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Quick! To the Authormobile!

November 29, 2011

By Ernest Cline

For most of my adult life, I’ve been a low-paid technical support drone and an aspiring writer.  In other words, “broke.”  Until earlier this year, I’ve never owned a car that anyone would look at twice, unless they were pausing to marvel at what a piece of crap I was driving, or perhaps wonder how it managed to pass for road-worthy.  I’ve never owned a new car, because I could never afford a monthly car payment.  Instead, I’ve driven a long, unremarkable series of used Hondas and Toyotas, which I would run into the ground and then replace.  But since I was ten years old, I’ve dreamed about owning a 1982 DeLorean DMC-12.

The first time I saw a DeLorean was that very year, 1982, when my grade school class took a field trip to a science museum in Columbus, Ohio. There was a brand new DeLorean on display in the lobby, and I immediately fell in love with the car’s futuristic lines, gull-wing doors, and spacecraft-like stainless steel finish. It was the coolest looking automobile I had ever seen.

I didn’t see another DeLorean until a few years later, when I watched Back to the Future for the first time at my local cinema. After watching Doc Brown convert his stainless steel DeLorean sports car into a homemade time machine, my love affair with the car escalated into an obsession. Back to the Future became one of my all-time favorite films, and I vowed that I would own a DeLorean myself one day. But deep down, I knew this was a silly boyhood fantasy, like wanting to fly the Millennium Falcon or own Magnum P.I.’s Ferrari. I knew it would probably never happen.

So let’s time travel forward from 1985 to 2010. I was now a middle-aged husband and father, driving a beat-up ’93 Toyota Camry on its last legs. I’d recently sold an option on a screenplay I’d written, but instead of buying a new car, I’d decided to live off of the money while I finished my first novel, Ready Player One —- a novel I’d been working on sporadically for almost a decade.

Unlike writing screenplays, writing a novel gave me complete creative freedom. But I also found the work to be vastly more difficult. (Screenplays have a lot fewer pages than novels, and a lot less words on each page.) They tell first time novelists to “write the book you’ve always wanted to read,” and one of the ways I maintained my own enthusiasm for the story was to center the plot around things I loved, like classic video games and  80s pop culture. Since the 1980s played such a central role in the book, it seemed perfect to have my protagonist drive the most iconic vehicle of that decade, a DeLorean. And since the character owns the DeLorean inside a virtual reality where anything is possible, he doesn’t restrict himself to just having a replica of Doc Brown’s Time Machine. He also installs a KITT scanner on the front, like the one on the Trans-Am from Knight Rider. And next to the Flux Capacitor (the device that allows the car to travel through time), he also installs an Oscillation Overthruster, like the one Buckaroo Banzai used to make his Jet Car travel through solid matter. Then, to complete the 80s Super Vehicle theme, he adds a Ghostbusters logo on each gull-wing door and personalized license plates that read ECTO88.  This Time-Traveling Knight-Riding Ghostbusting Jet Car seemed like the perfect symbol for my book, itself a mash-up of 1980s pop culture.

In a strange twist of fate, selling my novel later that year is what finally allowed me to realize my dream of buying a DeLorean. To my complete and total shock, the book sold to Crown/Random House in a bidding war, followed by another bidding war for the film rights the following day. It was the most surreal and exciting forty-eight hours of my life.

A month or so later, when I regained the capacity for rational thought, I began to think about what I wanted to do for my author photo. I had the idea of posing with a DeLorean, inspired by the great photo of Stephen King posing with a ’58 Plymouth Fury that appeared in the original hardcover of his novel Christine. At first I considered renting a DeLorean for the photo, until it occurred to me that I could now actually afford to buy one of my own. Then I could convert it into a Time-Traveling Knight-Riding Ghostbusting Jet Car just like one in my novel and drive it across the country on my book tour. And the cost of buying the DeLorean would be a business expense, since I would clearly be using the vehicle as a promotional tool!

This turned out to be one of the best ideas I’ve ever had.

I bought a perfectly maintained 1982 DeLorean from a dealership in Houston, Texas and drove it back to my home in Austin, grinning like a ten-year-old boy the entire way. A few weeks later, my friend Dan Winters photographed me with the car for my author photo, and it is undeniably the coolest photo ever taken of this nerd, due mostly to Dan Winter’s amazing eye and John DeLorean’s gorgeous design.

Next, I began to outfit ECTO88 with the appropriate gear, in preparation for my book tour. First, I obtained a screen-accurate Flux Capacitor replica from a prop builder I found on the Internet. I also ordered a blue KITT scanner and installed it below the DeLorean’s front grille. Finding an Oscillation Overthruster proved to be a bit more difficult, but with the help of a few of my fellow Buckaroo Banzai fans, I obtained one of the most accurate Overthruster replicas in the world. And by scouring eBay, I outfitted my DeLorean with all of the equipment necessary to bust ghosts: a PKE Meter, Ghost Traps, Ecto Goggles, and a (very heavy) screen accurate Proton Pack (which has to ride shotgun, because it’s too big to fit in the tiny trunk). With all of that geek gear in place, ECTO88 was a wonder to behold.

Driving my new authormobile across the country on my book tour has been an amazing experience. Each time I park the car in front of a book store, crank Huey Lewis on the stereo, and open those gull-wing doors, it’s like opening a traveling 80s pop culture geek museum. Large crowds form as people line up to sit in the car and pose for photos.  It creates a carnival-like atmosphere at every one of my signings, and manages to bring my book to life for people in a way I’d never anticipated.

Out on the highways, I constantly get honks, waves, and thumbs-up from passing motorists, each grinning like little kids. And I constantly notice the other cars around me weaving erratically, because the drivers are more focused on taking photos of  my car than they were on actually driving their own. The DeLorean somehow manages to spread a wave of nostalgia wherever it goes. So far on my book tour, I’ve been stopped three times for speeding, and each time the state trooper has let me off with a warning, in exchange for being able to pose for photos with my car. I’ve never seen anything quite like it.

But the biggest surprise for me is how much attention the car gets in the press. Nearly every journalist I speak to about my book also wants to hear about the car, and it’s been mentioned in nearly every article or interview written about Ready Player One. The photo of me and my DeLorean appeared with the review of my novel in The New York Times. If that doesn’t prove it’s a business expense, nothing will.

Ecto88 is sitting out in my garage right now as I write this, waiting to hit the road again next summer when I tour to promote the release of the paperback.  I sometimes take it out for a leisurely spin on the weekends, and my daughter loves to sit inside and play “spaceship.”   It’s more fun than any thirty-year-old automobile has a right to be, and it’s still my dream car.

If you’re planning a book tour, I encourage you think about obtaining your own authormobile. To quote Ferris Beuller, “If you have the means, I highly recommend picking one up.”

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Justina permalink
    November 29, 2011 7:54 am

    For me that would be the Tron Legacy Motorbike, and me with a Lila Black haircut and a set of leathers with a fairy dress on the top…just forty thousand dollars short so far🙂 But you never know!

  2. Mishell Baker permalink*
    November 29, 2011 8:57 am

    My main character takes taxis everywhere, alas.😦

  3. November 29, 2011 6:56 pm

    Great story!

    The MC in my urban fantasy takes the bus…I wonder how hard it would be to write off one of those?

    But as long as we’re talking dream car…I’ll take one of those 50s-style convertibles, white with red trim and accents. Fins on the back. And an awesome stereo system I can really crank.

  4. November 30, 2011 7:40 pm

    Awesome! Sounds like having that car was your density!

  5. G Martin Cook permalink
    December 17, 2011 12:31 am

    My MC drives a custom-fusion trike with the front half of a Harley Davidson Fatcat and the rear end of a Stingray Corvette. The irony is that i just make this vehicle up for him. It actually exists. When i was a kid growing up in Detroit, i had a neighbor who tinkered in his garage and built that vehicle. My folks never let me get to know him because he was a biker/roughneck-type, but i saw that trike of his periodically and it left quite an impression on me.

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