SXSW brought tens of thousands of people into a small pocket of downtown Austin, wrecking traffic and filling the sidewalks to overflowing. It made it nearly impossible to find people, even with the help of cell phones. It was a good thing the ride I was waiting for was hard to miss.
“Is that a DeLorean?” someone in the crowd asked.
They had spotted my ride for me.
A stainless steel spaceship of a car with a roaring hotrod engine came to a stop by the curb. I pulled the latch on the gull-wing passenger door, and my grin bumped into my ears. I was about to climb into an icon. My favorite new author was sitting at the wheel.
There’s nothing like shaking hands with someone who pounded out the best book I’ve read in maybe forever. Behind the wheel sat a complete stranger, but climbing into the low seat felt like settling in beside an old friend. Not only did we have a childhood in common, but also this new life of seeing our words reach a vaster audience than either of us thought possible. By the time we got to lunch, we were talking about book tours and film deals and Star Wars and Back to the Future and of course, the DeLorean.
There’s a DVD player in the dash. Ernie fires up the film that transformed the DeLorean from loser to legend while the GPS greets us in K.I.T.T.’s voice. It even says Ernie’s name via a .wav file he hacked into the unit. My overpowering jealousy of Patrick Rothfuss, who has claimed Ernie for his best friend, is hard to suppress. Like me, when Patrick (author of Name of the Wind) read Ready Player One, he was smitten. He felt like this book had been written especially for him. Emailing Ernie, he informed him that they were now best friends. I cursed myself for not thinking of this first.
Ernie and I had lunch and later went to a SXSW screening of MILIAS, a biography of the legendary director of Conan. Dinner and a movie, but neither of us made a move. Ernie was a perfect gentleman, damnit.
And then last night, Ernie showed up for the first book event of my launch tour, which was like Orson Scott Card coming by to see my 3rd grade science fair project. I made sure everyone at BookPeople knew there was a rockstar in the house. People went off in search of his book, only to discover most were already signed.
“If you find one that isn’t, it’s worth a lot of money,” Ernie quipped.
Later, a young reader came up and asked to have his book personalized.
That’s goddamn adorable.
Oddly enough, having a bestselling author and someone I admire in the audience didn’t make the talk more difficult. It made it easier. Ernie sported a disarming and calming grin throughout. I could see him nodding as I described what it’s been like to go from a bookstore employee to a successful writer. Standing behind a podium just like the one I used to drag out and set up for other authors back and my old job, some kind of surreal transformation took place. For a moment or two, it felt natural to be up there. I had the time of my life.
My experience in Austin at SXSW and my first book event at BookPeople couldn’t have kicked off this tour any better. I woke up this morning — the day of WOOL’s bookstore release — feeling refreshed and invigorated. And my time with Ernie gave me a new appreciation for what fans of WOOL must feel like in getting to hang out, come to meet-ups, have lunch, and shoot the shit. Wearing a shy and nervous grin around him was good for me. It was also nice to chat with someone who has gone through an augmented version of what I’m experiencing. To think that the dude is a fan of my work as well is simply humbling beyond belief, but I try not to think about that.
And you know, I’ve decided to be gracious about the Patrick Rothfuss thing. I’m happy for Pat, who claimed Ernie for his best friend before I could get a chance. I don’t mind being Player 3 or Player 4. I could be Questor to their Thor and Merlin. I could be Raphael with those no-reach sais to their Donatello and Leonardo. Just give me a pocket full of quarters.
And besides, Ernie and I will always have Austin. And we’ll always have this: