Street Cop and Zombie Author Joe McKinney Won’t Take A Break
If you have one man in your corner when the undead throw down, consider Joe McKinney. The former homicide detective, disaster specialist, and current author has a lot on his plate, especially with his new job putting him back on the street. In spite of this, he had no problem taking some time to answer some questions for Zombie Pop. It’s not often you get a chance to talk to a writer who’s seen some action fighting crime, so I had to go for it, and Joe’s responses were alternatively hilarious and terrifying.
Bryan Way: You were a homicide detective and a disaster mitigation specialist, and now you help run the 911 dispatch for the San Antonio Police Department. Did writing start out as a hobby, or did you always intend to be a novelist?
Joe McKinney: I’ve actually just changed jobs again. I’m currently the night commander for the west side of San Antonio, which puts me back on the streets… exactly where I’ve always wanted to be.
Growing up, I never even thought of becoming a writer. It’s been a hobby since I was about twelve or thirteen, but I never thought of doing anything with my stories. I usually threw them away when the next idea came along. No telling how many I’ve thrown away over the years.
And then, in 2003, I became a father. I remember looking in on the nursery at my newborn little girl and thinking that the world had suddenly become a lot more complicated. I felt like I had responsibilities coming at me from every side. What I needed was some way to express the anxiety I was experiencing, and as I was already knocking out short stories every once in a while, I figured I would try to write a novel. I started a space opera called The Edge of the Map, and it was absolutely horrible. And worse, it wasn’t addressing the reason I decided to write the novel. So I scrapped that novel and decided to write what I love…and that meant zombies. I was a young patrolman with duties and responsibilities rushing it at me from every side, so why not write about a young patrolman with zombies rushing in at him from every side. Once I did that, the book came out in a flood. And because I wrote it right as the zombie craze was just beginning, I had the good fortune of being one of the only acts in town. It was good timing.
BW: Naturally your work contains a strong procedural element and a degree of realism that can only come from the type of work you do. Without using specific examples, can you talk about some images, situations, or emotions that you recapture with your writing?
JM: There have been quite a few, actually. You can read a stylized version of my first car chase in my novel Inheritance, and you can read some of the prejudice I’ve witnessed against female officers, both from the public and from their fellow officers, in my novels Quarantined and Flesh Eaters.
If you read Inheritance you can also get an idea of all the pranks cops pull on one another; every prank pulled in the book either happened to me or was done by me! The list goes on and on, as my police work has really informed just about every aspect of my writing, but I will give you a particular example, just because it’s kind of funny.
Back when I was a very young patrolman, police work still had a bit of a wild West mentality to it. We didn’t have GPS in our cars so that our sergeants could track our movements. The dispatchers couldn’t see where we were. And there weren’t video cameras inside the cars. The officers nowadays are under a microscope every minute of every shift. With the push of a button I can play their in-car videos at my desk and check up on them. They can’t even fart in their cars without it showing up on tape. But back in my day, none of that was in place. And the shotguns in the cars were considered part of the car. Shotgun number 83 belonged to car 7433, and not to the officer who happened to be driving it at the time. That meant that the guys didn’t really go to much trouble to maintain the weapons. In fact, most of the time, they used the barrel of the gun like a trashcan. I once had to move against a suspect hiding out in some scrub brush, so I grabbed the shotgun and charged forward, the barrel of my weapon pointed down at the ground in the low ready stance. But as I’m running I see a chicken bone slide out of the barrel of my gun. I remember watching that bone hit the ground and almost busting out laughing. I put that into Dead City, my first novel, and to this day, I still get emails from cops my age who tell me they laughed so hard they cried over that scene. I guess the same thing happened all over.
BW: The last book for your Dead World series, Mutated, came out in 2012. Do you have any plans to pick up where you left off, or are you satisfied with the series as it is?
JM: That series is nowhere close to being done. I intend to go back through and fill in some of the gaps with both short stories and novels. And not only fill in the gaps, but expand to other parts of the world as well. For instance, one of the parts of the series that has yet to be written, but clearly needs to be written, is the military retaking San Antonio, as described in passing by Eddie Hudson at the end of Dead City. That would even give me a chance to revisit an older and wiser Eddie Hudson, which I’d love to do.
BW: I’ve noticed that you have some short stories connected to the Dead World novel series; did you feel you had more ideas than you had space for in the books, or were the stories independent revelations that fit the world of the story?
JM: A little of both, actually. Some of the Dead World stories were written by request for various editors, and some of them just sprang to mind as one of those “you need to write this right now” moments. There are, I believe seven short stories set in the Dead World series, and they will all be in my upcoming collection Dating in Dead World: The Complete Zombie Short Fiction of Joe McKinney. With luck, readers should see that book by Christmastime.
