We last did a Q&A with Joe McKinney back in 2009, after he’d just released his second novel, Quarantined. Since then, he’s co-edited the zombie anthology Dead Set, put out two more novels — the zombie epic Apocalypse of the Dead and hard-boiled crime tale Dodging Bullets — and this week picked up a second Stoker Award nomination (for Apocalypse).
Given McKinney’s rising stock on the horror scene, we figured it was time to sit down with him once again. McKinney, who works for the San Antonio Police Department, was more than happy to discuss the origins of his new crime novel, the future of zombie horror and his spate of upcoming projects.
How does it feel to be nominated for a Stoker Award alongside horror heavyweights like Peter Straub and Joe Hill?
A little intimidating. Peter Straub is one of the authors I grew up reading. Koko, Ghost Story, Shadowland…for me, reading those novels was like discovering gold. It’s hard to overstate the importance of great writing encountered early in one’s life. All I can say is I’m the richer for having encountered him. And though Joe Hill is a relative newcomer on the scene, he shows the same promise as the early Straub. These are both writers that my friends and I have discussed over long drunken nights. Suddenly finding oneself lumped among them, well, that’s flattering, and frightening. I guess I feel like the ugly stepsister at the gala ball.
Although you don’t write about zombies exclusively, you certainly made your name as a zombie writer. Are there signs the zombie phenomenon is starting to wane, or do you still see plenty of life left in the genre?
It depends on where you look. The critics have been saying zombies were, uh, dead for years. They were saying it back before Max Brooks released World War Z. They were saying it again when Robert Kirkman’s “The Walking Dead” showed up on TV. They’ll go on saying indefinitely, I’m sure. And, one day, when a big budget zombie film falls flat on its face, the critics will dance around triumphantly claiming that they told us so.
But I think zombies will be around for a long while still. I’m sure their popularity will roller coaster over the next few years, but my guess is they’re here to stay. If you want proof of that, you don’t have to look much further than our language. We used to see people in shock and say they had the 2,000 yard stare. Now, we’re far more likely to say that person looks like a zombie. Economists talk about zombie markets and zombie businesses. A recent issue of The Economist, for example, even carried the cover story, “Night of the Living Fed.” Computer experts use terms like zombie terminals. There are dozens of other examples, but the fact of the matter is that the zombie is embedded in our language. Language is a very accurate way to gauge the mind of a society, and ours seems to have embraced the zombie on an archetypal level. So I’d say, yeah, the zombie is here to stay.
Are there some up-and-coming writers taking the living dead trope in new and exciting directions?
Absolutely. A few I’ve read recently, and enjoyed, are David Moody, Craig DiLouie and Wayne Simmons. Through them, and others, we’re seeing new variations on familiar themes. In many of these works, zombies are changing from the shambling, slow-moving reanimated dead of George Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead” to more complicated articulations of our current fears. They are changing from images of horror to metaphors for larger, more socially-based fears. Zombies are merely that, remember: reflections of what we fear most. No matter what you’re most afraid of, whether it’s illegal immigration or forced conformity or losing your mind or disease or death itself, we have a zombie for that. They are blank slates upon which authors and readers alike project their fears. To anybody curious about zombies being used in this way, I recommend checking out the first and second volumes of John Joseph Adams’ The Living Dead, John Skipp’s anthology, Zombies, and Christopher Golden’s anthology, The New Dead. Between those four books, a reader should be able to get a great perspective on the metaphorical potential of the zombie. You may also pick up a few new favorite writers in the process.
You were short listed for the Stoker in four categories this year: novel, long fiction (novella), short fiction and as editor of Dead Set: A Zombie Anthology. Which type of work do you enjoy most? Which would you most want to be remembered for?
Wow, that’s a hard one to answer. I think short stories give me the greatest joy while I’m writing them, but there’s no feeling in the world like typing that last line of a novel. For a moment, you ride this tremendous high. It’s disbelieving joy. It’s shock. There’s even the beginnings of the inevitable ennui that always follows a completed manuscript. But right when you hit the last keystroke, that moment, it’s glorious. You look at the page in stunned silence and try to drink in the fact that the book is done. So I guess I’d have to grudgingly say that the novel is my favorite venue. As for what I’d like to be remembered for…well, I’d be tickled pink just to be remembered.
In addition to horror, you also write crime fiction. Gutter Books released your hard-boiled crime novel Dodging Bullets late last year. First, tell us a little about the book, then tell us whether would you prefer to be considered a crime writer who also does horror or a horror writer who also does crime.
Dodging Bullets is special to me, not because it’s my first novel-length crime story, but because of where it takes place and the time of my life it captures. I went to college at Trinity University, here in San Antonio, and those years were some of the best I’ve ever known. Trinity is located on the outskirts of a very old neighborhood known as Monte Vista. The homes there are predominantly Craftsman-style bungalows, but with a few glorious Queen Anne and Victorian era mansions mixed in. Many of those homes have since been converted to apartments, and for a young man looking for adventure, and open to new experiences, it was a paradise. I remember nights there, walking down the streets, the cool night breezes blowing through the magnolia trees, hearing the soothing notes of Van Morrison’s Moondance, or Pink Floyd, or Bob Dylan, coming from the upstairs apartments. Inevitably, those walks ended up in those upstairs apartments, where the conversation lasted deep into the night. I imagine New York’s Greenwich Village was a lot like that, back in the day.
Needless to say, those days left an indelible impression on me, and the novel’s female lead lives the life I remember living. Her boyfriend, Peter “Peto” Hurst, is a different story. His life is based on my later experiences as a San Antonio police officer. It’s an odd experience, looking at your neighborhood as a cop. When I first broke out of the Academy, and was still doing my training rides with a more experienced officer, I was assigned to work the same area where I once lived the carefree life of a college student. For the first time, I was entering those upstairs apartments to answer calls for family disturbances and burglaries and all manner of cases. It was very much a through-the-looking-glass type experience. And Peto Hurst grew out of that. His relationship with his wealthy Trinity girlfriend, Shannon Dupree, was based on the collision of my memory with my present circumstance. The crime that destroys them is really incidental to that collision. What matters in that story is intensely personal, and perhaps invisible to the reader. I think the most satisfying stories, to the tellers at least, are like that.
The second part of your question is equally hard to answer, but I think I can do it in a lot less space. Horror is my first love. When people ask me what kind of books I write, I always tell them horror. That said, most of my horror stories contain a significant police procedural element. I think that focus will remain with me for a long while still. It may never go away, in fact.
What’s next for Joe McKinney? Any projects in the pipeline?
Well, this year is going to see several major releases, with April being the busiest month. I’ve got the third book in my Dead World series, Flesh Eaters, coming out on the first. Then, later in the month I’ll be traveling to Austin for the World Horror Convention, where I’ll be sitting on a few panels and launching my next novel, The Red Empire. The month after that I’ll be launching an anthology of abandoned building stories I edited with Mark Onspaugh. Late in the summer I have a fourth book, Lost Girl of the Lake, coming out. I co-wrote that one with Michael McCarthy. And then, late in the year, probably around November or December, I’ll be turning in the manuscript for the fourth, and probably final, book in the Dead World series, called The Zombie King. In between, I’ll be publishing short stories in a variety of anthologies, ranging from Bigfoot to zombies to post-apocalyptic tales. It’s shaping up to be a pretty good year.