It was appropriate that my conversation with Ernest Cline, writer of Ready Player One and the new Armada, took place virtually, rather than in a swanky hotel in Hollywood, and that the technology I was employing to record our conversation would fail on me in the first five minutes. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from his stories, it’s that you have to rely on backups and intuition to succeed in leveling up.
I stared at a fingertip-smudged screen in a New York City Starbucks, cursing internet connectivity and praying that the app I had just downloaded when Skype disconnected for the third time would actually record our conversation. Cline was in Austin in the middle of a press whirlwind for the release of his second novel, Armada. He was, kindly, very understanding that technology was doing its best to thwart me.
The writer of New York Times best-seller Ready Player One, and screenwriter of Fanboys, had been at the center of this storm of activity for months. His highly anticipated second novel would hit shelves in July; his bestselling first novel was in development at Warner Bros.; with Steven Spielberg attached to direct. The whirlwind would continue in the coming weeks, and I was eager to hear of new developments.
Here’s what Cline’s latest is about, according to the Armada press materials:
High school student Zack Lightman is daydreaming through another boring math class, with just one more month to go until graduation and freedom — if he can make it that long without getting suspended again. Then he glances out his classroom window and spots the flying saucer. At first, Zack thinks he’s going crazy. A minute later, he’s sure of it. Because the UFO he’s staring at is straight out of the videogame he plays every night, a hugely popular online flight simulator called Armada — in which gamers just happen to be protecting the earth from alien invaders. But what Zack’s seeing is all too real. And his skills — as well as those of millions of gamers across the world — are going to be needed to save the earth from what’s about to befall it.
The best surprise to come out chatting with Cline was not a spoiler or big reveal. It was a quick understanding I came to: That Cline is, like so many of us, a fan at heart. Whether talking about his own projects or the work of other creators, his enthusiasm for movies, pop culture, video games and science fiction bubbled to the surface with every sentence. With the July 14th release of this second book, he seems poised to continue his rapid ascent to new heights of creativity and storytelling both on the page and the screen.
Can you tell me about your writing process? Do you map out your pop culture references before you write or have to know every character perfectly?
I really am not a fan of writing always. Sometimes it’s fun, and you get lost in the story, and you’re kind of a spectator too. But a lot of the time, writing is really hard work. It’s a really hard job so I usually spend a couple of hours avoiding writing before I start writing. And most of my actual writing, I do at my computer, sitting at a desk. Outlining, working up stories, I’ll do on notepads, and I’ll do kind of by hand, and once I have the whole story outlined, I’ll type that up in a document, and then usually work from that outline when I write a story.
For the pop culture references; I don’t think of them as pop culture references. I think of them as cultural references. I don’t always know the difference between culture and pop culture because if it’s not pop culture, what is it? Then it’s unpopular culture, and why would you make unpopular culture references? Pop culture is my culture. It’s the only culture I’ve ever grown up in so making a pop culture reference is making a cultural reference. I don’t make a list of things to work into the story. I just work them into the story the way that you would work them into conversation, like when your friend says something, and it occurs to you to make a Monty Python reference or to reference some movie, you make that reference as a joke, and you don’t have to explain it. If you don’t, then that joke is like a shorthand for you and your friend. I just try to write my characters the way that my friends and I have always talked.
In a movie like War of the Worlds or Independence Day, the characters have not seen the movie — but I try to tell a story where the characters are aware of the common tropes of the kind of story they are encountering. I think that makes it more relatable. If you see a movie about an alien invasion, and the characters haven’t seen Star Wars or reference all the alien invasion movies [and TV shows] like V that we’ve all grown up with; but it’s fun to have the characters be aware of all that and also have that knowledge be an essential part of the story. I try not to use pop culture as window dressing. It’s fun for me to make all that pop culture have an alternate meaning or make it part of this fun action movie conspiracy.
Do you draw inspiration from anything visual? Do you need to see things on paper before you can write the words?
