The Jakarta Pandemic : Steven Konkoly : The Interview
One of the offerings I have wanted to establish here on the blog that I am personally most excited about is the feature interview. It is my goal to bring you enlightening and enthralling interviews with some of the most interesting people out there from all corners of the preparedness world, providing in-depth conversations that I hope you will find to be both practical and personal.
For our first installment, we are very fortunate to be joined by the highly acclaimed Steven Konkoly, author of apocalyptic thrillers including the Black Flagged series and, the focus of this interview, The Jakarta Pandemic. Mr. Konkoly is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy with a Bachelor of Science in English Literature and a veteran, having served seven years with various Navy and Marine Corps units.
Welcome, Steve. First and foremost, thank you for your service.
Thank you, Randy. I really appreciate the opportunity to dig below the surface of my writing and expose some of the core ideas and concepts that help shape the stories. Regardless of what other authors may claim, writing is a personal endeavor, no matter how far fetched the plot or action may seem to the reader. There is always something deeply personal embedded in the writing, and the threads that wrap around these aspects often define the story’s core essence.
In your writings, there is no such thing as black and white. You deal in personal confliction and there are no easy answers. You have also said that your military experience figures heavily into your writings. With all that said, TJP brings all that together in a complex character and gives us Alex Fletcher.
Ten years out of the Marines, Alex has fully transitioned back into the private sector and seems to be doing quite well. Putting aside what I assume would be Alex’s tendency to be prepared due to his military experience, I would like to talk a little about what motivated Alex to focus on the threat of a pandemic and make preparations for his family. At the end of Chapter 5, we learn about a presentation that Alex did for his company Biosphere and the research that went into it. We learned that process “changed his life” in apparently more ways than just professionally. Can you talk about how this process impacted Alex and his decisions when it comes to his family’s preparedness?
When I started to conceptualize The Jakarta Pandemic, I wanted to highlight the difficulties of surviving a catastrophic level event in a suburban setting. The leading difficulty in my opinion would be dealing with everyone else’s varying degree of unpreparedness in the face of a complete lack of essential services. With that in mind, I wanted to start Alex in a position of self-sufficiency, and I chose this “presentation” as his catalyst to start preparing for a worst-case scenario. The conclusion Alex draws from his research reflects the culmination of my own examination of the scenario. In a nutshell, it’s not a matter of IF something like this will happen, it’s a matter of WHEN, and WHEN it happens, survival will depend on your basic level of preparedness and planning.
I’ve read that you raised your personal level of preparedness AFTER writing TJP. I was a bit shocked by that fact. One of my favorite parts of the book is when we get a first look at the Fletcher’s supplies as we join Alex for an inventory “the Frito supply” for the first time. You describe the Fletcher’s well rounded stockpile in some detail and even lay out a good plan for rotating food stores as if you had been doing it yourself for a long time. I particularly appreciated how you pointed out throughout the book that building a stockpile like the Fletcher’s is something that anyone can do if they make a plan and execute it in a practical way. Was family preparedness and establishing an emergency survival kit a chicken and egg type thing for you as you wrote the book? And, without divulging too much, how much did Alex teach you about being more prepared and what steps have you taken in your personal life to be better prepared for any future emergency?
Most people are shocked to learn that I never visited a prepper or survivalist website prior to finishing The Jakarta Pandemic. In many ways, I’m glad that I didn’t. I’m a details oriented writer, and despite the fact that the scene you described is exhaustively detailed, I would have driven myself insane trying to get the Fletcher’s “bunker” perfect. I put a considerable amount of thought into the contents of their survival stockpile, starting with the basics: Food, Water, and Medical Supplies…and expanding from there. And I certainly expanded far beyond the basics. Solar panels connected to battery storage, two oil tanks for storing fuel (this is a New England phenomena…most of you have natural gas or propane), wood burning stove (which I don’t think they ever used), generator, antibiotics (unethically obtained through Alex’s employer) and many other items that might come in handy if the shelves at your local Home Depot and grocery store emptied overnight. Imagine going cold turkey off Fritos…devastating. :0)
So to answer your question, I created this incredible stockpile or “bunker” in my novel, and didn’t have so much as three extra cans of vegetables in my own house to back up one of the main themes in my book. A few months after publishing the novel, I took Alex Fletcher’s advice and started to slowly build up a reserve of food and supplies, one shopping trip at a time. It’s truly amazing what you can amass in two years, when you take a systematic, consistent approach to stockpiling supplies. Does my basement now resemble Alex’s? Not even close, but I feel confident that my family could ride out a major disaster, without resorting to desperate measures. Of course, the same question always remains, regardless of how much you prepare…what is your neighbor doing to avoid resorting to desperate measures, and what is your plan to deal their desperation. This becomes a pinnacle issue for Alex, and his plan is woefully lacking in this author’s opinion…on purpose.
