I had the pleasure of interviewing one of my favorite zombie authors, Joe McKinney. I thank him from the bottom of my heart for this wonderful opportunity. I hope this interview will spark some new readers for him. Here's the interview as well as the cover of one of his new books!
1. You write people so well. That is one thing I love about writers like you, AR Wise and Brian Keene. What, if anything, helps you to bring your characters to life?
Thank you! I think every writer enjoys hearing that people connect to the characters they create; I know I sure do. So thank you for that.
I approach each character in terms of how events in the story change them. For every character that comes on stage I ask myself what change they are going to make. That helps me in the early stages, when I’m first getting to know who they are. I think a part of my approach to characterization comes from my training as a police officer. For all the advances in surveillance and information processing and forensics, the real nuts and bolts of police work remains the low-tech art of being able to talk to people. You may find yourself talking with a doctor or a college professor one minute, and a burned out, high as can be junkie the next; and if you’re going to succeed in your mission you have to be able to change gears that fast and start communicating. That means reading their body language and using appropriate word choice, of course, but it also requires a more nebulous talent of “getting a read on people.” You have to identify their angle on the world and get inside it. The same skills I developed on the street, and perfected when I was a homicide detective, I use now on my characters.
2. The first book of yours I read was 'Dead City'. What inspired you to write that?
I became a father in the winter of 2003. I remember looking in on the nursery at my little girl and thinking that my world had suddenly gotten a whole lot more complicated. Up to that point, I’d been a careful young patrolman with nothing more to worry about then where my wife and I were going to go out partying that night. But becoming a father turned me into a man with more responsibilities than he could count. It felt a bit overwhelming, as I’m sure most parents will agree.
So there I was, plagued by anxiety and self-doubt, terrified that I would screw up somehow, and I felt like needed some way to express how I was feeling. I had always written stories, starting about the time I was twelve or thirteen, but never with the intention of doing anything about them. I figured I could turn to writing. I might even do a novel. So I started writing this space opera book called The Edge of the Map and it absolutely sucked. I mean it was awful. And the worst part of it was that every time I sat down at the typewriter (because back then it was an IBM Selectric III) I felt like I wasting my time. I decided to scrap the space opera and write what I loved. About the only movie that has ever really scared me is the original Night of the Living Dead, and so I thought: Hey, I’m a young patrolman with anxieties and responsibilities coming at him from every side, why not write a book about a young patrolman with zombies coming at from every side? Once I did that, the book just poured out of me. So there you have it. Dead City is actually an extended metaphor for my fears of becoming a parent.
3. Stephen King has his fictional city of Castle Rock, Maine, while my stories take place in the fictional city of Marble Cliffs, Arizona. Writers like you (Houston and San Antonio) and William Esmont (Tucson), however have your stories take place in real cities. Do you think that this creates any challenges in your writing?
Quite the reverse, actually. As a San Antonio cop, I have developed a deep knowledge of the city’s resources and infrastructure. I know the many different cultures that make up its milieu. I know the capabilities of its police and fire departments, and all the disaster mitigation strategies we have in place. I even wrote a few of them. So for someone like me, who likes to write about zombies and natural disasters, that knowledge all comes into play. Plus, and this is perhaps the most important thing, I love San Antonio. I think it’s one of the greatest places on Earth, and despite the fact that I’ve leveled it to the ground in more than one book, it’ll be a cold day in hell before I leave this town.
4. Do you ever hope to have any of your stories turned into movies?
Oh yes. I think every writer does. In fact, four of my books and two of my stories are currently in development for film. We’ll see if it happens. I have my fingers crossed, to be sure.
The really hard part, I think, is letting go of creative control. Writing a book is (for the most part) a solitary endeavor. I am answerable only to myself for the quality of the finished product. Movies, on the other hand, tend to be art by committee. Not that art by committee can’t occasionally produce something wonderful, but it can be painful to watch your book, your baby, getting mangled by clumsy fools. I’ve read some absolutely awful script adaptations of some of my works that made me want to tear my hair out, and I was thankful when those projects fell through. And that’s the danger right there. The trick, I think, is come to terms with the idea that the book is mine, the movie is yours. I’ve given you my vision, let’s see where yours takes you. Hopefully it’s somewhere we both can live with.
5. Some of my favorite zombie stories don't even involve zombies. These would include: 'Anne Frank: The Diary of A Young Girl', the movies 'Alive', 'Alien 3', 'The Blindness', 'Deep Space Nine', 'MASH', 'The Impossible' and 'Lord of the Flies'. These are stories of isolated groups of people who must work together to survive terrible circumstances. What are some of your favorite zombie stories and why?
You’ll get a different answer from me every time you ask me. But right now, I’d have to say my favorite zombie anything, be it short story, movie, novel, whatever, is Adam-Troy Castro’s short story “Dead Like Me.” It’s the tale of a man who is surviving the zombie apocalypse by faking it. He walks among the dead, moving like them, smelling like them, even feeding like them. The story is by turns heartbreaking and terrifying, and in one spot even a little funny, but it is an absolute masterwork, and one of the finest uses of the zombie as metaphor I have ever read. I highly encourage everybody to check it out.
