Photo: Courtney Apple.
Like any red-blooded male living in New Jersey circa 1987, Billy Marvin just wants to see Vanna White naked. Along with his two buddies, he hatches a plan to steal copies of the latest Playboy magazine from Zelinski’s, the local office supplies store. There’s only one hitch: the trio of troublemakers needs the alarm code from the shopkeeper’s daughter, an overweight, geeky girl named Mary. To butter her up, Billy bonds with Mary under the guise of designing a computer game to enter in a programmers’ contest. But as the pair grows closer, Billy is torn between his affection for Mary and his loyalty to his friends’ harebrained scheme. When it all blows up in Billy’s face, Mary’s own secret is revealed.
That’s the premise of The Impossible Fortress, the hilarious, raunchy, and nostalgic debut novel by Jason Rekulak that will take men back to the glory (and the agony) of their high school days. As if a buzz-garnering book weren’t accomplishment enough, Rekulak also teamed up with programmers to design an old-school version of The Impossible Fortress which you can play for free on his website. Be forewarned: you should read the book first, because once you start playing the game, you won’t be able to stop.
Crave: What inspired you to write The Impossible Fortress? Was it based on some experiences that you had when you were younger?
Jason Rekulak: I grew up in the ‘80s when all these micro-computers were taking off. That was my big obsession. I just wanted to make my own video games and run my own video game company. I had a Commodore 64 and I was a self-taught basic programmer. That was just a big part of my teenage years, from 7th grade on. Then I ended up working in book publishing instead. A little while ago, my father got sick, so I was going home a lot and feeling very nostalgic because I was always going back to this town where I grew up. That’s when I started writing the book.
Did you remember all the ‘80s pop culture details in the book off the top of your head? Or did you have to do some research?
No. It’s weird. I have a really good memory for all that stuff. I can remember every movie I’ve seen, where I saw it, and who I was with. I don’t know why. It’s a totally useless party trick.
How did you get into the adolescent mindset again? I imagine you’re pretty far separated from that now.
Not as far you’d think. My day job at Quirk Books is a very creative atmosphere. A lot of imaginative people work here. I feel like the spirit of all that work is similar to the energy I had back then when I was making my own video games. I tried to channel all of that.
Nowadays, you have hundreds of people working on games and they have these massive budgets. But when I was doing it, they were one-person productions. You did everything: the music, the graphics, the sound. They were a lot like independent book publishing.
Do you still play video games? If so, what are your favorites?
I do play, not as intensely as I used to. I have an Xbox One. In recent years, the best thing I’ve played is Red Dead Redemption. I think that game, visually, is just stunning. And it’s so immersive. I love all the landscapes in that game. There’s a sequel coming out this year. I am probably most excited about that. That is a game I will buy as soon as it comes out.
When you’re playing video games, do you ever feel conflicted, like you should be reading instead?
They’re a really interesting art form. I don’t feel guilty about it. I do struggle—I think like everybody—to try to balance all the different options there are right now. There are tons and tons of great games I have not played because you can only consume so much media in a day.
One thing your book made me nostalgic for—as someone who grew up in the ‘80s—was the freedom that kids had on their bikes. As a parent, do you feel that children now experience that same freedom?
I have a 12- and a 10-year-old and it’s a whole different world. I never had scheduled activities until I was in high school. My summer was sort of like, “Go outside and do something.” Part of it is we live in Philadelphia so you can’t send an 8-year-old across the city. But I know from talking to people who live in suburbs that it’s very different. I have mixed feelings about it. The problem is, you could be the lone parent who’s the holdout and say, “I’m just going to turn my kids loose,” but none of the other kids are around. They’re all at camp.
Without spoiling anything for those who haven’t read the book, I want to ask about Mary’s secret, which is revealed at the end of the book. Was that the first secret that came to mind or did you consider other options for plot twists?
It’s a tricky thing to talk about because I don’t want to spoil it. That was inspired by someone I knew in high school. A really, really good friend of mine. Let’s just say I was as surprised as Billy was to learn that secret.
Were Billy’s buddies in the book based on real people?
Yeah, you know, typical book stuff: they’re an amalgam of like six different people. A lot of the stupid stories are ripped from real life. I did work in a cosmetics factory for a summer, and that was horrible. All that stuff about mascara tubes is pure autobiography. Dumb schemes, renting Kramer vs. Kramer over and over from the video store to watch that one-minute nude scene—we used to do all that stuff.
What made you want to create a real video game to release in tandem with the book?
I started to notice the similarities between the game Mary and Billy were designing and what’s actually happening in the book. In the game, there’s this guy who’s trying to get into this fortress that’s surrounded by guards and dogs to rescue this princess. So I tried to layer that into the book. It’s pretty subtle. I thought that if I made a game, a real game, maybe people would make that connection. You’d be seeing the game and it would remind you of those parts of the book.
Originally, I was going to write it myself using Commodore 64 code. Then I realized that nobody’s going to type in all the text, nobody has a Commodore 64 emulator, and it was going to be way too much work for the reader. [I realized that] what it should be is a game that feels like it was made on a Commodore 64, but anybody can play it by clicking a link. I worked with this guy Dan Vecchitto and his wife Jackie. They know how to program today in a way that I definitely do not. They did everything pretty much in a very old-school way: the graphics, the music, the game play. It was really a lot of fun. It was almost as much fun as writing the book.
The book is already getting so much good press. Do you have another one in the works?
I have a lot of different ideas. The one thing I won’t do is write about the ‘80s again. I got all that stuff out of my system. It was really fun and I love it, but this is also a really exciting time to be alive. We’re in a historic moment. The idea of writing something more contemporary is really appealing right now.