Most folks living a preparedness lifestyle understand that planning is paramount to the success of any emergency plan. This usually means having a plan to ride out an emergency situation at home, also known as sheltering in place or bugging in, and also having a plan to evacuate if the situation dictates, commonly referred to as bugging out. If the plan is to shelter in place, neighbors can become a real problem like we see in TJP. We don’t want to give the story away, but what are your thoughts on working with neighbors or building a survival team, given that the necessities of dealing with a pandemic primarily call for isolation? Makeshift alliances develop in TJP, but should Alex have developed relationships and built his team within the neighborhood well ahead of the pandemic since he viewed it as such a real threat?
This is hard to say. Unfortunately for Alex, his plan from the start was isolation, but he quickly learned that this wasn’t going to be a viable option. Without recognizing the need for a diplomacy based “crowd control” plan prior to the arrival of the pandemic virus, he really shortchanged himself and put his family in danger. With that said, none of us want to view our neighborhood as an episode of Survivor, where shifting alliances and secret plots undermine the ease of living and sense of relaxation we come to expect when we pull into the driveway. Alex had some core friends in the neighborhood, which came in handy as the conflict escalated, and he found a few surprise allies along the way. If anything, Alex could have been more open to dispelling a few stereotypes that hindered him in the beginning. I don’t write big moral lessons into my novels, but Alex’s character gave me the opportunity to point out a few negative behaviors that most of us can find in ourselves from time to time.
I believe I have read that your favorite scene in TJP is the neighborhood meeting. The part of this gathering that stood out to me was, with the exception of a small few, the neighbor’s almost outright denial that anything really bad or prolonged could ever actually happen. Their cognitive dissonance would not let them believe that the grid could go down or that there would be more than a short term disruption in food deliveries, even with a viable threat staring them in the face. What are your thoughts on this phenomena and just how prevalent it is within American society today?
Don’t get me started, Randy. Just take one look around and you can start to see the extent of the problem. We’ve become a society of instant information…everyone connected to smartphones, tablets, computers, blogs, websites…all downloading the latest opinions, news, and “facts” in real time. Few people put any discernable time into researching topics, simply accepting the latest New York Times or Wall Street Journal article as gospel, whichever suits their purpose. Conservative? Fox News will steer you in the right direction. Liberal? MSNBC never gets it wrong. We’ve polarized ourselves to think along the lines of convenience and convention, staying well within our comfort zones and dismissing information that doesn’t conform. This is not a new phenomena, but I think it’s compounded in our society today. I’m just as guilty as anyone (I use all of these newfangled technologies), but I’ve set some ground rules for myself, and the first rule is to dig deeper. I can find ten articles that say the next pandemic will be manageable, all of them one page summaries of the latest CDC or WHO assessment, but I’m far more interested in the twenty page, multi-source researched essay explaining the why the CDC and WHO pandemic models are based on unlikely scenarios and how they vastly underestimate the impact of the next deadly pandemic.
Complexity is a trademark of the characters in your works. To pay homage to that fact, I would like to look into what I call “the dichotomy of Kate”. Alex’s wife Kate doesn’t seem to like guns or Alex “playing commando”, but on the other hand she seems to constantly want him to shoot any threat to the family dead first and ask questions later. I know you have stated in the past that looking back on it, you can now see the need for characters like Kate’s to be rounded out a little more in TJP, so I would like to ask you to take all the space you need to help us understand where she’s coming from.
