When I reviewed 3 survival novels, including Steven Konkoly’s, The Jakarta Pandemic, I had no idea that thousands of readers would be interested. To date, nearly 6,000 people have read that article! I was interested to hear from Steven himself, so I asked him a few questions about the book, his background, and what, if anything, he would do differently with the plot and characters. Here are my questions and his answers.
Survival Mom: The Jakarta Pandemic (TJP) is your first book. When did you start your writing career? Have you always wanted to be an author?
Steven Konkoly: I started writing in 2007, when the idea for The Jakarta Pandemic started to form. I kicked around the concept for several weeks before starting some serious research into the history of pandemics and pandemic planning. I printed hundreds of pages to read in my spare time and began to calculate casualties based on several variables I had chosen for the virus in the story.
This was all valuable research, but it was also a method of procrastination. The concept of sitting down and writing words for a novel was utterly imposing. There is a lot of doubt, fear and embarrassment involved in telling someone that you are writing a book. I can’t explain it, but it’s almost like trying to explain one of your dreams to a friend. It never comes out sounding as vivid as the actual dream, and in most cases, you sound a little touched in the head.
I even hid the book from my wife for several months. I can’t remember when I decided to become a writer, but I’m sure there was a long delay between that moment and the first words to hit paper. For any aspiring authors out there, who haven’t taken that first step…don’t delay another minute. Once you start, you can’t stop.
Survival Mom: What first gave you the idea for The Jakarta Pandemic? Why did you decide on a pandemic for your book’s survival scenario?
Steven Konkoly: The idea literally hit me in the stomach after an incident in my neighborhood. Typical of most streets, the kids on my block freely intermingle, constantly shuffling back and forth between houses for play dates. One summer about five years ago, a suspected enterovirus (nasty little bug with many symptoms) tore through the neighborhood, putting three members of my family, including me, out of commission for nearly a week. My son got a high fever and stomach flu symptoms, my wife lucked out with a low grade fever, and I suffered from sharp stomach pains for two days.
Very few families with small kids were spared, and as I stared out of my office window one week later, I saw the same pattern of play dates unfold. I thought about our habits as neighbors and what it would take to survive a deadly virus threat. Looking onto my front lawn, I envisioned big signs saying “Stay out” posted on all corners of our property, with yellow police tape surrounding the perimeters. I wondered how everyone around us would react. The idea morphed from there and The Jakarta Pandemic was born.
Survival Mom: Currently, there are more than 200 reviews of TJP on Amazon with most reviewers giving your book 4 or 5 stars. Has the success of your first book surprised you?
Steven Konkoly: Surprised would be an understatement. I would never in a million years have guessed that TJP would be read by so many people. Upon completing the three-year journey to publishing the book, I just wanted to make it available to family and friends. Within a few months, sales accelerated on the Kindle market, giving me the confidence to start another novel.
Survival Mom: I’ve read several of the reviews of your book and, as an author, I’d like to know what you’ve learned from the comments and reviews.
Steven Konkoly: Yes. Yes. And YES! I can’t underscore the importance and impact of reviews on TJP and my Black Flagged series. I hastily self-published TJP, putting way too much faith in my proofreading ability. Any amount of faith would have proved to be too much, since I apparently have NO proofreading ability whatsoever. Early comments quickly steered me toward an editor and proofreaders. The pre-launch process I use now is extensive, and it is all outsourced. I can’t trust myself.
Survival Mom: Are there any reviews that caused you to have second thoughts about the plot or characters of TJP? Have you taken anything from the reviews to improve your writing skills/style? Have they impacted your second book?
Steven Konkoly: As for the plot and characters, this is a tough one. I wrote TJP solely from Alex’s perspective. I purposely did this in order to fully immerse readers in his mindset and provide a witness account of his pandemic experience.
A lot of readers wanted to see the pandemic from some of the neighbors’ points of view or to know more about what was happening outside of the neighborhood. My intention was to continually shrink the sphere of influence until Alex was solely focused on his family’s immediate survival. It worked, but I fully understand readers’ desire to get more of a macro-view of the pandemic.
If I could rewrite the novel, I would have expanded to several POV’s (points of view). I’ve done this successfully in Black Flagged, and readers seem to agree that there is no loss of the immersive feeling. The immersion seems to have more to do with the level of detail and immediate action, and less to do with restricting POV to fewer characters. My next disaster survival novel will take full advantage of this knowledge.
