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.
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