About The Book

A love letter to the 1980s and to nerds everywhere—The Impossible Fortress will make you remember what it feels like to love someone—or something—for the first time.

Billy Marvin’s first love was his computer.

Then he met Mary Zelinsky.

Do you remember your first love?

It’s May 1987. Fourteen-year-old Billy Marvin of Wetbridge, New Jersey, is a nerd, but a decidedly happy nerd. Afternoons are spent with his buddies, watching copious amounts of television, gorging on Pop-Tarts, debating who would win in a brawl (Rocky Balboa or Freddy Krueger? Bruce Springsteen or Billy Joel? Magnum P.I. or T.J. Hooker?), and programming video games on his Commodore 64 late into the night. Then Playboy magazine publishes photos of their idol, Wheel of Fortune hostess Vanna White, Billy meets expert computer programmer Mary Zelinsky, and everything changes.

“A sweet and surprising story about young love” (A.V. Club), and a “quirky, endearing, full embrace of the late eighties” (USA TODAY), The Impossible Fortress will make you laugh, make you cry, and make you remember in exquisite detail what it feels like to love for the very first time. Heralded as one of the most anticipated novels of 2017 by Entertainment Weekly, Bustle, and InStyle.com, The Impossible Fortress is a surefire “unexpected retro delight” (Booklist, starred review).

Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide for The Impossible Fortress includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Jason Rekulak. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.

Introduction

May, 1987. Ronald Reagan is in the White House. Prince and Madonna are on the radio. And Playboy has just published scandalous photos of Wheel of Fortune hostess Vanna White.

For 14-year-old computer geek Billy Marvin, the magazine is a sort of holy grail—full of powerful secrets but impossible to attain. So Billy and his friends hatch an elaborate scheme to break into a neighborhood newsstand and steal it.

There’s just one catch: to complete the caper, Billy needs to learn the alarm passcode from the shopkeeper’s daughter, Mary Zelinsky. Smart, spirited, and funny, Mary proves to be the best computer programmer Billy has ever met—even better than Billy himself. He soon finds himself falling head over heels in love, all while planning a burglary that’s increasingly dangerous and increasingly beyond his control.

The Impossible Fortress is a hilarious debut that explores the confusing realities of adolescence—from first loves to the expectations of friendship—all while celebrating old-school computer programming, 1980s pop culture, and life before the Internet

Topics & Questions for Discussion

1. Games play a significant role in The Impossible Fortress, and throughout the novel, the characters play real and metaphorical games with one another. Give some examples. How do Mary and Billy use games to communicate? Why might they find it easier to talk through games than in real life?

2. The protagonist of the novel is known as “Billy” to his mother and friends, but identifies himself as “Will” to Mary and her father, and to players of The Impossible Fortress. Why do you think he uses variations of his name?

3. Billy is intelligent enough to program his own computer games, but his grades are abysmal. Why do you think he struggles in school? Do you know any people who struggled in high school? What are they doing now?

4. Describe Billy’s interactions with Principal Hibble. Do you think he has Billy’s best interests at heart? What did you think of Hibble’s reaction after Billy says his goal is to make video games and start his own company? In chapter 9, Billy says “[Hibble] was right. I knew no college would ever want me—but that was okay, because I didn’t want them.” Why do you think Billy feels this way?

5. After Billy is suspended from school in chapter 9, his mother returns his computer to him telling him, “You promise you’re not playing Pac-Man? . . . Then get to work.” Were you surprised by her change of heart? What motivates her decision?

6. In chapter 3, Billy says “Even though [Alf] and Clark were my best friends, I hadn’t told them about my secret plan to grow up and make video games for a living.” Why is Billy reticent to share his dream with his friends? Describe their friendship. Are they supportive of each other? In what ways?

7. Discuss the structure of The Impossible Fortress. What is the effect of beginning each chapter with a passage of computer code? Did these passages deepen your understanding of the story? In what ways?

8. Explain the significance of the title. What “impossible fortresses” do the characters encounter within the novel? Did you notice any similarities between The Impossible Fortress video game and the plan to break into Zelinsky’s store? What about the plan to enter Mary’s school?

9. In chapter 20, Mary tells Billy, “If you want to know the truth, I don’t have a lot of friends right now.” Why does Billy find this so hard to believe? What did you think of Mary? Did you learn anything that might explain Mary’s current social status?

10. In chapter 24, after Billy is brought to the police station, he is eager to tell the police “[My] only crime was buying a dirty magazine . . . Everything else could be blamed on Tyler and Rene. They were the real bad guys.” Did you agree with Billy? Is he culpable for what takes place in Zelinsky’s store? Explain your answer. What would you have done if you were in Billy’s position?

11. There are three different explanations for why Tyler is fired from Zelinsky’s store: Mary’s original explanation, Tyler’s explanation, and Mary’s revised explanation. Which story did you find most believable? How would you explain the discrepancies among the different versions? What do their lies (or omissions) say about the respective characters?

12. At the police station in chapter 25, Zelinsky tells Billy that Mary was “fooling [him] right back. [He doesn’t] know her at all. And [he’s] too dumb to even realize it.” What secrets is Mary hiding from Billy? Did you find any of them shocking? Does learning Mary’s secret change your understanding of Tyler’s actions? If so, how?

13. In chapter 26, Billy says, “After passing most of my freshman year in relative anonymity, I’d finally made a name for myself.” How has Billy succeeded in “making a name for himself”? Discuss his classmates’ reactions. Do you think their opinions are justified? Why or why not?

14. Early in the novel, we learn that Billy has never met his father. In chapter 12, he tells Mary, “I wish I knew why he left. That’s one thing I’ve never understood.” Do any of the events in this book offer Billy a new perspective on his parents’ relationship?

Enhance Your Book Club

1. The Impossible Fortress has drawn comparisons to classic eighties teen comedies like Say Anything, Can’t Buy Me Love, and the films of John Hughes. Watch a few and discuss them with your book club. In what ways does The Impossible Fortress pay homage to those films? Do you think The Impossible Fortress would make a good movie? Who would you cast as Billy and Mary?

2. In chapter 12, Mary explains to Billy that her mother created a mixtape in the waning days of her illness and that the “track list was a sort of poem.” Discuss the songs on the mixtape. What messages is Mary’s mother sending with them? If you created a mixtape for a loved one, what songs would you put on it and why?

3. In chapter 4 when Billy tells Mary, “I didn’t think girls liked to program,” she tells him that “girls practically invented programming” and provides several examples, including Jean Bartik (who did pioneering work on ENIAC, the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer) and legendary video game designer Roberta Williams. Learn more about these women and discuss their contributions with your book club. Were you surprised, like Billy, to learn that women played such a large role in the field of computer science?

4. To learn more about Jason Rekulak and play a version of The Impossible Fortress game, visit his official site at jasonrekulak.com.

A Conversation with Jason Rekulak

Jason Rekulak was born and raised in New Jersey. He has worked for many years at Quirk Books, an independent book publisher, where he edits a variety of fiction and nonfiction. He lives in Philadelphia with his wife and two children.

Congratulations on the release of your debut novel. You’ve spent many years working as an editor for Quirk Books, an independent press based in Philadelphia. What made you decide to write your own novel?

Well, this is the first novel I’ve published, but it’s the fifth novel I’ve written. The first four are locked away in a closet! I’ve never shared them with anyone, because I could never really get them to work. Each book was its own unique exercise in frustration. But in every case the problem came down to story—I couldn’t get the story to feel (for lack of a better word) dramatically satisfying. I hope that doesn’t sound too precious or pretentious. What I’m trying to say is, those early books had interesting characters and interesting ideas and passages of writing that I just loved. But the stories were a mess.

When I started writing The Impossible Fortress I decided to change gears and write something more autobiographical; I wanted to write about coming of age in the 1980s, my friends and family, my early interests in computer programming, and my teenage pop culture obsessions. And my big eureka moment was realizing that I could put all of this personal, autobiographical material in the framework of a comic heist novel, that I could use all the beats of a (fictional) heist story to anchor the autobiographical material.

So was Vanna White one of those teenage pop culture obsessions?

I worry I will have to answer this question a million times! The answer is no, not really. I mean, I love Wheel of Fortune and Vanna White is an American icon. But I never risked life and limb to see those photographs. I chose the magazine because I thought it was a funny MacGuffin to get the plot rolling, and a funny holy grail for three teenage boys to obsess over. And I loved that the scandal tied the novel to the very specific month of May 1987. Since much of the story concerns creation and reinvention and second chances, I really wanted to set it in springtime.

The Impossible Fortress is intricately plotted and filled with twists. Did you know the ending of the book when you began writing? When you finished writing it, why didn’t you lock it in the closet with the other novels?

I outlined everything before I started writing. Certain scenes shifted and moved along the way, but I always had the heist structure to guide me, and it kept things from moving around too much. For example, I always knew the boys would learn about the magazine on page one, and the heist would happen halfway through the novel, and of course they had to fail spectacularly.

I spent about eighteen months writing the book. With my four previous attempts, I didn’t really “finish” the books so much as I abandoned them. There were always problems with the stories that I couldn’t resolve; eventually I would throw up my hands in frustration and quit. But with The Impossible Fortress, I reached a point where everything was working the way I had intended. I can still remember the night I ran out of things to fix. It was way past midnight, and I remember looking up from the manuscript and thinking to myself, “Maybe this means I’m done?”

I decided to approach some literary agents and get their opinions. This was tricky, because I knew several literary agents (through my job at Quirk Books) and I didn’t want to muddy the waters by approaching any of them. So I purposefully approached someone I didn’t know, an agent named Doug Stewart. He had represented two novels that I love, The Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick and The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin. Doug responded favorably to the book, so we were off and running.

Did you listen to any eighties music while writing the book?

Yes, and thank goodness for Spotify. I had a ridiculous playlist that was full of cheesy eighties pop songs—“The Final Countdown” by Europe, “Something So Strong” by Crowded House, etc. I was very careful to keep my Spotify settings on private so friends wouldn’t think that I’d lost my mind, because I never told anyone I was writing this novel, and I listened to this playlist constantly. Over time I built a second playlist of really good eighties covers, and these were a good source of inspiration as well. Check them out at the end of this interview.

Is there anything that you have found particularly gratifying about publishing The Impossible Fortress? If so, what?

It’s great to have an editor who responds to my work with energy and enthusiasm, and—better yet—offers suggestions for improving it. Marysue Rucci at Simon & Schuster went through this book paragraph by paragraph and showed me many ways to make it better. She also alerted me to connections among the characters that were on the page but off my radar, if you know what I mean. And I’ve been lucky to receive the same kind of careful and personal attention from many other people on her team—the copy editors, the designers, the marketing and publicity team, the sales people; it’s a long list of people. After years of late nights working alone at the kitchen table, I suddenly feel like I have an army of cheerleaders. It’s extremely gratifying.

As someone who has been an author and a publisher, do you have any advice for aspiring novelists?

If you walk into my office at Quirk Books you will see a famous quotation from the French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson: “Your first ten thousand photographs are your worst.” I love this quotation; I love what it says about patience and mastery and putting in the hours, and I think it applies to every job at Quirk Books and every creative endeavor—not just photography but acting, writing, music, anything. You need to appreciate the magnitude of these endeavors. And understand that overnight success stories are few and far between. Maybe you’ll get lucky, maybe you were born a prodigy, but chances are you’ll have to grind it out with the rest of us. And I love that quotation because it shows you the light at the end of the tunnel: I mean, as soon as you finish taking those first ten thousand photographs, you know you’re going to be a vastly improved photographer. And you can start today; you can start right now!

