One Thing Leads to Another: An Interview with Ernest Cline

Check out previous interviews in the One Thing Leads to Another series here.

When composing an email to Ernest Cline it’s tempting to start babbling about your own geeky passions and experiences, to document the ways in which they overlap or intersect with things you’ve heard him talk about.  It’s tempting to point out all the ways in which you had similar experiences, were born just years apart, watched that movie at about the same time, have daughters who are almost the same age.  It’s really tempting to talk about how you read that he did X, and how you also did and/or loved this X-adjacent thing that is very similar or possibly exactly the same and wow I can’t believe you remember Y because I thought I was the only one who played/read/saw/loved that thing.  It’s really tempting, but you don’t do it.

Instead, you stare at your gmail inbox and wonder about that impulse, the desire to share and connect and gush, and you come to the conclusion that while it’s not really appropriate in this particular case, the impulse itself is just fine. Pretty great even.  Because the impulse is not about geek cred, or one-upsmanship, or a “notice me notice me” mentality.  It’s really about bonding, about the power of–to paraphrase some other famous nerds–being “unironically enthusiastic” about stuff, “being honest about what you enjoy” and being willing to raise your hand and say, “Hey! I LOVE this! Do you maybe love it too?”even when the thing you love isn’t necessarily cool or even geek-cool.  Geek solidarity is about unapologetically loving the stuff you love, and connecting with other people who love stuff and are unapologetic too.  Felicia Day says being a geek is “more than the hobbies we do or the things that we like,” that a geek is an “outsider, a rebel, a dreamer, a creator, whether it’s our own world or someone else’s. It’s a fighter. It’s a person who dares to love something that isn’t conventional.”  I don’t know if I embody all those bold ideas, but I know that Ernie Cline inspires this kind of geek camaraderie through the sheer force of his knowledge and passion and vocal enthusiasm.  Read Ready Player One or Armada and tell me you don’t want to immediately sit down and discuss the minutae of arcade games, Schoolhouse Rock, or The Last Starfighter.  I know you want to.

I know that even when you try you’re bound to slip a reference to that text-based 80s computer game or that semi-obscure cult film into your email to him even though you’re trying desperately to be “professional.” I know that it will be impossible not to gush a little bit (or a lot) and that he will be really cool about it anyway.  Probably because geek solidarity, probably because he’s a cool guy.

Thanks, Ernie, for taking the time to talk with me.  MTFBWYA (too.)

Always Something There to Remind Me

Author photo by Dan Winters

Please describe your teenage self.

I was a socially awkward kid who spent most of his free time immersed in video games, science fiction novels, or playing Dungeons & Dragons with my equally geeky friends.

What did you want to be when you grew up? Why?

I’ve always wanted to be a writer. Initially, I wanted to write for the movies. At the time, it seemed like one of the coolest jobs imaginable. Film had a profound effect on my worldview, and on the culture at large, and I knew I wanted to be involved in the art form somehow, if I could.

What were your high school years like?

Like the characters in my novels, I spent a lot of time staring out the classroom window and daydreaming of adventure. I also wrote for the school literary magazine and newspaper a couple of years. My English teacher in Junior High, Mr. Craig Whitmore, was a huge influence on me. He was the first teacher of mine to encourage me to pursue a career as a writer. We’re still friends to this day. He’s become a novelist now, too.

What were some of your passions during that time?

I was a varsity letterman on the swim team, but I was never a very good athlete. As I said above, when I wasn’t in school, I spent most of my time playing Advanced Dungeons & Dragons with my friends, hanging out in video game arcades, or scouring the local video stores for movies I hadn’t already seen. I read a lot of Heinlein and Bradbury and Bester, then I got really interested in Kurt Vonnegut my senior year.

Would you be willing to share a difficult teen experience or challenge that you feel shaped the adult you became?

My brother and I were adopted by our biological grandparents when we were both very young, and since they lived through the Great Depression, I think they raised us to have a different set of values (and fashion sense) than most of our peers. It seemed difficult at the time, because when you’re young you desperately want to fit in with your peers. But now I’m extremely grateful for the non-traditional upbringing they gave us, because I think it instilled us both with a strong sense of self-reliance, which I think has probably played a key role in both my and my brother’s success.

What about a positive experience or accomplishment that had an impact on your adult self?

I recall having a few of my English teachers single out my short stories in class. I remember they would occasionally read my work aloud to the others students, which was a bit humiliating at the time, but I think it eventually also did wonders for my self-esteem.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever gotten? Did you heed that advice?

The best advice I’ve ever received is to treat other people how you wish to be treated. That really is the Golden Rule. I still do my best to follow it every day.

Do you have any regrets about your teen years? Anything left undone or anything that might have been better left undone?

Not in the slightest. To regret any part of my past would be to regret taking the path that led me to where I am now. Most regrets are a waste of time and energy. I learned that lesson from It’s A Wonderful Life when I was still very young

What, if anything, do you miss most about that time?

I’m nostalgic for that time, but I don’t really miss living in it. Being a teenager is one of the most difficult and precarious times in your life. You’re expected to behave like an adult, even though you’re still not being treated like one, and you’re still not in control of your own destiny. I wouldn’t want to have to go through it again – even with foreknowledge of the future.

Every Day I Write the Book

ready player oneQuestions about your work are often framed in terms of plot, inspiration, and pop cultural references, but I’d like to know more about how you build your characters and about the characters that inspire you. “My characters are all kind of geek archetypes of people I’ve encountered at gaming and comic book conventions,” you’ve said, though you also talk about trying your best “to get under [their] skin,” to create individuals rather than stereotypes.  Could you talk a little about your writing process when it comes to character?  How do you negotiate the line between archetype (of the geek or Campbell variety) and distinct, idiosyncratic characters?  Besides Luke Skywalker (a strong early influence that you’ve talked elsewhere) which characters from books, movies, games, etc. resonate or inspire you the most?

