Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Author Interview! Joe McKinney

I'm a huge fan of Joe McKinney's work (you knew that already though...) so it was a huge deal for me when he kindly agreed to answer a few questions here. Check it out and thank him when the zombie apocalypse finally happens...

Let’s get the obvious question out of the way first: Do you have a plan of action ready for the inevitable zombie apocalypse?

It’s happened to me more than once.  I’m at some convention, doing the question and answer part of a panel discussion, and somebody up near the front says, “Man, I’ve got my bunker all set to go!”  I’m not like that.  I’m from Texas, yes, but I don’t stockpile weapons and ammunition, and I don’t have Old West-style visions of myself going nuts through a crowd of zombies, pistols blazing in both hands.  But that said, I have been a police officer for a long time, and one of the best jobs I ever had as a cop was working in the San Antonio Police Department’s Emergency Operations Command, where I was in charge of imagining the various disasters, both natural and manmade, that San Antonio was most likely to face, and then working out the various ways the Department would deal with those disasters.  Part of that training rubbed off on my home life, and so I completely understand the need for a family readiness plan, which of course includes a 72 hour emergency kit, food, water, cash, and yes, a pistol.  I firmly believe in the message behind the recent Center for Disease Control’s Zombie Apocalypse Contingency Plan post: all the things you would normally put aside to help you prepare for the zombie apocalypse are also good for any other kind of disaster.  So, whether it’s zombies, hurricanes, floods or wildfires, my family and I are prepared.

There are a number of writers of zombie fiction out there right now; are you worried that you might reach your place of shelter only to find that someone like Jonathan Maberry or David Moody is already there?  What would you do if this was the case?

This doesn’t worry me too much.  I’ve already made it a point to branch out into other paths, such as crime fiction and mainstream thrillers, and as I go forward with my career I see myself going deeper into those areas.  The police procedural, for example, is a natural for me.  You’ve seen that already in the zombie books I’ve done.  I can, and will, go farther into that field than any of my contemporaries in the zombie genre are prepared to go.

You’ve carved out a neat little niche in the zombie genre.  Was this always the plan or did you plan on writing other stuff originally?

Frankly, I was as surprised as everybody else with the surge in zombie popularity.  I wrote Dead City with the idea that it would be a one-off, a fast and fun romp through a city overrun by my favorite member of the undead family.  I was going to do the one book and then jump into crime fiction.  But the zombie genre took on a life of its own, and I was fortunate enough to share in that.  That said, zombies aren’t going to be so conspicuously popular forever.  Right now, they’ve got the center stage.  We have biologists talking about zombie worms, ants and cells; Nobel Prize-winning economists talking about zombie banks and mortgages; the protestors occupying many of America’s cities are dressing as zombies to illustrate their points; computer programmers talking of zombie computers and zombie viruses; the list goes on and on.  A concept so thoroughly mated to a culture’s language is not going to go away.  Zombies won’t always own the horror genre the way they do now, but they’re not going to disappear either.  I’m prepared for that.  I’ve already written in other genres, and as I continue to grow as a writer, I will of course pursue other paths.

Your books present a pessimistic view of our government’s ability to deal with an outbreak of zombies.  Do you think we’d get it right if something like this happened for real?

Not even close.  We’d all get munched in no time.  Of course, now that I’ve said that, I guess it would really depend on the cause of the zombie outbreak, and where it happened.  If it spreads like the flu, then no, we’re all going down hard.  But if it originates in some remote corner of Africa, or at a research station in Antarctica, and the actual disease vector is spread through bites, then yes, there’s a chance we could contain it.  The short answer though, well, if it’s anything like the movies envision it, I think we’d probably see something like ten percent survival rates for our species as a whole.  Those who don’t get eaten will have to contend with complete shut downs in every aspect of our lives.  Take just one example: prescription drugs.  I don’t know about you, but I know a bunch of people who take blood pressure pills, thyroid medication, insulin, you name it.  All that stops come the zombie apocalypse.  And if you’re one of those people who depend on prescription drugs for your health, well, I’ve got bad news for you.  You’ve just joined the ninety percent who die.  And that’s only one aspect of health care.  Think about everything else that would be so much worse without the safety net of a hospital.

But your question was more directed at our government’s ability to protect us, wasn’t it?  In that case, no, we’re still screwed.  Think of the most basic issue facing our cops, firefighters, hospital staff and military.  These are the people we are going to depend on to pull our bacon out of the fire, to keep us alive.  But these are people too.  They have families, they have lives beyond their jobs.  How long can any human being, any real human being, stay on the job knowing their family is about to get eaten by cannibals?  That conflict between one’s oath to serve the public and one’s atavistic impulses to protect a spouse and children is at the heart of a lot of my zombie fiction; and you’re right that I take a pessimistic view of anyone choosing the ambiguous public over the very real loved ones waiting for them at home.

