America’s favourite letter-turner, Vanna White, nearly lost her golden-girl image when she appeared on the cover of the May 1987 issue of Playboy. The racy photos were scandalous to many loyal Wheel of Fortune viewers, but for three hormonal teenage boys, getting hold of a copy of the coveted magazine turned into the set-up for the biggest, most risky caper of their young lives.

No, that’s not a premise from a long-lost John Hughes screenplay, but the opening to Jason Rekulak’s debut novel, The Impossible Fortress, a geeky but sweet coming-of-age love story set in motion by the boys’ desperate attempts to peek inside Playboy.

Billy — who is just as obsessed with programming crude video games on his Commodore 64 as he is with Vanna’s nakedness — along with his pals, Clark and Alf, plan a heist that involves breaking into Zelinsky’s convenience store to grab a copy of the magazine.

Billy is tasked with seducing Zelinky’s daughter, Mary, to get the store’s security code, but as it turns out, she too is a whip-smart computer coder and they become fast friends. The duo starts working together on the titular game, The Impossible Fortress (which is available to play on the website, when Billy falls in love and the lure of Vanna in lingerie begins to fade.

Rekulak doesn’t consider himself a nostalgic guy, but was feeling so when he started writing The Impossible Fortress. After his father became ill, Rekulak returned to his hometown, on which the book’s fictional location Wentbridge — referred to as the “Armpit of New Jersey” — was modelled. He was spending a lot of time at the hospital with his dad and, while there, bought a notebook from the gift shop.

“I started writing down stories of all these people I was seeing under very unfortunate circumstances,” he says. “Some of them were real and some were made up. Maybe it was a therapeutic exercise, but also proof you can write anywhere.”

Like Billy, Rekulak was once a young self-taught programmer, but later switched his computer science major to English in his second year of university. It was writing video games that set Rekulak on the path to becoming an author, and to his current job as publisher of the Philadelphia press Quirk Books, where he’s edited blockbusters such as Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

“I wanted to build all these worlds and tell all these stories, but I was never really good at coding or actually programming stuff,” Rekulak says.

The graphics on the early games Rekulak built were so simple, he added screens and screens of text to build out the stories. “I’d write these long histories of these stick figures,” he says. “It gave me this freedom and confidence to write on screen.”

Rekulak — who is definitely a kid of the ’80s — filled The Impossible Fortress with pop-culture gems from his own life, from Freddy Krueger to Magnum P.I., but was never concerned about explaining the references to younger, millennial-aged readers, who have never dialed a rotary phone or used a floppy disk. It takes him back to his own teen years, reading Stephen King’s 1982 novella, The Body (which became the 1986 movie Stand By Me). He recalls not understanding all of King’s references to 1950s culture, yet it didn’t hinder his enjoyment of the book. In fact, he reread it while working on The Impossible Fortress. Rekulak says, “I was thinking that if Stephen King can do that for the ’50s, I can do that for the ’80s.”

Sue Carter is the editor of Quill & Quire.

Sue Carter is the editor of Quill & Quire.

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