Shells Chats with author Joe McKinney

What do you find most appealing as an author?

It’s more than the vanity of seeing one’s self in print. It’s more than getting paid for what you love to do. It’s even more than the charge I get every time someone comes up and says how much they loved one of my books. For me, the most appealing thing is the writing itself. You have to remember, most writers - and this certainly applies to me - were writing long before they started selling stuff. I’ve been writing stories since I was a kid, but I never had any desire to publish. Writing was just something I had always done and figured I always would. It was a purely personal pleasure. And then, around 2005, I made the decision to send out the manuscript of a zombie novel called Dead City. A big New York publisher picked it up, and the next thing you know, my purely personal pleasure had become a career. But the real joy still comes from practicing the craft. The physical process of telling stories, like sculpting, or woodworking, or painting, or anything else one does purely for the love of doing it, is its own reward.

Working as a homicide detective you may have seen several horrors. How do you feel that has influenced your writing?

Yeah, quite a few horrors. People do things to each other that, frankly, boggle the mind. The degree of violence the common man - or woman, for that matter - is capable of would shock most people who have never seen a crime scene outside of a TV show. The depravity, the smells, the lies even the innocent tell, the impossible emptiness in a dead man’s gaze - those things have a cumulative effect on the people who deal with them. They change you. So, yeah, I feel that the years I spent working as a homicide detective have left their mark on both me and my writing. I frequently use cops as characters, but the influence goes deeper than that. You see, as a detective, you approach each case on its own terms. Many of them are similar, true, and some are easier to work than others, but each one is an incomplete story depending on you, the detective, to fill in. My personal writing process is very similar. I begin, usually, with an idea and a hazy image of a character. For Apocalypse of the Dead, my latest release, it was a frozen field littered with dead bodies. I had this picture of a man’s hand draped over his side, icicles hanging from the fingertips, and the story grew outwards from that. Who were the people in the field? How did they get there? What other lives did they touch on their way to this point? For me, the answers to those questions build the framework of the story. Everything else is character.

Why do you think ‘disaster’ type stories appeal so much to readers?

Well, this is the topic du jour lately, isn’t it? Just about everywhere I go, somebody comes up to me and says, “Dude, I’ve got the bunker all set to go!” I play along, because it’s fun, you know? There’s a sort of role playing involved, like a D&D revival, or reenacting Civil War battles. But a part of me has always wondered what it all means. I’ve heard writers I admire say these stories appeal to us because we have come to loathe ourselves, and killing everything - on the page, at least - is an emotionally safe expression of that self-loathing. Maybe that’s it...or part of it, anyway. But I’ve also heard a more democratic reading of the phenomenon. For several years now we’ve been dealing with a perfect storm of social issues, ranging from unemployment and inflation and a housing crisis to energy shortages and collapsing infrastructure and declining educational values and the proliferation of information that is, in many instances, as spurious as it is accessible. With all this change in the air, is it any wonder that we find ourselves dreaming of a great leveler, some force to come along and wipe the slate clean? But the question has larger, and perhaps more frightening, implications. Horror fiction, in America at least, has traditionally been a pretty good barometer of our opinion of our society. In light of the recent civil uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt and elsewhere, one has to wonder what our current love of disaster fiction is saying about the possibility of revolution.

If you had to pick one thing to take with you if zombies attacked and the end of the world seemed near, what would it be?

I was a disaster mitigation specialist for the San Antonio Police Department for years before I became a homicide detective, so planning for natural disasters (and a zombie apocalypse isn’t that different, when you think about it) isn’t just a thought exercise for me. For example, each member of my family has a standard 72 hour survival kit readily available at all times. We have contingency plans for getting out of the city, and for reuniting once we do if we have to evacuate separately. Prior planning prevents piss-poor performance, as my Dad always says. But if the disaster in question is zombies, well, the answer is firepower. That means something that can reach out and touch the enemy, and something that never needs maintenance. So, with that in mind, I would walk into a real life zombie apocalypse with a 12 gauge pump action shotgun and a wooden baseball bat. Simplicity at its best.