The single POV also flattened some of the characters, particularly Alex’s wife, Kate. Since you never really know what she is thinking, it’s very hard to get a feel for her in the story. A number of readers didn’t like her, or felt like she was a “walk over” housewife, not pulling her weight around the house. This is a clear case where another POV would have shed a lot of light on her character.
There are a few other aspects of the reviews that we’ll discuss further down the line.
Survival Mom: What is your favorite part of the book?
Steven Konkoly: My favorite part of the book is the first neighborhood meeting, where the neighborhood suddenly divides into two camps. I start it out as a friendly gathering, with a touch of tension simmering just below the surface. Once the neighborhood ideas start flowing, Alex can’t keep his mouth shut.
He suggests more draconian options centered on preventing the spread of the virus within the neighborhood. Many of the neighbors haven’t fully realized the full scope of the danger they faced. Hostilities quickly rise to the surface and the neighbors separate into two camps, which sets up the conflict for the second third of the book.
Survival Mom: Do you have a favorite character?
Steven Konkoly: Charlie is my favorite character. He joins forces with Alex in an unsure alliance against the less prepared and desperate neighbors. Without spoiling Charlie’s role in the story, I’ll say that his character serves as a great contrast to Alex and demonstrates how easy it is to stereotype and marginalize someone that has doesn’t fit your own mold. Alex learns this important lesson from his relationship with Charlie as the story unfolds.
Survival Mom: Are there any personal experiences you incorporated into the book’s story line?
Steven Konkoly: As a former naval officer with a wide range of experience serving with Marines, I leveraged that knowledge to craft the character of Alex Fletcher. He doesn’t fit your typical Marine mold, and I wanted to steer away from the Jarhead stereotype. His active duty days were a decade behind him when TJP started, and from my own experience, I find that the farther I move from away from my military days, the less I resemble the stereotype that I most certainly fit upon leaving active duty in 2001.
I also drew heavily on my experience as a pharmaceutical representative. The ins and outs of the day-to-day life were fairly accurate, but I took some liberties with the bigger picture relationships.
I can’t imagine any company trying to take advantage of a pandemic to advance their business goals, but it made the story more interesting. Before The Jakarta Pandemic became their worst enemy, Biosphere Pharmaceuticals (completely fictitious company that doesn’t in any way resemble my own company…my wife insisted I add that comment) did it’s best to make their lives miserable.
Survival Mom: Some of your readers have questioned the security decisions made by Alex, the main character.
One of my readers says, “The lead character put his family in danger by waiting too long to do something about the bad guys. Likewise, he should’ve done something to Todd for repeatedly endangering his family by telling outsiders he was the only one with food. What are Steven’s views on when to become the aggressor post-SHTF? Do you take care of issues before they become a problem, or wait until all alternative means of mediation have been exhausted?”
Steven Konkoly: This was the most difficult aspect of the book to craft. I debated long and hard about how he would handle each and every threat. As the author, I could spend all the time I wanted debating the different courses of action and playing them out in my head. As a reader, you don’t have that luxury. The decision is made and it may not sit well with you. The scenes in TJP are emotionally charged, frightening, and angering. I designed them to maximize the emotional response, and it appears to have worked.
For the first time ever, I will share with you the mindset I gave Alex, but before that, let me say that I feel that I didn’t do a great job explaining this mindset in the book. This was not intentional. I’ve learned a lot about explaining and clarifying characters’ wants and needs, the emotions and beliefs that drive their behavior. Overall, I hit the mark with Alex, but in terms of explaining his security decisions, I fell short.
Here we go. His decisions were based on years of experience as a company grade Marine officer, where he was forced to excruciatingly analyze the rules of engagement (ROE) at every turn. His combat tour reinforced this mindset, which, as you may know, can involve complicated and often frustrating ROE.
I never served in combat, but while deployed to the Arabian Gulf I was grilled with ROE in every possible situation. From standing watch on the quarterdeck to the Combat Information Center, ROE dominated every discussion, and for a good reason. Every action or response has a consequence, and sometimes the seemingly appropriate course of action or gut feel response can make the situation worse. What does this mean for Alex?
If he had gunned down Manson and his crew during the second incident (where Manson’s crew tried to sneak around the back of his house), he would have invited a possible full police investigation in which he would have to explain why he gunned down three men in the middle of the street. The police were still making rounds, though rarely, so Alex didn’t want to do anything that could result in a worsened security situation at his house.
