Joe McKinney, Bram Stoker Award winning author, sat down with BuyZombie and talk about everything from…well, honestly we talked about pretty much everything, so you’ll just need to read the interview you impatient bunch of bibliophiles.
McKinney’s Dead World series is a mainstay within the zombie genre, but similar to his undead monsters, he never seems to rest and is perhaps one of most prolific writers around. In his recent release, Dog Days, McKinney delves into a new monstrous muse. It is well worth a read, but before you rush off to pick that up finish reading the interview.
A huge thank you to Joe McKinney for subjecting himself to our rambling line of questions!
1. Most readers know you for your Dead World series and numerous other horror stories. Please tell us a little about your newest release, Dog Dogs.
Thanks for having me! Yes, Dog Days is a real departure for me in a number of ways. First of all, it’s YA fiction, written for the teenage crowd. Plus, as you mentioned, it’s got a werewolf in it, which is the first time I’ve written about that particular monster. The book takes place in 1983 in the little town of Clear Lake City, Texas, which is where I grew up. A huge amount of the book was taken from the things I lived through during that summer of 1983, and if you take away the werewolf and the scene with the alligator, you’d have a nearly perfect picture of what that time was like for me. And yeah, it’s a coming of age story. I figure the werewolf is the perfect monster for the coming of age story. You know, there’s fur where there was no fur before…
2. Dog Days was a departure for you being that it involves werewolves. What was the inspiration behind this book?
Well, as I mentioned, the book was taken from my experiences during the summer of 1983, and when I sat down to outline the book I knew that I’d be mining heavily from life. So here’s a little insider information about the book. One of my favorite writers of all time is Jack London. I got my graduate degree in English Literature at the University of Texas at San Antonio, and one of my professors was Jeanne Reesman, one of the world’s leading authorities on Jack London. She once told me that the greatest story Jack London ever wrote was his own life. He was an oyster pirate, a gold miner, a Socialist labor leader and firebrand, and above all a passionate individualist. He was a man of many sides and he tried to put it all into words in a book that nobody reads any more called Martin Eden. Get it? Martin Eden. The initials: M.E. Me. I thought it was a nice little trick, and one that I knew I would try one day. The first time I did it was in Flesh Eaters, where I named one of my characters Mark Eckert. Mark Eckert. M.E. Me. The main character of Dog Days is the same Mark Eckert who would later go on to become a zombie in Flesh Eaters.
But that doesn’t really answer your question, does it? To be plain, the real influence behind Dog Days, and my Dead World series as well, was Hurricane Alicia, which hit Houston in August, 1983. I lived through that storm. When I went outside the next morning, I saw that my entire subdivision was underwater. There was a shrimp boat that had been washed seven miles inland from shrimp camps in Kemah and ended up twenty feet above the ground in the top of a pecan tree. When I went outside the morning after the storm I saw that and, well…it cast a long shadow over the rest of my life. I’ve taken countless moments of inspiration from that moment. In Dog Days, I laid it out plainly, exactly as I remember it.
3. How was the writing process different for this book compared to others? Where there any special considerations?
It’s an autobiographical book so, yeah, I had worries that it would hit a little too close to home for the guys who lived that summer with me. I’m still friends with those guys, and I didn’t want to jeopardize those lifelong friendships by revealing too much personal info. Luckily, the reaction from those friends has been unanimously positive, so I think the story did what I wanted it to.
4. You frequently go to schools and speak to students about literature and writing. How did you get started doing this?
That’s right, I do. I love speaking at schools. I’m a dad of two beautiful daughters myself, so I feel like I get kids. In fact, I’m still one myself. Talking with eight hundred Sixth Graders may sound like a disaster waiting to happen, but I totally get a charge out of it. I got started with it because one of my cousins is a Sixth Grade teacher, and she asked me to come talk with her kids. I didn’t realize that I’d be talking to ALL the kids at once, but I got up there and went with it, and the kids were great. So great, in fact, that I put my name on a Listserve database, and now I get at least five or six offers a month to come talk to the students at some school or another. I’ve even done interviews through Skype with several college English classes who are reading one of my books for their course. I love it.
5. Students can often be resistant to reading and even more so to writing. How has the reception been from the students?
Some are, certainly. When you meet and talk with tens of thousands of students every year you’re going to find a minority that are resistant, or even hostile, toward reading and writing. But nearly every student I’ve talked to has heard the word zombie and gotten right into the discussion. There’s a much larger question to be asked as to why that is, but I’ll cut that short and simply say that the genre we all know and love is alive and well in the hearts and minds of the next generation.
6. Do you have to present your material differently in schools than elsewhere?
Surprisingly, not by much. Obviously, there’s no cussing, and when the students ask about my background as a cop, I can’t give any of the gory details, but the rest is pretty straightforward. Still, I’ve seen countless administrators fret and chew their fingernails as my presentation starts. “Oh God, what will this horror author say to my kids?” Happens every time.
7. Do you think YA horror has a better chance of hooking young readers? How so?
Oh, absolutely. Anyone who paid attention to the book industry back in the 90’s saw that horror was becoming a dirty word for the big New York publishers. Stephen King and John Saul and Dean Koontz were okay, but for everyone else, you either chose a new genre or called your horror book something else. Under no circumstances would HORROR appear on the spine of any book. Don’t believe me? Pull out even the master himself, Mr. Stephen King, and check the spine. The Big Man of Horror doesn’t have HORROR written on any of his spines from the late 90’s. But none of that seems to have carried over to the recent explosion in the YA market. Young adults have no trouble with vampires and zombies and any other sort of beastie you throw their way; and if the spine says HORROR, they’re still good to go with it. Ask any author who publishes through the big houses and they will tell you that YA pays way better than adult fiction, and it isn’t hampered by any of the same boundaries that the Big Five put on the adult stuff. If you are looking to go big time with your stuff, my advice is to go YA. The kids devour the stuff like zombies huddling up to the old corpse canoe, and I guarantee you that you can’t write fast enough to satisfy them.
8. Have you considered developing a book/series for young readers?
Already done! I’ve got both a series and a comic book in development as we speak for the YA crowd. I’m telling you, folks, this is the future of horror…in more ways than one.
9. How have your own children responded to having their father write horror novels?
One of the proudest moments of my professional career came when I won the Stoker Award for my novel Flesh Eaters. The presenters for the award were Joe Lansdale and Robert McCammon. Now, McCammon…back when I was in intermediate school I used to skip lunch so that I could save my lunch money to buy his books. I would rather read him than eat. The man looms large among my literary influences. And then, when I walked up to accept the award, and he reached out and shook my hand and said, “Great job, Joe. I loved your book.” It felt like the earth had split open beneath me. I have seen videos of my speech afterwards, and it appears that I could actually string a sentence together, but it didn’t feel that way.
But that moment was nothing compared to going to my kids’ school for career day. I had asked my oldest daughter if she wanted me to go as a homicide detective or as a writer, and without hesitation she said writer. So I showed up in jeans and a zombie t-shirt and flip-flops, expecting the kids to be friendly but generally uninterested. Then I overheard my daughter telling her friends that her Dad was going to be there that day. They asked her what I did and she said, “He’s a writer.” The pride with which she spoke was palpable, and hearing her speak that way, in such an unguarded moment, was glorious.
10. How long were you a police officer/detective?
I’ve been a cop for fifteen years now. Like all San Antonio police officers I started as a patrol officer. As a Patrol officer I worked routine Patrol, Traffic, DWI Enforcement, and even served in our Special Operations Command as a Disaster Mitigation Specialist. In August, 2006, I promoted to Detective and worked as a Homicide detective until February, 2010, when I promoted to the rank of Sergeant. I have served in that capacity ever since, first as the commander of the 911 Call Center, and currently as a night commander for the west side of San Antonio, Patrol Division.
11. Where there any experiences during your tenure as an officer that you drew upon for inspiration?
Quite a few, actually. It’s impossible to work that job without having it flavor nearly everything you do outside of work. But here’s the important point to make. My department has very specific rules about writing for publication. Under no circumstances are we to write about political subjects in which the City of San Antonio and the police department are involved, nor are we to discuss active cases or cases in which we were personally involved. The idea is, I think, to keep us from writing The Guide to Committing the Perfect Murder. It’s a policy that I have been very careful to observe, and one that I will not violate until after I retire. Still, being a cop has colored most of my stories, and I have adapted some of the incidents I’ve dealt with for my books, though I’ve done it in such a way that even those directly involved with the case wouldn’t recognize it. That’s the beauty of writing fiction. It can sound one way to the author, and a million other ways to the reading public.
12. Which was more frightening – first day as a police officer or publishing your first book? Why?
Publishing my first book, definitely. My first day as a police officer came after eight months of intensive training and ride along experience gained at the San Antonio Police Academy. Plus, when you first hit the streets you’re assigned to ride with an experienced older officer known as a Field Training Officer, or FTO. A first-day-on-the-job police officer is actually pretty sheltered. None of that’s true for the first time writer. When you put a book out there, you might as well be throwing yourself to the wolves. I’ll tell you, there’s nothing as nerve rattling as waiting for the first reviews to come in. The good ones are great, but the bad ones are like listening to someone insult your newborn baby. And you know, that doesn’t get any easier. I’m on book seventeen now, and waiting on those first reviews is still a scary experience.