I create characters by drawing on my own life experience and my own interactions with other people, which is what I think all writers have to do. I’ve found that if I imbue my characters with the same mix of same strengths, flaws, desires, and idiosyncrasies I encounter in myself and in other people in my life, they eventually reveal themselves and take on a life of their own. Back when I was in high school, I think the literary characters who resonated with me the most were Frodo, Ender Wiggin, and Holden Caulfield. Eventually, I became a big Billy Pilgrim fan.

armadaYou’ve talked elsewhere about your theory that video games help humans “wired to hunt and gather and form teams and kick ass and conquer territory and be explorers” harness that “hunter-gatherer energy by other means.” Those same hunter-gatherers sat around the campfire “long before we had superhero movies” telling hero stories to fulfill another fundamental human need.  “Video games have two different storytelling mediums,” you’ve said, “but both can transport the player into the role of hero.”  Could you talk a little more about the intersection of games and story and about why and how that combination can be so powerful?  How does a game successfully immerse you in the story and are there games you’ve become really invested in, story-wise?

I think being told a story via a videogame is so powerful because of the interactive element. You’re a participant in the story, and your actions help influence its direction and outcome – resulting in an experience that can be just as profound and affecting as a novel or a film, if not moreso. My favorite games from a storytelling standpoint are probably Half-Life 2, and Portal 1 & 2. Both games used the First-Person Shooter perspective to tell very human stories that involve a lot more than pointing and shooting.

Fanboys_ver2You’re a self-described fanboy, but you’ve never been much of a passive consumer, engaging with work you love in all kinds of ways, from writing a movie sequel screenplay, to collecting unusual memorabilia (a sedate way of saying you own a tricked-out DeLorean), to participating in once-in-a-lifetime events like the recent Atari Graveyard dig. This impulse to contribute seems to have started early, despite the relative isolation of pre-Internet fandom, and I’m curious about the kind of fan community you found back in those days, and whether the desire to connect with other fans pushed you to cross the line from passive consumer to active participant? Has the Internet-fueled shift in the cultural and technological landscape over the past decade changed the way you view or participate in fandom, as a fan and as a creator?  Does active participation in various fandoms change the way you view your own work once it’s released out into the wild?

I had a tight-knit group of friends growing up who were all interested in the same things I was, and together we attended a lot of local and national roleplaying game and comic book conventions, so I became a part of various fan communities early on. I also subscribed to magazines like Dragon and Starlog, which provided me with a steady supply of geek media news updates, the way websites and social media do now. I think I was always blessed with a creative impulse, even back then. Seeing Star Wars made me want to become a filmmaker. Playing Space Invaders made me want to create my own video game someday. Reading Tolkien and Stephen King made me want to try writing a novel of my own someday. The Internet definitely changed the cultural landscape for me, by connecting all of these different fan communities together, all around the world, thereby revealing how vast and far-reaching those communities were and are.

The Internet revealed that Geeks are Legion, and that pretty much everyone loves to geek out about something. That’s been a huge revelation for me.

You’ve talked about how becoming a parent has changed your outlook on life, made you more invested in the future, and turned you into more of an optimist. “I want my little girl to be able to go to college. I don’t want her to have to wield a crossbow and skin a house cat to survive,” you said in a recent interview (and it’s hard to disagree.) How do you see this new-found hopefulness–a shift that’s evident in the relative viewpoints of Ready Player One and Armada–affecting your work going forward?  Do technological advances like Oculus Rift make you more mindful of the real-world consequences of your work?

I’m not sure how it will affect my work going forward. It’s still easy for me to feel pessimistic about the future, especially when I see world leaders who still pretend climate change isn’t real. These days, I’m more cautiously optimistic. And yes, advances like the Oculus Rift have made me aware of the real-world influence a science fiction writer like me can have. It also makes me feel a little like Arthur C. Clarke, predicting the satellite before it was actually invented. Of course, he couldn’t predict everything we would end up using those satellites for in the long term.

Just Can’t Get Enough

Question from Matt de la Pena: Ready Player One was a huge hit. My friends and I all love it. My wife loves it (and she’s a very critical and sometimes mean-spirited reader – but that’s another story.) Writing a second novel is hard enough. Did the success of your first book make the process of the second even more challenging?

Most definitely! I felt like Van Halen must’ve felt during the recording of Van Halen II. While I was writing my second novel, I often joked about using “Sophomore Slump” as the working title for a while. But I had to set all of the praise and expectations aside and once again try to write the kind of story I myself would enjoy reading.  Ignoring the Internet completely was a huge help.


Ernie has contributed a question for the next author in the series, Patrick Ness.  Watch for an interview with him coming soon!


Ernest Cline is a novelist, screenwriter, father, and full-time geek. His first novel, Ready Player One, was a New York Times and USA Today bestseller, appeared on numerous “best of the year” lists, and is set to be adapted into a motion picture by Warner Bros. and director Steven Spielberg.  Armada, his New York Times bestselling second novel, has received multiple starred reviews.  Ernie lives in Austin, Texas, with his family, a time-traveling DeLorean, and a large collection of classic video games.

You can find Ernie at his website and blog, on Facebook, or you can follow him on Twitter or tumblr.


–Julie Bartel, currently reading Frances Hardinge’s The Cuckoo Song and Through the Woods by Emily Carroll