Joe McKinney Interview
I’m am very pleased and honoured to have had the chance to chat to Joe McKinney. Joe is an author who has always entertained me. Joe is perhaps best known for his zombie novels, however there is a hell of a lot more to Joe, as I found out during the course of doing this interview. So pull up a chair, and read on for a very informative, and fun interview with the man himself.
Hi Joe how are things with you?
I’m doing great, Jim. Thanks for having me on today.
Can you give the readers a little bit of background about yourself?
You bet. I’m married, and the father of two amazing kids. Over the years, I’ve worked as a patrol officer for the San Antonio Police Department, a homicide detective, a patrol commander, commander of San Antonio’s 911 Center, and a police administrator. In between I’ve cranked out some horror novels and a bunch of stories.
I never realised that you are still a serving police officer, until I started doing research for this interview. How many years service do you have under your belt?
I’ve been at it for about fifteen years now, and I’ll probably go another ten at least. I love the job. Some people are lucky enough to find their calling in life. I found mine twice, as a cop and as a writer.
You spent some time as a homicide detective, how does the horror genre appeal to you, when you have probably seen the worst that human society has to offer?
Well, that’s true. Fictional attempts to describe the kind of violence and cruelty so common in this world can feel like cheap caricatures of the real thing. I think that’s why many people talk about “outgrowing” horror, as though the more of the world they see, the more transparent fictional scares become. But horror was my first literary love, and despite the things I’ve seen in my professional career, it continues to speak to me. I especially like the more mature, more psychological horror we’ve seen since the ‘80s. I don’t know if I would go as far as saying that writing horror in some way exorcises the real horrors of the world. That seems a bit trite to me. But there definitely is something to notion that you can at least put your own head in a better place by working out issues on the page.
I have always wondered how does a Police Officer keep himself going, every day you are faced with the true horrors of humanity, yet you still get up everyday and go to work? How do you detoxify yourself from this?
Most cops experience a period of burnout at some point in their careers. It happens to just about everybody. Luckily, nearly all of them tend to get over it fairly quickly. Most of the emotionally healthy cops out there have some kind of hobby outside of work, be it hunting or working in their church or photography or whatever. For me, it’s writing. Writing has always been there to help me take the edge off the day. These days of course writing is as much my job as police work, but even before I started publishing professionally, I had writing to help me keep it all together.
You were also a disaster mitigation specialist, what exactly is one of those?
It’s no secret that every major city in the world is susceptible to some kind of disaster, be it manmade or natural, or both. Los Angeles, for example, experiences earthquakes, wild fires, mudslides, flooding, droughts, you name it. And that doesn’t even begin to cover the possibility of terrorism in their ports or on their freeways. New York, Miami, Houston, London, Paris, San Francisco and Chicago – all of them have their threats. San Antonio is no different. In anticipation of those threats, most major police and fire departments have developed disaster mitigation strategies. My job for the San Antonio Police Department, at least for a while, was to anticipate the kinds of natural and manmade disasters the city was likely to face, and then to develop strategies to deal with those disasters.
The central maxim of disaster mitigation is to plan for the disasters you’re most likely to face. That may seem obvious, but it is both funny and terrifying how often those in authority fail to act on it. You don’t need to look much farther than Hurricane Katrina to see what I mean. Here in San Antonio, we don’t have any volcanoes, so, predictably enough, we never bothered to plan for the eruption of one. However, we are close enough to the Gulf Coast to serve as a safe haven for evacuees from coastal cities fleeing a major hurricane, and so one of the biggest disasters we planned for was the relocation of hundreds of thousands of refugees to our city. The strategies we developed have actually been used a number of times – during Hurricanes Katrina, Ike and Rita, for example. Those familiar with my Dead World zombie books know how thoroughly I’ve mined that vein of professional experience.
You’ve just been told that you can have $10,000,000 to spend a year on a desert island, but you are only allowed to take five books, five albums, and five films, what would they be?
The Collected Works of Flannery O’Connor (should be able to fit in one volume)
A Canticle for Leibowitz
And…oh damn, couldn’t I just bring my Kindle??
…as for albums…
Van Morrison’s Moondance
Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here
Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A.
Bob Dylan’s Tangled Up in Blue
George Strait’s 50 Number One Hits (Yeah, I know, but George kicks ass)
…and for films…
Monty Python and the Holy Grail
Raiders of the Lost Ark
Can you first remember what initially caused you to start writing, and how and if your motivation has changed over the years?
I can’t really remember what made me take up writing, but I do remember the story. It was about a kid who sneaks out one night in his dad’s ’67 Corvette and gets chased through town by a demon, who is driving a ’65 ShelbyCobra. I was really into cars as a kid, as you can probably tell, and there were lots of screaming tires and deep, throaty exhaust notes. I’m pretty sure I was 12 or 13 when I wrote that story. I don’t remember exactly what prompted me to do it, but I do remember that I loved doing it from the very beginning. Writing has always been a thrill for me, and the better I got at it, the more fun it got. For a long time, that’s all it was for me, fun. I never had any intention of actually doing anything with the stories I wrote. I would staple them together, put them on the corner of my desk, and there they would stay for a few weeks before going in the trash. But when my oldest daughter was born, things changed. Like most young fathers, my world suddenly became a lot more complex, with new responsibilities and new concerns coming at me from all sides. In something of an act of desperation I took to writing. I thought it would be a great way for me to put down on paper some of the anxiety I was experiencing, and possibly, in the process, get over those anxieties. And maybe, just maybe, make a little cash…because young parents always seem to find the need for a little extra cash, right? Well, I tried writing a science fiction, and it was absolutely the biggest, worst-smelling pile of you know what imaginable. I scrapped it and was going to go onto other things when I realized that if I was going to help myself I was going to have to right about what I loved. Love was what had driven me to the crisis in the first place, so it seemed only fitting. So, I turned to my first literary love, horror. Because I was feeling pressures mounting from all around me, I turned to the monster that best articulated that fear. The zombie. My first novel, Dead City, was the result. Things took off from there. Now writing has gone from something that I do whenever I can to something I do every day, as a job. The love is still there, but the added focus of doing it professionally has forced me to push myself in ways I never did before, when I was doing it for the love, and my craft has benefited from that.
Who would you say are your favourite authors, and how would you say they have influenced your writing?
Favourite authors? There are a ton of them. John McPhee, Herman Melville, Charles Dickens, Stephen King, Flannery O’Connor…wow, the list could go on forever, I think. Of those I just named I guess Dickens would have to be my favourite, though. I come back to him again and again, year after year, and grow fonder of his writing every time. Who would I count as an influence? Well, there are a ton of those, too. Stephen King, certainly. John Updike, for his essays. Manly Wade Wellman, for his plotting. Richard Matheson, for the cinematic quality of his prose, and his inventiveness. John Le Carré, for his masterful sense of action, character and setting. And dozens more.
You are probably most associated with the horror genre, did you always set out to be a horror writer?
When I started out I just wrote whatever amused me, whatever happened to be swirling around in my head. Most of the time those ideas were for horror stories, though I wrote quite a few crime stories, a few plays, even a handful of non-genre fiction stories, what you might call literary mainstream stuff. I’m known for horror because that’s where my commercial success has been, but that’s far from all I write. I’m okay with that, though. I like being known as a horror writer. That’s a badge I wear proudly.
How would you describe your writing style?
I try to capture that cinematic quality I love so much in Matheson’s prose. When I compose a scene I spend quite a while thinking it through first, trying to picture it in my head as though it were a movie. Usually, as I write, I have what amounts to camera angles in mind, and the characters and scene elements are blocked as though lined up for a take. That works for me. It gives me room to expand through internal dialogue and digression, but at the same time keeps me focused on the scene. So if I had to sum up my writing style I guess I’d call it cinematic prose.
I know it is a clichéd question, but I am always interested in the actual process of writing. How do you set about writing a novel? Do you plan out the whole story first, or do you go with the flow?
For me, a story, a novel, a poem, whatever, usually starts with an image, or possibly a scene. That scene will usually start to develop into a larger story, though how that alchemy works is beyond me, frankly. But once that rough mental map of the story develops, I start outlining. I’m pretty serious about outlining. For a novel, my outlines can go as much as 50 or 60 pages. I’ve heard lots of people scoff at outlining, and I say fine. If you can wing it and write great stuff, good for you. But if you’re having trouble finishing your novel, or if you’re sick of falling into dead ends with stories, maybe it’s time to consider outlining your stories first. You certainly don’t have to do the 50 or 60 page outlines I do, just a few quick pages will work. Personally, I find it incredibly difficult and counterproductive to try to write without an outline. I have such a limited time each day to write, between a full time job, being a husband and a father, and doing the necessary marketing and website work to keep up the public part of my writing, that I have to have a plan when I sit down to write. Outlining does that for me.
How do you build your characters, are they formed by the plot, or do you shape the plot around the characters?