BW: Your next book, The Savage Dead, is due out in September of 2013. The novel’s content centers around a zombie outbreak happening on a cruise ship, but takes on a broader context of current immigration and border relations. Is this going to resemble the opening of Dawn of the Dead meets Traffic?
JM: That is actually a great description of the book! If you don’t mind, I may use that…
BW: You’re welcome to it!
JM: So, the Texas-Mexico border is such a complex mix of cultures and levels of wealth and political confusion that it really is a wonder to me it hasn’t been explored more fully in fiction. Or that the works that have tried to tackle the subject have been so underappreciated. Traffic is a great example. I loved that film, and yet I’d venture to say many younger film fans have never heard of it. Hopefully throwing zombies into the mix will make the subject appealing to a wider American audience.
BW: How much study went into the issues of immigration for The Savage Dead? Do you have any first-hand experience with the subject from your career in law enforcement?
JM: Quite a bit, actually. I’ve dealt with this issue in my law enforcement career for years, so I have a deep appreciation for the many sides to the issue. I’ve been to all the schools, of course, and I’ve been to seminars and I’ve read countless books on the subject. I’ve even had the privilege of reading some restricted access documents distributed by Homeland Security and the U.S. Army on this issue. There is a lot happening on the border that most Americans are wholly ignorant of, and I think that’s a shame.
But I’ve also tempered my research with a lot of personal experience. As a cop, I have daily interactions with illegal migrants. Believe me, it’s one thing to talk about these issues in the abstract, the way they do on the talk shows, but it’s quite another to kneel down beside a woman who’s just been raped and doesn’t speak a word of English and try to convince her that she will be taken seriously and that she does have rights.
BW: At one point in The Savage Dead, one of the characters, Juan Perez, is engaged in a fairly brutal firefight. Have you ever been forced into a position where you had to draw down on someone?
JM: Many, many times, unfortunately. I work as a policeman in the sixth largest city in the U.S. That means I stay fairly busy. Having to pull your weapon on someone, while not a nightly occurrence, nonetheless happens quite a bit. For example, last week I was with another sergeant and it was about one-thirty in the morning. We were going for coffee, but stuck at a light. We saw this guy run a red light right in front of us, so we went after him. It took him a long time to stop, a lot longer than he needed, so right away we knew something was up. When he did finally stop it was on a dark side street away from the rest of traffic. My partner went up to the driver’s side and I went up to the passenger side. Most San Antonio police officers work singly, not doubled up, so the bad guys aren’t used to seeing two cops in one car. He never even knew I was there by his passenger door. I heard my partner ask the guy for his license and insurance, and the guy immediately went into a long and involved bullshit response, but clearly evading the question. He wanted us to follow him to his apartment where we could see his license. My partner said no, tell me your name and date of birth, I’ll find your license on the computer. The guy paused for a second before saying his name, so right away we knew he was lying.
My partner asked, “Do you have anything in the car with your name on it?” The guy said, yeah, in the glove box. He reached over and opened the glove box. There was a gun tucked far back into the glove box. I shouted, “Gun!” and opened the passenger door and reached in with my left hand, grabbed his wrist, and pinned it into the glove box. With my right I had my pistol in his face. I said, “You’re gonna fucking die if you don’t let go of the weapon.” He thought about it for a second, but eventually complied. Turns out he had three aggravated robbery warrants for his arrest. He was looking at 50 years in prison, and I’m sure he wouldn’t have hesitated to shoot my partner had he gotten the opportunity.
I was lucky then and I’ve been lucky throughout my career. I’ve pulled my weapon many, many times, more than I can count, but the only things I’ve ever had to fire at were vicious dogs and wild hogs. Oh, and a buffalo with a broken leg that had gotten loose from a horse trailer after a rollover accident on the freeway, but that’s a different story. Turns out if you shoot a buffalo with a .40 caliber Glock, you make them really mad!
BW: I’ll make sure never to do that! Obviously The Savage Dead hasn’t come out yet (September 3rd), but have you put any thought into whether or not there will be a follow up? Do you have any new ideas for books or short stories in the works?
JM: I have! I find the idea of setting zombies loose on the chaotic Texas-Mexico border endlessly fascinating, and I definitely want to do more with it. And I have a feeling Special Agent Juan Perez has got a lot more action ahead of him. He’s not the kind of character that can live too long without it. He’s the kind of man who starves for action, and there’s still plenty more in his future.
BW: Thanks for the great answers, this was very illuminating!
JM: Thanks for having me here, and please, don’t forget to come by my website to read interviews with some of the biggest names in the business.
Here’s an excerpt from The Savage Dead: