Interview with Ernest Cline

Posted by Goodreads on July 7, 2015
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, Ernest Cline was a nerdy kid "daydreaming of adventure" and geeking out to video games, science fiction, and films like Star Wars, E.T., and Back to the Future. Today, of course, he's the bestselling author of the megahit Ready Player One, having parlayed those childhood passions into an adventure that would have blown his 12-year-old mind. Cline's 2011 debut—a dystopian coming-of-age virtual-reality quest brimming with '80s pop culture trivia, computer games, sci-fi references, and flying DeLoreans—struck an instant nerve with readers, gamers, geeks, and John Hughes fans everywhere. Warner Bros. bought the film rights before it even came out, and earlier this year Steven Spielberg signed on to direct. Cline felt as if his head were exploding; he's still piecing it back together.

This month the 43-year-old releases his hugely anticipated second novel, Armada, a space opera-meets-thriller in which a hotshot gamer is enlisted to help save the Earth from extraterrestrials. Again it's steeped in references to all that Cline loves, from Admiral Ackbar to ZZ Top. Cline tells Goodreads about his new book, working with Steven Spielberg, and spills the sequel news fans have been clamoring for—yes, the T word: Both Ready Player One and Armada could be trilogies!

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Goodreads: In Armada, sci-fi classics such as Star Wars and Star Trek are part of a decades-long government plot to prepare civilians for an alien invasion, while video games are secretly training them to pilot drones. What was your inspiration for this?

Ernest Cline: It was always an idea I'd had, and it just seemed very timely, dealing with drone technology and quantum communication. Also, as a student of science fiction and fantasy tropes, I always really wanted to tell a genre-aware alien-invasion story where all the characters had seen all the alien-invasion movies and television shows that I'd seen—Alien, War of the Worlds, Starship Troopers, Independence Day, V, etc.—and would have all these expectations based on them. Plus that's my whole childhood and what I'd grown up loving. So it was fun to make everything from Star Wars and Space Invaders on seem like part of this conspiracy. Once I had that idea, I just went back and looked at history and cherry-picked the things I wanted. Any time something occurred to me, like Battlestar Galactica or Space 1999 or the old Buck Rogers or Firefly, I'd weave it into the story. Also, for me to maintain my interest in a story, I have to be writing about things I'm currently interested in, such as this cutting-edge technology where you can buy little pocket drones for $20.

GR: What did you want to do in Armada that you didn't in your first book?

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EC: In a way it felt even more ambitious than Ready Player One. RPO was a sprawling virtual-reality cyber quest adventure with a million different planets and all these rules. But because a lot of the story takes place in virtual reality, I could bend or change those rules as needed. With Armada the whole story takes place closer to the present day and in the real world, so it was even harder to make the story believable. Also, with Armada I wanted to tell more of a family story, about family relationships, and delve more into the main character's childhood than I did in Ready Player One—but still tell a Robert Heinlein space-faring adventure story in the spirit of the ones I grew up reading, stories like Starship Troopers, Have Spacesuit—Will Travel, Farmer in the Sky, and Ender's Game. I used to just devour stories like that. And Star Wars, too. I'm just a child of Star Wars and Close Encounters and E.T., and I wanted to pay tribute to all of that.

GR: Yes, Goodreads members want to know whether the book is an homage to The Last Starfighter or Ender's Game.

EC: The Last Starfighter is one of my favorite movies; it relies heavily on Star Wars and takes its inspiration from that and Ender's Game, which was initially a serialized short story that came out in 1977, the same year as Star Wars and the year before Space Invaders. So I was fascinated with that, how Star Wars kind of reinvented movies and how so much of early video game culture was video game designers trying to re-create the experience of watching Star Wars. I was part of the first generation of kids to have home video games and be able to rewatch Star Wars on videotape, and all that made me feel like I was Luke Skywalker. And that is the idea behind Armada: "What if I really was being trained to be Luke Skywalker for a reason? What if we all were being trained, and all those video game skills we thought were useless were actually the key to the whole planet's survival?" It's a really fun idea, and I've never seen that idea anywhere in fiction. I've never seen the video gamers of Earth using their consoles to control drones to fight off an alien invasion. Nobody in Ender's Game or The Last Starfighter or Star Wars is controlling drones. They should be. That's the thing—when I watch Star Wars now, I'm like, "Why would you send guys to die in the Death Star? If you can make long-distance, real-time holographic phone calls between planets, then you can control drone X-wings and send them to blow up the Death Star."

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GR: How did writing Armada compare with Ready Player One?

EC: It took me years to write Ready Player One, and I was writing it in my spare time mostly and writing without anyone knowing except friends and family. With Armada the whole world knew I was writing it, because I sold the same 30-page synopsis to both Random House and Universal Pictures before I actually wrote it, which was terrifying. So everybody was constantly asking me about it. One of the friends I made this past year was [Game of Thrones author] George R.R. Martin—he borrowed my DeLorean for a time, and we became friends—and he asked me how my second book was coming along, and I started to complain about all the pressure I was under and that people were constantly emailing and asking me. And he was just laughing at me and playing the world's tiniest violin; it's so much worse for him. I saw later that year he went to the Emmy's, and they handed him a typewriter in the audience so that he could get back to work. So yes, it was a whole different way to write a book and much more nerve-racking. I'm very relieved it's done.

