Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Monday, September 12, 2016

Monday, September 12, 2016: The Impossible Fortress


Simon & Schuster: Impossible Fortress by Jason Rekulak

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The Impossible Fortress

by Jason Rekulak

It is 1987, and 14-year-old Will has an ordinary, perfectly boring teenage life. His time and energy are spent on fitting in in high school, obsessing about hot girls, ferreting out the secrets of computer coding--and, wherever possible, combining those three things for greatest effect. Case in point: his coding of the game "Strip Poker with Christie Brinkley," in which a string of computer code allows players to battle the computer in poker, removing an article of clothing from Brinkley (rendered in punctuation marks) for every hand the computer loses. His mother works the late shift at the local grocery store, leaving Will and his two best friends, Alf and Clark, with ample un-chaperoned time to spend as they see fit--biking around town, renting videos and generally acting like teenage boys. "But then Playboy published nude photographs of Wheel of Fortune hostess Vanna White, [Will] fell head over heels in love, and everything changed."

So begins The Impossible Fortress, Jason Rekulak's debut novel, which features the world's most unlikely heist: the theft of the Vanna White issue of Playboy (since they're too young to purchase it) from a local office supply store. With wily ingenuity, Will and his friends plot their caper, complete with a scale model of their small hometown that would leave even Ocean's Eleven envious of their planning skills.

Part of the boys' plan to steal the magazine involves Will romancing the office storeowner's daughter, Mary. But as Will sets out to befriend and ultimately seduce the awkward, computer-obsessed girl who codes in the back of the store, he finds he's more intent on working with Mary to build a new computer game than he is in kissing her. As the two work together to teach themselves a new coding language and design a game to enter in a nearby gaming contest, their friendship turns into something more real than Will had ever envisioned--and the already complicated heist becomes more tangled than any scale model could predict. As Will's feelings for Mary intensify, he begins to realize the potential for his reckless actions to hurt those he cares most about.

The Impossible Fortress is set in 1987 Wetbridge, N.J., a working-class town, and the novel feels entirely a part of this time and place. Will is captivated by early-days computer coding on a Commodore 64, and dreams of winning an IBM PS/2 in a video game design contest. He and his friends visit the local video store to rent and re-rent the same movies time and again. Their town is marked by a main street full of shuttered or struggling shops, "squeezed by competition from all the new shopping malls." The very center of the heist--the Playboy and the boys' plan to sell photocopies of the pictures to classmates--is inherent to the year. But while The Impossible Fortress is fully immersed in 1980s culture, what is most remarkable about Rekulak's story is the way his reflections on being a teenager on the cusp of adulthood prove as relevant today as they would have been then.

Rekulak's tale takes place during a few months of Will's freshman year of high school, when Will and his friends are still poised on the edge of young adulthood. In many ways, the three are still little boys, dreaming up wild adventures to fill their empty afternoons that feature themselves as the heroes of their own stories. But they are also beginning to recognize their place in the world, the hardships their parents face and the realities of moving into adulthood. Will, in particular, seems to realize the potential for his actions to help (or hurt) those around him as he grows into himself (a transition represented by his switch from the childhood nickname "Billy" to the more adult "Will" over the course of the book). This coming of age is brought more fully into focus as the relationship between Will and Mary becomes ever more meaningful. 

Rekulak has carefully nested these thoughtful reflections on growing up within the absurd story of the boys' attempted burglary, which keeps the book squarely in the camp of "funny" over "serious." But the funny here serves to further underscore the importance of the serious: the heist provides a unique framework for a sweet and memorable coming-of-age love story. Rekulak's ingenious novel is sure to appeal to anyone who likes an endearing tale. --Kerry McHugh

Simon & Schuster, $26, hardcover, 288p., 9781501144417

Simon & Schuster: Impossible Fortress by Jason Rekulak

Jason Rekulak: Growing Up in the '80s

photo: Courtney Apple

Jason Rekulak is the publisher of Quirk Books, where he has worked on bestselling titles such as Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children. In his debut novel, The Impossible Fortress, three teenage boys in the 1980s set out on a seemingly impossible task: to steal the issue of Playboy featuring Vanna White. Rekulak lives in Philadelphia with his wife and two children.

