An Interview with Ernest Cline, Author, ‘Ready Player One’


Fanboys screenwriter and novelist Ernest Cline recently shared a few thoughts about his new book Ready Player One: a hilarious but thrilling mash-up of geeky obsessions and eighties pop culture described by New York Times bestselling author John Scalzi (Old Man’s War) as “A nerdgasm…imagine Dungeons and Dragons and an 80s video arcade made hot, sweet love, and their child was raised in Azeroth.”

Look for Ready Player One on August 16.

Could you describe the plot of Ready Player One?

Ready Player One is a thriller-slash-coming-of-age story that takes place partly in a virtual world, with a plot that involves 80’s pop culture nostalgia, giant robot battles, and an enormous amount of geeking out. It’s sort of a cross between Snow Crash and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, with a little bit of Kurt Vonnegut and Douglas Adams thrown in.

Despite the futuristic setting, Ready Player One could be interpreted as  roman à clef. It’s chock full of references to the eighties, from the movies to games and music. As an eighties kid, I quite enjoy that kind of thing, and I kept wondering how much of your book is autobiographical. Were you a teenage geek? What was your adolescence like? Who were your best friends? What did you enjoy doing?

There are more than a few autobiographical elements in the book. I grew up in a small town in Ohio, and I was an enormous geek, a stereotypical uber-nerd. I even worked in the Audio Visual room at school. I was obsessed with fantasy and science fiction, movies, comic books, and all manner of computer and video games. My friends were all geeks with similar interests, and we spent a lot of time hanging out in each others’ suburban basements, playing Dungeons and Dragons, Car Wars, Space Master, Talisman, Risk, etc. A lot of us were unpopular at school or came from troubled homes, and looking back I think we lived for anything that provided an escape from reality – a lot like the characters in Ready Player One.

Pop quiz, hot shot!
A. We’re playing Dungeons & Dragons. What kind of character will you be rolling up, and what is his or her name?

I have to roll up a new character? I can’t use my 18th level Thief Acrobat from back in high school? Then I guess I’ll roll up a 1st level Fighter and name him “Gor.”

B. Who is your favorite Star Wars character?

Luke Skywalker. A dorky farmboy who becomes bad ass Jedi Knight and savior of the galaxy. So what if his wardrobe/hair weren’t as cool as Han Solo’s?

C. You’re given your choice of vintage video game arcade consoles for your home. Which will it be?

Well, my current setup is a hacked XBOX that runs emulators for every single classic game system made by Atari, Sega, Nintendo, Intellivision, Colecovision, etc. It also runs MAME, so I can play pretty much every video or computer game made in the 20th century on it.

But if I had to stick to just one vintage console, it would have to be the Atari 2600. It’s still the greatest game console in history.

D. Complete this eighties song lyric: “A scent and a sound, I’m lost and I’m found…”

And I’m hungry like the wolf!

(Too easy – my “band” performed that song for our high school talent show in 1989.)

…Well played, sir.

Many of our readers may know you for Fanboys. I understand that getting that film into production was a bit of a journey for everyone involved. How did this compare to writing your novel? Did you find the writing process easier, harder or just different?

Writing Ready Player One was a lot harder and more time consuming than writing the script for Fanboys, but so far the payoff’s been well worth it.

Screenplays get reworked and rewritten by other writers, the director, and the cast of the movie, so what ends up on film can turn out very different from what you originally imagined. That definitely happened with Fanboys. Even worse was that after the movie was shot and completed, the studio tried to re-edit it to completely change the original storyline. Luckily, Star Wars fans around the world rallied to our cause and sent the studio thousands of emails, demanding they keep the original storyline. The studio finally agreed and released the movie with its original ending, even though they did a lot of additional tinkering against the director’s wishes. Overall, making Fanboys was a strange and often painful ordeal that stretched on for nearly a full decade.

Writing the novel was a completely different experience. I did spend years working on it (between screenwriting projects), and writing it was definitely challenging. I only kept at it because the story was a labor of love. But once the book was finished, I quickly found an agent to help me sell it. And my publishers were respectful of what was on the page, and what I wanted the book to be; they didn’t try to force any major plot changes on me, or any of the other stuff I was worried about after my Fanboys trauma. The editing process was a dream, and definitely improved the story.

So I guess the short answer is, writing a book is a lot harder than writing a screenplay, but (in my limited experience) publishing a book is a lot more artistically satisfying than having a screenplay produced.

Who are some of your literary influences?

Kurt Vonnegut and Douglas Adams have both had a huge influence on me. So have Neal Stephenson, Richard K. Morgan, and Johnathan Tropper. And Heinlein, Bradbury, Bester – I probably have way too many influences to list.

On a related note, what are some of your non-literary influences? Were there movies or other kinds of media that helped set a tone for the book?

I really tried to capture the tone of two of my favorite 80s movies: Real Genius and WarGames. Both are incredibly fun, fast-paced movies about smart kids who get in way over their heads and have to think their way out of huge problems and real danger. 80s pop music also helped set the tone – I listened to a lot of it while I was writing the book, and often dropped song titles right into the story.

You’re a multi-media kind of guy. Where do you see video games and gaming culture going in the future? Will we see more transmedia integration? Do you think we’ll ever see a competition like in Ready Player One?

I think video games will continue to merge with movies, until we basically have interactive movies where the viewer/player is also the star of the story. And once online video games start to look (and feel) like real life, they might evolve into something like the OASIS in my book – a virtual playground shared by the whole world. Of course, the problem with a game like that is it might be too much fun, and you’d never want to stop playing.

I don’t think we’ll ever see a contest like the one in my book – unless Bill Gates decides to hold a treasure hunt to give away all of his shares in Microsoft.

I understand that you’ll be at San Diego Comic Con. Where else can we see you? Will you be making any appearances elsewhere?

Yes, I’ll be doing several signings in the weeks after the book comes out on August 16, 2011. I’ve only got a few scheduled so far, but people can check out in the coming weeks for more info. Here’s what we have scheduled so far:

8/23/2011 – 7:00pm
AUSTIN, TX 78703

8/25/2011 – 6:30pm

Texas Book Festival