At the very least, his weapons would have been seized, which would have undermined his family’s future safety. The Mansons would have been dead, but who’s to say the Mansons were the last lunatics to arrive on the block? Worst case scenario? He’s taken into custody. Unlikely, I agree, but the last thing the police need is vigilante behavior. Alex didn’t want to risk any of this, so he let them go. Turned out to be a big mistake in hindsight, but not every decision can be perfect. If he had done everything right, the story would be a little boring.
Every one of his possibly foolish decisions was based on this mindset and serves to underscore the frustration experienced on a daily basis by members of our armed forces. I didn’t write the novel as a cautionary tale about ROE, but I thought about it a lot.
For example, Alex brings an unloaded shotgun to bear on his boss and two men who decide to illegally push their way into his house. Once again, he didn’t want to take even the slightest risk of putting himself in a situation to kill one of them with the shotgun. This would have landed him in jail for certain. I should have made it clearer to the reader.
Todd’s actions deserve some discussion. He purposely endangered Alex’s family, repeatedly, but what could Alex do? Storm down to his house and shoot him? All great questions. If any of your blog followers want to ask more questions and dig into these decisions in more detail, I would love to share more. I knew this would be the most controversial part of the book, so I put a lot of thought into it. Still, I’m sure readers could find a better way to handle some of these situations. I’ll be writing another book with Alex Fletcher, so I am all ears!
Survival Mom: I’m not a huge fan of The Today Show but apparently Alex is! In combining his Marine background with being a vegetarian, at times being a bit of a pacifist, decrying Fox News, were you trying to create a complicated character? Someone who went against type, not your typical Marine?
Steven Konkoly: I did, though I’d probably leave out the vegetarian aspect if I could rewrite the book. I wanted to create a character that could not be cast in one camp or the other. Some reviews accused me of pushing a liberal agenda with the book, which I will deny to the day I’m buried.
Alex is not your stereotypical Marine or conservative. He believes firmly in his 2nd Amendment rights, but he’s not opposed to locking up his weapons when there is no apparent threat. He’s not a fan of Fox news, but falls victim to thinking that NBC is a fair and balanced news source. He’s a survivalist and a prepper but not a big fan of hunting.
He makes fun of Charlie for hunting but starts to see the value of procuring your own food. He’s led Marines into battle under heroic circumstances, but he’s clearly not a big fan of shooting first and asking questions later. He is sort of a complicated character. With Alex, the reader doesn’t get the luxury of fully admiring or despising him. Wait until you read the Black Flagged series. The main character in that series is even more complicated! Maybe this is my trademark as an author. I hope not.
Survival Mom: Based on your research, how likely is a pandemic of this magnitude?
Steven Konkoly: I took some serious liberty with the characteristics of H16N1 virus (Jakarta Pandemic). I enhanced every aspect of the disease. Transmission ratios, reproductive number, case fatality rates, Auto-immune Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS). All of this scientific mumbo jumbo that leads to an efficient, killing machine.
The Case Fatality Rate of my fictitious disease hovered near 20%. The world hasn’t seen a pandemic with a greater than 3-4% CFR. I’d have to check my notes to see if the 1918 Spanish Flu reached over 4%. I justified the CFR with a modification of factors that would make it more lethal and contagious…a bad combination in the 21st century, when we live in crowded cities, connected by transcontinental flights.
I can’t predict the chances of a Jakarta level pandemic, but I’d be surprised if we didn’t experience something similar in our lifetime.
Scientists in the Netherlands, paid by our own government, have created a super-flu version of the Avian Flu, capable of human-to-human transmission. H5 (Avian) disease strains have already been attributed to 20-25% Case Fatality Rates in Asia. Luckily, the outbreaks were small in nature and the disease was contracted directly from animals. If the Avian Flu made the jump to human-to-human transmission, we could be in serious trouble.
Survival Mom: Finally, have you and your family prepared for something like this or do you believe it’s realistic only in the realm of fiction?
Steven Konkoly: As a security measure, I don’t typically disclose this information, but I will say that I started prepping after writing TJP. Talk about not putting your money where your mouth is from the start! I’ve taken it more seriously, but still have a long way to go. That being said, I’m pretty far ahead in terms of security, and I can’t imagine that I would feel constrained by any ROE if a real pandemic struck home.