GR: Armada's hero, Zack Lightman, has several characteristics in common with RPO's Wade Watts—video game-playing teenagers, born to teen parents, growing up without a dad—would you say any of that is autobiographical?

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EC: Maybe, a little bit. My brother and I were born to teenage parents and then adopted and raised by our biological grandparents, who became our parents. But I'm more influenced not by my own childhood, because I was not an only child either, but by Roald Dahl's characters. They meant a lot to me growing up—Willie Wonka and James and the Giant Peach, Matilda even—because Dahl would always have these downtrodden characters who were in horrible circumstances, and then something would happen to carry them off on a fantastic adventure. And the reason Wade Watts in Ready Player One has to go and live with his mean aunt is because James in James and the Giant Peach has to go and live with his evil Aunt Spiker and Aunt Sponge. James and the Giant Peach rocked my world when I was a kid because his parents get killed on the first page. I was riveted; what happens to this kid? Oh, it gets even worse. And Harry Potter having to sleep under the stairs is very much inspired by Roald Dahl. So that's where I took my inspiration from. Also, I really loved the book and the movie The World According to Garp, and the idea that a young kid, growing up without a parent, would crave this superhero image of the absent parent that would be nothing like the real person.

GR: Armada's first line—"I was staring out the classroom window and daydreaming of adventure when I spotted the flying saucer"—sounds like something from your childhood.

EC: Yes, that was my whole childhood—just staring out of the window, thinking, "Oh, if something, anything, would happen. Please, something happen! But no, nothing's ever going to happen."

GR: What was your response to Ready Player One becoming so huge? You'd had some success before, but this must have been very different.

EC: My success had been the 2009 movie Fanboys (about obsessive Star Wars fans) that I wrote in 1998 that took 10, 11 years to get made and got heavily edited and reworked and mutilated in the process. And that was what motivated me to try to write a novel so I could at least have control and geek out as much as I want without anybody telling me how to do it. So I was just shocked at the response, and not only that I did get it published because I wasn't sure if you could have Mechagodzilla fighting Ultraman and not get sued by everyone. But the reaction is off the charts. Also, RPO has been selected by around 25 different colleges and high schools as a common read, so the last two years I've been to about 15 different colleges to speak. So that's the most shocking thing to me. I never even finished getting my degree in college.

GR: Goodreads member Cathy asks, "Did you leave any Easter eggs in Armada for those of us who loved Ready Player One?" (In Ready Player One Wade is hunting an Easter egg hidden inside the giant virtual-reality game the OASIS. Cline hid a real Easter egg in the book as a contest for readers and offered the winner a DeLorean.)

EC: No, but if there was, I probably wouldn't tell you.

GR: Ready Player One is proving somewhat prophetic, as technology companies are developing virtual-reality systems similar to that featured in your book.

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EC: Yeah, the whole entertainment industry is now bent on the problem of making virtual reality as real as possible. So I'm lucky that I wrote the most popular virtual-reality novel in recent years right as this technology is coming true. It makes me feel like Arthur C. Clarke predicting the satellite. But I'm standing on the shoulders of giants like William Gibson, who wrote Neuromancer on a typewriter before there even were computers, and Neal Stephenson, who wrote Snow Crash years before the birth of the modern Internet. Now what's crazy is that with Steven Spielberg directing Ready Player One, so many people are going to be exposed to the idea of virtual reality around the world that it's going to change the whole course of human history as pertains to virtual reality and how fast it's adopted and who seeks that out as a career. People will see that movie and want to be a part of making virtual reality happen, and it's like Star Trek, you know, influencing the first flip cell phones. It's so exciting.

GR: How does that feel?

EC: Overwhelming and, again, I feel like a lot of it is timing, the right book at the right time. But I feel really lucky, and it's the most flattering thing. I never could have written Ready Player One or Armada if I hadn't grown up watching George Lucas and Steven Spielberg movies. Fanboys was like my dream come true in terms of paying tribute to Star Wars in a movie. And now Ready Player One is going to be a Steven Spielberg movie, which is kind of my cyber punk Indiana Jones/Goonies/Back to the Future mash-up, and the guy who made all those movies happen is going to make it. It's like a dream come true, and I can't deny the American Dream anymore because it happened to me.

GR: Your website jokes that when your first novel became a bestseller and the film rights were sold, your head exploded. Did that happen when you found out about Steven Spielberg, too?

EC: It keeps happening! I keep piecing it back together, carefully, and then something else happens, and it flies apart again. I still can't believe any of it. It's like Vanilla Sky or The Matrix; I assume it's all going to be an illusion. There's no way I drive a DeLorean and I'm making a movie with Steven Spielberg. The 12-year-old me would be so happy if he knew about any of this.

