack and Michael Abrash—giants in the tech industry. And then they invited me to do a book signing. I did it twice. The whole team would empty out their offices and pose with my DeLorean.

“Steven Spielberg making a Ready Player One movie is going to change the course of human history as pertains to how quickly virtual reality is adopted.”

MJ: Do you suppose we’ll ever end up with something resembling the Oasis?

EC: Steven Spielberg making a Ready Player One movie is going to change the course of human history as pertains to how quickly virtual reality is adopted. He’s going to shows the whole world the potential of VR, which is one of the reasons I think he’s doing it. Once you have to compose for 360 degrees, and a movie is different every time you watch it depending on where you choose to look, it’s like the dawn of a new era. It’s not just Oculus Rift. There’s like three other VR headsets that are about to land. I’ve not gotten to try Magic Leap yet, but it’s the one I’m most intrigued about, because it’s the most like what Neal Stephenson describes. I was heavily inspired by [William Gibson‘s] Neuromancer, and especially Stephenson’s Snow Crash, which he wrote before virtual reality existed.

MJ: I gather you’re a collector of geek paraphernalia. Tell me about your house.

EC: It’s a small house in a regular residential neighborhood, but the garage is where most of the geekery is. I’ll go, “Oh, that would go good in the DeLorean: I need a hoverboard, I need two neutrona wands, and since it’s a Ghostbusters DeLorean I need to wire them into the flux capacitor, and both into the Mr. Fusion—because that’s what you would do! Asinine shit like that. As far as my house, I have a ton of video games and three or four old consoles. I only own two upright games: Black Tiger, which plays a central role in Ready Player One, I bought right before the book came out because I figured the price would go up. I did the same with Battlezone. I’m like, “Oh, it’s going to be even more expensive after Armada comes out. I should get one on Craigslist.” So now I have one.

MJ: Do you actually drive your DeLorean, you know, to the supermarket?

“Cops pull me over just to get a better look. They never give me a ticket, even if I’m speeding, but they will ask to take pictures.”

EC: I used to—until it wore off. It draws a crowd stopping to get gas, you know? Cops pull me over just to get a better look. They never give me a ticket, even if I’m speeding, but they will ask to take pictures. Everybody has this fond association with the car from Back to the Future, but most people have never seen one. I’ve seen people drive off the berm trying to take pictures. It ends up being dangerous.

MJ: Your geek-boy protagonists always fall for nerd girls who could probably kick their asses at math. Is that your type?

EC: Yeah, I was one of the boys who made passes at girls who wore glasses. Any girl who was smarter than me—that was a huge turn-on. In the movies I liked girls who were fast-talking: His Girl Friday, Rosalind Russell. Or this Michelle Meyrink, who played the accordion player in Revenge of the Nerds. She was the quintessential ’80s nerd girl and I think she partially inspired Art3mis [Wade’s love interest in Ready Player One]. My characters are all kind of geek archetypes of people I’ve encountered at gaming and comic book conventions.

MJ: So everything was research, it turns out.

EC: That’s the great thing. I’ve retroactively made all that wasted time rotting my brain into research. It makes me a hypocrite when I try to tell my own daughter, “I don’t know, I think we’ve played a little too much Mario.”

MJ: Like, “Who is this person?”

EC: I know. Video games paid for this house. What am I saying? Go ahead and keep playing!

Courtesy Ernie Cline