It’s all in my head. I’m a terrible artist. I can’t draw very well so it’s usually — the only visualization I do is with notes. Like in Armada there’s a section where Zack reads through his dad’s notebook, and there’s a whole timeline of video games and movies that have to do with this conspiracy that he’s figuring out. That whole timeline was worked up from my notes. I created a timeline of all the science fiction/alien invasion stuff that had happened from Star Wars on and tried to reimagine it as part of this conspiracy. So I created those same notes and used it in the document. The one piece of art that I did have worked up was the Earth Defense Alliance logo. I had an artist friend of mine create those EDA emblems that are part of each section of the book. Those helped inspire the story. Now that I’m working on the screenplay and the movie is done — I’m having artists work up designs for ships and things. But I didn’t have any of that when I was working on the book.
Speaking of your movie, what has it been like seeing your first novel move from page to screen?
Well it’s just the craziest thing that have ever happened to anyone ever. Everything that you could ever want to have happen when publishing your first book happened to me. I started out wanting to be a screenwriter and then the one movie that I wrote, Fanboys, was such a demoralizing process, and they changed it so much that it made me want to write a book instead so that I could have control over my story.
So I was trying to write Ready Player One just to see if I could do it. I wasn’t even sure you could publish a book like that, you know, and not get sued. I knew for sure it could never be a movie, because of the different things I was referencing. I expected to have to give it away for free, like fan fiction, but it turned out there was a bidding war over it in the publishing world. And it went to Crown Random House. And that bidding war caused a bidding war over it in Hollywood over the film rights the very next day. So all that was when my life changed. And that was back in 2010 before the book even came out. It wasn’t a NYT bestseller yet and didn’t have any fans at all. I had no idea what was going to happen or if it was ever going to get made.
And I promise you, I never once in a million years imagined Spielberg would end up directing it. He’s the most successful director in the history of cinema! And he’s only ever directed a first novel once before and that was Jaws. I mean, I wouldn’t have written Ready Player One if it wasn’t for Steven Spielberg — the guy who directed the Indiana Jones movies and ET? — so the idea that he’s the guy that’s gonna make my movie? It’s the craziest thing ever. I tell people that I assume it’s like Vanilla Sky or An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge — that I died in a car accident three years ago, and I am making all this shit up in my head. There’s no way this can really be happening.
How’s it feel to know that people are talking about your books now in the way that you idolized Spielberg’s work? This was the Armada preview edition brag of the spring.
I just had to send a bunch of takedown notices to eBay because there were eight copies of Armada going for sale for a thousand dollars. People were selling this book that they got for free along with the promotional patch. It’s crazy! I mean, it’s a good problem to have. I guess the whole idea of giving the book away for free is to get people interested in it? I was talking to Random House, and I don’t feel like the book could be anymore anticipated. I don’t know if they’re helping build buzz or just making people angry by giving to some people early. I mean, I know what it’s like to be a geek and to want something and be angry when somebody else gets it. There was a movie that played at a festival somewhere, in Toronto, and I didn’t get to see it, and I had to wait three more months. It just pissed me off. I guess it’s a good problem to have, though. I’m excited for everybody to be able to read it. They just released one chapter — the first chapter — online yesterday so it’s the first time any of the book at all has been available to the world. But yeah, people seem to like it. I’m relieved. You know the thing is when you’re a writer you don’t really know, and you work alone, and you don’t know what the reaction is and you’re too close to it so you don’t know until you put it out into the world. I’m relieved that some people are going to like it.
Where do you stand on sequels? Or even writing books in the same universe?
