by Cyrus Webb
Mystery, danger and historic revelations are all wrapped up in one book that I read over the Summer: THE KYKUIT BUNKER. Written by Minnesota author Steven Janke he shared with me first on Conversations LIVE and then in this interview what led him to write the book, how his characters developed and spoke to him and what he hopes you take away from the message.
Steven, thanks for taking out the time to talk with us. We'll get into your novel THE KYKUIT BUNKER in a moment, but I first want to talk with you about this journey you've been on as a writer. You shared with me on Conversations LIVE that your love affair with words began some time ago. What is it like for you now to have the opportunity for the world to know your name and of your work?
In one word: priceless. To think that just a few months ago I was an aspiring author, looking to get my words published, to today, where I have a book on the market, is a true testament to the advice people hear all the time; "If you put your mind to it, nothing will stop you."
For me, writing my first novel has been the first step I have taken to present myself to the world in terms of mass exposure, but I don't think people need to do anything specific like writing a book to feel fulfillment in their lives. I think everyone should live every day of his or her life to the fullest and to never take a moment for granted. Whether the sense of "time well spent" comes in the form of volunteering, education, entrepreneurship, etc. the fact of the matter is anyone should look back on a day and feel a sense of pride in that the day wasn't wasted. If you do waste a day, and in reflection feel depressed about that, don't let that feeling bog you down. Wake up the next morning and make up for lost time, then keep that momentum driving you further into the brief amount of time you have left to share yourself with the world.
My response to this question, Cyrus, then points to my thankfulness that not only through my book have I met you, but I have also had the opportunity to share my thoughts about life to the world through your chosen medium. With my thoughts, if at least one of your readers wakes up tomorrow and is invigorated to do something different, to change their life, to explore new and life-changing things, to make a positive contribution to the human race; then that would answer your question of what is has been like for me to share my work with the world: priceless.
One thing that is obvious from reading your novel and talking with you is your love of history as well. Do you think you could have written this book the way you did without that component?
History has been a fascination of mine for many years. I say that not just in saying I am interested in anything before the 1960's, for instance, but I say that in meaning I am interested in our past and how that might impact our future. I am greatly interested in where we came from, what has taken place to get us to where we are today, and what we are doing today, which will be considered history tomorrow.
Without an inherent love of history, I doubt I would have ever been in the position to piece together all of the moving parts that make up the novel The Kykuit Bunker. However, the beauty of my book is that my love of history only served to allow me to construct a world in which something may have happened in the past. My sense of the historical facts mentioned in my book is that the facts are familiar with a high percentage of any reader population. As a result, I hope my book not only offers a different perspective on how one could twist historical facts into a fictional novel, but a renewed interest in history beyond the mandatory accumulation of knowledge required in any educational setting.
I actually started out looking to write a script for a television show. My thought was that the characters would look for a treasure, only to find that the clues were derived by a misguided character and actually didn't lead to a treasure, but did lead to lost time. I initially figured it would make for a great episode, but as soon as I got into creating/discovering the clues and the story, the script morphed into more than a script, of which I thought would be better suited for a book setting as opposed to a television setting.
When I started the novel writing process, I wrote an outline that was three pages long. Essentially these pages were filled with clusters of sentences that represented what chapters could occur in the story. The entire story, characters, clues, and conclusion was summarized in just three pages. What came out of the process of writing an outline was a book about John D. Rockefeller's treasure, where three college students pursue a treasure map that was written in the form of real life poems, while being diligently chased by the CIA.
I have heard authors say that though they had an idea for a book that when the characters were birthed into the story they kind of led in their evolution and development, even taking the author on a path they hadn't expected. Did you experience this yourself, and what character surprised you the most?
Absolutely. When I was writing the novel I would take a section of the outline I had dedicated as a chapter and write a whole chapter about whatever the outline said I needed to accomplish in that chapter. I started with the most active piece of the puzzle; the college students. While my book goes back and forth between stories that eventually get woven together before the climatic conclusion, I would write one story for a couple of chapters, then come back to write the others. When the momentum I experienced while writing about the college students and their interactions with the story took off, I couldn't escape that, so I let them go, while neglecting the CIA and the New York Times columnist. However, after a couple of written chapters I would go back to bring the other story lines up to where the college students were in the timeline.
