Steven graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1993 and served the next eight years on active duty in various Navy and Marine Corps units. From leading Visit, Board, Search and Seizure (VBSS) operations as a boarding officer in the Arabian Gulf, to directing Close Air Support (CAS) as a Forward Air Controller (FAC) assigned to a specialized Marine Corps unit, Steven’s “in-house” experience with a wide variety of regular and elite military units brings a unique authenticity to his writing.
His first novel, The Jakarta Pandemic, explored the world of “prepping,” well before television and books popularized the concept. Hailed as a “grippingly realistic” family survival story, The Jakarta Pandemic introduced thousands of readers to the unfamiliar concept of “survival in the suburbs,” motivating many of them to take the first steps to better prepare themselves for a major disaster.
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Steven Konkoly Transcript
Tim Knox: Steven, welcome to the program.
Steve Konkoly: Thank you, Tim, thank you.
Tim Knox: I always like to start off with a little bio, a little background information on you. Tell the audience who you are and how you got here.
Steve Konkoly: Sure, sure, where to begin? So I’ll start with what’s appropriate kind of to my writing. I graduated from the United States Naval Academy in 1993 so I attended my 20 year reunion, which was pretty interesting. There was a lot of hair loss and slightly larger frames let’s say but a great time. That was perfectly timed with going full-time writing. When I graduated from the Academy I spent eight years in active duty. I worked with Marines. I was a Naval officer but I worked half of that time with Marines so I saw a lot of really interesting stuff. I had a very nontraditional career which was not going to enhance my official Navy career. So I did not stay in and do 20 years like a lot of other people at my graduation were coming up on. It really just gave me a great background for my writing.
After that I went and worked for Pfizer Pharmaceuticals for 12 years, if you can believe that, and did pharmaceutical sales, just basically a territory sales rep here in southern Maine for that whole period of time. I started writing about five or six years into that. It took three years to get my first book out. Five books later doing part-time writing, full-time work I was able to make that transition into full-time writing where I am now.
Tim Knox: So you’re five books in.
Steve Konkoly: Actually I’m seven books and a novella in.
Tim Knox: Oh okay, so let’s go back to the beginning. When did you know that you, number one, had the talent to be a writer but you wanted to be a writer? Did you write while you were in the service or before this?
Steve Konkoly: I think it’s still up for debate as to whether I have the talent. What’s interesting, I have a kind of non-traditional writing background. It’s never been something I pursued or has been a dream or a love of mine. I’ve always been good at writing. I have a Bachelor of Science in English so kind of a weird degree but I love literature, I love reading. At that point I didn’t mind writing although all the writing I did then was required. I didn’t really keep a journal or do anything like that. I just had a story. You know I always have stories. I’m a big I’m going to say daydreamer. Whenever I have downtime or I drove a lot for Pfizer I just always have these scenarios and stories and I guess you can call them daydreams going through my head. It got to the point where I had to get one of them out. I just felt really compelled about my first novel and I just kind of started typing away and it was a long process, three years to get that book out compared to three to four months that it takes me now.
Tim Knox: Tell us about that first book.
Steve Konkoly: So the first book is called The Jakarta Pandemic and it was inspired by I want to say true to life events in my own neighborhood, very minor stuff – just kids getting sick on a camping trip, my neighbors were sick. We had arranged a trip. We didn’t find out that the kids were sick until we got there so it was a little too late to back out. It was some kind of stomach thing and everyone in my family got it and it just got me thinking it’s amazing, the human dynamic when it comes to things like that. You know you’re sick and it’s probably a bad thing for other people to be exposed to you but they went ahead with it. It’s not out of malice; it’s just out of convenience. So I started creating this scenario like what would happen if a pandemic hit? How would a neighborhood and families interact, react? How would this all go down in a very intimate neighborhood setting? I kind of strayed away from your traditional CDC hero taking flights, transcontinental flights and doing all that. This whole thing takes place in one neighborhood and most of it in a single house. So it’s quite a claustrophobic journey. It’s more of an exploration of just human behavior. That had to come out. As you could tell I’m very passionate about that story.
