I had the pleasure of interviewing one of today’s greatest horror authors, Joe McKinney, about his work and what makes him tick as an author.
Joe has authored numerous horror, crime and science fiction novels. His longer works include the four-part Dead World series, made up of DEAD CITY, APOCALYPSE OF THE DEAD, FLESH EATERS and THE ZOMBIE KING; the science fiction disaster tale, QUARANTINED, which was nominated for the Horror Writers Association’s Bram Stoker Award for superior achievement in a novel, 2009; and the crime novel, DODGING BULLETS. His upcoming releases include the horror novels LOST GIRL OF THE LAKE, THE RED EMPIRE, THE CHARGE and ST. RAGE. Joe has also worked as an editor, along with Michelle McCrary, on the zombie-themed anthology DEAD SET, and with Mark Onspaugh on the abandoned building-themed anthology THE FORSAKEN. Joe’s short stories and novellas have been published in more than 30 publications and anthologies.
In his day job, Joe McKinney is a sergeant with the San Antonio Police Department, where he helps to run the city’s 911 Dispatch Center. Before promoting to sergeant, Joe worked as a homicide detective and as a disaster mitigation specialist. Many of his stories, regardless of genre, feature a strong police procedural element based on his 15 years of law enforcement experience.
Below is Part 1 of the interview:
Craig: What makes zombies so interesting to write about?
Joe: There are tons of great reasons. There’s the apocalyptic element, of course. I think just everybody has, at some point or another, felt the appeal of a world destruction fantasy. Even if we don’t really want the world to collapse into ruin, we enjoy reading about the possibility. And, for just a moment, we like to think of ourselves as one of the survivors of an apocalypse. There’s something awfully seductive, on some crazy level, of imagining yourself standing untouched and undaunted in the midst of catastrophe. And when you throw zombies into the mix, well, that’s twice the fun.
But it’s not just a survivalist’s wet dream. I think the real reason why zombies are so much to write about is that they are so adaptable as metaphors. Romero established the zombie-as-metaphor connection with NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, and that connection has since become the mainstay of the genre. I also think that’s why they’ve stayed around so long, and why they’ve seen this phenomenal surge in popularity over the last few years. A zombie story can be just a zombie story, of course, but the good ones, the really good ones, are always about something more than lumbering corpses devouring the living. And as long your monster is a monster of ideas, they never get boring.
Craig: What’s your biggest contribution to the genre? What do you consider to be your trademark or unique innovation as an author?
Joe: I guess it would have to be the realism I bring to the genre through my focus on police procedure. Most horror authors tend to create situations where the police have to become involved, and then they have to hurry up and find ways to get rid of them because they don’t understand how to use them properly. I am a cop, so I don’t have that problem. I’ve worked as a disaster mitigation specialist (someone who coordinates governmental response to natural and manmade disasters), a homicide detective, and a police administrator, so I know how police procedure works. Rather than figure out improbable contortions to get the police out of my story, I embrace the police. I think that’s what makes my horror fiction unique, and it is my hope that readers will come away from my stories with the feeling that they were treated to realistic police procedural horror story.
Craig: In your Dead World series, the zombies emerge from the floodwaters after a series of hurricanes devastate the Texas Coast, creating an original outbreak story. What inspired this idea?
Joe: Well, as I mentioned, I used to work as a disaster mitigation specialist for the San Antonio Police Department. My job was envisioning various natural and manmade disasters and then figuring out how the department would deal with those disasters. It was a lot like apocalyptic writing. Let’s see, how can we destroy the world today? Okay, now how do we fix it? That was my job. And one of the main things we rehearsed and trained for was the mass evacuation of the Gulf Coast due to a catastrophic hurricane. San Antonio is located about 150 miles from the coast. That puts us far enough inland that a hurricane does little more than give our grass a good watering, but still puts us close enough to act as the major destination for those populations evacuating coastal cities, like Corpus Christi, Brownsville, Houston and even New Orleans. And with our extremely large military complexes, several of which are in the process of being turned over to civilian control, we have the capability to house tens of thousands of people at a moment’s notice. We planned for that exact scenario over and over again, and so when I wrote DEAD CITY, the first book in the Dead World series, and I was looking for a cause of the zombie outbreak and an effective way to spread it, the idea of a flooded coastal city naturally came to mind. I envisioned Houston getting hit by a series of hurricanes in a very short period of time, causing a massive evacuation to San Antonio. The evacuees bring with them the zombie virus, and the next thing you know, we have an apocalypse.
Craig: While reading FLESH EATERS, I kept thinking back to Hurricane Katrina. What lessons did Hurricane Katrina, and the chaos that result in New Orleans for those who stayed behind, provide for considering what a zombie apocalypse might really look like?
