FIND THIS ZOMBIE AUTHOR ON:
Bram Stoker award winning novelist Joe McKinney is to fans of zombie fiction what Elvis is to rock and roll. Simply mention Joe’s name to zombie enthusiasts and they’re likely to swoon and pass out.
If a zombie invasion were to ever go down, Joe could handle it. After all, in his day job, he’s a Sergeant with the San Antonio, TX Police Department, where he’s a patrol supervisor. He’s also worked as a homicide detective and a disaster mitigation specialist.
As if that weren’t impressive enough, he’s also the author of the Dead World series. The action begins in Dead City. After a series of hurricanes rocks the Gulf Coast, a zombifying virus spreads to San Antonio, where police officer Eddie Hudson has to brave a zompoc in order to get his wife and son to safety.
Joe’s also the author of the Deadlands series, the latest book of which, The Dead Won’t Die, came out last month on September 29. In fact, word has it that he’s heading to Atlanta October 16 and 17th for book signings, so if you’re in The Walking Dead territory, you might want to keep a pen handy.
Thanks for taking the time to speak with me today, oh wise zombie master. My 3.5 readers and I greatly appreciate it.
NOTE: BOLD=BQB; ITALICS=JOE
Q. You got in on the ground floor of a zombie fiction renaissance that began in the mid-2000’s and to date, doesn’t show any signs of stopping. What is it about zombies that have kept fans of these creepy creatures coming back for more after all these years?
A. I was on a zombie panel at a horror convention a while back, and one of my fellow panelists was a writer who is generally regarded as “one of the literary elite” sort. I like this guy. I have a lot of respect for him, both as a person and as a writer. I’d even go so far as to call him a mentor. And we’re good friends on top of that. Well, somebody from the audience threw out a question very similar to this and my friend answered something like this: “Zombies are a symptom of our self-loathing. We so hate ourselves and our society that we invent a straw man like the zombie, a monster that both looks enough like us so that we see in its putrefaction how much we disgust ourselves and yet is anonymous enough that we can imagine those who anger us as we fire an endless barrage of headshots at the approaching horde.”
Now, I don’t totally buy that. I don’t think self-loathing, or even societal loathing, is a strong enough emotion to turn a drive-in movie monster into a cultural archetype. There may be something to that explanation, especially for the readers who spend too much time arguing about politics on Facebook, but that isn’t everybody.
What about the rest of us? Why do we love zombies? Well, aside from the creeping dread that comes with imagining streets filled with the undead and the way really great zombie stories tend to treat the apocalypse like a crucible that distills humanity down to its core, I think the zombie has caught on because it’s a blank page upon which writers and readers can draw anything they want. What are you afraid of? Disease; death of the mind, a la Alzheimer’s; societal collapse; or possibly illegal immigration? You name it, if you’re scared of it, we have a zombie for you. They are sponges for metaphor. They can be anything you want them to be, and I believe that that’s their secret storytelling power.
Q. On your site, you mention how your daughter’s birth inspired you to follow your dream of becoming a writer, but it wasn’t easy. You explain how you penned a 1950’s style space opera, came to the conclusion that it was “crap,” and wondered why you were even bothering. Honestly, in my experience, most aspiring authors stop when they reach the “This is crap!” point, but you kept going and today you’re a rousing success.
For those of us who are convinced our writing is “crap,” can you give us a little pep talk to inspire us to keep going until we hit our non-crappy groove?
A. Getting started is hard. Really hard. There are days when you spend a lot of time looking at yourself in the mirror wondering why you’re even bothering. And when you do finally get your first few pieces out there, there’s never a shortage of nasty trolls to tell you how you shouldn’t have bothered in the first place. You need a lot of hard work, a lot of bullheaded determination, and a really thick skin. Oh, and a super harsh inner critic that isn’t afraid to occasionally be a cheerleader. Like I said, it’s hard.
But it can be done. And while I can’t tell you the secret of finding that determination you need to get out of your own way, I can let you in on a little secret that will make it easier for you to write that first novel.
First, outline your story, in exhaustive detail, before you ever start thinking of your opening sentence. It seems like every time I go to a convention, somebody says, “You know, I’ve got this novel I’ve been working on for three years now.” I usually stop them right there and ask them if they outline or write by the seat their pants. Invariably, I get some confused rambling about how Stephen King said writers should be pantsers because anything else would stifle creativity. I usually answer by pointing out that never getting the story written is even more stifling to creativity. Outline, outline, outline. It’s the first step to success. My outlines for novels will usually go 70 to 90 pages and they take me about two months to write…about the same amount of time as the novel itself.
The second part of the secret? Write a little bit every day. Don’t listen to the stories of Ray Bradbury writing Fahrenheit 451 in 9 days, or Robert Louis Stevenson writing Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde in 3 days. You don’t need that kind of self-abuse. What you do need is a manageable word count that you promise yourself each day. When I started out, that promise was 500 words a day. These days, it’s 1,500. But you have to work up to that. You have to start with digestible chunks and gradually build up from there. Remember: How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time!
Q. “Write what you love” is one piece of advice you mention on your blog. Specifically, you hit your stride when you realized that after growing up on a steady diet of monster flicks, the zombie apocalypse genre was right up your alley.
So in other words, aspiring writers should just be themselves and stop trying to be something they’re not?
A. Yeah, pretty much. One simple lesson I try time and again to convey is that if you want to be interesting, you have to be interested. What that means is that you have to love what you’re writing about. I don’t mean simply loving zombies, so you write a zombie story. I mean loving the life of being a cop with a family, and so you write a zombie story about a cop trying to fight his way home to his family on the first night of the zombie apocalypse. You’ll see the same love in every writer you read, both the great ones and the hacks. The point is that writing is all about getting your inner joy out there, even if the mood in which that joy conveys is tragic. Simply put, if you don’t love it, nobody else will either. It doesn’t matter what you’re interested in. If you are crazy cool madly in love with ladybugs, and you write a murder mystery, or a romance, or a horror novel, or a science fiction space opera about how cool ladybugs are, your chances of successfully connecting with an audience just went up about ten thousand percent. We don’t care what your interest is, just that you convince us that you love it, and that we should too…through your characters!
Q. “Write what you know” is a phrase often heard in the literary world. As a police officer, you know law enforcement procedure and it shows in your writing. For example, when I discovered that Dead City involved a series of hurricanes, it didn’t surprise me to learn that you worked as a disaster mitigation specialist.
How else have you drawn on your police experience to bring greater detail to your writing? And should aspiring scribes go out and get some experience in something, anything before they put pen to paper?
A. Well, I have to be careful about that. My department has specific rules about writing for publication that prohibit me from writing on cases I have personally worked on and cases that have yet to be adjudicated. You can imagine why. Imagine being a rape victim. You somehow work up the courage to report the rape, and you spend the afternoon pouring your soul and anger and all the rest of it out to a detective. Now imagine that detective turns around and sells your story to some magazine somewhere. Imagine the outrage and violation you would feel. I take my oath as a cop very seriously, and that trust is a bond I will never break.
Still, I get quite a bit of mileage from the things I’ve learned on the job. Being on the job you learn a lot about human nature, and that definitely helps with writing. It also helps with creating a unique niche for my writing. Lots of horror utilizes police procedure, but grudgingly, because most writers lack any firsthand knowledge of it. Writers will create situations where the police have to make an appearance, and then they’re forced to tap dance until they find a reason to get rid of the police. I see it all the time. I don’t have that problem, though. I would definitely recommend that all writers develop some kind of skillset like that, be it beekeeping or pot making or anything, really.
Q. You hold a Master’s Degree in English Literature. For anyone out there hoping to break into the literary world, do you recommend such a formal course of study?
A. It worked for me, but I’m just one voice shouting in the wilderness. I know hundreds of writers, and they come from every profession imaginable. Some are butchers; some are call girls. Some are beekeepers; some are college professors. Some are cowboys; some are stand up comedians. One writer I know owns a barbeque restaurant in New Braunfels, Texas that serves the best braised beef short ribs you could possibly imagine. It really doesn’t matter what your background is. What does matter is that you love something so much that you want, want, need to fit it into a story. Find that spark inside you, and the words will come. I promise.
Q. OK. Here’s a big question. You’re a busy police officer. On top of that, you’ve got a family. And yet, amidst all of these important commitments, you have managed to have an amazing career as a writer.
Meanwhile, I don’t want to call myself a slacker, but one time I sat down with my laptop to write an epic masterpiece, got frustrated after the first few lines, then ended up watching a Steven Seagal movie marathon while devouring an entire box of Oreos instead.
Please, for myself, and anyone else who can’t get their act together, give us some tips on how to juggle work, family, other stuff that happens in life, and still find time to pursue writing.
A. Any author who tells you every day is an orderly procession of getting the words on paper is a filthy liar. Some days are hard, even after you make a name for yourself. Some days, the Oreos and movie marathons are what the body and soul need. There’s no shame in that.
But you have to hold two seemingly disparate ideals in mind if you want to write professionally. First, you have to have a love of craft and a determination to keep butt in chair that, frankly, defies human nature. The kids are playing with the dogs in the backyard, and begging you to come join them. There’s a lovely breeze blowing. Your youngest looks at you with a smile you know won’t be there in her angsty teenage years.
But you have a deadline.
That kind of denial of human nature. Bullheadedness, my wife calls it. Maybe even assholery. Yeah, it sucks that bad.
But how do you get to have problems like that? Well, that comes with manageable word counts. Seriously, folks, 500 words a day. Treat everyday like it’s NaNoWriMo. Do 500 words a day. You can do it. Outline first, figure out what you’re going to be writing during those precious few moments out of each day that you can spare for the keyboard, and then start typing. Get the first draft done. Don’t go back and edit what you wrote the day before, just push forward to the end. Once you’re done, go back and edit. That’s why they call them first drafts.
Q. Thanks for checking in, Joe. Before I go, do you have any last minute advice that might help my friends and I survive the East Randomtown Zombie Apocalypse?
A. Well, yes…obviously Cardio! Oh, and as a cop, I wholeheartedly recommend the double tap as well. But after that: Be smart. Be watchful. Pay attention; it don’t cost nothing. Take a good look around you every moment of every day. Even if the apocalypse doesn’t come (and I think I’m not alone in kind of wishing that it would come), you will still have the observational aptitude to write about it.