The Dead World series is popular amongst horror fans. Where did the idea come from for this series and what would be your favorite part in writing it?

Dead World didn’t start out as a series. The first offering was the novel Dead City, and it did quite well. Well enough, in fact, that the publisher asked me to turn it into a series...something I was happy to do. The thing is, I dislike the conventional model of the series, one where you follow the same groups of characters through endless adventures. Sure, I liked Star Wars. I enjoyed Lord of the Rings. I really enjoy the Dave Robicheaux novels of James Lee Burke. But that pretty much exhausts my patience with the traditional series. Most of the time, I find the magic falling flat somewhere around the middle of book 2. So when I set out to expand Dead City into the Dead World series, I did it by writing each book as a stand alone story, but set in a common universe. That way, a reader can come to any book in the series in any order and feel like they haven’t missed a thing. At the same time, I plant references in each book so that a reader familiar with the series can say, “Hey! I get it!” That, I think, has been the most fun for me, getting to do it my way.

How did the idea of doing the zombie cover art slide show for the 2011 World Horror Convention come about?

The slide show was author Lee Thomas’ idea. I was put in charge of the zombie panel, and while at a planning session for the convention, Lee suggested the slide show. He had even done a little preliminary work on it. As soon as he showed me what he had done, I knew it would be a great way to kick off the zombie panel. So, I went on Facebook and half a dozen online forums and put up the call for zombie book covers to work into a slide show. You should have seen how many hits I got from those few simple requests! I knew I would get a lot of authors contacting me, but I had no idea how many. Up until a few years ago I could honestly say that I’d read just about every zombie book out there. But there has literally been an explosion of them in recent many, in fact, that I could easily put the covers alone into a thirty minute slide show. The slide show will of course not be able to use them all. But what I think will be immediately obvious to everyone in the audience is the scope of the zombie genre. Hopefully, good conversation will follow.

One thing you would love to share with a new author based on your experience?

Great question! But the answer really depends on what type of writer you want to be. If you want to be the guy that comes home at night and writes stories no one is ever meant to read, that’s great. I used to be that guy. There’s nothing wrong with that. And my advice to that guy would simply be: Have fun! Revel in the joy of the craft. But for those young writers who want to publish and make a living at it, my advice is much more pointed. If you fit in that category, you need to treat writing like a job, because that’s what it is. And what that means in practical terms is that you show up to work on time, you come to work every day, you look for ways to advance, and you turn in a quality product every single time. Act professionally and people will treat you like a professional. And, this above all: Never underestimate the value of a handwritten thank you note. That simple courtesy is rarely practiced these days, but it makes a positive impression the way nothing else can.

Any upcoming appearances?

A few things, yeah. Next week I’ll be guest blogging over at Wayne Simmons’ website, And then, from February 14th to the 20th, I’ll be part of an online panel discussion at the International Thriller Writers Association’s The Big Thrill. We’ll be discussing plot conventions and how to spin unique twists on conventional story lines. Things will really pick up come April, though. My next book, Flesh Eaters, comes out April 1, 2011, and I’ll be doing appearances around San Antonio, Houston and Austin to promote it. That should carry me all the way through to the end of the month, when I go back to Austin for the 2011 World Horror Convention. There I’ll be doing the zombie panel and a book launch party for my second release of 2011, my novel The Red Empire.

Any upcoming projects you could share with us?

This year’s releases include Flesh Eaters (Pinnacle; April 1, 2011); The Red Empire (Bad Moon Books; April 28, 2011); The Forsaken (an anthology of horror stories set in and around abandoned buildings, due out May 5, 2011, from 23 House Publishing). Releases after that include the stand alone horror novels The Charge, St. Rage, The Zombie King, and Grim. I’ll also be assembling a short story collection called Nightmares and Grimoires and a non-fiction book on the zombie apocalypse phenomenon in contemporary America. In between the book releases will be several short stories in various publications.

Where can people find out more about you?

The best place is to stop by my website, I post information about upcoming appearances and new releases there, plus the occasional random thought on this or that.

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