Well, I usually begin stories with a central image. My first novel, Dead City, for example, started with an image of a young cop holding a screaming baby in one arm, his baton cocked over his shoulder with the other hand, and a horde of zombies closing in for the kill. From that image I started thinking about the type of character who would be stuck in that situation, and then I built the plot around that. Of course, at the same time that I’m building the plot, I’m also thinking about the characters, sometimes free writing during the outline stages about their backgrounds, the issues in their lives, that sort of things. I find I get to them, develop a sense of what makes them tick, through this process. I think character creation is probably the part of outlining I like best, in fact.
Out of all your books, who has been your favourite character?
Probably Lily Harris, from Quarantined. I once read a quote from Stephen King (and all I’ll be able to manage here is a bad paraphrase of it) that goes something like this: “For all writers, and hopefully it comes early in their career, there comes a book or a story that challenges them go beyond their comfort zone and do something really unique.” Lily and her story were that moment for me. Before her, I had used female characters, but never as viewpoint characters. With Lily, I had to tell a book length narrative from a woman’s point of view. Doing that made me focus on my craft in a way that I would have never done before that, and the lessons I learned there are still paying dividends. I’m grateful I took the chance, and I’m grateful it happened on my second book…which I hope proves to be early in my career.
Flesh Eaters has just made the final ballot of this year’s Stoker Awards; you must be fair chuffed about this?
Over the moon, actually! It’s a huge honour. Being recognized by your peers for doing a good job is always great, and I’m just thrilled.
Which other book would you like to see win if Flesh Eaters doesn’t?
That’s a tough one. Probably Lee Thomas’ The German, Greg Lamberson’s Cosmic Forces, or Gene O’Neill’s. All three were amazing books, and all three writers are friends of mine.
I think it’s safe to say that when most people see your name, they immediately think of zombies? What has been the appeal of the zombie sub-genre to you?
I have a long history with zombies, going all the way back to my early teens. George Romero’s
Night of the Living Dead was what got me going originally, and I haven’t looked back. I guess what I love about the genre in general, though, and the zombie in particular, is that it’s a completely modern monster. It’s our monster. It’s our modern day monster, the one that speaks (or moans, I guess) to the way we live life now. Our nightmares have always been haunted by revenants, but prior to the zombie, those revenants were individuals. Frankenstein’s creature is a single individual. Dracula is an individual. The Victorian ghosts were individuals. But not the zombie. The zombie is a face in a crowd, it’s one of thousands. And the thousands come at you wave after wave, relentlessly and without compromise. Chuck Klosterman, in a brilliant New York Times article on zombies, said that, for the besieged and weary modern man, there’s little difference between mowing down zombies with a machine gun and ploughing through 400 emails when you go into work Monday morning. Zombies, in other words, in their anonymous masses, stand in for the barrage of issues we all face in our world, be they disease or the monotony of work or social issues or whatever. We, in our modern lives, own zombies because they are the manifestation of what ails us.
How do you feel about it now? I make no allusions to my boredom of the genre these days. Do you think the genre has shambled its course?
No, I don’t think we’re done with zombies. Not by a long shot, actually. We’ll see the current trend shamble along for a while still, perhaps even a few years, after which it will inevitably taper off. But it won’t go away. Remember, it’s been with us, in varying degrees of popularity, since 1968. It’s got plenty of miles still to shamble.
But you’re not alone in your boredom. I know that’s true. I would encourage you to check out some of the mainstream literary writers working with zombies these days, though, writers like Alden Bell and Colson Whitehead. Plus, Joseph Nassise and John Horner Jacobs are releasing zombie books in the very near future. I’ve read ARCs of both and I guarantee those will be worth a read.
Being a police officer who writes, it would be foolish not to incorporate your experiences into
your writing. How have you incorporated this into your fiction?
This is tricky, actually. My department has very specific rules about personnel writing for publication. The intent, of course, is to maintain the dignity of the department and to prevent officers from using their status as officers to speak for the department as a whole when they are not authorized to do so. For example, they don’t want some mid-level supervisor writing an article for the newspaper that says the police department hates some particular elected official, or won’t be enforcing some new law. They also don’t want officers writing the definitive guide to getting away with murder, or something like that. Beyond that, they don’t want officers writing about cases or investigations with which they’ve been involved. This makes sense, I think. After all, imagine a woman finally getting the courage up to go tell some detective about the brutal, humiliating, utterly demoralizing rape she’s just experienced. Doing that takes great courage, and great trust on the victim’s part. Then imagine her horror to find the worst experience of her life – which she recounted in confidence to a detective, expecting his sympathy, respect and discretion – slanderously retold in lurid detail in some pulp magazine. The betrayal of the public trust there would be awful to witness. I hold the trust the public places in me in high regard. I’m quite proud of it, and I for one am not going to do anything to betray that trust. That’s why I’m very careful never to avoid pulling too directly from my police experience.