Tim Knox: So you didn’t write the Brad Pitt on the helicopter flying in to save the day?
Steve Konkoly: No, I’d probably be really wealthy right now if I had maybe.
Tim Knox: Interesting, I find it really interesting. How much of that came out of your background in pharmaceutical sales?
Steve Konkoly: You know what, if I had any advice to give, a lot of advice to give other writers, especially people starting out, is start with something you know. You look at the character in that book – he was an ex-marine; I was ex-Navy but I worked with the Marines enough. I totally understand and get the mindset, everything about it. The guy was a pharmaceutical rep. I mean it was an ex-Marine pharmaceutical rep working in Maine. If you really knew my neighborhood and you read the details in the books you’d see I really didn’t stray too far. I just created an entire different world within that and it worked out.
Tim Knox: How did your wife and kids take you writing a book about everybody in the house potentially dying?
Steve Konkoly: Look, my wife loved it. The funny thing is writing is a very kind of a solitary, very personal venture. It took me awhile. I was writing. I was kind of sneaking writing like I had a secret girlfriend or something on my computer just typing away. It was awhile. I think I was a quarter finished with the first draft before I even told her. My wife’s like what are you doing?
Tim Knox: So when you told her, when you said I’m writing a book, did she go, “Well you’re not a writer.”
Steve Konkoly: No, no, she’s like that’s awesome. My wife has been 120% supportive. If anything she’s my biggest fan and spokesperson. She’s been awesome. Her reaction was fine. I would say it’s the neighbors’ reaction to the book which was a little interesting. It was a bit of a cooling effect in the neighborhood.
Tim Knox: The thing I always tell my wife is if you’re not supportive I can kill you off in a book.
Steve Konkoly: Right and she can still be killed off. The character sort of modeled loosely on her is still alive and well in a new series. Yeah, she has to watch it.
Tim Knox: Very good. You’re seven books in now. You write what are called – I think this is the term – postapocalyptic thrillers or techno thrillers. Tell us about that genre.
Steve Konkoly: Right so I started out, my first book is a postapocalyptic, more apocalyptic. It’s not a necessarily end of the world scenario but it’s the same genre. It’s like you said techno thriller; it relies heavily on technology. I wrote four books and a Black Ops, covert ops series which was heavy techno thriller, Tom Clancy level techno thriller.
Tim Knox: What was that series called?
Steve Konkoly: Black Flagged. So four books in that and over the two years I wrote those I received so many emails and so many requests to bring back the Fletchers, which were the characters in that first book, The Jakarta Pandemic, and I had no intention of making that a series or ever bringing them back. I didn’t want to do the Die Hard 6 where John McClain… how can he be in the wrong place at the wrong time again? I didn’t want to go down that route but the more I thought of it I came up with a scenario that’s definitely outlandish but it’s realistic in that it could happen. What better family to bring in and have them survive that than the family from that first book?
Tim Knox: The Fletchers come in to save the day.
Steve Konkoly: Or to save themselves.
Tim Knox: Right. How difficult is it to write a series? In The Perseid Collapse, don’t you have a new book coming out there?
Steve Konkoly: I do. So I have The Perseid Collapse and Event Horizon and I’m working on the third book right now. I love writing in a series. It’s kind of easy. It’s not cheating but you’re familiar with the characters, and I always bring in new characters and I’m sort of retiring some but there’s the ones that extend through the whole arch. It makes it easier. I do change the settings up a lot so I don’t get off easy on that, especially the Black Flagged books. I really enjoy writing the series. To bring those characters back from The Jakarta Pandemic was a pleasure. It was very, very enjoyable and to see readers and hear and listen to readers’ reactions to the new threat, the new event that’s challenging them was really cool too.
Tim Knox: Some books are set in modern day but a lot of your books are set in the far future.
