Twenty-seven summers ago, moviegoers watched Marty McFly grab the wheel of a stainless-steel DeLorean DMC-12 and zoom into the past where he would rewrite the future. Those were powerful popcorn moments for Ernest Cline, now 40 and a first-time author with a bestseller in “Ready Player One,” a sci-fi adventure drenched in Atari-era imagery and frequently described as “The Matrix” meets “Willie Wonka.” Cline (who also wrote the screenplay for the 2008 film “Fanboys“) is promoting the just-released paperback edition with an eight-state book tour — and he’s doing it in a replica of “Doc” Brown’s DeLorean. The tour hits Los Angeles on Monday with a 7 p.m. event at Book Soup, so we caught up with Cline to chat about the book and the feature film that producers Donald DeLine and Dan Farah are developing for Warner Bros.
HC: Hollywood has taken characters from video games — “Tomb Raider,” “Prince of Persia,” etc. — but it feels now like structure and visual aesthetics are being influenced. “Scott Pilgrim” springs to mind but also less-obvious things like “Sucker Punch” — with its multiple, find-the-object missions — or the early trailer for “Amazing Spider-Man” that ended with a first-person rooftop sprint. Is that intriguing to you or does it seem like a gimmick?
EC: I have noticed this, and sometimes it does seem a bit gimmicky. But I loved how video game aesthetics informed every aspect of “Scott Pilgrim,” in a very self-aware way. And that first-person sequence in the “Amazing Spider-Man” trailer is just plain wicked.
HC: “Wreck It Ralph,” “Ender’s Game” and the adaption of your book seem like opportunities to go to the next level. Is that something you’ve considered — storytelling that’s tethered to the video-game world in unexpected ways?
EC: Most definitely. I would love for the “Ready Player One” movie to embrace some of the video game storytelling elements that inspired the book. I’m also extremely excited to see the [book’s vast virtual universe, which is called] OASIS realized on screen, because I think it might end up being very close to what the Internet will evolve into, when online virtual worlds, social networking sites, and the Web all merge into a sprawling synthetic reality that you can become completely immersed in.
EC: When I was a teenager, I had an awful lot in common with Wade. But now that I’m an adult, I endeavor to be more like Ogden Morrow, even though I still struggle with some of Halliday’s more troubling character traits.
HC: I could imagine that immersing yourself in pop culture history could be smothering for some writers and artists — that it might place them too much in other people’s imaginations as opposed to their own. You turned into this amazing scavenger and mosaic, but do you ever want to just turn off the rerun culture? Or is just too inviting to swim in its vivid ocean?
EC: I was born and raised in that pop culture ocean, and have always loved swimming in it. As a writer, I feel like I’m the sum total of all of the books, films, TV shows, music, art, and people I’ve encountered in my life, and I don’t feel the need to mask that in my own work. My impulse has always been to embrace and celebrate my inspirations, and to wear them proudly on my sleeve. That’s just what seems to work best for me.
HC: Wade Watts is such a great name. And he’s a great voice in this strange and dark future. As far as finding that character in his finished form: Did he present himself pretty quickly or did he go through major changes as you went along?
EC: Wade presented himself pretty quickly. After James Halliday, he was the first character to take shape in my head, as I tried to imagine what sort of kid could become Halliday’s worthy successor, and be capable of devotion and persistence required to solve the pop culture riddles that Halliday had left behind. I knew I wanted Wade to be an archetypal gamer and movie geek, with circumstances and a background similar to some of my favorite Roald Dahl characters, like Charlie Bucket or James from “James and the Giant Peach.” His character evolved from there.
HC: Where do you work — what does it look like? And when do you write? What are the rhythms of your work life? Do you find video games make it hard to meet deadlines?
EC: I have an office with a lot of large windows that look out onto my shady residential street in North Austin. I’m surrounded by shelves filled with my favorite books, action figures, movie props, and other geek artifacts. I tend to treat writing like a day job. I start around 9 a..m, after I drop my daughter off at school, then I write until it’s time to go pick her up in the afternoon. I don’t play video games or surf the Internet during a writing day, otherwise I’d never get anything done.
HC: What movie have you seen more than any other in your life? For me I think it’s “The Great Escape,” “The Last Waltz,” “The Hunt for Red October” or “Escape from New York.” Those aren’t four favorite films ever — although I do love them — they just keep popping up.
EC: The original “Star Wars” trilogy. And “Ghostbusters.” “Highlander.” “WarGames.” “Real Genius.” I’ve seen them all way too many times. But they’re still like comfort food for me. I never get tired of them, and will put them on in the background, like a favorite album.
HC: If there’s a video game based on the movie that’s based on your book and you play that game while you’re writing a sequel — would your head explode?
EC: My head has been exploding at regular intervals since 2009, when the little “Star Wars” fan screenplay I wrote, “Fanboys,” ended up being produced by Hollywood, with Princess Leia, Lando Calrissian, Darth Maul, and Captain Kirk all doing cameos in it. But I still haven’t gotten used to the epic geek events that seem to keep occurring in my life. I just released a brand new Atari 2600 game based on “Ready Player One.” And I’m doing this interview while driving across the country in a Delorean to promote my bestselling novel about Pac-Man and Oingo Boingo. Tomorrow I’m speaking at Google in Mountain View, Calif., and I’m quite certain my head is going to explode all over those poor people in the audience. But I’m doing my best to remain calm, not geek out too much, and enjoy having so many of my dreams come true all at once.
– Geoff Boucher
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