Joe McKinney is the author of the novels Dead City and Quarantined, and more than thirty short stories and novellas. He has a Masters Degree in English Literature from the University of Texas at San Antonio, and has worked as a homicide detective and as a disaster mitigation specialist for the San Antonio Police Department. He lives in Texas Hill Country north of San Antonio.
D.L. Snell: Hi, Joe! Thanks for joining us.
Joe McKinney: My pleasure, David. Thanks for having me.
DS: I think one of the most interesting things about your background is your day job. So, what is it that you do when you're not writing?
JM: Well, up until a few days ago I was a homicide detective for the San Antonio Police Department, where I specialized in investigating vehicular homicides. (And yeah, vehicular homicide happens often enough that we have detectives who specialize in it. Go figure.) Before that, I was a member of the SAPD’s Critical Incident Management Team, where I helped coordinate San Antonio’s official response to natural and manmade disasters—everything from floods to building collapses to the mass evacuations of the Gulf Coast due to hurricanes, or train wrecks with hazardous materials spills. Several of my books, including Dead City and Quarantined, have had some sort of large scale natural disaster going on in the background, and much of the official response to those disasters was based on my training as a disaster mitigation specialist. I just got promoted to sergeant last week, so now I’m in charge of the 911 system for the San Antonio metropolitan area.
DS: I remember first seeing your name on the horror scene back in 2006. What are your literary achievements to date?
JM: The last few years have been kind to me. I’ve published three novels, edited a short story collection, and sold about sixty short stories and non-fiction articles. I’ve also joined the faculty of Gemini Ink, where I teach a course called Writing Modern Horror. Quarantined, my second book, was nominated for the HWA’s Bram Stoker Award for Best Novel in 2009. My third book, Dodging Bullets, was the debut publication for the Indie crime fiction publisher, Gutter Books. I’ve got two novels coming out for Bad Moon Books in 2011, and I’m finishing up the four part series that began with Dead City. The next book in that series, Apocalypse of the Dead, comes out November 2nd.
DS: In your first novel, Dead City, the main character is a police officer. How much of Joe McKinney is in that character? What would you do differently than him if you were facing a zombie apocalypse?
JM: Eddie Hudson was fun to write for a number of reasons, as he’s sort of an Everyman character. He’s a father, a husband, a well-meaning if not totally effective cop, and, let’s face it, far from the brightest bulb in the box. So, in that respect, I guess there’s a good amount of Joe McKinney in Eddie Hudson. I loved J.L. Bourne’s Day by Day Armageddon and Jonathan Maberry’s Patient Zero, but I didn’t want to write about a character who was a Billy Badass, like in those novels. I wanted to write about an average guy struggling to survive and reunite with the people he loves. The world has suddenly grown very complicated and Eddie Hudson is simply doing the best he can. He has little grasp of what’s going on in the big picture. All he knows is that the rug has been pulled out from underneath him and now he has to fall back on his limited resources. I’ve read a few reader responses on Amazon and other places where people seem to think this is a problem. I don’t see that. Quite the opposite, actually. Not everybody who wades into a zombie apocalypse is a Special Forces badass. If something like that really happened, an awful lot of us would feel like Eddie feels. We would muddle through, as Eddie does. That’s what I was trying to capture with Dead City, and I think it comes across pretty well.
And, in light of the second half of your question...what would any of us do, really? If we managed to avoid getting munched in the first few hours of a zombie apocalypse, we’d run for our families and go to ground, looking for shelter. I know that’s what I’d be doing.
DS: In your second novel, Quarantined--a finalist in the Bram Stoker Awards--you put some of your real-world knowledge to work. What would you do in the event of a bird flu pandemic? Or worse, what would do you if you were inside the quarantine?
JM: The really scary thing about a pandemic flu outbreak is how fast it spreads. Within weeks, maybe even less in our modern era of international flights, a particularly virulent strain of the flu could touch every corner of the planet. Generally, flu pandemics kill the very young and the very old. If you were to graph mortality by age groups, you’d get a sinkhole in the middle of the graph, where the 20- to 50-year-olds are. But a flu pandemic like the one in 1918 did just the opposite. Some bugs are just unpredictable, and that’s what makes the possibility of a flu pandemic so terrifying.
When I was with the Critical Incident Management Team one of the things we trained for but thankfully never had to implement was our response to one of these pandemics. How would we distribute vaccines? How would we handle the massive numbers of sick people? How would our own ranks be affected? None of the answers we came up with did the problem justice, I’m afraid.
And then came George W. Bush. I was listening to a speech of his one day, and I heard him suggest that it might become necessary to quarantine a major metropolitan area in order to prevent such a pandemic outbreak. The cop in me said, “Oh my God, what an incredibly stupid disaster that would be.” And then the horror writer in me said, “Oh my God, what a magnificent disaster that would be!” Quarantined jumped into my head nearly fully formed at that moment.
But you asked what I would do if it happened in real life. That, I’m afraid, I can’t answer truthfully. I just don’t know. I suspect my first instinct would be to send my family away as quickly as possible. Would I stay? I don’t know. I do have an awful lot of vacation time saved up...
DS: Speaking of the Bram Stoker Awards, I know many authors campaign to get their work into the hands of voters, the members of the Horror Writers Association (HWA). So, for all the writers out there, I've got to ask: what was the best way you found to get your book noticed by the HWA?
JM: You know, I’ve seen writers do all kinds of things, all kinds of shameless things, to garner votes. But what a good many of them fail to realize is that approach just makes you come across as a sleazy used car salesman. It’s hard to take writers seriously when they pander and plead for votes because, well, really, doesn’t it say something about the quality of the writing if they have to resort to those kinds of tactics?
But you do have to get people to notice you, and that’s the trick. The good stuff will usually rise to the top on its own merits, of course, but you can help it along by having your publisher mail out advance reader copies to HWA members and by making appearances at conventions, and by utilizing the HWA message board and internet mailer. Back when I was doing the publicity for Quarantined, I did a combination of all those things. I also hit Shocklines and advertised in the HWA newsletter that I could send electronic and print review copies of the book to interested members. There are other ways too, but the main thing is to have some dignity about it. Shameless self-promoters may get a smattering of votes during the general recommendation period, but that won’t help them make the final ballot. For that, the work will have to stand on its own two feet.
DS: Also for the writers out there, what is the best advice you can give for landing a novel deal over at Kensington, or any big market for that matter?
JM: On the one hand, that question is pretty easy. On the other, well... You see, Kensington only reads submissions from agents, so the easy part of your answer is to get an agent and have them shop the novel to Kensington. But I suspect your question is hinging more on the other part, the substance. What kind of book is Kensington looking to buy? Well, horror with an X-Files-type mystery element always does well. So, too, do big action horror novels. Kensington is also fond of books that can turn into a series, like Jonathan Maberry’s Ghost Road Blues, or my Dead City series. Scalability is the name of the game with big publishers these days. Take it one book at a time, but keep yourself open for the potential to turn that one book into more books. This is a good time for Kensington. With Leisure circling the drain, Kensington is set to take over a good deal of their mass market audience.
DS: Tell us a little about your newest book, Apocalypse of the Dead.
JM: Apocalypse of the Dead is the sequel to Dead City—though not your conventional type of sequel. I’ve always hated the traditional sequel that follows the same cast of characters around through five or six books. For me, the magic wears off after the second book. Sure, Lord of the Rings was cool, but that was about it as far as series go...at least for me. So I knew when I sat down to do books of my own, I wasn’t going to do that kind of series. I wanted each book in the series to share a common world, yet feature different characters. That way, I could make each book fresh, and still allow readers the freedom of reading any of the four books in any order without fear of missing something.
Here’s how I did it. In Dead City, I created this background of five massive hurricanes striking Houston within a few weeks of each other. The city was flooded. All the refineries and chemical plants spilled their product into the flood waters. Dead bodies floated around for weeks in this miasma while the federal government botched the evacuation. Millions were trapped in the flooded city as that soup of chemicals and putrescence turned into the necrosis filovirus, the virus responsible for turning the infected into zombies. Many of these infected persons were evacuated to San Antonio, where we pick up Eddie Hudson’s story. Eventually, the government manages to contain the outbreak by closing off much of the Gulf Coast behind a quarantine wall, just like George W. might suggest. In the process they trap nearly two million people within the Houston area.
Apocalypse of the Dead starts off two years after that. Life outside of the quarantine wall has pretty much returned to normal. Most Americans have gone back to their lives, though the fate of those remaining behind the quarantine wall is still a hot button issue. And then a small group of those people trapped within Houston manage to steal a shrimp boat and slip through the line of Coast Guard cutters patrolling the Gulf. They plan to head to Florida. Unfortunately, one of them is infected, and from there the necrosis filovirus goes global. In the midst of this global outbreak, six groups of characters from different corners of the country converge on the North Dakota Grasslands, where a preacher named Jasper Sewell has set up a community that just might be the answer they’ve all been looking for.
I don’t want to give away too much, but let me just say that I researched everything I could find on Jonestown to write this book.