Steve Konkoly: Yeah it’s funny; when I started The Jakarta Pandemic it was based in the far future. I think I started in 2009 and I set it in 2013. The current series, the Event Horizon or Perseid Collapse series takes place in 2019. It’s funny you mention that. I’m revising heavily, editing and revising The Jakarta Pandemic and I made some assumptions about technology in that book that didn’t come true – nothing like flying spaceship cars or Jetson escalators or anything crazy like that but just basic things like I just found a passage where the character makes a statement or a thought that rear-assist cameras are standard equipment on all vehicles. To me at that time seemed like I think that will be pretty standard but it’s not, not at all.
Tim Knox: That’s funny. You wrote this just a few years ago and now here we are in modern day and you’re having to go back and revise. You know a little bit how H.G. Wells might have felt if he lived for 100 years.
Steve Konkoly: Right, exactly.
Tim Knox: One of your books is actually set in the year 3815 or something like that.
Steve Konkoly: Okay yeah, so that’s the novella I wrote called First Contact. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the Kindle Worlds.
Tim Knox: I am. You’re self-published on Kindle, right, working with CreateSpace.
Steve Konkoly: That’s correct and the Kindle Worlds is a form of fan fiction available through Amazon. They make available through some kind of licensing program with the authors. So you can write fan fiction and actually use the characters. A lot of fan fiction is based in the same area but different character names that are close enough to know who they are. I think 50 Shades of Grey was actually originally fan fiction of Twilight.
Tim Knox: So this one was a fan fiction book.
Steve Konkoly: Right, Black Crouch, the author of the Wayward Pine series which is an already filmed Fox mini-series coming out either in the summer or the fall – very popular within the indie publishing world and one of the more popular series on Amazon. He asked me to write the novella. I’ve known him for a while. I use the same cover artist and we chat here and there. It’s hard to turn something like that down, especially with the prospect of this series just exploding even more once it goes to TV.
Tim Knox: Interesting. It’s amazing how you can be doing your own work and then other authors come over and ask you to work with them and write with them. That has to be the biggest compliment of all.
Steve Konkoly: It’s really cool. Yeah, I was blown away and like I said it was good timing. It was right at the end of a book and I thought why not, I’ll see what I can do and 22,000 words later less than a week I think it took me, a week or week and a half, to write it – I mean I just absolutely loved it. It’s funny, it’s set in the future but through the mechanics of the story all the equipment, everything in there is actually from our time now. It’s kind of like a not time travel but everyone goes into stasis and wakes up later. I didn’t have to invent like plasma rifles or light sabers, whatever.
Tim Knox: That’s actually one of the questions I was going to ask you is how did it feel to have carte blanche stuff like that but you didn’t do it.
Steve Konkoly: But I do all the time. I mean that’s one of the…I get that a lot, especially in the Black Flagged series I get it from a lot of readers. They’re like this thing here you described, I couldn’t find this anywhere on the internet. I Googled it and I couldn’t find this. Does this exist? Is this something you know as an insider? I’m like no, you got me. The way I look at it is if I can think of something so can about 100 other people and I guarantee you it exists on some level.
Tim Knox: I think you have to do that when you’re writing techno thrillers like that. If you’re writing MacGyver where he takes a paper clip and a number two pencil and creates a nuclear reactor, that’s one thing but in the real world that sort of thing doesn’t happen. You have to have some license when you’re writing these kinds of books. Is it really tempting for you to really get out there and create something that doesn’t exist, some great weapon? How tempting is that?
Steve Konkoly: It is pretty tempting. I did for the Black Flagged series, I created a kind of designer weaponized virus and I did a ton of research in and around the virus. Anyone who knows anything, I guess a virologist or… I’m straining to think of the proper term. They probably go, “Ah, that couldn’t happen. It’s close but there’s no way that could actually get into the water system and survive long enough to propagate and do that.” That’s the nice thing about fiction. I try to keep it as realistic as I can through research and then if I have to make a jump I do it. I figure 99% of the readers, and I’m not denigrating readers at all, just 99% of the people are just going to think, “Cool, that’s awesome.” That 1% is like, “That bastard doesn’t know what he’s talking about.” I get that.