Other short stories I really enjoy include Andy Duncan’s “Zora and the Zombie,” which finds the wonderful writer Zora Neal Hurston (author of Their Eyes Were Watching God and many other amazing novels, stories and folklore collections) investigating a voodoo zombie in Haiti. I love the voodoo zombie, and that’s probably why another of my favorite zombie short stories is Neil Gaiman’s “Bitter Grounds.”
But one of the most promising uses of the zombie I’ve experienced recently comes from YouTube. If you haven’t already done so check out the short films “Zombie in a Penguin Suit,” “Cargo,” and “Velvet Road.” All three are excellent.
As far as movies go my favorites would have to be Night of the Living Dead, 28 Days Later, Dead Alive, Shaun of the Dead, and of course Zombieland. I also adore The Walking Dead, both the graphic novel and the TV show. The film version of World War Z made me both angry and sad. I loved the book, and I sincerely wish they had used just one scene from the book. Oh, and I also really, really enjoyed I Walked With a Zombie, directed by Val Lewton. Great film.
6. What contemporary zombie authors do you admire?
Wow, I don’t know if I can give you a fair answer to this. Reading zombie fiction for me is like jumping into the neighborhood pool on a hot day. I love it so much, and I’m so willing to read new stuff, that I feel a bit like a zombie myself. I’ll eat anything, as long as it smells like what I want. That being said, I can consistently count on David Moody, Craig DiLouie, John O’Brien, John C. Campbell, Jonathan Maberry, Patrick Frievald, Wayne Simmons, Amanda Hocking, Rhiannon Frater, and a whole slew of others I could list catalogue-fashion for a guaranteed good time. We are living in the golden age of zombie fiction, and I think, looking back on right now from the vantage point of fifty years in the future, we will be able to say that the zombie is to the early 21st Century what the rocket ship was to the middle of the 20th Century. We are in the process of creating our own Bradburys, our own Clarkes and Asimovs, but rather than looking to the stars, we are looking at our own reflection and seeing fear and the mystery of death amidst such security and perhaps even the shattering of everything we hold dear. We are the defining generation, even if we don’t realize it, or even realize what we are defining. Zombies, and their ubiquitous presence, are telling us what we fear and why we bother to get out of bed each morning. It remains to us, the living, the readers, to make sense of the message and salvage what we will of what has come before us. If you’re scared, join the party. I am too.
7. In some of your stories, you have a huge wall dividing the living and the dead. Other stories such as George Romero's 'Land of the Dead', and more recently, 'Warm Bodies' had similar concepts. Living in a state that borders Mexico, is there any allegory to the keeping out of 'others'?
The border, and all that it implies, looms largely over my fiction. That is certainly true. However, I’d like to believe that I treat the subject with the complexity that it deserves, and not merely offer up more of the same cheap political polemics we see in the newspapers each day. In my stories, for example, I spend equal time on both sides of the Quarantine Zone, and movement in and out of the zone, or through the wall, if you will, is a fairly common plot point. In both of the films you mention, the wall, and its penetration, is a metaphor for restoring a sense of humanity to the undead hordes gathering at the gates. I treat the wall very differently. For me, it represents not only a political commentary, but also a way to explore our culture subjected to the stress of a pressure cooker.
8. I hear that your new book, 'The Savage Dead' is coming out soon. Is there anything you would like to say about it before it comes out?
Yes please! And thanks for asking.
The Savage Dead is part political thriller and part military zombie shoot ‘em up. Think George Romero vs. Tom Clancy. Most of the action takes place on board a cruise ship, where an American senator is vacationing to Cancun. Senator Rachel Sutton has spent the last five years creating legislation that has finally turned the tide in the war on drugs. Mexico’s cartels are hemorrhaging cash, and out of desperation, they have declared war on Senator Sutton.
Charged with protecting the senator is U.S. Secret Service Agent Juan Perez, a former Delta Force operator who has fought in nearly every hellhole on Earth. While the senator vacations on her cruise, Juan learns of a plan hatched by a brilliant but insane cartel leader to release a zombie plague upon America. Juan follows the clues in a desperate race to save the world from the plague, but he may already be too late to save the senator and the other five thousand passengers aboard the Queen of the Gulf.
I hope you like it!
Joe McKinney has been a patrol officer for the San Antonio Police Department, a homicide detective, a disaster mitigation specialist, a patrol commander, and a successful novelist. His books include the four part Dead World series, Quarantined, Inheritance, Lost Girl of the Lake, Crooked House and Dodging Bullets. His short fiction has been collected in The Red Empire and Other Stories and Dating in Dead World. In 2011, McKinney received the Horror Writers Association's Bram Stoker Award for Best Novel. For more information go to http://joemckinney.wordpress.com.