Joe: You know the real tragedy of Katrina? I’ll tell you. That disaster was mismanaged long before it ever happened. The City of New Orleans, and the State of Louisiana, were both given a lot of federal money to plan for a hurricane. They had years to train their personnel and educate their population. And for at least 20 years leading up to that storm, engineers were warning officials that the levees were in terrible repair and wouldn’t survive even a weak hurricane. Yet the money for planning and training was swallowed up by corruption and the engineers were ignored. New Orleans was doomed even before Katrina hit.
And once the disaster actually happened, the official response was one screw up after another. There was no recovery model in place, no on-the-ground incident command, no adaptive strategy for evacuation or even re-supply of emergency care providers, much less for the public at large. FEMA proved itself to be a joke. In fact, the whole federal response to the crisis was a joke. Who else remembers Bush patting the FEMA director on the back and telling the news what a great job he was doing, then firing the idiot less than a week later? This is especially galling when you consider that every U.S. President, all the way back to Truman, has had to deal with some terrible disaster or critical incident out in the Gulf of Mexico, and then bungled it when it happened. You’d think they’d learn by now. Enter office expecting something to go wrong in the Gulf, and respond quickly and effectively when it happens. I think Truman is probably the only president who actually handled his crisis in the Gulf (the 1947 Texas City Explosion) with any sort of intelligence.
But I digress. Sorry, I’ll get off my soapbox. You asked if Katrina could shed some light on what a zombie apocalypse might look like. I think it gave us a very detailed look at how we might respond. I think we’ll see an awful lot of folks behaving stupidly. We’ll see an awful lot indulging their inner evil. But we’ll also see an awful lot of honest folks doing more than we ever thought they were capable of doing. That’s the thing about disasters, whether they be a wildfire or a hurricane or an earthquake or a zombie apocalypse…people are better than we give them credit for. Some people are anyway.
Craig: A common theme in your books is how law enforcement would respond to a zombie outbreak or some other type of pandemic. Naturally, this allows you to write from your experience as a police sergeant. What in particular intrigues you about the role of police and other first responders during such an extreme crisis?
Joe: Great question! For me, it’s the first responder’s inner conflict between duty and family, or between two very different loyalties. DEAD CITY and FLESH EATERS both tackle this theme head on. Duty is a powerful incentive. It can compel people to voluntarily give up their lives. I think only love can inspire the same sense of sacrifice. And I suppose some might argue that duty is even a form of love. But I think they are, at their core, separate things. Duty, as in a sense of obligation and commitment to a cause or country, is an intellectual construct. But love, as in a sense of attachment and obligation to one’s family, is a far more atavistic impulse. That’s the way I see it anyway. So, to answer your question, the idea that intrigues me is making a character choose between duty and love. How long will it take before the sworn oath to serve and protect gives way to the desire to run home and protect one’s children? And can we blame an individual for eventually abandoning that oath? These are the kinds of questions that make cops and firefighters such interesting characters during a disaster. Some meth-addicted criminal turns his back on his fellow man to save his own skin? That’s not much of a story, because we wouldn’t expect him to do otherwise. But a cop, sworn to serve and protect, being forced to choose between that oath and saving his wife and kid? Now that’s a story!
Craig: How would the role of the police change over time during a zombie apocalypse? If there were no courts, judges, jails or even a chain of command, would a cop still be a cop? What kinds of unique challenges would a police officer face?
Joe: Well, that’s really the crux of Rick Grimes’ character arc from THE WALKING DEAD, isn’t it? He’s been forced to abandon the indicia of civilized police authority for a more understated communal authority, where his continued role as leader is defined by the strength of his moral character, and not the trappings of law. You see, the police are nothing more than a component of civilization. Civilization is built on laws, which in turn grant the individual the freedom to pursue their own happiness. It is the role of the police to maintain social order so that all citizens can exercise their rights and freedoms under the law. That’s the theory, anyway. It doesn’t always work out that way on the street because cops are made up of the same citizens they are tasked with protecting. Most are decent and honest human beings making a sincere attempt to do the right thing. Just like most ordinary citizens are decent and honest people. But others…not so much. I think if the civilization that creates and empowers the police collapsed, you would see people behaving according to their natures. And I am not so naive as to think that all people, whether they used to be cops or not, have the same depth of character.
Craig: Which writers do you particularly admire, and what did each teach you about the craft or profession of writing?
Joe: I don’t remember who said this, but another writer once remarked that there are two kinds of horror writers working today: those who were influenced by Stephen King, and those who are lying when they say they weren’t influenced by Stephen King. I have no trouble admitting it. King is the king. I thought for a while, during college, that I had put him behind me, but the truth is, the more I read and reread his stuff, and the more I write myself, the more I’ve come to realize what a landmark he really is. There are plenty of other writers, of course, whose writings have left their stamp upon me, but I suspect that we (meaning “we” as a culture of writers and readers) will be mining his influence for decades to come. He is the Charles Dickens of our age.
Part 2 follows below.