Tim Knox: I interviewed a young man named Andy Weir who’s got a really great book out called The Martian. It’s set in the future. It’s a manned spaceflight to Mars where one of the astronauts gets left behind. He said the fun of that book was figuring out how this guy was going to survive all of these things that he put him into, all these situations. He said he’d have to rewrite so much because he’d kill him every other page. But he had a good time creating that. Let’s talk about your process as a writer. I know that you worked as a pharmaceutical rep for a long time while you were writing. I think you’d get up and write early in the morning. Now that you’re writing full-time what’s your process? Are you on a schedule of any kind?
Steve Konkoly: I definitely keep a schedule. For almost two and a half, three years I woke up at at least 4 in the morning, not earlier than that but anywhere between 4 and 4:30 and it’s become such an ingrained habit that I have to try hard to stay in bed past that even on the weekends or holidays. I do get up early. I don’t always write now. I’ll do some admin, take care of email and work on some other aspects of the writing world that I woefully neglected when I was doing the full-time, part-time writing gig. I usually try to hit about 2,000 words minimum per day. Even some days it just doesn’t happen. Life gets in the way and because I do work out of the house I have that flexibility. Some days I hit a lot more words than that. Some days I don’t. I take days off just to do marketing or like I’m doing right now; I’m doing an editing project for my first book. I kind of just said I’m going to focus on that. I find if you don’t have a schedule everything can get away on you very quickly.
Tim Knox: Are you still self-publishing?
Steve Konkoly: Yes, yes.
Tim Knox: Tell us a little about your relationship with Kindle and CreateSpace. A lot of people use them for self-publishing now but you kind of have a special relationship.
Steve Konkoly: Sure, it’s been fantastic. I started out with them. I think I sent maybe two or three query letters via email in the beginning but I started reading guys like Joe Konrath and a number of other authors that had either been burned in the traditional world or they just wanted to do something different and they’re finding success in it. That was really encouraging so I made the decision that I’m going to self-publish. I’m practical. If something else comes my way or I feel like I can… I never believed the whole mantra of like if you self-publish, no agent or any publishing house will touch you. I never believed that from the beginning and as it turns out…
Tim Knox: The truth is really the opposite. If you have a hot self-published book they’re going to beat down your door.
Steve Konkoly: Right, exactly. I felt not vindicated but I felt good about that. I’ve had publishers and agents contact me and pursue me and I’ve politely declined and listened and come very close in a few cases to signing on the dotted line. My experience with Amazon Kindle, CreateSpace has been very positive. At this point, like you said, having a little bit of a special relationship I have someone I can contact on the inside there that helps me to try to set stuff up. This interview, there’s a marketing group that kind of works to kind of help get the word out. It’s been a great benefit. I’ve been extremely happy with them.
Tim Knox: One thing I like about your books, your cover art is really good. How important is it to have a great cover?
Steve Konkoly: I think there’s a lot to the cover. What’s that saying; you don’t get a second chance to make a first impression. It’s a very tough and interesting market because if you think of the average image size someone’s looking at on Amazon or any of the platforms they’re very small. To have something that’s grainy or not up to par I think it really acts as a detriment unless it’s just in such a specialized niche genre that there’s just not much to read in it. I use Jeroen ten Berge. He works out of New Zealand. He went to The Hague School of Graphic Design, something pretty amazing and he does a fantastic job. He focuses on branding so you’ll see especially for a series the typography, my name and then the titles are very similar. They have a very similar feel to them. The imagery behind them is amazing.
Tim Knox: Yeah he does a fantastic job. So many really successful authors have told me the same thing. People do judge a book by its cover. If the cover doesn’t catch your eye and make you want to see more, you might as well just have a paper bag over the cover. It all comes down to marketing. How do you come up with the ideas for the stories and the characters you write about?
Steve Konkoly: So I kind of described the first one; it evolved. I’d always been into things like pandemics. I think the Hot Zone, the Ebola Virus – the science behind the disease has always fascinated me. Like I said, I daydream a lot. I love things like The Walking Dead, series like that, because I like being able to put myself and I think that’s why readers like that genre, that postapocalyptic genre. It’s like the ultimate ‘what if’ scenario genre. Those stories kind of evolved out of that. The covert ops stories, the Black Ops series is different. I hadn’t read a lot in that genre for awhile because I just wasn’t finding what I liked. It just kind of fell flat for me so as a writer I had the first book and it did well. I thought, you know, what’s to stop me from creating my own series and kind of writing the characters and the action and the plots how I like it, not the standard black and white, go America, everyone else bad. You’ll see a lot of grey lines in a lot of grittiness in my stories. I’m happy if you can’t figure out who the hero is for a little while. That pleases me immensely.
Tim Knox: Were you a big fan of Clancy?
Steve Konkoly: I was. I read him for a long time. I can’t remember when I stopped, if it was just a time thing. I always enjoyed those books. Those definitely form a big base and have influenced my work. Frederick Forsyth was another one. His books, the grittiness of them, he didn’t hesitate to really kind of cover the underside of espionage and black ops per se. He also had a big, heavy influence and I’ve read everything he’s written.
Tim Knox: He was one of those guys, he was I think the master of the anti-hero or the hero that would cross the line if you will, which I always found kind of fascinating. You have a guy who is the hero of the book but, you know, if he has to kill you then you have to die.
Steve Konkoly: And that’s the Black Flagged world in a nutshell. They kill bad guys and they’re stopping world plots but at the same time collateral dame is collateral damage if the job needs to get done, a lot like 24. I love the 24 series with Jack Bauer. That theme is very present and evident. The screenwriters for that just did a fantastic job.
Tim Knox: When you first started doing the self-publishing route how did you gain traction on Kindle? How did you start to get your work noticed? How do you market yourself? How do you get people over there to look at you?
Steve Konkoly: Right so when I first started out it was definitely a lot of luck. The book was in a genre… it’s prepper themed. So The Jakarta Pandemic has a strong prepper, survivalist theme. At that point there was not a lot of… there were a couple core books in that genre. I think One Second After and there’s a few others like that and there’s a few classics as well like The Stand could kind of fall into that. I really went to different forums, apocalyptic prepper survivalist forums and what I did is I gave my book away a chapter at a time. Those were very active forums. I got kicked out of a couple too, you know. I think that helped gain some traction for me. It’s hard to replicate in a lot of different genres because the markets are crowded. I’ve been racking my brain with a couple other authors. The thriller market, kind of that espionage covert ops – I couldn’t tell you for the life of me how to do that similar thing with that.
Yeah, the book took on a life of its own. I gained some readership so when I launched the first Black Flagged book I had enough readership to kind of give me enough of a boost. I had Amazon pick the book up for a couple specialized promotions, which they just did on their own. I think it’s because I got in when I did get in. I hear they do that a lot. That’s constantly going on. People are still experiencing that. That helped a lot. That got the Black Flagged books going. Then after that I’m doing kind of what everyone else is doing. I’m writing series, promoting the first book in the series and kind of funneling. We’ve all heard that, product funnel concept – funneling readers into the books after that. Unfortunately I don’t think there’s any magic bullet. It’s continuing to write, writing good books obviously. That’s kind of trite to say but it all starts with that. I think the books in series right now, especially for indie authors, self-published authors is key. I recommend that to everyone.
Tim Knox: One of the things I keep hearing through every interview I do is you have to keep writing whether your books are selling or not. You have to keep writing, you have to keep plowing through. Unfortunately that’s really difficult for some authors. Those are probably the authors that weren’t really meant to be authors. What are your thoughts?
Steve Konkoly: I think you’re definitely right and I think it’s universal for self-published authors, traditionally published. Maybe you get to the level of the Patterson or rest in peace Clancy, Stephen King. Obviously those guys don’t have to write ever again.
Tim Knox: Yeah I don’t think Patterson even writes anymore. He just puts his name on books.