That said, I have used my experiences to inform my writing. How could I not, after all? But, as I mentioned, there’s a fine line there. About as close as I’ve come to copying out a case I’ve been involved in came in my story, “The Millstone,” which is included in my new short story collection, The Red Empire and Other Stories. That story describes the sordid details behind a trailer park murder. The details of the murder itself, the man hacked to death by a hatchet, came from the first murder I ever handled as a police officer. However, the love triangle that forms the basis of the story is entirely my own invention, and none of the people involved in that actual murder would be able to recognize “The Millstone” as having anything to do with their experience. That’s how I address the issue of pulling from my police experiences.
Does it make you cringe when other writers get the mechanics of police work wrong in their writing?
God yes! My wife will not watch a police procedural show or movie with me because I can’t help but comment. I try not to, but I just can’t. I guess nurses and doctors felt the same way about watching General Hospital. Still, some shows do surprisingly well. Cold Case is one. The Wire too, has its moments.
Would you say that your writing has a message, from reading your work, I have noticed a couple of themes, one of which is guardianship, is this theme a personal one to you?
Absolutely! Guardianship is a recurring theme for me, and my focus on it is intentional. Back when I was in graduate school, studying to be a college English professor (that’s right, the career that could have been), I realized that most, if not all of our literature could be seen through the lens of guardianship, of one person’s duty to look out for another, and the success or failures they have in achieving that purpose. Go ahead, think on that for a moment. From Gilgamesh to the Bhagavad-Gita to the Old Testament to Jane Austen to bloody, oversexed novels of Richard Laymon, one character always has a responsibility to look out for another. Guardianship can be a parent looking out for a child, or an older sibling looking out for a younger, or one spouse for another, a friend for a friend, the variety is endless, but at the core, guardianship is a recurrent theme in all stories. Sometimes guardians succeed brilliantly, sometimes they fail, and sometimes they are wickedly corrupt, but that relationship is always there because it’s so basic to way humanity functions. The way a writer plays with that relationship greatly informs the overall meaning, and, to my mind anyway, the value of the work.
This theme also extends to the relationship between the state and the people, what are your feelings on this?
Precisely. The state is a guardian of the people just as the parent is the guardian of the child. I mentioned the Old Testament just a moment ago. Consider the Biblical cycle of sin, punishment and forgiveness laid out in the Book of Judges. The Israelites sin, God sends somebody to oppress them, they beg forgiveness, they get relief. Over and over that happens. Any parent who’s ever had to take TV away from a misbehaving child can appreciate the similarity. And of course students of dystopian literature can get no end of mileage from studying the state as guardian of the people. So too can fans of naval novels like O’Brien’s Master and Commander series, or Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny, or Melville’s Moby Dick, where the ship’s captain takes the role of the state.
I think my most detailed exploration of this theme is in Flesh Eaters. In that novel, Captain Mark Shaw is director of the Houston Police Department’s Emergency Operations Command during one of the worst disasters ever recorded, the one that floods Houston and gives rise to the zombies in my Dead World series. He knows his duty, protect the citizens of Houstonand get as many of them as possible to safety, but he also knows his duty to his two sons, who are going to be jobless and broke in a world turned upside down if he doesn’t do something about it. As a policeman and a father, of course, Shaw represents both the state’s obligation to the people and the father’s obligation to his children. He comes up with the plan to steal $7 million from a flooded bank, what he considers to be a victimless crime, as the money was officially considered a loss. Shaw’s decision to steal the money, and the mental torture he puts himself through during the rest of the novel as he struggles to do what is right, is really me trying to work out for myself the sometimes conflicting obligations that guardianship puts on us.
Another theme is how the police would react to a zombie outbreak? Do you think the law enforcement agencies would be up to the task? What would you think would be the biggest challenge to them?
