An Interview with Joe McKinney

One of the pleasures of interviewing authors for helluo librorum is the diverse personalities that I encounter. When I first heard that Joe was a homicide detective, I thought I’d find a “just the facts, ma’am” kind of guy. How wrong I was! Joe is personable and delightful, and I really enjoyed reading his answers to my questions. I hope you will please help me welcome author Joe McKinney to helluo librorum.

Joe is a homicide detective for the San Antonio Police Department and a full-time writer. He has also served on the SAPD’s Critical Incident Management Team, where he helped coordinate San Antonio’s responses to large scale flooding, hazardous materials spills, and the mass evacuations of New Orleans and Houston following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. He has a Master’s degree in Medieval Literature from the University of Texas at San Antonio, and currently writes in a wide range of genres, including horror, mystery, and science fiction. Author of the novels Dead City, Quarantined, and Peacekeepers, he has been nominated for the Horror Writers Association’s Bram Stoker Award.

Joe has worked with Michelle McCrary to edit Dead Set, an anthology of zombie tales by such notable authors as Lisa Mannetti, Lee Thomas, Bev Vincent, Harry Shannon, David Dunwoody, Nate Southard, Boyd E. Harris, and a host of others.

He has published nonfiction articles on Texas history, his various culinary interests, and is a regular contributor to In Cold Blog. Though I have no personal knowledge on the subject, it is rumored he makes the best batch of chili in Texas.*

A brief note before we begin: Most helluo librorum readers are adults; however, I do feel it’s fair to warn that we will be talking about homicide (namely Jack the Ripper) in this interview. Joe speaks very authoritatively on the subject, but there are portions that might not be suitable for the faint of heart.

Now without further ado, I’m most pleased to introduce you to author Joe McKinney.

Both Dead City and Quarantined concern dystopian futures due to viral outbreaks. Another short-story, “Plague Dogs”, deals with this same theme. What is it that keeps drawing you back to these dark themes?

Society is an artificial construct. We may have some atavistic need to group together, to form packs for our mutual protection and to help us get the food for our bellies and just to have somebody to laugh at our jokes, but that is where the natural impulse stops. Everything after that – the rules, the laws, religion, all of it – is nothing more than a man-made creation. But we’ve taken that creation to a high art form, haven’t we? It’s grown so complex, so varied, so seemingly essential to our natures, that it is hard to imagine living without it. That’s part of what I try to do with my horror fiction. I like to take characters that could be anybody in our day to day lives and strip them of that civilized veneer. For me, that loss of society is truly the scariest thing you can show a person. After all, once you’ve taken away the trappings of civilization, the manners, the elevated parts of humanity, what’s left over? Nothing but an animal. Holding that mirror up to the reader is, for me, good horror.

And it’s funny that you mention the works you do, because each of them addresses the theme of man stripped of his civilization. The main characters in those stories find their answers to that theme by falling back on the family. Dead City was my first stab at it. On the surface, the story is just a rough and tumble shoot ‘em up about a police officer trying to get home to his family on the first night of a zombie apocalypse, and on that level you can read the book as a simple rollercoaster ride of survival horror. But if you look a little closer, you’ll see that the main character, Eddie Hudson, goes through three distinct acts, or phases. Initially, as the organized police response to danger falls apart, Eddie loses the security of being part of a well-armed, well-trained army. As he’s trying to adjust to that collapse, he meets his best friend. But when that friend dies, he is left with nothing but his family. Eddie has been reduced to the most basic human social structure, and this is the saving grace that allows him to eventually bounce back and make connections to others outside of his family.

Quarantined and “Plague Dogs” treat the same theme, but do so in a more complex fashion. In both cases, we begin with characters that have been reduced to the level where Eddie finds himself at the end of Dead City. The rest of the story describes their efforts to regain what has been lost. In Quarantined, Lily Harris enjoys partial success. But for the broken man in “Plague Dogs,” that success remains just out of reach.

As a homicide detective, you see humanity at its absolute worst yet both Dead City and Quarantined have flickers of hope spread throughout the storylines. Tell us what it is that enables you to see the hope in humanity and weave that optimism into your tales.