Your website talks about a story that doesn’t stop at Flesh Eaters; for those readers who haven’t visited your site (yet), what happens next?

I’ve always hated the conventional series, where you follow the same cast of characters through adventure after adventure.  For me, the blush comes off the rose somewhere around the middle of book 2.  So, when my publisher asked me to turn Dead City into a series, at first I resisted.  But then I got to thinking that I had created a backstory in Dead City that could spin off into all kinds of new directions.  I came up with the idea of making each book, short story and novella in the series use a different cast of characters to explore some aspect of the world where the series takes place.  The basic premise is that Houston has been hit by four major hurricanes in just a few weeks.  Millions of people are stranded.  The city is underwater.  Houston’s refineries are leaking chemicals and oil into the floodwaters, which are crowded with dead animals and people.  Add to that the Texas summer heat, and you get the beginnings of an apocalypse that is eventually contained behind a quarantine wall.  This is the story told in FLESH EATERS.  DEAD CITY tells the story of a lone patrolman in the nearby city of San Antonio, where many of the evacuees from Houston have been relocated, on the first night of the zombie apocalypse.  APOCALYPSE OF THE DEAD takes place two years after the events in FLESH EATERS and DEAD CITY, and shows what happens when the original quarantine wall collapses.  There’s a fourth book in the series that I’m finishing up now called THE ZOMBIE KING, and that one takes place eight years after APOCALYPSE OF THE DEAD.  THE ZOMBIE KING will explore how the zombie’s change over time, and will also answer some questions about humanity’s chances of long term survival.

The three books of yours that I’ve read all seem to stand well on their own.  Which one would you recommend starting off with?

For those looking for zombie books, I recommend starting with FLESH EATERS.  That’s the origin story, and establishes the world in which the rest of the series takes place.  Though they can be read in any order, the most logical way to absorb the whole series would be:  FLESH EATERS; DEAD CITY; APOCALYPSE OF THE DEAD; THE ZOMBIE KING.  I’m also going to be releasing a collection of all my zombie short stories to date in March, 2012 called DATING IN DEAD WORLD AND OTHER STORIES.  Many of the gaps between the novels will be answered by short stories within that collection.

How do you know when you’ve written something that will scare your readers?  Does it have to scare you first?

I can tell when something is going to come across as terrifying when it makes me giddy while writing.  There is a scene in FLESH EATERS, for example, where the main character is dangling from the edge of a roof while a horde of zombies waits below.  I remember writing that scene at a fever pitch, my eyes wide open and unblinking, chuckling to myself.  At some point my wife walked into my office and cleared her throat and I nearly jumped out of my chair.  So, yeah, I guess the good stuff has to scare me first.

For those readers yet to try zombie fiction, what books have you enjoyed recently?

God, there’s a bunch.  Let’s see, here’s a short list:  Philip Nutman’s WETWORK; Brian Keene’s THE RISING, CITY OF THE DEAD, and DEAD SEA; John Skipp’s BOOK OF THE DEAD; John Joseph Adams’ THE LIVING DEAD 1 and 2; Alden Bell’s THE REAPERS ARE THE ANGELS; Jonathan Maberry’s Joe Ledger series, especially PATIENT ZERO and his two YA zombie novels, ROT & RUIN and DUST & DECAY; Max Brooks’ absolutely amazing WORLD WAR Z; Iain McKinnon’s REMAINS OF THE DEAD and DOMAIN OF THE DEAD; Peter Clines’ EX-HEROES; the Marvel Zombies series of graphic novels; David Moody’s AUTUMN series; Robert Kirkman’s THE WALKING DEAD graphic novels; Mason James Coles’ PRAY TO STAY DEAD; Stephen King’s PET SEMATARY; Kim Paffenroth’s DYING TO LIVE; J.L. Bourne’s DAY BY DAY ARMAGEDDON...God, the list could go on forever.  There’s so much more than what you see on TV and in the movies.  So much more.

And finally, what is your number one rule for surviving the zombie apocalypse?

Teamwork.  No matter how much of a badass you may be, there’s some zombie out there with your name on his teeth.  You want to stay alive, learn to work together.  Get a group that, between them, has mastery of as many basic survival skills as possible, and learn to live together.

(Joe's website is in the sidebar on the right, pay him a visit...)    

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