03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Walter Kirn Is Feeling Up in the Air

Writer Walter Kirn tells a story about the way weapons of mass communication such as the Blackberry have made an impact on intimacy issues:

He's lying in bed with his girlfriend, post-whatever, and she takes out her Blackberry and starts checking her messages. Not to be left out, Kirn takes out his Blackberry and peruses his own incoming email. And then he turns to her triumphantly and says, rather than feeling rejected by her devotion to her device, he feels triumphant.

"My messages are better than yours," he says. "George Clooney just agreed to star in the movie of my book."

As I sit down to dinner with him, Kirn has the slightly wide-eyed look of someone who realizes that the old lottery ticket he's been carrying around in his wallet is, in fact, a jackpot winner. Which, in a sense, it is.

Up in the Air, Jason Reitman's acclaimed new film, is based on a Kirn novel that was published in 2001 -- and which vanished almost immediately. It didn't help that the book, about a guy trying to reach an impossible level of frequent-flyer miles, featured the equivalent of an airplane crash as part of its cover illustration -- and that the book was published shortly before 9/11.

Now, with sterling reviews for the movie, the book is back in print and Kirn is happily riding the zeitgeist surrounding Reitman's film, which has been changed significantly for the film.

"I love getting credit for anything good," Kirn says. "The movie Frankenstein is not much like the book but there's some essential creation in the book without which there could not be the movie. For me, the most durable elements of the book are the characters and the setting. Giving the setting respect as a world unto itself is something I did in the book and Jason did in the movie."

That milieu -- which Kirn christened "Airworld" in his novel -- is the domain of the central character, Ryan Bingham (Clooney). In the movie, he's a corporate downsizer; in the novel, he was the out-placement expert who worked with the downsized. In both, however, he is obsessed with accumulating mileage and feels completely in his element within the bubble of airports, airplanes, hotels and rental cars. The character, in part, sprang from an encounter Kirn had during a flight on which he was sitting in first class.

"I asked the guy next to me where he was from and he said, 'Right here. I'm from this seat'," Kirn recalls.


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