So my advice for aspiring novelists is to get busy writing—and stay focused on your writing. And take your time. The Internet has encouraged a rush to publishing (partly because of new technologies that eliminate so-called “gatekeepers” and allow for self-publishing). I advise writers to take all the time they need, to be patient, to plan their debuts carefully, and to make sure they’re launching their careers with the right book. You only get one debut, and it’s going to cast a long shadow over everything you try to sell going forward.

Billy’s love of computer programming and computer games is infectious. Was this based on your own interests?

Absolutely. Like Billy, I was a self-taught computer programmer at age fourteen. I had a decent grasp of BASIC and Pascal but I found machine language to be impenetrable. I created all kinds of primitive arcade games on my Commodore 64, and I dreamed of running my own video game company. I was particularly obsessed with text adventures like Zork, which were advertised as “interactive fiction.” (There’s an example of interactive fiction in chapter 13 of The Impossible Fortress.) I entered college as a computer science major, naively hoping I might find some way to write interactive fiction for a living. It took me a few semesters to realize I didn’t need computers to tell stories, that I could just use plain old pencil and paper! So I changed my major from Computer Science to English, immersed myself in books and literature, and pursued a career in publishing.

Were there any authors or novels that were inspirations to you? Which ones and why?

The success of Ernest Cline’s terrific Ready Player One definitely gave me the confidence to write about my own 1980s pop culture obsessions. I’ve always loved Anne Tyler, and anytime I need to feel inspired, I will pick up Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant or The Accidental Tourist or The Amateur Marriage; I will open to any page at random and just start reading. She’s incredible. I’m also a big fan of Tom Perrotta. He grew up in my part of New Jersey and he mined his autobiography for some terrific novels, which inspired me to try to do the same.

Donald Westlake was the master of the comic crime caper and I re-read a bunch of his Dortmunder novels (The Hot Rock is my favorite) while thinking about Billy’s heist. Stephen King’s novella The Body is pretty obvious influence. I remember enjoying the story in a very literal way at age fourteen, and then rereading it fifteen years later and discovering more nuanced observations about class and creativity and youthful ambition—all topics I wanted to address in The Impossible Fortress.

Finally, I spent most of my high school years watching and rewatching all of those John Hughes teen comedies—Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off—all very funny, exuberant, bighearted stories. That’s definitely the tone I was going for. I figured that any comic novel about teenagers in the 1980s ought to “feel” like a John Hughes movie, you know?

What else did you like about those movies?

Well, before John Hughes, there were two kinds of teen movies. You had teen sex comedies like Porky’s and teen slasher movies like Friday the 13th. And in both of these genres, the male characters always had the same objective: they just wanted sex. At any cost. That was pretty much it! And the girls were simply objects to be conquered; their role in the story was to take off their shirts or get murdered (and sometimes both).

And to be clear, I enjoyed these movies as much as the next fourteen-year-old boy. Porky’s and Friday the 13th were enormous box office successes; they both spawned multiple sequels. But I could never really identify with the characters. I mean, I was fascinated by girls, but I wasn’t looking for sex. I was fourteen years old! I just wanted girls to talk to me!

So then along comes John Hughes with these teen characters who seem more much more detailed and developed. They’re having real conversations about real hopes and fears. The Breakfast Club is just five teenagers talking—for 97 minutes! And at age fourteen it really resonated with me; I felt like this filmmaker was taking me seriously. So I started seeking out all of his movies (and listening to all of the sound tracks, which turned me on to a bunch of great new-wave bands). I wish he’d lived longer and made more movies.

Are you working on anything now? Can you tell us about it?

Yes, I am working on a new book, and all I’m prepared to say is that it won’t be set in the 1980s. I’ve had tremendous fun writing about Phil Collins and Vanna White and 8-bit computers. But now that The Impossible Fortress is finished, I’m eager to write about the twenty-first century!