When I was first writing Ready Player One, it was my first novel, and I just wanted to finish it. So I never envisioned it as being part of a series. I just wanted to write one story. There were hints of things that could happen afterwards, but I wanted it to have a satisfying ending. It wasn’t until I went out on the book tour that everybody started asking me about sequels, and that forced me to think about them. I never imagined even getting the first book to sell, much less it being a bestseller, so it wasn’t until people started asking me that I started thinking about what sequels would be. Warner Bros. has made it clear to me that they want to make sequels [to Ready Player One] so if I don’t write them, somebody else will end up writing them. And, you know, I’m really invested in the characters and the story, so I think there will end up being two more. I have Ready Player Two and Three websites registered because I didn’t want them to end up as porn websites. But it’ll be a few years before I start on those.
And it occurs to me, now that I know Spielberg is going to making the movie, once I’m on the set of the Ready Player One movie, it’ll be hard to not think about the sequels. They’ve already asked me what is going to happen in those stories so that they can hint at them at the end of the first movie. And Armada; again I was trying to write one story that had a definitive ending, but now I’m right in the middle of trying to write the first draft of the screenplay for Universal — they bought the movie rights right at the same time — and all the changes that they asked me to make to my outline involved setting Armada up for sequels too. They are really excited about it. They love the idea of it being a big science-fiction franchise. I think there will be a sequel to Armada, but I wouldn’t write those until after I write the Ready Player One sequels.
I love the women you write. Unique, strong female characters are still so few and far between in science fiction, even now. Can you talk about where you find the inspiration for them?
Thank you so much for that question. I do have a lot of strong women in my life. A lot of my friends are women, and I always really love stories that reflect that. They’re treated as different than male characters. I hate it almost as much, I think, as women do. I feel like the biggest influence that James Cameron has had on me is that he always, always has strong female characters in his movies. In the Terminator, it was Sarah Connor. Sigourney Weaver was nominated for an Oscar for playing Ellen Ripley in Aliens. Even in Avatar, Neytiri ends up saving the hero. Cameron always takes pains to have strong female characters. I always try to do that too just because I appreciate it. And I have a daughter, and someday she’s going to read my books. I want her to be proud of the way that I portray women.
What was your favorite book growing up? What are you’re reading now? What influenced, and is still influencing, the writer you are today?
Those two are connected. I am in the middle of reading Neal Stephenson’s new book, Seveneves, which I was really looking forward to. It’s his kind of disaster, space-ark story about the end of the world. And Neal Stephenson wrote Snow Crash which was a seminal book for me, and the greatest virtual reality novel ever written. I never would have written Ready Player One if it weren’t for Snow Crash. That guy gives me hope — that he could write a book like Snow Crash 20 years ago and still be kicking ass now? Hopefully I can emulate him.
I have to ask: Have you seen, read, played all the movies, books and video games that you reference in your writing?
Yeah! I did a lot of research, but it’s just my whole life. I never ever reference anything unless it’s something in my life because then I wouldn’t know how to reference it properly. It’s like, when you’re having a conversation, even with people that you don’t know, you can get a sense of someone’s sensibility if you make a reference to a movie or a book that the two of you share. It conveys a whole world of meaning. I try to include references to things organically the way that I do in conversations and not shoehorn them in. I’m sure for some people who aren’t as obsessed with that stuff that everything feels shoehorned in. But I do try to use references that occur to me based on the situation that’s happening in the story.
You talked a little bit about Fanboys and all the changes that you had to make to your original script, but I have to say, it’s one of my favorite geek movies. It’s still loved, even if it’s not exactly what you wanted it to be.
When I see it, all I see is the stuff that they made us change. But it’s so impossible to get a movie made, and it’s the only movie I’ve had made — so I’m still really proud of it. We do charity screenings of it for cancer research at the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, so I still get to have fun with it. I’m in Fanboys actually: I cameo in Seth Rogen’s Star Trek posse in Riverside, Iowa. I’m the only one wearing glasses, so next time you watch it, look for me.
Rachael Berkey is a reader, writer, and curator of all things entertainment. She has written and created content for pop culture, entertainment, literary, and nonprofit websites for the last four years. She tweets at @bookoisseur.