Like any woman, she’s complex and I can’t explain what she does or says with any regularity. Sound familiar? Just kidding, sort of. Kate’s gun dichotomy represents what I consider to be a prevalent attitude in society, which can be expanded far beyond guns. She’s not a big fan of firearms, but this isn’t a moral stand or some kind of a political statement. In my mind, it was more related to a general apathy toward firearms, which we see everywhere in society, even within firearms friendly families (I just made that term up by the way-FFF). It’s easier to lock them up and hide them, than it is to teach responsible firearms safety and respect. With young children in the house, Kate chose the easy path, instead of embracing the fact that firearms were intrinsically linked to her husband’s past and would always be a part of their life together. Of course, when her family was threatened, she was one of the first to encourage her husband to put them to use. Here is the dichotomy I was trying to expose in our society. In general, we don’t want to deal with the hassle and responsibility of guns (substitute “guns” for any number of other words), but when the SHTF, we have a sudden need for them. Rarely does this sudden need come with responsible or tempered use. I liked Kate’s character overall, and wished I could have explained her thought process more fully, but I had chosen to stick to a first person, single point of view for the story (Alex’s), and this made it extremely difficult round out any of the characters beyond Alex. The sequel to The Jakarta Pandemic will be written from multiple points of view, similar to my Black Flagged series, giving the reader a much deeper understanding of the key characters.
In Chapter 16, Alex and Kate have a discussion about what could happen if a sick friend or family member came to them looking for help. They also discussed the decisions they (the Fletchers) had made that would lead to such a dilemma. Those same decisions run counter to the original Fletcher survival plan and there is a real possibility that their real fears could become reality of their own making. This speaks directly to a couple of our main teaching points: 1) Craft a survival plan for your situation 2) OPSEC (operational security) cannot be overstated. In my mind, this powerful conversation could be a story by itself or at least a complete chapter. Although you make the point pretty well in the book, I was hoping you might expand your thoughts on never-ending web of problems that could arise in a scenario like the Fletchers explore in their conversation.
I chickened out writing TJP. I’ll admit this here for the first time. I had set the stage for a possible visit from any of several family members within striking distance, with the full intention of putting the Fletchers in the position of having to either refuse to take in a sick relative or subject them to quarantine procedures. This is a difficult topic for most of us to comprehend, and I decided to steer clear of it ultimately, leaving the discussion to stand on its own merits. I couldn’t imagine writing a scene turning “Grandpa” away because he was running a fever and coughing and the response I’d get from readers. The book is controversial enough, and I felt that I accomplished the goal of raising awareness by introducing the concept as an important part of a any survival plan, especially in the face of a contagious virus.
As for Operational Security? I’d say the Fletchers failed miserably, letting too many people know that they were stocked up and prepared. He may not have walked around with a banner announcing it, but the neighbors quickly put it together and he made matters worse by disclosing certain information and offering to share some very critical and hard to find supplies. In a limited disaster scenario like an earthquake, hurricane or tidal wave, this wouldn’t be such a problem, but Alex knew for a fact from his own research that a massive pandemic was different. The effects of deadly flu virus had the potential to crash the “system,” forcing the neighborhood to endure severe food shortages and limited access to essential services.
Given Alex’s military background and the fact that the Fletchers had been planning for a disaster like the Jakarta Pandemic for years, I was surprised that they had not ran a “practice weekend” disaster scenario to work out the kinks before actually having to implement their survival plan. Did I just miss that in the book because it was not specifically mentioned or is that something that was purposely omitted from the story line for impact?
You didn’t miss anything. Frankly, I didn’t think about it. If I had, I would likely have modeled my own family for the Fletcher’s “drill weekend,” and had it perpetually postponed. I have two emergency escape ladders on my second floor that have not been opened. I bought them with the full intention of running a drill out of one of the first floor windows, just so my kids could figure out how to attach them to the windowsill. We’ve been too busy. We’ve watched over two thousand hours of TV as a family since acquiring the ladders, but can’t find thirty minutes for a drill that could save lives. We always talk about a home invasion plan…how to react as a family, but we’ve never gone through the motions. You make a great point, Randy, and I think this could have been another opportunity to highlight an important aspect to any preparedness plan.
Let’s turn our focus to real world current events for a moment. The Jakarta Pandemic is set in 2013 and oddly enough, the world has already seen a couple of rather scary viral outbreaks this year with the novel coronavirus in the middle east that has shown an alarming death rate among those infected and the H7N9 avian flu that is currently spreading across, you guessed it, China. It seems you may have been onto something when you wrote TJP by setting it to take place in 2013! What are your thoughts on these ongoing situations and what should we be looking for as these stories develop?
