This morning we're talking with Joe McKinney, author of the amazing novel Dead City and the brand new book, Apocalypse of the Dead.
Eric S. Brown: Having read your modern, zombie classic, Dead City, I was wondering how did your own experience in law enforcement play into the book?
Joe McKinney: Well, the main character, Eddie Hudson, is a street cop for the San Antonio Police Department. I’ve done Eddie’s job before, so nearly everything in the book that deals with police procedure comes from my firsthand knowledge. I did change a few things around, such as the location of the 911 dispatch center and the layout of police headquarters, because I couldn’t in good conscience compromise the Department’s internal security protocols, but nearly everything else is lockstep with real police work.
I also worked as a member of the SAPD’s Critical Incident Management Team, where we designed the city’s official response to a variety of natural and manmade disasters. That experience was instrumental in designing the cause of the zombie outbreak.
ESB: Tell me more about that. How did you come up with the idea for the novel?
JM: San Antonio is about one hundred and fifty miles from the Texas part of the Gulf Coast. That means we are far enough inland to avoid the destructive power of a hurricane, but close enough to serve as the main evacuation destination for all the cities along the Gulf. My job with the SAPD was to help design ways to deal with a sudden influx of a large number of evacuees. For smaller cities, such as Corpus Christi or Brownsville, where we’re only talking a hundred thousand people or so, the problem is big, but not unworkable. It’s when you’re dealing with huge cities, like Houston and its surrounding areas, and the population numbers get up into the millions, that the problem becomes dangerously unmanageable.
So, when I was looking for a cause for the outbreak, I decided to hit Houston with five major hurricanes in the span of three weeks. That would require a million or more refugees to hit San Antonio all at once. I grew up Clear Lake City, a little suburb south of Houston, and I lived through several huge hurricanes. I know firsthand how badly Houston can flood after even a minor storm, and now that I’ve had some real world training on just how fragile the infrastructure behind Houston’s oil and gas and chemical industries really is, it seemed logical to combine the two. The bodies of the dead would be floating in the soupy mix of chemicals and sea water and rotting in the hot Texas sun. The virus that causes the zombie apocalypse would rise from that. And as the infected were evacuated to nearby cities, such as San Antonio, the situation would turn into a pandemic.
ESB: What zombie authors out there do you read yourself?
JM: My single favorite zombie story is “Zora and the Zombie” by Andy Duncan, but to my knowledge, he has never written another zombie story. I also loved Dan Simmons’ “This Year’s Class Picture” and Adam Troy-Castro’s “Dead Like Me,” but again, those guys haven’t exactly flooded the market with a lot of zombie stuff. I think if I had to name a short list of writers who have done multiple zombie projects I’d list Robert Kirkman and his The Walking Dead series and Max Brooks’ World War Z stuff. Those last two do the Romero-style zombie just about perfectly.
ESB: What can you tell us about Apocalypse of the Dead? I know I for one and am really looking forward to it.
JM: Well, the main thing I guess you have to know is that it is a sequel (of sorts) to Dead City. A word about that, though. See, I really don’t enjoy the traditional series, the kind where you follow the same group of characters through multiple novels. The Lord of the Rings was cool, and I also like James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux novels, but that’s about it. For the most part, I get bored with the characters in a series midway through the second book. So when Kensington came to me and asked about the possibility of turning Dead City into a series, I said I’d do it...as long as I got to do it my way.
What I did was to look at the world I had created for Dead City. At the end of Dead City, the zombie situation has been contained in San Antonio, but only at the expense of quarantining most of the Gulf Coast. Houston is still under water. More than a million zombies were still wandering the flooded ruins. So too were hundreds of thousands of uninfected survivors. I imagined a small group of survivors, one of whom is infected and hiding it from his fellow refugees, escapes the quarantine around Houston. When they make landfall, they spread the zombie virus like a torch dragged across a field of dry grass. The next thing you know, the zombie apocalypse has gone global.
From there I follow six different groups of characters as they converge on the North Dakota Grasslands, where they have all heard stories of a preacher who is building a sanctuary to hold the zombies at bay. I won’t tell you what happens when the survivors get to the Grasslands, but I will tell you that I researched everything I could find on Jonestown to write this book.
ESB: What's your favorite zombie film?
JM: The original black and white version of Night of the Living Dead, hands down. All hail George Romero! His is the movie that got me started on zombies, and the one I keep coming back to for inspiration. After Night of the Living Dead, I’d say Shaun of the Dead. From there, listing my favorites would be difficult. The list changes with my mood.
ESB: Do you have a favorite short story that you've written?
JM: I am known for zombies, but they are actually only a small part of what I write. Of my own short stories, my favorite is a ghost story called “Blemish.” Think When Harry Met Sally, but with a ghost inspired by the folklore of Vietnam. The tale is quite popular, I’m told, with romance readers, which I guess makes it one of those stories that the writer intends to come across one way and yet everyone else seems to take another. Go figure.
ESB: What's next for you and what are you working on now?
JM: I just finished the third book in the Dead City series. That makes a total of four novels written this year, so I may take a break on novels until January. In the meantime, I’m working on a reader’s guide to the Dead City universe, which has grown to include four novellas, two stories, four novels and a screenplay. The essay I’m doing now will put all of those various stories into context, so any one interested in getting a behind the scenes peek at the series should check that out at my website, Old Major’s Dream.
ESB: And what words of wisdom would you share with upcoming writers?
JM: This is probably going to burst a few bubbles, but...you need to treat writing as a job. Yes, I know. Writing is about passion, doing what you really love. I get that. That’s why I started. In fact, I was doing this gig for free for a really long time before I ever started thinking of it as something that could pay my family’s bills. But for those of you who want to write professionally, the only way you are going to succeed is to treat writing like a job.
When you have a job, you show up to work everyday. You consistently turn out a work product that makes your bosses happy. If you agree to a deadline, you make that deadline. You represent yourself in a professional, competent manner. In other words, you get the job done. Think about writing in those terms, and you will find that others will regard you in like terms.
But there is one little secret that seems to have been forgotten in our modern age...never, ever, ever forget the power of a handwritten thank you note.
ESB: Oh and I must ask, do you read comics and if so, Marvel or DC?
JM: That’s an easy one. Marvel all the way. I’m really excited to find out what David Liss is going to do with Black Panther. I’m also hoping for something else along the Marvel Zombies line.
Thanks again to Eric, and to Joe for the awesome interview. Whether you are a fan of zombies, Bigfoot, or just love good, fast-paced horror, be sure to check out their work!