When it comes to promoting new books, publishers will often get quotes from other writers working in the same genre. But in promoting Jason Rekulak’s geeky new novel The Impossible Fortress (hardcover, digital), the good people at Simon & Schuster instead sent me a quote from programmer Dona Bailey, the co-creator of the arcade game Centipede, who said, “I absolutely love this charming and optimistic coming of age tale about making video games for love, not money.” Though if that’s not enough to spark your interest in The Impossible Fortress, maybe the following interview with Rekulak will.
photo (c) Courtney Apple
I like to start with the basics. So, basically, what is The Impossible Fortress about?
It’s a coming-of-age novel set in New Jersey in May of 1987. It’s a story about two teenagers who fall in love while designing an 8-bit video game for the Commodore 64. Their relationship ends up being the main focus of the book. But the first chapter begins in a very different place, with three 14-year-old boys conspiring to get their hands on the May 1987 issue of Playboy magazine, which featured scandalous photographs of Wheel Of Fortune hostess Vanna White in her underwear. I know, it seems hard to believe, but 1987 was a time when a celebrity could be photographed in lingerie and cause a scandal that dominated the media for weeks.
I remember it well. So what inspired the novel, and how different was the original idea from the final version of the book?
A lot of the novel was inspired by my experiences growing up in the 1980s. As a kid, I taught myself how to program computers. Back then, before the Internet, it was pretty hard to find other nerds who shared my obsession with BASIC and machine language. That’s why Billy, my narrator, is so excited when he meets Mary, she’s the first computer programmer he’s ever met. I guess I wanted to write about kindred spirits meeting in the 1980s, and my early interest in computers, and I had a pretty clear sense of how I wanted the book to feel.
The Impossible Fortress has been called “…a sort of spiritual prequel to Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One,” as well as, “Stranger Things meets Halt And Catch Fire.” Do you think these are fair assessments, and what other novels would you compare the book to?
Well, of course I find any comparison to Stranger Things or Halt And Catch Fire to be extremely flattering. And since my book is set in the 1980s and involves computers, I’m not surprised people are comparing it to Ready Player One. I really enjoyed it, though I think my book has a very different tone: lighter, more humorous, more realistic.
Some people have compared The Impossible Fortress to the Stephen King novella The Body, which was adapted into the film Stand By Me. And that’s about the most flattering compliment I could receive, because I think The Body is a wonderful, wonderful book. Like The Impossible Fortress, it concerns working class kids, creativity, ambition, and ill-conceived plans that bring the characters to some very dangerous places.
As you’ve said, the ’80s were a big influence on what you wrote about in The Impossible Fortress, but what about how you wrote? What were the biggest inspirations, literary and otherwise, on how you wrote the novel?
Movies definitely had an influence on this novel. I wanted my book to move very quickly, to feel very fast, like a zippy ’80s comedy. If any one filmmaker cast a shadow over this book it’s probably John Hughes because, as a teenager, I loved all of his big-hearted comedies. There’s a reason Billy and Mary go to see Some Kind Of Wonderful on their big night out.
What about New Jersey, where you grew up and where The Impossible Fortress is set? How did that influence the book in ways that, say, Pennsylvania, where you live now, wouldn’t have? Or California, which is where this Jersey boy now lives? Y’know, besides having more avocado….
Well, since you’re from New Jersey, you know it’s a really diverse state. There are so many different parts of New Jersey. The South is really rural, it’s farm country. You’ve got wealthy suburbs like Princeton and struggling cities like Camden. In the North are all of these very expensive suburbs of Manhattan. And my book is set right in the middle of the state, at the intersection of the Parkway and the Turnpike, in a working-class neighborhood near Staten Island, and these circumstances definitely help to shape the characters. The kids are largely unsupervised — which I think is a terrific thing, by the way — and their economic circumstances give them a drive and motivation that some kids from other backgrounds might not have. If you grow up in a working-class neighborhood, you’re surrounded by people who are always working. So you grow up basically doing the same; I got my first job delivering newspapers at thirteen, and I’ve been working ever since.
But, on the flipside of all that, do you think someone who isn’t a geek who grew up in Jersey in the ’80s will still get a kick out of The Impossible Fortress?
I think my ideal reader is a Gen-Xer, but I hope there are parts of the story that feel universal and will transcend age. We’ll see. I’ve already heard from people who can’t believe that three teenagers would go to such extraordinary lengths to get their hands on a copy of Playboy. But my forty-year-old readers just smile knowingly and nod their heads.
One of the fun things you’re doing to promote The Impossible Fortress is that you made an arcade game for your website. Where did you get the idea to do this from, who made the game, and how involved, if at all, were you in deciding what the game would be?
This was one of my favorite parts of writing the book. I was on my third draft when I decided it would be great if Billy and Mary’s game existed in real-life. I wanted readers to finish the book, then go on-line and play the game that Billy and Mary had designed in the novel. My initial plan was to write the entire game in Commodore 64 BASIC, and parts of those efforts ended up in the book; there are patches of code at the start of every chapter. But after a few days of tinkering with BASIC in a C64 emulator, I realized I was heading down the wrong track. If you go back and play any old game from 1987, and it pains me to admit this, the gameplay almost always feels tedious. It’s just too slow. It’s like watching old episodes of Star Trek. I have tremendous affection for them, but you can see every twist and obstacle coming from a mile away.
So I decided I needed a game that looked and felt and sounded like a 1987 game but used new technologies — most importantly speed — to feel more enjoyable. I spoke to a number of different designers before landing on Dan and Jackie Vecchitto with Holy Wow Studio. They read the entire manuscript, and then designed a really fun game that more or less synchs up with everything described in the book.
Now, I mentioned Ready Player One earlier, and as you probably know, Steven Spielberg is making a Ready Player One movie. Has there been any talk of making The Impossible Fortress into a movie — or a TV show, for that matter — and if so, what can you tell us about it?
Nothing would make me happier. But at the moment, the rights are still available. My understanding is that the ten top-grossing films of 2016 all featured superheroes or talking animals, and my book doesn’t have either, so I’m not holding my breath. But who knows?
If The Impossible Fortress was going to be made into a movie or TV show, who would you like to see cast in the main roles?
I would cast unknowns for the kids. I think you’d want it to feel like Superbad, where they discovered an unknown like Christopher Mintz-Plasse, a.k.a. “McLovin,” and he totally runs away with the movie. However, I will add that as I wrote the character of Mr. Zelinsky, Mary’s father, I kept thinking of the amazing J.K. Simmons.
Finally, if someone enjoys The Impossible Fortress, what would you suggest they read next and why?
Tom Perrotta hit the big time with novels like Little Children, which became a movie, and The Leftovers, now a show on HBO, but his first novel, The Wishbones, is still one of my favorites. It’s set in a blue-collar part of New Jersey and concerns a guitarist in a wedding band who proposes to his girlfriend with terrible results. The Wishbones was always front-of-mind while I was writing The Impossible Fortress and I like to think that some of its magic rubbed off on me.