I may be the only person on earth hoping that this avian flu thing takes off…book sales will be off the charts! Just kidding, sort of, until I get my basement squared away. As you can imagine, I like to track this kind of stuff, but I’d be lying if I told your readers that I predicted 2013 for the next deadly pandemic. Unfortunately, we don’t have the organization that I created for The Jakarta Pandemic to warn us when a pandemic is imminent. The International Scientific Pandemic Awareness Collaborative (ISPAC) was an entirely fictional entity, based on the needs identified by my research. Namely, an independent, nonpolitical agency focused on the early detection of potential pandemic threats and the relevant public education needed to prepare individuals and civil groups. Readers can set Google alerts or other news alerts to receive articles related to pandemic events or topics, using key phrases or words. You can also frequently review our own nation’s CDC website and navigate toward the bottom left corner to “OUTBREAKS.” I check this section every week or two to see what’s new in the world of infectious diseases. The WHO website (home page) contains a link at the top right, “Disease Outbreak News,” which accomplishes the same goal, but leads to a wide variety of articles and disease topics which can expand your knowledge of pandemic viruses. If you find a link to an emerging disease on one of these sites, you can add the name of the disease to your list of news alert subscriptions. By keeping a loose eye on these sites and your alerts, you’ll be in a strong position to detect an emerging threat before it “hits the news.” I don’t go crazy with this stuff, but if something catches my eye, I like to get the news first.
Like our name suggests, we believe in those things that provide the practical, tactical solutions for the everyday emergencies that can impact any of us like a bolt from the blue. TJP provides us with a practical outline for how to tackle the threat of a flu pandemic, but I was wondering if you had any other advice or information that you would like to leave our readers with before we go?
Practical is the key. Alex Fletcher’s set up in TJP was not a practical solution for most families. I did the math at one point and calculated that the cost of their home modifications and supplies ran well into the six-figure range. The supplies can be accrued slowly over time, but the big-ticket items will not be practical or reasonable for 99% of people. You can drive by my house and you won’t see solar panels on my roof. I spent that money on a sailboat so I can enjoy the Maine summers on Casco Bay. Priorities. My key advice is to develop and execute a basic plan for building a modest stockpile of food, medical supplies and water. Get your security situation in order and start expanding your preparedness knowledge. The rest will follow. There is no “one size” fits all solution to preparedness, because our needs vary, however, the themes are the same, and Randy’s blog is a great place to start. His focus on combining PRACTICAL advice with a TACTICAL outlook defines the survival mindset.
So, you’ve mentioned a sequel to TJP a couple of times during this interview and that is certainly welcome and exciting news for fans of the work like us. Is there anything you can tell us about what lies ahead for the Fletchers?
I’m looking at a sequel, but not in the traditional sense. The story will take place several years after the first and present the Fletchers with a unique set of challenges. TJP focused on the human challenges (even if you are uber-stockpiled) of hunkering down “in place.” For the sequel, I have created a unique set of circumstances that will force the Fletchers and likely send them in two different directions. Alex Fletcher has learned a lot during the five or six years since The Jakarta Pandemic, but what I have in store for the Fletchers will force him to improvise nearly every skill he has developed, and once again band together with friends. This will not be your typical “bug out” story, though some of the key aspects of “bugging out” will be explored and expanded…really expanded. In order to avoid treading well-worn ground in this genre, I plan to leverage the techno-thriller writing style/skills of my Black Flagged series with an apocalyptic event. The scenario I have in mind will leave the story open to a series. The initiating disaster scenario will be what I like to call a “realistic stretch,” but it sets the stage for a wild ride.
At Practical Tactical we’ve adopted the slogan, Semper Paratus. We are proponents of firearm ownership and believe in having the ability to exercise the “force option” if necessary. We are absolutely of the opinion that a well thought out and rigorously trained defense strategy be a part of any emergency plan. With that said, we also believe that you must be willing to take on the necessary level of responsibility that accompanies which ever method of self-defense you choose to employ. While we offer Barney-basic firearms training through Practical Tactical, we understand that may not be the choice for everyone and we absolutely respect that position. Each person or family must come to terms with what level of self-defense is appropriate for themselves and their situation. We only suggest that whatever method of defense is chosen, it must include the appropriate exposure and training to be effectively deployed when/if the time comes to use it. Do you have any thoughts on this topic, Steve?