You work in publishing, but this is your first novel. Was the process surprising? Did your work experience make this easier or harder?

I've been at Quirk for 16 years, so I'm pretty entrenched in the indie world with no corporate infrastructure or massive resources. So it has been revealing to see how a big house handles your book. That's been fascinating, and I've had some exposure to some new things. On the other hand, though, some things are wholly familiar. They're currently in the process of changing the cover... again. Of course they have to change it. It wouldn't be publishing if they didn't have to make changes. I'd say background at Quirk has definitely prepared me for some of the bumps along the road.

Do you think your experience as a publisher changed the way you wrote the book at all?

Probably. At this point, I've worked on a lot of books. I feel a lot more confident than I did when I was younger, but I don't know if that is because of my experience as a publisher, necessarily.

On the one hand, I think the book is commercial and has a lot of hooks. On the other hand, I think it must not be commercial at all, because there aren't really any good comparative titles for it. So part of me thinks that maybe my work as a publisher influenced some of the choices I made, but I'm not sure.

The Impossible Fortress reads like a heist story--but not a traditional one. What drew you to this genre?

The Impossible Fortress is, on the surface, a silly heist book set in the '80s about these young boys who are planning to steal something totally ridiculous: the issue of Playboy featuring Vanna White.

I had that itch that I think a lot of writers have: to write about my childhood, my adolescence, my coming of age. Will and the world that he lives in are based on my own experiences. His town is exactly where I grew up geographically. I loved the downtown we had; instead of a Staples, you had a real store, and that money stayed in the community. We had an independent bookstore that was five blocks from my house.

But then I had to ask myself, what are they going to do? These kids can't just sit around talking for the whole book. Once I hit on the heist framework, that gave all these ideas a shape and a structure. It wasn't like the heist here was life or death, either, because I didn't overwhelm all of the other things I wanted to write about.

On its surface, the book is very funny; it's slightly absurd and has some hilarious moments. But it's also fairly serious, with many reflections on what it's like to be a teenager, especially in the '80s.

I find I'm most comfortable with the funny stuff. I'm less comfortable with the passages where I'm trying to dig into real emotion and heart. I just worry that it's going to make readers throw the book across the room. That was something that really came out in the editing process. I had a great editor who would point out where I had a strong point and needed to add a couple more lines to really get to the heart of what was happening emotionally. A lot of that is still pretty subtle, though. I thought that any kind of big scene where I spelled it all out would be kind of annoying. 

Will is a computer gamer who teaches himself code. Are you a coder yourself? Or were you when you were Will's age?

I was a big computer programmer when I was a teenager, and I really loved that era of early home computers where you had to literally type in the code if you wanted to play something. The games you could buy then weren't designed by thousands of people like they are now, they were designed by one person who did everything: the graphics, the sound, the music, and the coding. When I was Will's age, 13 or 14, that was my aspiration: I wanted to be one of those people.

I would make games that were really very rudimentary: you would be a square and you'd have to go fight the monsters that were squares. But the instructions for the game would be 7 or 8 pages of text, with history and backstory and where all the square characters were from and where they were going. It was all completely irrelevant to the game, but it was a form of writing that I felt like I could do. So I would create these giant games with these giant backstories, which was kind of like writing fiction, in a way.

By the time I got to college, I realized I didn't have to do the coding part of it if I didn't want to. I could do the writing and the story part of it and not have to bother with the messy coding and software and all that stuff. So that's what I did. And now I work in publishing.

So the pieces of code that introduce each chapter... are those functional?

My original plan was to make the game that Will and Mary are making; those excerpts are code for the game. I wanted them to be playable on these emulators you can download for your computer now that will turn it into Commodore 64 or a TRS-8 or whatever. But six months into writing the book and making the game, I realized no one was going to download the emulator for Commodore 64 and then type in all of this code. (Even though that's what I did all the time when I was 14; I'd think nothing of typing in several hundred lines of code.)

Instead I ended up partnering with this husband-wife wizard programming team to make this game where readers could just go online to play it. They read the book, and read about the game in the book, and they figured out a way to turn it into a real thing. Ultimately, if we did the game right, I think the gameplay will underscore the story of The Impossible Fortress. --Kerry McHugh


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