A coming-of-age crime caper that explores the timeless and ever-confusing realities of male adolescence, Jason Rekulak’s hilarious debut novel The Impossible Fortress (Faber & Faber, £12.99) offers a nostalgic celebration of old-school computer programming, 1980s pop culture and the last great days of life before the internet.
This is your debut novel but you have had a career in publishing and ghostwriting. What did it take for you to step out into the foreground?
I had published a few books under pseudonyms but The Impossible Fortress was more ambitious and more personal than anything else I’d attempted. I wanted to write about growing up in the 1980s, about youthful creativity and aspirations, and my early adventures in computer programming. By the time I finished writing it, I knew I was going to put my name on it – there were so many autobiographical elements, it just made sense to release it as my “first” book.
During the recession there was a lot of nostalgia around the make do and mend wartime mentality. Now the rose-tinted glasses are being focused on the eighties. Is it reflective of our return to Conservative governments or is it simply that 1980s kids are now the biggest consumers of culture?
Everyone asks me about Sing Street and Stranger Things and the so-called 1980s nostalgia wave but I don’t think it’s anything new. In 1996 I bought a book called Totally Awesome 80s by Matthew Rettenmund – this was just six years into the next decade! Two years after that, Adam Sandler feathered his hair and sang You Spin Me Round in The Wedding Singer. And Hollywood has spent the last two decades recycling dozens of 1980s classics: The Karate Kid, Fame, Clash of the Titans, Robocop, Endless Love, Nightmare on Elm Street and so on. We started missing the 1980s as soon as the decade ended!
Do you have screen ambitions for The Impossible Fortress following the success of TV programmes like Stranger Things and Red Oaks?
Of course. The novel was influenced by all kinds of 1980s teen movies – Sixteen Candles, Stand By Me, Some Kind of Wonderful – so I’d love to see it adapted for film or television. My agents are weighing a couple of interesting opportunities so I am crossing my fingers.
I had fun playing The Impossible Fortress video game on your author website but I only got to level three on easy though because I was supposed to be writing these questions. Is procrastination an epidemic of the 21st century?
I don’t think procrastination is any more or less widespread than it used to be, but distraction is at an all-time high. Emails, text messages, Facebook alerts, breaking news – our devices are designed to interrupt our workflow and shatter our concentration. If you’re trying to get any kind of meaningful work done, you have to put your devices into airplane mode.
It’s a nifty bit of diversification – are authors under pressure to do more than write in 2017?
I think so. Books really struggle to compete for attention. Consumers have so many other entertainment options – not just movies and TV but podcasts, streaming music, social media and video games – and it’s challenging for books (and their marketing budgets) to cut through the clutter. Since my book concerns two teenagers who fall in love while designing a video game, I though it would be fun to design the game in real life, so readers could go online and play the game themselves. It seemed like a natural and organic way to expand the book’s online presence – I’m sure most people will discover the game through the book, but I’d love to think that some people might discover the book through the game.
The plot develops around three teenage boys trying to get their hands on a copy of Playboy. There wouldn’t be much of a story in 2017 since they’d have instant access to porn online. Should we be happy for teenage boys now, or worried for them?
I worry that internet pornography is shaping/warping an entire generation in ways that we can’t understand just yet. As the parent of a 12-year-old boy and a 10-year-old girl, I’m terrified. I put filters on our home computers, I try to activate all the parental controls, but I know that sooner or later my kids are going to see something they can never unsee. I don’t think of myself as a prude – I’d be fine letting my teenagers flip through a Playboy magazine. A Playboy centrefold is practically family entertainment compared to the most popular online adult sites.
The character of Mary is ahead of her time as a female coder yet 30 years on there is still a lack of female characters and creators in gaming. What needs to be done to end sexism in the industry?
I work with a young woman who recently published her first video game on Steam – she’s bypassing the industry altogether and going straight to consumers. I’ve read that’s what video game pioneer Roberta Williams did in the 1980s – she started designing games at her kitchen table, and mailing floppy disks to customers in little Ziploc baggies, and that enterprise grew into Sierra Online, publishers of the King’s Quest franchise, and one of the biggest software companies of its time. I don’t know who the next Roberta Williams is – but there’s a good chance she’s on Steam right now.
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