Maintaining order would be the biggest problem, for sure. Let’s face it, at any one given time, a modern police force can only deploy a small percentage of its personnel. In most cities, the police are outnumbered tens of thousands to one. How much could they really do against a populace of millions gone insane? It’d be a lot like the lion tamer at the circus when the lions decide they’ve had enough, you know? Confronted with those kinds of odds, a police force would crumble quickly. And besides, even with advance notice, and time to prepare, there’s no guarantee that everyone will be on the same page. Again, you don’t have to look much further than Hurricane Katrina to see this. Most of the emergency responders did their duty, but certainly not all. Some ran away. Some even became part of the lawless masses looting from homes and businesses. People are people, after all, no matter what career they work in. Some, most in fact, will do the right thing, but not all of them. And Katrina was just looters and fires and floods. Throw cannibalistic zombie hordes into the mix, and I think you’ll see a catastrophic and cascading failure in the first responder ranks.
A lot of people might not be aware of your love of ghost stories. What is it about ghost stories that you love?
I do, I love them. A good zombie story can creep me out. Night of the Living Dead even scared me, the first time I saw it. But only ghosts have ever truly terrified me. Only ghosts have ever given me cold sweats in the middle of the night. It’s the feeling of powerlessness in the face death that really grabs me, I think. So many stories describe that feeling that one can’t move, can’t think straight, can’t even utter a strangled cry of terror in the face of a ghost, that’s it’s become almost a cliché, but it gets me every time.
It’s a genre that I feel, has been sadly ignored in recent times. Why do you think this is?
I think because the classic Victorian ghost story was such a high art form. In fact, the Victorians elevated the ghost story to its zenith. Masters such as M.R. James, Robert Louis Stevenson, Henry James, Le Fanu, and dozens of others did it so well, and so thoroughly explored the possibilities of the ghost story, that modern readers look on modern attempts with a “been there, done that” kind of attitude. There’s a sense that anything we try to do with the ghost story at this point is reductive, and that’s not fun. Remember the spate of J-Horror ghost movies that came out after The Ring? The Japanese did something clever in their films with ghosts, and that carried us for a good many years, but it was still just a variation on something that was already in more or less perfect form even before our grandparents were born
Do you have any plans to write a ghost novel?
Despite what I just said, yeah. Three of them, in fact. One’s already written, and may see publication later this year or early next. The other is a haunted house tale I’m currently writing for Dark Regions Press called Crooked House. That one will probably come out early next year. And the third one is still just a collection of notes on the corner of my desk. We may not see that one for a few years still.
You are also a prolific short story writer, which do you prefer to write, short stories or novels?
Given the choice, short stories. I don’t know if I buy that one is harder to do than the other, because they both have their challenges, but of the two, I enjoy writing the short story more. Short stories are like little expeditions into side interests. They’re that quiet road you pass everyday into work that you’ve always wanted to explore, that old dilapidated house with No Trespassing sign out front that you always wanted to explore as a kid. They are adventures. Novels are more like long road trips with the family you have to plan out all in advance.
Do you have a favourite short story of your own?
I think I had the most fun writing a zombie story called “Dating in Dead World.” That one was an absolute blast. But if I had to pick a story that I like best, that I put up as my best work in the short form, I point people to my ghost story, “Blemish.” That one, of my own stuff, is probably my favourite.
I have just finished reading Red Empire and other Stories, I really enjoyed this collection. Was it always your intention to have a such a wide range of your writing styles in it?
Absolutely. Zombies are great. I love them, and I will continue to love them forever, I think. But I have always written in a variety of genres, and let’s face it, nobody likes to be pigeonholed. I’ve got a lot of great stories still to write, and hopefully readers will follow me as I expand my range. So the variety in The Red Empire and Other Stories was intentional. As I said, short stories are adventures down side roads, the kinds of trips you take on a whim or a dare. I think range is going to be inevitable, not to mention desired.
Do you have a favourite story in it?
I do, yeah. There’s a piece of non-fiction in it called “Cold Case.” Of all the books, stories, plays, poems, and essays I’ve ever written, that investigation into the 112 year old case of a San Antonio Police Officer who was murdered on his first day on the job is the most rewarding and the most personal bit of writing I’ve ever done. I worked on those 11 pages for my entire police career. Well, the writing part only took a day or so, once the notes were assembled, but the investigation, that I’ve been at since day one of my police career.
How much of your writing career is portrayed in the book?
A huge amount. Nearly all of it, in fact. One of the stories in the book was actually written right about the same time as my first novel. Others were written especially for the book. The remaining stories come from everywhere in between. Writing the story notes for it really gave me a sense of that, a sense of where I had been and where I want to go. I’m pretty pleased with the results.
Thanks for taking the time to this Joe.
Joe is a great author and if you haven’t already checked out his writing, I highly recommend that you do.
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