The Impossible Fortress May 1987 (Warts-and-All) Playlist

While writing this novel, I wanted to revisit all of the pop music from May 1987, so I put together a list of the month’s most popular songs. I am not recommending that anyone listen to this playlist—some of these songs have aged terribly!—but I am including it here as a matter of historical record. The songs are arranged by their rank on the Billboard Hot 100 list from the week of May 9, 1987. Listen at: bit.ly/FortressSideA

1. “(I Just) Died In Your Arms” by Cutting Crew

2. “Looking for a New Love” by Jody Watley

3. “With Or Without You” by U2

4. “La Isla Bonita” by Madonna

5. “Don’t Dream It’s Over” by Crowded House

7. “Heat of the Night” by Bryan Adams

10. “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)” by Aretha Franklin and George Michael

11. “Talk Dirty to Me” by Poison

14. “You Keep Me Hangin On” by Kim Wilde

22. “Wanted Dead or Alive” by Bon Jovi

26. “Walking Down Your Street” by Bangles

29. “Head to Toe” by Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam

34. “In Too Deep” by Genesis

35. “Heartbreak Beat” by Psychedelic Furs

38. “Lean on Me” by Club Nouveau

40. “Just to See Her” by Smokey Robinson

42. “Lessons in Love” by Level 42

55. “Let’s Wait Awhile” by Janet Jackson

61. “Something So Strong” by Crowded House

65. “The Final Countdown” by Europe

71. “Heart and Soul” by T’Pau

93. “Only in My Dreams” by Debbie Gibson

The Impossible Fortress Eighties Covers Playlist

I also played around with this list, a collection of eighties hits covered by more contemporary artists. There are some fun pairings here. Listen at: bit.ly/FortressSideB

1. “Just Can’t Get Enough” by Nouvelle Vague

2. “Handle with Care” by Jenny Lewis and the Watson Twins

3. “Gone Daddy Gone” by Gnarls Barkley

4. “The Boys of Summer” by The Ataris

5. “Hold Me Now” by Duncan Sheik

6. “In Between Days” by Ben Folds

7. “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” by STRFKR

8. “Heaven” by Meg Birch

9. “Against All Odds (Take a Look at Me Now)” by The Postal Service

10. “Sweet Child O’ Mine” by Taken by Trees

11. “I’m on Fire” by Electrelane

12. “Addicted to Love” by Florence + the Machine

13. “Kiss on My List” by The Bird and the Bee

14. “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” by The Wind and the Wave

15. “Save a Prayer” by Eagles of Death Metal

16. “Head Over Heels” by New Found Glory

About The Author

Courtney Apple

Jason Rekulak was born and raised in New Jersey. He has worked for many years at Quirk Books, where he edits a variety of fiction and nonfiction. He lives in Philadelphia with his wife and two children. The Impossible Fortress is his first novel. To learn more and play a version of The Impossible Fortress game, visit JasonRekulak.com.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (February 2017)
  • Length: 304 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781501144431

Raves and Reviews

* MOST ANTICIPATED NOVELS OF 2017 SELECTION BY * ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY * BUSTLE * INSTYLE.COM *

PRAISE FOR THE IMPOSSIBLE FORTRESS

"Revel in 1987 nostalgia in this debut about a teen boy, a coveted copy of Playboy, and a computer-nerd girl."
Entertainment Weekly

"Need a sanctuary book right about now? Maybe a retro escapist read about simpler times that lets you laugh out loud, not overthink, indulge in nostalgia? Well, here you go. The Impossible Fortress is a quirky, endearing, full embrace of the late ‘80s. Set in those promise-filled, early years of the Computer Age, its clever plot is driven by surging teen hormones and fumbling first love, by bad adolescent choices and a struggle for redemption."
—USA Today

"Full of clueless boys, consequence-free adventures and generous helpings of adolescent humor, all served up with a kind smile...you relish the book’s countless callbacks to the 1980s."
Washington Post