This is sage advice, especially talking about what each person or family finds “appropriate for themselves and their situation,” followed by a commitment to effectively deploying the method. In terms of home defense, a good house alarm or dog would better serve some families than a firearm, especially if they are unwilling to regularly practice with the firearm. “One size fits all” does not apply to self-defense or preparedness.
I’m just as comfortable walking up to a firearms counter and handling weapons as I am picking out a loaf of bread for dinner. Actually, the bread gives me more stress, because everyone in my house likes different types of bread and I can never win. :0) Have you ever handed a “safed” firearm (slide back, chamber examined by both parties) to someone unfamiliar with firearms? They hold it like you just handed them your soiled underwear. You (Randy) have shared Practical Tactical’s approach to beginners, and it is all about demystifying and developing comfort with a method (in this case firearms). This applies across the board to every aspect of a solid, executable preparedness/survival plan.
One of the biggest criticisms (in reviews and emails) of TJP and Alex Fletcher’s character, is that he didn’t simply shoot first and ask questions in a pivotal scene. This decision clearly leads to a cascade of problems that not only affect Alex’s family, but the entire neighborhood. I’m being as vague as possible so I don’t spoil the story for potential readers. Everyone will know when this scene takes place, and most of you will be screaming at Alex…especially in light of what you know is coming later. Some reviewers have decried Alex’s behavior as “non-Marine,” and others claiming that his hesitancy to kill was out of character with his background. While his decision only delayed the inevitable lethal confrontation with these clearly “bad intentioned” people, it served a greater purpose, which I didn’t make immediately clear in the book…for a reason.
In my view, the most critical aspect of a preparedness/self-defense plan is never losing sight of the big picture and the ultimate goal. I love the controversy surrounding this scene, because it really drives this point home. Emotionally, even I wanted Alex to open fire on the crazies that had descended on his neighborhood. He knew they were bad news across the board. Was shooting them in the middle of the street really an option, like his wife and neighbor suggested? Sure. It would have immediately neutralized a likely threat to their safety, but what next? The police were still responding to calls (barely) and Alex had been questioned by the police for another incident involving firearms. Three men dead in the middle of the street. They hadn’t overtly threatened him or tried to break into his house. Clearly, they were up to no good, but how would the police react? Maybe the police would turn a blind eye, but what if they didn’t? Alex incarcerated during a deadly pandemic, leaving Kate to fend off the next group of lunatics that decide to prey on the neighborhood OR angry neighbors that know they are well stocked with food and supplies? House searched and all firearms confiscated, leaving Kate with nothing but kitchen knives for self-defense. This was one of the toughest decisions Alex had to make, but it wasn’t due to a lack of conviction or guts. His character served as a company commander in Iraq, where rules of engagement defined the big picture. I felt that his reaction to the situation was the best survival decision for his family, even if it did put off the inevitable.
Well at the end of the day, I believe that making “the best survival decision” for our families is all any of us can hope to do, Steve. Friends, I highly recommend The Jakarta Pandemic for anyone in the preparedness community looking for an exciting read that also provides some common sense steps anyone can take to be better prepared for an emergency. So pick a copy up soon, download the audio book from your favorite provider to listen to during a long commute or follow my lead and do both! I’m confident you will find it a fun, interesting and useful read. Steve, where else can our readers find you and your other works?
I’m pretty accessible, and unlike Stephen King, I still answer reader emails. Of course, I’m about 400 million readers away from matching Mr. King’s level of “busy,” so I can still take the time to respond and enjoy the best part of writing…interacting with readers. You can email me at email@example.com and if I’m not in the throes of writing my latest work in progress, you’ll probably hear back from me the same day. I’d love to invite everyone to visit my blog, www.stevenkonkoly.com, where you can go behind the scenes of my writing, catch some book reviews (apocalyptic, thriller, horror and some sci-fi), enjoy some humor and get updates about my work in progress or future projects. There’s something for everyone.
Sounds great, Steve. I would like to thank you for taking the time to discuss The Jakarta Pandemic in depth with us! It has certainly been a pleasure.
Finally, I want to encourage everyone to join in and keep the conversation going by asking your own questions of Steve (or me) in the comment section below and by sharing this talk on Facebook and Twitter (or your preferred social media platform) with everyone you know. The more people we can reach and hopefully help along their journey towards personal preparedness the better off we’ll all be in the long run.