Steve Konkoly: Whatever he does, he doesn’t even have to do that. He can just go buy an island. I think when you look at like midlist authors or even more successful authors that are considered above a midlist, the shelf life of a book in whatever few bookstores, big bookstores remain and even your indie bookstores – it’s a low shelf life, a short shelf life. Beyond that to get your book someone has to go and order it or they have to go onto an e-platform like Amazon, Barnes & Noble and order the book. Visibility is key. I found in my journey that – and I know a number of other authors have mentioned this – there’s like a three to four month sweet spot. You can change that up by doing different promotions through BookBub. There’s a number of different platforms, BookBub being the most effective. There’s ways to reboot and re-boost things but to really build up your core, my baseline that I can survive on and keep looking my wife in the eye and say, “Yes, this is great; we can keep doing this,” you really do have to keep writing. Three to four months is to really keep things level. Six to nine months I think you can get by.
Tim Knox: What was the tipping point for you when you finally decided that okay I can do this full-time? I’m going to quit the day job, going to lose that safety net and I’m going to be a writer.
Steve Konkoly: It was completely financial. The job I had as a pharmaceutical sales rep, for me it was not a demanding job. I had been doing it for 12 years and there had been enough changes that it was getting a little tired, definitely getting tired of it, the driving especially. So that contributed to it. I was getting tired and I couldn’t get up as early in the morning and I wasn’t as effective writing so I was losing out on that and I had replaced my income. It was kind of a perfect storm for me to cut the golden handcuffs as we call them off and make the jump. I haven’t regretted it not even once.
Tim Knox: Okay just a couple more quick questions. Someone thinking about writing in this genre, getting into the apocalyptic, techno thriller genre – any specific advice for those guys?
Steve Konkoly: Get into it now.
Tim Knox: Hurry.
Steve Konkoly: Yeah, hurry.
Tim Knox: Is that because the field’s getting crowded?
Steve Konkoly: I think it’s still ripe honestly. The works are starting to build up in the genre but there’s nowhere even close to as many in the straight thriller, kind of espionage, mystery or just detective. It’s still wide open. My advice would be to, like I said, I’m a big fan of the series concept done right. Everyone does the EMP. Even I have elements of EMP in my book but it’s done differently. My wife’s trying to find the next apocalyptic disaster that’s not zombies or a rabid disease, EMP, asteroid, tsunami. I don’t know what else there is.
Tim Knox: That’s a great question. What is left to destroy us? We’ve had weather try to kill us; we’ve had little bitty molecules, terrorists. Asteroid showers have been done. What’s left?
Steve Konkoly: I don’t know and I would say if you can figure that out and come up with something then you have a market.
Tim Knox: I have a theory that my wife is killing me slowly or the kids. What do you think?
Steve Konkoly: Well the kids definitely; there’s no doubt about that. My lifespan will drastically increase when they go to college but they’re too much fun to have around now.
Tim Knox: They really are. Steve Konkoly, you are a prolific author. Event Horizon is the new book coming out this month. Is that right?
Steve Konkoly: Actually Event Horizon came out last month. Point of Crisis will hit the e-shelves on Amazon in early July. I said June before but I’m just looking at it realistically and I’m going to say July now.
Tim Knox: Do you like being able to set your own deadlines rather than working with a publisher that’s trying to hold you to a contract?
Steve Konkoly: I do. That was one of the biggest sticking points when I was in a real close negotiation with an agent. One of the points she had, she’s like I need a couple… she said a month to shop the book around. I’m like I just left my steady paycheck and keeping this three to four month kind of timeline in mind, I’m like ooh. That’s on top of work. She wanted to work very closely to edit the book before it even got to the publisher and I’m like oh boy this is going to add two or three months onto my schedule. With that said, I set this June date and I’ve been stressing over it. With Spring I have yard work, a sailboat I have to get ready. We have so much going on that I finally just gave in. This is going to come out in July and that’s all there is to it. There’s no way I can do this.
Tim Knox: Alright, Steve. Steve Konkoly, check him out Amazon. His books — The Jakarta Pandemic, the Black Flagged series, First Contact. Do you have a website they can find you at?
Steve Konkoly: I do. It’s just StevenKonkoly.com.
Tim Knox: We will spell that out. This has been a pleasure. I appreciate you coming on the show and let’s do this again. I enjoyed this interview and maybe between the two of us we can come up with something new to wipeout mankind.
Steve Konkoly: I’d appreciate the help definitely.