Throughout this process of writing, I discovered that my character, Taylor Bowman, the New York Times columnist, was actually my main character. She is a common thread throughout and serves as balancing point between the other story lines of two varying levels of motivation. I didn't expect Taylor to emerge as my main character because of all of the action the college students get to see. However, once the book comes to a conclusion, the only active way I could come out with a continuation story was through Taylor, netting her the spot of my true main character.
I have to tell you, Steven, that reporter Taylor Bowman had me from beginning to end. I think because we got to know her in her professional setting as well as snippets of her personal life. Do you think those kind of details, the ones that the reader knows and other characters may not, are what people are resonating with when it comes to your book?
I think anyone who reads a book is looking for something to relate to. Whether that is a character or an ideology isn't of the issue. What matters is that without a connection, a book can swiftly become boring and not of interest. I believe my character, Taylor Bowman, is someone that many people can relate to. She is trying to start something, her career, which represents her innate and developed abilities, and she is willing to go the extra mile to achieve success. Without these details, one cannot immediately attach themselves to a character or an idea, so I think these personal details are paramount when writing an interesting story.
The college students that we are introduced to in the book are pretty much our eyes and ears along the journey to find the truth about this supposed treasure. Was there a reason why you chose individuals who are sometimes seen as being disengaged to the world and not as active to be the real heroes of this story?
Mainly I wanted to showcase that anyone can do what these college students end up doing with the clues throughout the story. I think many authors create a situation where an expert in a topic needs to exist in order to solve something. While my story may seem complex, the truth is that if you slow down to consider what is in front of you for more than just a moment, you might discover something that those around you have passed by without a second glance, without the level of expertise that would otherwise be required.
Having some characters be college students achieves exactly that, the perception that one doesn't need to be an expert to solve something. Being college students offers an inescapable determination of age, immaturity, and quite possibly a pre-assigned level of intelligence. If these assigned traits turn out to be low from the reader's perspective, that's fine with me because it would only serve to compound the importance of what the college students eventually discover by calling upon their otherwise common knowledge and use of resources that are readily available to anyone of any age.
The truth is, many people are familiar with what is brought up in my book. As a result, whether you can related to a college student or not, you should be able to follow along very well with how things play out. In the end, I think my use of college students as primary characters points to the notion that while they may be young, they are definitely capable of contributing meaningful thought to society, and need not be written off as disengaged individuals.
Another character in the book that some might not think of as such is money itself: its purpose, its power and its danger. For you as a writer is there something you wanted us the reader to think about as we looked at the way money and wealth were addressed and approached in the story?
Money is a crazy thing and our perception of money is centuries in the making. Boiled down, money is a generally accepted form of payment for products and/or services. Some use wealth and the amount of money one has accumulated as a measure of worth to society. But really, when it comes down to it, money is an avenue one can use to translate what has occurred to get the money elsewhere into a bartering situation. In the end, money is only worth what another is willing to give up in exchange for the money.
My book highlights money in the light that one man thought the future potential of a nation was worth so much, that he was willing to give up a very large portion of his net worth in the name of a goal the nation set forth. Through philanthropy, he knowingly would never benefit from what he would contribute his hard earned dollars toward. I think the lesson here is that we all seem to selfishly strive to stretch a dollar as far as it can go, without recognizing the potential an effort of service can do to a society, provided the effort isn't wasted once contributed. We may never escape the prevalence of money in our day-to-day lives, but if we change our perception that money shouldn't drive our selfish decision-making process or business initiatives, we may find greater opportunities to translate the money accumulated through individual efforts into universal and progressive initiatives.
Steven, you said something curious to me when on the radio talking about this novel and the follow-up. I asked if you had any anxiety about the sophomore project and you said you were ready for us to have it but you wanted to make sure it was the best it could be. Do you think as your career advances you will be seen more as an author concerned about the quality of the work more so than how many books you have out?
All too often we see authors hit a homerun, only to follow that up with a strikeout. I'm not saying with The Kykuit Bunker I have hit a 500 foot homerun, but I am saying that no matter what, I want to avoid striking out in whatever I produce. I don't know if it's the topic of a continuation novel or the pressure to create something that causes authors to go from a homerun to a strikeout, but it's a very common tale. One author that comes to mind wrote incredible, worldwide, movie-adapted books, only to produce a recent book that wasn't enticing at all, and in fact an absolute let down. When I read this particular book, having read the first few in the 'series', I may have came into the book with heightened expectations, but regardless, I didn't even read the last 150 pages because the book was that bad. When reading this particular book I got to a point where I said to myself "That's it? That's all you've got?". This is a reaction from readers that I want to avoid as I look toward writing my second book.