13. What were the things/attributes you developed as a detective that you have are helpful in writing?
Here is a situation that every cop deals with on a daily basis. You go to a call and the complainant tells you that X has done something horrible. The cop asks, “Did you make a report about it?” “Yes,” the complainant says, “but you cops never do shit about it.” The cop says, “Did you go talk to the detectives about it so that they could conduct a follow up investigation and put X in prison for his or her heinous act?” To which the complainant says, “Fuck no! I ain’t got time for that shit.” As a result, X has a history of arrests, but no convictions, and as such, really, has no criminal past a cop can work with.
So many people associate going to jail with justice. The truth is very different. In about eighty percent of cases, patrol officers will make an arrest for X’s heinous act, and the complainant in that case will fail to follow through with the detective’s assigned to the investigation. The DA is left with an uncooperative complainant and a defendant who’s been sitting in jail for four months. X is released, the charges dismissed, but everyone thinks the X has been punished. The truth is that if the complainant had taken the time to follow through on their complaint, X would be sitting in prison, not jail, for upwards of four years instead of just a few months. Justice might actually have been served. This is the frustration every cop deals with. “You guys didn’t do nothing.” To which the cop desperately wants to say, “We would have done everything for you, if you’d only taken the few minutes needed to file charges.”
But I digress. The trouble with being a detective is getting at the motivations of the people involved in a case. People do funny things, and often times you find yourself looking just as intently at your complainant as you do your suspect. Detectives live life in the weeds, whereas patrol officers get to see things more or less in black and white. Hence the expression: Street cops put people in jail, but detectives put people in prison. Once a detective has a chance to get deep into a case, a lot of gray areas have to be explored. Friends of mine at work have often expressed wonder that I could write a book. I’ve told them, those who have been detectives anyway, that if you can write a Prosecution Guide for a felony case, you can a write a novel. The techniques are the same.
14. Has or did writing help you deal with the undoubtedly difficult scenarios encountered while working as an officer/detective? How so?
Oh definitely. A huge portion of a cop’s job is writing. Nearly everything a cop does, in fact, requires a report to go along with it. But the thing is, cops are no different than the rest of society. Take where you work, for instance. I’m sure you can name more than a few people at your job who send out emails that read like a foreign language, or write reports so full of typos and errors that you wonder if the author was even literate. It happens with cops too.
In my early days on the department I knew an officer who was generally regarded as a badass street cop. You name it, he’d done it, and done it well. I remember hearing him come on the radio one afternoon and saying that a woman whose thirteen-year-old granddaughter was about to give birth on the couch in her living room had flagged him down. My friend delivered the baby, and then as calmly as if he were ordering a cheeseburger, got on the radio and asked for a time check for the birth of the baby. I thought he was a god at that point.
Then, a few years go by and I find myself a newly promoted detective assigned to review reports written by patrol officers. I picked up a lewd conduct report from my friend, the patrol officer who had delivered the baby, and read the following: “The suspect made sexual in your windows to the complainant.” I had to read that through several times before I figured out what he’d meant to say. It was a facepalm moment if there ever was one. Being able to write has enabled me to escape a lot of those type of moments, and it’s also enabled me to promote as I have. Writing will never steer you wrong.
15. Which is more horrifying reality or fiction?
Reality, by a wide margin. The world can be a cruel and savage place that tears up the innocent and gives back nothing but pain. I have seen some seriously fucked up shit in my time as a police officer, and I’ve seen what that stuff does to the people who have live with it. Or, as is often the case, die with it. Seeing such cruelty and pain day in and day out probably explains why most horror fiction falls flat for me. I read, or watch it, and I find myself rolling my eyes at lame attempts to truly horrify. But, that doesn’t mean it’s all bad. Far from it, actually. Good horror is not only fun, but sometimes, when it’s done right, cathartic as well. I felt that the first time I read Thomas Tryon’s The Other, for example, or the work of Jack Ketchum, or James Herbert, and many others. There is some great horror out there. It’s still not as scary as the real world, but it has the power to connect with readers, and let them know that someone out there gets it. It’s all about making connections with people, getting under their skin, so to speak.
16. What are some upcoming releases readers should be on the look out for?
I’ve got a bunch coming out. I’ll be releasing my collected zombie short fiction this summer in a volume called Dating In Dead World. It collects all the Dead World short fiction that I’ve written to connect the various novels in that series, plus all the other zombie short stories I’ve written over the years. It’s going to be a huge volume, something like 150,000 words, so there’ll be plenty of zombie goodness there. I also have a new zombie series called The Dead Lands, and the first book in that series, called Plague of the Undead, hits stores October 7th. I’m also doing a quite a few books for JournalStone, and there will be some zombie novels through that label coming in 2015. If readers are interested in finding out specific dates and getting sneak peeks at the new releases they can find me at http://joemckinney.wordpress.com.
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