My phone is still not ringing. I find this confusing, since I cleverly hid my cell phone number inside one of my books. I fully expected by now that some random reader would figure it out, give me a call, and want to chat for a bit.
I hide things like this inside my print editions. Little clues, games with the page numbers, changing the size of some of the font to make a word or number stand out, and I’m probably the only one who knows or cares. I think it goes back to my 8-bit fantasies. I used to dream of beating a difficult NES game and finding out that I’d done it in record time, and the programmers had left a bit of code just for such an occasion. A phone number would pop on the screen and tell me to call and claim my reward.
I’ve found out since that I’m not the only gamer to harbor such delusions. In fact, the lure is so common and universal, it was once the subject of a film, THE LAST STARFIGHTER. We didn’t get the idea from the movie, of course. The movie and our ideas were a part of a general zeitgeist. We wanted to be a real part of the action. We wanted a direct connection to the invisible strangers who created the font of entertainment we held so dear.
Life should be more like Metroid. This was the first game to truly celebrate the connection between gamers who hacked and explored and their fellow geeks who coded the games. Sure, Zelda had trees you could burn and walls you could walk through, and Super Mario had shortcuts to skip levels, but in Metroid, you could stand in one of those blue bubble doorways, allow the door to close on your head, become well and truly stuck (this was before true save games, mind you), and then hit up and down on your paddle and jitter through the ceiling.
Well and good, but then it becomes awesome: the programmers not only allowed such a bug, they provided treasure for those who exploited it. You could jitter past obstacles, and even better, you could worm your way into hidden rooms. This wasn’t an accident. Subsequent Metroid games featured the same “bug.” This was designers rewarding the gamer for taking a chance and getting off the beaten path. And this reward mechanism gave me, as a consumer of their product, a direct link to them. A friendship.
This is one of the many geeky reasons I hide things in my books. It’s also why I hide in bookstores, surprising unsuspecting fans. I think life should be like Metroid, with hidden rooms full of treasure, with links between creator and consumer, with surprises around every corner.
Last week, I got an email from an awesome mom. Her son really, really, really wanted whatever book of mine was coming out in the UK. I knew exactly what she was talking about (the kick-ass proof copies), and I hated to break the news that he could only hope to win them, that she couldn’t purchase them. It made it doubly hard that the boy’s 18th birthday was coming up, triply hard that he is an outstanding kid, a product of home-schooling, and quadruply hard that he was an Eagle Scout by the time he was thirteen.
Damn. How do I tell this kid’s mother that the thing she wants for him isn’t for sale? But then I notice something. She mentions where she lives in North Carolina and that her son, Tyler, was stoked to see that I used to live in Boone, even though I’ve now moved to Florida. So I wrote back and let the mother know that I just happened to be in Waxhaw that week and would she like to meet for lunch, maybe give Tyler a signed book since the proofs aren’t available?
This awesome mom jumped on the chance. I told her I’d bring my father, who was also an Eagle Scout, and she said she would bring her husband and daughter as well. We planned to meet at J.D.’s in Statesville, which looked like an awesome Deli online. It was, but it was inside a mall. Since my father and I got there early (we are cut from the same cloth), we killed some time in the bookstore. Which is when I got an idea (a goofy one, Metroid-style). I texted the plan to Tyler’s mom. She heartily agreed.
It was an awesome lunch. I think we spent an hour and a half hanging out. The food was to die for (incredible Reuben and Cuban sandwiches. I wish this place was in Jupiter, FL). We chatted about everything, what the kids were studying, what they were doing with their summer, what Tyler was planning to do for school, scholarships he’d won, scouting, movies, books he likes (he’s also met and gotten signed works from my nemesis, Mr. Card).
And this I can guarantee: I got more out of the experience than Tyler did. It was a blast being on the other end of my 8-bit dreams. I get to do things like hide my phone number and wait for a call from a curious hacker. I get to spring surprises on people. I can reward someone for taking a chance, see their face light up, and marvel at the strange and surreal notion that anyone would get a kick out of having lunch with me.
What an incredible ride. What an incredible family. From the very beginning, the best part of taking up writing has been the chance to connect with an audience, to get to know fellow readers, to forge a bond between creator and consumer. It was the thrill I used to get from playing games like Metroid, where living on the edge often meant getting a glimpse over it, down to a magical vista below, hidden and out of sight from anyone who followed worn paths, anyone who played it safe or simply by the rules.