GR: Many readers asked if there is going to be a sequel to RPO. Can you tell us?

EC: I never intended there to be a sequel to Ready Player One. I left it open for one, but it took so long to do that, I was just trying to write one story and have it feel like it had a genuine ending. But in the course of going on book tours and readers asking me, I've had plenty of time to think about it, and since then I've fleshed out two solid ideas for Ready Player Two and Ready Player Three. I registered those domains way back when I registered Ready Player One, because as far back as that I knew those might be the titles, and it might be a trilogy. And now that Ready Player One is going to be a movie and I'll probably be very immersed in that world again, I think that would be a good time to write the sequel. But Armada is also left open for sequels, and I have ideas for it to be a trilogy as well.

I grew up loving so many trilogies. I tend to think of the Star Wars trilogy or the Indiana Jones trilogy back when it was a trilogy, so I automatically think of stories in three parts like that with a darker second half. So I have ideas for both Armada and Ready Player One sequels. But we'll see. Writing books is hard.

GR: What's your average writing day like? Do you have any unusual writing habits or rituals?

EC: I do. I go out to my garage, and I mess around with my DeLorean. Most recently I mounted two particle throwers—two Ghostbusters Neutrona Wands—on the back and then wired them into the Mr. Fusion. It's a way for me to avoid writing until I have to. And I have a flip-out screen in the dashboard where I can watch movies, so that gets me in the mood. And then I hate myself. It's really bad being a writer because you have to be your own boss, and I'm the least pushy boss ever. But it helps having people on both coasts shout at you over the phone.

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GR: Which writers have been influential or inspirational to you?

EC: William Gibson, Neal Stephenson, Roald Dahl. But I also love Carl Sagan's nonfiction books as well as his book Contact. Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Heinlein, his juvenile adventures and his bigger novels, too, and Alfred Bester, who wrote The Stars My Destination. But probably the biggest of all time is Stephen King. I just devoured Stephen King books when I was growing up.

GR: Goodreads member Derek Rasmussen asks, "Do you have any projects in mind that explore a completely different genre or style? Maybe you've wanted to tackle a classic romance novel or murder mystery?"

EC: Yes, I have a coming-of-age story, like Catcher in the Rye or A Separate Peace or Dead Poet's Society. I often describe it as Dead Poet's Society with Dungeons and Dragons. It's what I'll probably write next. But the best-laid plans of writers—we'll see what I end up writing.

Interview by Catherine Elsworth for Goodreads. Catherine is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. She previously worked as a reporter and editor for the UK's Daily Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph for 13 years and was the Daily Telegraph's Los Angeles correspondent from 2004 to 2009. She has also contributed to Tatler, Stella, and Cond&eacute Nast Traveller. In 2012, she was a semifinalist for the 21st annual James Kirkwood Literary Prize for fiction.

Learn more about Catherine and follow what she's reading.

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Comments Showing 1-13 of 13 (13 new)

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message 2: by Norma (new)

Norma I loved RPO. Can't wait to read Armada!

message 3: by Sophia Ysabelle (last edited Jul 09, 2015 07:25AM) (new)

Sophia Ysabelle  Yu Can't wait for more of your work! :D
I can't believe that you read Roald Dahl's books! He's my favorite author! :)

message 4: by Beth (new)

Beth The idea of potential RPO sequels has made my entire week.

I literally can't wait :D

message 5: by Michael (new)

Michael Hunter looking forward to your new book....absolutely love the thought of seeing rpo on the big screen...especially with spielberg directing

message 6: by Sonia (new)

Sonia Montoya I like this book

message 7: by Albert (new)

Albert Shaw Nice one

message 8: by Dywane (new)

Dywane I Love It?

message 9: by Zachary (new)

Zachary Freeman Looking forward to it! Loved RPO

message 10: by Jacek (new)

Jacek Zarazek I am fed up with saving the Earth from extraterrestials.

message 11: by Ken (new)

Ken Wilson jr Anyone else found the Armada easter egg? Not a contest but a fun little find none the less.

message 12: by Cr4zyc4t (new)

Cr4zyc4t From having a friend's friend share RPO with me, and then later on seeing it blow up in renown, i'm so amped up with hype for Armada and the RPO movie i can't even begin to describe it. I've been heavily influenced by RPO an that it was the final driving piece to get me to follow my dream as well. I won't give any hints away but needless to say it could benefit from Virtual Reality greatly ;)

With that said, i MUST also point all of you adoring RPO fans to a Korean Light Novel called: Legendary Moonlight Sculptor. It takes the wonders and wows of a vr world that Cline began to reveal, and continues revealing it in a great plot schema. It also is a bit more realistic with how RPG's are played/known in modern times.

message 13: by Sheneek Ricketts (last edited May 17, 2018 12:47PM) (new)

Sheneek Ricketts I really enjoyed RPO and how it transitioned to the screen. It didn't leave you feeling half-hearted about either. I personally am a gamer and I like adventure games and figuring out stuff, so this was a real treat.

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