With the much-anticipated movie release set for next month, “Ready Player One” author Ernest Cline visits his old stomping grounds

Ernest Cline grew up in the late 1970s and '80s, when the film world was rife with stories about kids who could do anything, from “The Goonies” to “E.T.” to “Iron Eagle.”

“I love telling these kinds of … coming of age stories,” Cline said in a recent phone interview. “I was inspired by [Steven Spielberg] movies growing up. ‘Ready Player One' is already in the mode of a Spielberg movie, where you have an average kid and something happens to take him off on a fantastic adventure.”

Cline's own fantastic adventure began even before his debut novel, the pop-culture laden “Ready Player One,” became a New York Times Bestseller, international sensation and soon-to-be-released motion picture. But it certainly took on Spielberg-esque proportions when the famed director signed on to bring the story about a teenager who uses his gaming skills and knowledge of pop culture to try and keep a virtual reality universe from being taken over by heartless corporate interests to the big screen.

“I still can't believe it,” Cline said of his hero agreeing to direct the film. “He's maybe the only one who could have made this faithful an adaptation of the story, not only through his work but by being able to get all the licensing.”

Cline's Spielberg-inspired youth was spent in Ashland (although his hometown arcade closed early in the '80s, forcing gamers to travel to Mansfield's Richland Mall to play at the Aladdin's Castle arcade there). Cline said the rapidly emerging technology of the time, from video games to home gaming and home computing to the VCR, “exposed me to all this culture from around the world.”

“In some ways, pop culture is the only culture I've known. I was five when ‘Star Wars' came out, and for the next six years, that was my whole childhood,” said Cline, who will speak about his novels “Ready Player One” and “Armada” and the filmmaking process in a program sponsored by the Westerville Public Library on Thursday, March 1 at Villa Milano. “That was the dawn of what we think of as modern pop culture, and it's what led to my interest in science fiction and making movies.

“I'm not an elitist about pop culture.”

The “Ready Player One” film is set primarily in Columbus, one of several settings in the book. References to the city, based on Cline's time here, abound in the story. The IOI building in “Ready Player One” is “a little bit based on the Nationwide [Insurance] building,” Cline said, for example.

Cline confessed to understanding locals being upset that the film wasn't shot here (Birmingham, England, stands in), but that maybe there was a silver lining. “It's set in a dark future, and Columbus just looks too nice,” Cline offered.

The author, who also co-wrote the screenplay, said he's more than happy with the film treatment.

“I made them show it to me twice, because I knew the first time I'd be too freaked out to retain everything. Now that I've seen it, I'm so excited for the rest of the world to see it,” Cline said.

The film release date was moved up a day, and will now hit theaters on March 29, which also happens to be Cline's birthday.

“Nothing's going to ever top this birthday,” he said.