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Stephen Coonts on Finding Your Passion At Any Age



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Gary Pinkerton hosts author and Navy veteran, Stephen Coonts. They discuss the Vietnam War and how he operated as a pilot. Stephen gives us lessons on rejection and how he fought through 32 rejections. They go through his latest book The Russia Account. They end with how careers aren’t fixed and how it’s quite common to changes career paths.

Announcer 0:04
Welcome to the heroic investing show. As first responders we risk our lives every day our financial security is under attack. Our pensions are in a state of emergency. A single on duty incident can alter or erase our earning potential instantly and forever. We are the heroes of society. We are self reliant and we need to take care of our own financial future. The heroic investing show is our toolkit of business and investing tactics on our mission to financial freedom.

Gary Pinkerton 0:39
Welcome to the heroic investing show podcast for first responders, members, the military, veterans and anyone looking to improve their financial future and gain some freedom with their time. We teach America’s heroes how to build passive income, build their startup business and safely grow wealth through real estate and other alternative investments. We have current and private First Responders put protections systems and a team in place to help them build a life where they can focus on their passion, that service or product that they’re uniquely gifted to share with others, making the world a better place for all of us. My name is Gary Pinkerton and I co host this show with Jason Hartman. This is Episode 207. Today’s guest requires no introduction, but I’ll do so just in case. This is author Steven Koons. He’s the author of his most famous work being the flight of the intruder made it into a movie just a fantastic book about an intruder pilot during the Vietnam War. He was an asecs intruder pilot in the Vietnam War served two deployments there in the height of Sam attacks, and very low altitude, intensive combat. He’s obviously a Navy officer aviator, resigned after about 10 nine years of service and he’ll talk about it You know his way to his true passion, being an author and writing some amazing works of art sharing some true brilliance with all of the rest of us out here in the reading world. So please enjoy. Author Steven Koons. Well, hello rogue investors. Welcome back. Today we have the incredible pleasure to have author Steven Koons witness. So Steve’s the author, I’m sure you’ve heard of him with flat and intruder and many other amazing novels. He’s author of 14 New York Times bestsellers, and some of them you know, fly them in turtle we just we just talked about, but he’s got a couple new books out one is a nonfiction and the other one is his newest book, The Russia account. He’s also a Navy veteran, having flown and operated as a pilot in the Vietnam War. We’re going to hear about his story and we’re gonna hear about you know, transition out of the military and following your passion and how you found the passion. First and foremost, he thank you so much for joining us here on the heroic and

Stephen Coonts 2:57
it’s a pleasure to be with you here.

Gary Pinkerton 2:59
So what I Didn’t tell the audience but I will admit it here is that we had a great 20 minutes where my recorder fails. And so we practice this. And so if we sound polished Well, now you know why, but I felt compelled to let everyone know that he that Steve is such a compassionate individual that he’s going with me for another round here. secret. Could you take us back to how you started this? How you How did you end up in the Navy?

Stephen Coonts 3:25
Well, I wanted to get out of West Virginia. I grew up in a coal town in Central West Virginia and maybe had a program that they would guarantee you flight school. If you enlist, and completed college and completed Officer Candidate School. Obviously, you had to qualify for the program to take all the tests, but physicals and all that, and I did that and I joined the Navy Reserve when I was 19. And when I graduated from college, they sent me to the flight school and forest as they say is here. History I ended up applying a six intruders off the USS Enterprise on the last two years to the Vietnam last two cruises enterprise made during the Vietnam War. And anyway, stay in for nine years active and finally got out, went to law school. And I found Gary that once you’re out, you know, my, my expertise was dropping bombs and there’s not a huge call for that in the civilian job market. And so I thought maybe I better do something else. And so I airlines weren’t hiring right then. And so I went to law school and became an attorney and practice for a few years specializing oil and gas law, and then got a divorce and so started writing about this great adventure at hand as a naval aviator, flying the Navy’s hottest jets in combat. During the Vietnam War, the manuscript I’ve got wrote at nights and weekends, which is way all first novels are written and started sending it out. It was rejected by 32 publishers, basically every publisher in the free world. And when I sent it to the Naval Institute, who had just done Tom Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October, and they were looking for a follow up and they said yes, and so they probably fly to the intruder. And to my astonishment, it stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for 20 weeks. And so it did so darn well that all the publishers who had rejected fly to the intruder now wanted me to write another j corrected story for them. And so I went with Doubleday and they did final flight, and another big bestseller and it went pretty well. So I’ve been writing lies in one form or another for

Gary Pinkerton 6:00
Ever since. And how many full books have you done, Stephen?