I recognize the amount of time required to read a book, and the last thing I would want for a person is to look back on one of my books as a waste of time. I am aiming for my writing to be captivating, entertaining, and worthwhile. As a result, I am very focused on the quality of the story, how it interacts with any reader, and how I stay true to myself as an author.
Talk to us about the business side of things. How do you make the time to market and promote yourself and still leave time for writing, meeting with fans, etc?
I'm passionate about writing, creating something with my mind, and sharing it with the world. I know that my time on this earth is limited, and I intend not to waste any of it. The decision of allocating time comes in what is appropriate for the amount time that I allocate to any one activity. I know that I still have to work forty hours a week at my job. With that, I still want to write X number of hours per week, promote myself X number of hours per week, and spend X number of hours doing general life-related things.
But that is just it isn't it? We talk about time as if we are spending money. I spent time here. I spent time there. That's the truth. How much time do you have, and what value to you place on it? I think if you did the math, you wouldn't want to waste a minute of time.
When I was in college, I took a sales job that required me to make appointments with people in order to show them my sales presentation. What I learned through calling people is that many people tend to look at a calendar and think if something is written down, they can't do anything else that day. For example, one phone call was with a mother of two, who happened to have two baseball games at different times on a Saturday. Because of these baseball games on her calendar, she told me that meeting with me on Saturday wasn't going to happen. I then asked what the times of the games were. She mentioned that the baseball games were at 9:00 and 11:30; both morning games. From there, I asked if 3:00 in the afternoon would be all right for a meeting. After giving the proposal some thought, she agreed to meet with me in the afternoon. The lesson learned is that without challenging your schedule to do more in a day than you had in mind, it is difficult to allow yourself to be stretched to your maximum potential.
If you really want to do something, and you are truly passionate about it, you can never use 'lack of time' as an excuse because a truly passionate person would always make time to pursue what they want to pursue. That is how I approach my life, and that is what I think anyone can think about. Ask yourself what you are passionate about. Pursue whatever that is to the fullest, and always find time to reach for what makes you happy.
I think we all have individuals we look to for guidance and direction as well as a listening ear or to act as a sounding board for us. Who is that for you?
It's true that human beings always look to others for validation that whatever they are doing is being perceived as not a waste of time. When I found myself looking for such validation, I turned to my friends and family. Just as parents-to-be might gauge the public's response to a chosen name for their unborn child, I did the same in telling others what I had in mind for my story. Through these interactions and subsequent responses/reactions, I was able to craft a story that I felt would appeal to the greatest number of people, while pushing further in delivering a satisfying result meant to leave a reader excited about what may be in store for future books.
Last question for you. Success means different things to different people. How has your view of what success is evolved and how you can use it to affect others?
Thinking back to a few years ago, my sense of accomplishment was making a certain number of dollars per year and being happy with that number. Today, my sense of accomplishment has changed to less of a focus on a dollar figure, to a more focused effort on the tangible contribution I can make to the human race.
The incredible thing about us as human beings and the age we live in is that no matter what your background, no matter who you are as an individual, you still have a voice, a mind, and a purpose in life. If one takes a moment to realize that the time they spend on this earth equates to such a small portion of 'time' in general, I think that person would feel a greater sense of motivation to never waste a moment of the most precious gift that God has ever given anyone that has ever had the rare opportunity to be on this earth.
Thank you again, Steven, for the time. How can our readers get their copy of the book and stay in contact with you?
My book, The Kykuit Bunker, is available on amazon.com and through barnesandnoble.com in both paperback and e-book forms. Also, my book is available in paperback through my Web site www.thekykuitbunker.com.
I may be reached through my "Contact" page at thekykuitbunker.com. I make ever effort to respond to correspondences I receive through my Web site within 24 hours of contact, so that is the best way to get in touch with me directly. I am also very active on shelfari.com and goodreads.com, both of which offer opportunities to interact with me on both professional and personal levels.