Book 3, called The Ninth Plague, takes place in Houston as the hurricanes mentioned in Dead City make landfall. The first zombie encounters happen here, in this book, and if you were looking to place it chronologically I guess you could call it a prequel to Dead City. Book 4, called The Zombie King, takes place eight years after the events in Apocalypse of the Dead, and shows what happens as the zombies (who are, you may remember, living people infected with a disease) begin to regain some of their mental faculties.
DS: And now to ask a question for Jonathan Maberry (though he didn't request it): why zombies? More importantly, why cults?
JM: The “why zombies” part is easy. I love them, always have. I remember watching Night of the Living Dead back when I was a kid and being completely and utterly entranced. That movie grabbed me like no other horror movie ever had. And it remains one of my all-time favorites, horror or otherwise. As my interests expanded I noticed how incredibly flexible zombies were when it came to delivering a message with a horror story, and so when I was looking for a way to express my own anxiety over becoming a father, well, the zombie was a natural place to turn.
I combined zombies with a cult in Apocalypse of the Dead for a related reason. These days, the world is a scary place. Even without zombies, our journey from day to day is fraught with doubts about our place in the world and fears over the stability and security of our futures. Though I’ve never been in a cult myself, I suspect that many people who join cults join them because the organization offers some security against the doubts and fears I just mentioned. Apocalypse of the Dead was written to be a huge book, both in scope and sheer number of pages. The cast is huge, but their fears are the same. Bringing them together was essential for their survival, and to do that, I needed something capable of sheltering them. Enter the novel’s cult, called The Family. Plus, Apocalypse of the Dead gave me the chance to show how such a diverse group of normal, intelligent people could suddenly find themselves members of a cult. How would they react to the knowledge that they have become the people they used to pity, and even laugh at, before the zombie apocalypse? I wanted to know.
DS: Apocalypse of the Dead, as an epic, has an ensemble cast. Give us a sketch of your favorite character from that book. Or maybe the most important one.
JM: Well, I guess the most important character is Jasper Sewell, the leader of The Family. He’s the one who brings all the other characters together. Jasper started out in life as a used car salesman. Though he is passionate about his faith, he is nonetheless a thoroughly insane narcissist. The natural career choice for someone like Jasper is cult leader, and that most certainly is what he becomes. But despite his frightening beliefs, Jasper is not without his strong points. He is, for example, a natural leader. Like a modern day Moses he leads thousands of refugees safely through an apocalyptic landscape populated with flesh-eating zombies. And he has an uncanny ability to sum a person up and figure out what it is they were meant to do with their lives. Several of the more intelligent characters in the novel, who, before the zombie apocalypse, would have never joined something as crazy as a cult, do so in this book because Jasper sums them up so perfectly. They respond to him in ways that genuinely surprise them. Based on what I told you earlier, you’ve probably figured out that Jasper’s character was inspired, in many ways, by Jim Jones.
DS: So, what else do you have planned? Any more Dead City books or anthologies?
JM: Actually, yeah. As I mentioned, I’ve expanded Dead City into a four part series. The first is, of course, Dead City, which has just been rereleased by Kensington with a new cover and some new material. Apocalypse of the Dead comes out November 2nd. The third book in the series, called The Ninth Plague, comes out April 5th, 2011, and the fourth and final book, called The Zombie King, comes out in November, 2011. I’ve also got a novella in John Joseph Adams’ The Living Dead 2 that features Andrew Hudson as the narrator. Andrew, you may remember, was Eddie Hudson’s son in Dead City.
Getting away from zombies for a bit, I’ve got a crime novel called Dodging Bullets that just came out, and I’ll be publishing two other novels in 2011, both from Bad Moon Books. The first is a story of super intelligent, super large fire ants called The Red Empire and the second is a collaboration with Michael McCarty called Lost Girl of the Lake. I’ll also be editing an anthology of stories about abandoned buildings with Mark Onspaugh. Look for that one, called The Forsaken, in April 2011.
I’m also working on a reader’s guide to the Dead City series that should be up on my blog, Old Major’s Dream, right around the release of Apocalypse of the Dead. Anybody who wants an inside look at how the series came about, and how all the related novels and short stories fit together, should check it out. It’ll be called The Dead World: A Reader’s Guide.
DS: Thanks, Joe--it was great talking with you!
JM: Always a pleasure, David. Next time, first round’s on me!
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D.L. Snell writes with Permuted Press. He edited Dr. Kim Paffenroth twice, John Dies at the End once, and provided a constructive critique to Joe McKinney on his next major novel after Dead City. You can shoot D.L. Snell in the head at www.exit66.net.
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