Stephen Coonts 6:03
This is the 25th novel. The Russia account is the 25th novel I’ve done then I’ve done nine co authored novels. And I’ve done five anthologies. And two works in nonfiction. So I don’t know how many that is. That is a pull up an affordance. It’s up in the 40s. But anyway, yeah. Now Jake Grafton, who was in flight in trigger, he’s, he’s been in 19 of these novels. And the Russia account is his 19th parents. So Jake, and I go way back, and he’s treated me pretty well,

Gary Pinkerton 6:40
I would say he has, let’s say he has, and it was a great movie, and obviously a very, very good book. So, you know, congratulations on on at least the two that people are most familiar with, or the one that we’re most familiar with. And we’re definitely blessed to have you on this show.

Stephen Coonts 6:54
grateful. Pleasure to be on.

Gary Pinkerton 6:57
So you set a couple things that I want to go back to One was 23 nose and you kept going. So that says to a 3030

Stephen Coonts 7:06
view, dyslexia rejection. Well, you know, I didn’t think the book could ever be published. And so all what I wanted was somebody to publish it and give me two free paperbacks with my name on it. You know, Stephen couldn’t some thought, you know that I didn’t think I’d make any money. And so I just was sending out you know, whatever. They wanted a copy of the manuscript, a query letter, a synopsis, whatever. And, you know, I didn’t think it ever be published at 32 rejections in hand whenever I saw The Hunt for Red October in a bookstore and thought, Well, why aren’t they on my list is Naval Institute Press. And I looked in the book and they said, Well, we only do serious naval fiction. Well, that’s crashed them all because I knew it wasn’t just Conrad. But anyway, I decided what the heck they did a submarine tale. Maybe they’ll do a flying story. So I send them the whole bang script with a three paragraph cover letter. And they call me a month later. And, you know, drop me said, we want to publish it. And I shocked, I was just astounded. And a year later, they actually did go. So it’s just serendipity. How old are you? And then when when that person I was 40, I was 40.

Gary Pinkerton 8:23
Yeah. So I mean, there’s a lot of great lessons here. Like you found your calling at age 40. After 32 rejections Yeah. And it’s it’s been tremendous. And the other thing I want to go back to was you flew real combat, you know, in Vietnam, and several missions against Sam sites. I mean, that was some of the hardest low altitude flying that the Navy’s ever done. I mean, I’m sure that air to air combat has been a challenge in World War One into and survival rates weren’t high there either. But this was some tough stuff in Vietnam. And obviously it comes out in your novels.

Stephen Coonts 9:00
Well, you know, it was a grand adventure. And I was strikingly fortunate in that I got to have this adventure and the men that I served with, I mean, I can’t say enough good things about it. They’re all first class guys. And I was honored to be standing among them as an equal, you know, a Navy carrier aviator. And so it is been the great adventure of my life and I had fun writing about it, but all my books, I urge our readers to understand that all my books are not about naval aviation, you know, I had, you can’t sit around right about that all the rest of your life. And so I’ve done a lot of thrillers, as I say, anthologies. A couple of nonfiction works. One of them was flying an airplane over the all over United States by plane and the one we just found these twitches Dragon’s jaw, which is wrote co wrote with naval aviation historian Barrett Tillman And it’s about the seven year campaign to drop the fan wall bridge in North Vietnam. And we bear at night thought, you know, we’re not getting any younger and the people that did this flew all these missions aren’t. So we better do this while they’re still alive, talk to us. And so we did. And we we think we have a bang up book and is out there and all formats and so hopefully that it’s not just for the people who served in Vietnam or other wars. It’s for people that have, you know, fathers sons brothers, that our veterans is really the axe to war and that fog and, and trying to do your best in a political situation that you may not agree with, or is mismanaged. There’s just you know, but you still have to do the best you can

Gary Pinkerton 10:54
generally a mess. Yeah, yeah. Wow. When you came out of the military union I know that you had a couple. I wouldn’t call them odd jobs but a couple of unrelated jobs on your way to law school. You commented that, hey, dropping bombs was not in high demand and thank god it’s a good thing actually. Yeah, I guess what breadcrumbs Did you follow? What indications or inclinations Did you listen to, to kind of get you on the path?

