Jason Rekulak is the author of the new novel The Impossible Fortress. He is the publisher of Quirk Books, and he lives in Philadelphia.
Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Impossible Fortress and for your main character, Billy?
A: I wanted to write about my early experiences as a self-taught computer programmer in the 1980s. By age 13 I was using video games as a creative outlet, I was trying to design super-primitive video games on a super-primitive computer (the Commodore 64, named because it had just a mere 64 kilobytes of RAM).
And since I knew I was going to set the story in the 1980s, I decided early on that I wanted the novel to feel like an 1980s teen movie -- think Pretty in Pink and Sixteen Candles, or Ferris Bueller, all those classic John Hughes movies.
I wanted to write a book that was very fast and funny and big-hearted. I wanted people to finish reading the book and feel good.
Q: The book is set in 1987. Why did you choose that year, and did you need to do much research to get the details right, especially details about the computer programming of 30 years ago?
A: Early on I realized that the plot was going to involve some controversial photographs of Wheel of Fortune hostess Vanna White, who appeared (in her underwear) in the May 1987 issue of Playboy magazine.
So that single detail basically dictated the entire timeframe of the book -- most of it takes place during those four weeks of May.
Back in May 1987 I personally happened to be 15 years old (a year older than my narrator) and all of those teenage experiences are permanently etched in my memory. I remember all the songs, all the movies, all the clothes, all the video games.
So I didn't need to research anything; I was able to summon nearly every detail from memory, even the Bugle Boy pants and Ocean Pacific t-shirts!
Q: Did you know how the novel would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?
A: I outlined the entire book before I wrote it. Not every plot detail necessarily, but I knew where I wanted the characters to go, and I knew I wanted to celebrate and sort of play with all of those 1980s teen movie conventions.
For example, I knew I wanted my two love interests to come together at the end in a way that feels authentic and satisfying and true, but I wasn't exactly sure how that would happen.
Q: Did you know from the beginning that you’d have an actual computer game to accompany the book?
A: Over the course of the novel, my characters Billy and Mary fall in love while designing a video game called The Impossible Fortress. I was in the middle of my third draft when I had a crazy idea: Wouldn't it be great if readers could finish the book, and then go online and play The Impossible Fortress themselves?
My original plan was to write and program the game myself in true 1980s-era C64 BASIC (that's why there's computer code at the start of all my chapter openers) but eventually I realized that programming the game in an antique computer language was a mistake.
So I turned to a husband-and-wife team of game developers, Dan and Jackie Vecchitto, and asked them to read the manuscript and bring Billy and Mary's game to life. They did an incredible job!
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I am working on another book, but all I'm prepared to say right now is that it won't be set in the 1980s! I've enjoyed reveling in the era of Madonna and Miami Vice but now I'm ready to tell a story that's more contemporary. We live in extraordinary times!
--Interview with Deborah Kalb