“Infused with 1980s music, pop culture, and plenty of the BASIC computer programming language, Rekulak’s debut offers a charmingly vintage take on geek love, circa 1987 in New Jersey… Rekulak’s novel will have readers of a certain age waxing nostalgic about Space Invaders and humming Hall and Oates, but it’s still a fun ride that will appeal to all.” 
Publishers Weekly
 
“Rekulak layers in nostalgic eighties references, like a mixtape created by Mary’s recently deceased mother, an oblique nod to Beetlejuice, and the wacky group of misfit friends with a 'really good' plan. Despite all that, in the end the plot manages to magically subvert the time period while also paying homage to it. An unexpected retro delight.”
Booklist (starred review)

"Set against the backdrop of 1980s New Jersey, Jason Rekulak's charming coming-of-age debut about a 14-year-old computer nerd who schemes to steal an issue of Playboy from a local store and meets a girl who can code in the process will invoke pangs of nostalgia."
InStyle

"A sweet and surprising story about young love."
—A.V. Club

"There are few things in this life more satisfying than a book that truly grasps what it's like to be a nerd—and what makes it so much damn fun. The Impossible Fortress is about video games, first crushes, idols and adolescence—and it's a thoroughly escapist joy in its most pure form."
Newsweek
 
"Fans of Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One — or anyone who grew up as a nerd in the ‘80s — will be sure to find something to love in Philadelphia-based author Rekulak’s debut novel, about a 14-year-old Commodore 64 aficionado whose life changes when he encounters a Playboy photo spread and meets a computer programmer."
Men's Journal

"This debut novel by the publisher of Quirk Books feels like a sort of spiritual prequel to Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, with a young protagonist adrift in a sea of pop culture and new technology, trying to figure out his future."
Library Journal

"The Impossible Fortress strikes the perfect balance of strangeness and relatability; it’s nostalgic in all the right ways. It reminds us that sometimes relationships are like video games, where small actions have big consequences and we have to fail a few times before we succeed."
—Bookpage

"This book is Stranger Things meets Halt and Catch Fire, to be enjoyed by those (like me) who have a soft spot for 8-bit games and the teenage antics of a more innocent time. "
—Bookriot.com

"A love letter to the 1980s, adolescence, technology, nerd-dom, and Vanna White, The Impossible Fortress will make you laugh and remind you of how much is possible when you're fourteen."
David Ebershoff, bestselling author of The Danish Girl

"The Impossible Fortress reads like a newly-unearthed Amblin movie—a sweet, funny and moving tribute to nerds and misfits everywhere, set in a magical time when cassettes were king, phones had cords and Playboy was the pinnacle of smut. Fans of Ernie Cline and Chuck Klosterman—this is your next favorite book."
—Seth Grahame-Smith, New York Times bestselling author of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

"The Impossible Fortress is hilarious, compulsively readable and surprisingly poignant, a teenage caper novel set in a time where U2 could still be considered a one-hit wonder and pornography was as close and as unobtainable to a 14-year-old boy as a Playboy magazine kept behind the counter at an office supply store. I absolutely loved it."
—Carolyn Parkhurst, New York Times bestselling author of The Dogs of Babel and Harmony

"Part love story, part coming-of-age tale, and part heist picture, The Impossible Fortress is an endlessly clever novel about friendship, heartache and computers—all rendered with the bright colors and buoyant spirit of Q*bert for the Commodore 64."  
—Ben H. Winters, author of the Edgar-award winning Last Policeman trilogy, and Underground Airlines 

"A tenderly crafted and charmingly spot-on debut novel....surprising and nostalgic in the best possible way."
—Denise Kiernan, New York Times bestselling author of The Girls of Atomic City 

“Touching and gut-wrenching; an uplifting tribute to anyone who was ever a high school outcast. Trust me, you’re welcome.”
—Andrew Smith, award-winning author of Grasshopper Jungle and Winger

“Anyone who was a nerdy 14-year-old in the mid ‘80s (like me) will love this hilarious and nostalgic book."
—John Boyne, author of The Heart’s Invisible Furies

Awards and Honors

  • Texas Tayshas Reading List

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