Stephen Coonts 11:23
Well, I, my father been a lawyer. And so I growing up watching him and his practice in a small town, and I thought I could do that. But anyway, I got off active duty in February 1977. Airlines weren’t hiring. And so my very first job was driving a yellow cab in Denver. And did that for a couple of months got robbed and a guy cut up my hand with a actually a coke bottle and they’d sharpened into a point and then put my hand all bandaged up. I went To work for the Longmont, Colorado police department, the City Police Department. And I did that for three months. They didn’t send you the police academy then until you finished your six months probationary period. So I did that for three months and had didn’t go to police academy. But then I got admitted to law school with university Colorado now looked at all over and thought, well, am I going to be a police officer? Or what I do better if I went to law school and became a lawyer, and I decided law school was my best bet. So they required a week’s notice that the Longmont police. So I gave notice and luckily I was working night shift. And so at night, I did my police job, went straight home and did law school, and then slept a little bit back to the police. But obviously when studying that week, and the end of the week I was pretty wack and I spent the whole weekend Sleeping and studying. He was a good choice it for me anyway. And I enjoyed being a lawyer for an oil company. I do not like being in private practice and representing indigent defendants that got old pretty quick. I can imagine. Yeah, I went to work for an oil company specializing on a gas law. And that was a 40 hour week job, not like that. But, you know, I got got into writing nights and weekends. And whenever that came through, I thought, you know, the writing is a lot more fun. And it pays better than being a lawyer. So I thought, how, take one of these offers and go home full time novels. I’m glad I did.

Gary Pinkerton 13:43
Yeah, I would say that you found your your calling there. Yeah.

Stephen Coonts 13:47
Anybody who focuses on it for that length of time, and has that level of success? Obviously, you did. You had this desire to write that story. Did you know you always want to be a novelist or a writer.

Gary Pinkerton 13:59
Well, not Really, it just sort of, you know, serendipity just sort of worked out that way. After I wrote fly to the intruder, which is really a series of flying stories, you know, it was obvious that if I was going to continue to do this, I was going to have to become a real novelist. I couldn’t write about the guys knew and just changed her name. I was going to have to learn to create fictional characters in fictional situations that I had never been in. And, you know, do all the things that the novelists have to do pacing, character setting, plotline, all of it. And so I worked and worked at it. And, you know, I’ve done very well. No false modesty. I’ve done very, very well, but it’s been a lot of work getting here. It’s never never comes easy. Every novel is a brand new challenge. How am I going to do this at a commercially acceptable level? Well,

Stephen Coonts 15:00
yeah, I think many of us out there who aren’t and this is probably true for any profession, right? When you see a master at their profession you think, Wow, it’s just so easy. Yeah. Oh, yeah. And there’s so much hard work going in in the background for anyone. Yeah. No, Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, whoever, right?

Gary Pinkerton 15:16
Right. There’s so many people that you know, they, they retire and they get a hold of a little computer, laptop or something. JACK do this. You know, it’s just writing words. I’ve been reading them all my life. I can just sit here, right. I’ll get rich and famous. Doesn’t work quite that way. It’s all in which keys you push.

Gary Pinkerton 15:37
Yeah, it’s about crafting. This specific about

Stephen Coonts 15:40
the craft right now. You can buy us guitar pretty cheap. But if you think you’re gonna be a big sensation in the music business, you got another thing coming. You’re gonna take a lot of years to get to that level.

Gary Pinkerton 15:55
Exactly. So let’s talk about your most recent work, the Russia account. Maybe tease that one out for the audience a little bit.

Stephen Coonts 16:01
Yeah, well, that was suggested by real incidents that occurred. There’s a little branch bank belong to a Danish bank, and Tallinn, Estonia. And the Russians had a lot of Russians had accounts here. And they ran 200 and $40 billion through that bank, and for years, it’s over 50 billion a year, over a billion a week, went through that bank. And next, the accountholders send it on to various shell corporations all over the world. And so that that’s a true incident and the actual banking authorities are still trying to sort out where the money came from, where it went and what it was for. And it looks like a giant money laundering operation, but the drug business didn’t generate the kind of profits and so nobody really knows, but I thought I can supply some answers. So I got busy news. Just that incident, to start a thriller about where the money came from, where it went, what it was for, and, and that’s the Russia account, I think that your readers are going to be entertained. It’s as fresh as today’s headlines.

Gary Pinkerton 17:16
That’s awesome. pivoting just a little bit if we could, Steve, in the last few minutes here, what advice would you give your 25 year old self or anybody who’s looking to transition out? Maybe they don’t even you know, maybe they’re in the same situation. They don’t know exactly what they want to do when they get out. But they just know that the lifestyle for whatever reasons, not a better time,

Stephen Coonts 17:37
the first thing I would say is, you know, there’s no such thing that’s no options. And for every door that closes to find close, another one opens. So you know, this opportunity. You say, Well, I you know, I didn’t open the door fast for this opportunity. But another door is opening at the same time, and so their life is full of options. And you just can’t fixate on one.

Gary Pinkerton 18:04
That’s definitely great advice and an exercise a kind of a leadership and business efficiency exercise, I went through a lot of focus on choosing what to say no to, you know, not Yeah, not choosing what to say yes to. And one of the one of the main points that we’re making in there is, when you do say no to an option, it opens your horizons. So you can see the other thing was there and, you know, very similar as well to any setback

Stephen Coonts 18:30
on D and D. Mark, you know, I bet. Yeah, I think, Gary, that so many people think that they have to choose one career and stick to it all their life. And that isn’t the case. That’s why I suggest so many young people they ought to consider going to the military for, you know, four or five, six years. It’s a wonderful place to start. Even if you decide not to make a career. You learn so much. You meet so many people from all over the United States. And you go off and have adventures that you probably wouldn’t have stayed in your hometown. But it’s just a step on life’s journey. other opportunities will open up. And maybe you want to take them, maybe you won’t. But anyway, don’t get fixated on just what you can see for right where you’re standing. You go on life path, you’ll see other opportunities. Yeah,

Gary Pinkerton 19:25
well, very, very well said. So Mr. Cates, you’ve everyone knows I think I’m gonna just to assume that they know how to find your books. And I know you have a website and obviously Amazon works really well with plenty of good information about as long

Stephen Coonts 19:41
as they can spell my name, right. Oh, Mt. Yes.

Gary Pinkerton 19:44
That’s a good point. That’s a good point. They might end up at the wrong place. Are you involved at all with any kind of programs with military or anything like that? I mean, I don’t want to put you on the spot. I’m just thinking like, other than how to become Writer you know asking you questions about your philosophy on transitioning.

Stephen Coonts 20:05
Well, I talked a great many writers groups and try to say yes to invitations if they fit into my schedule, but you know, between writing, I’m married happily married. I still fly airplanes. Like the I like to shoot guns with my friends where we go out at least once a week with our shotguns to shoot trap skeet and sporting clays. And so between all that, you know, that’s the primary focus awesome. And the other stuff is sort of has to fit in.

Gary Pinkerton 20:40
Yeah, what airplane By the way,

Stephen Coonts 20:42
I got a Cirrus now as is my 14th airplane. And so I’ll take this will do me out. A little little signal engine for seat net hauls from wife and i around the country, and it’s just perfect for us.

Gary Pinkerton 20:58
Your first our first take On this recording you mentioned that that that original nonfiction about flying an older biplane around the country you mentioned its actual name the Stearman and that brought back some memories for me when I was going to graduate school right after leaving the Naval Academy. I was going to flight training at University of Illinois and they had a Stearman. I called it the Red Baron plane, right? Yeah. And I had an opportunity after getting my license to take one more class and it was a kind of a stock class and it wasn’t really stock class, but you just got to fly that airplane. And I just wanted to get into Stearman It was very cool flying around inside that thing. And you know, flipping it upside down and it had gravity fed fuel right and so yeah, it stopper on and until you ride it again. So pretty cool stuff open cockpit.

Stephen Coonts 21:49
Yeah, you got it. Sit down. Read the cannibal queen. You like that adventure?

Gary Pinkerton 21:53
Absolutely. Oh my gosh. so tight. As always happens. The time has flown by. I again, reflect On the fact that you might be the most famous guy who is yet to be on on the heroic investing show, so I greatly appreciate your time. Love your works of art. Any final words for the audience?

Stephen Coonts 22:11
Well keep reading. Not only my stuff, but everybody else, you know, really, because it’s a wonderful way to expand your life

Gary Pinkerton 22:20
saving accounts. It has been a true pleasure. We’re honored. Thanks so much for spending some time with us.

Stephen Coonts 22:24
Okay, have a great day, sir.

Gary Pinkerton 22:27
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