It’s true that dealing with the worst humanity has to offer leaves a psychic stain. Writers have always exploited the cop’s eternal struggle between his own humanity and the toilet bowl that threatens to flush that humanity into oblivion. So many writers have touched on that struggle, in fact, that the world-weary cop has become a tired old trope. But in this case the stereotype is usually true. Being a cop exposes you to an awful lot of freaked out stuff. Believe it or not, I used to be a fairly naive guy. I had never even seen heroin before I joined the department. The next thing I knew, I was pulling it out of people’s pockets every night. The same is true with prostitution and gangs and elder abuse and murdered children and all the other horrible things that people do to each other and themselves. Being a cop is an education in the depravity of the human species, and a lot of people just aren’t cut out to do the job.

So, given the lay of the land, it’s no wonder that most cops find some kind of hobby to occupy their minds off duty. Some become florists, some photographers, some writers, some hardcore drinkers. I wish I could say it was all good, but of course it isn’t. The violence and sickness you see on the news every night is very real, and not every cop finds a good way to jettison that accumulated emotional baggage.

I got lucky. Writing provided that outlet for me. But of course it took me a while to realize that I could use my writing for that. You see, when you’re 26 years old and single, getting into fights and chases every night, it’s easy to lose yourself in the adrenaline. You get caught up and don’t even realize how your world is changing.

But then I got married, and, in 2003, my oldest daughter was born. I remember looking in on her in the nursery ward and feeling this overwhelming need to crystallize who I was at that moment, and writing was my way of asserting some degree of control over a world that had suddenly become extremely complex and a whole lot more frightening.

Any parents in the room? Can you guys relate to that experience?

An interviewer once asked me about this, calling it the “Fearful Dad” school of writing, and I think that pretty well sums up the reason I started writing professionally.

At the time, I was searching for a way to freeze the moment, as I said. I turned to writing because it was something I had been doing, more or less as a hobby, since I was a kid.

I used to scribble out stories when I was younger, staple them together, leave them on the corner of my desk for a week or two, and then throw them away. I have no idea how many stories I’ve thrown away over the years. A bunch, certainly.

So when I decided to take some form of control over my new circumstances, I began a novel. I wrote a zombie apocalypse story about a scared young father trying to fight his way back home as the entire world collapsed around him – sound familiar? – and I got lucky and sold it to a major publisher.

The hope that you speak of was there from the very beginning. I knew that hope had to be there, because without it there was no reason to bring a child into the world. I realized that I did believe in the world I was living in. It is full of horrible faults and sins so great they exceed humanity’s ability to adjudicate them; but for all that, it is still a world worth living in. For me, that dichotomy is both the source of horror and the source of hope.

You recently had the opportunity to visit London and go on a tour of Jack the Ripper’s murderous spree with the famed Ripperologist, Donald Rumbelow, and wrote a splendid article on the subject, On the Heels of Jack the Ripper, for In Cold Blog. Tell us what it is about Jack the Ripper that fascinates you the most.

Jack the Ripper was really crime’s perfect storm. Everything came together in one perfect moment to create a legend, and that legend is as much a story of the City of London as it is a lurid tale of mutilated prostitutes and a massive, and ultimately futile, manhunt. Jack wasn’t the first serial killer, but he was certainly the first modern serial killer, a distinction that elevated him to boogeyman status.

You see, London in 1888 was the capital of the world’s greatest empire. For many years its rising middle class had been reaping the benefits of capitalism and industrialization and empire building. The city had its dirty little secrets, such as the East End, but for the happy majority, those secrets were a world away.

Jack the Ripper changed that. As soon as he started killing, the papers gobbled up every lurid little detail and forced the middle class and even the aristocrats to acknowledge that a tragedy on the order of genocide was being acted out everyday in their very own backyard. Jack the Ripper not only filleted prostitutes, but London as well . . . and that terrified, and fascinated, an awful lot of people.

But what really amazes me is that people seem to have glossed over just how truly gruesome the Ripper killings were. Jack the Ripper has become a legend, and the trouble with legends is that they get romanticized. Most people, when they think of Jack, think of a dark figure lurking in the alleyways, swooping in like a vampire to make quick, efficient kill. They don’t realize that he gutted these women from the rectum to the sternum, spread them open, tossed their lungs and colons over their shoulders, and removed the kidneys. There is even compelling evidence to suggest these killings led to cannibalism. The Ripper’s final victim, Mary Kelly, was hacked into an unbelievable mess. Look up the crime scene pictures online. I have seen hundreds of murder scenes. I thought I had seen the worst things one person can do to another, but hers made the bile rise in my throat. What really amazes me about the Ripper killings is that a horror of that magnitude could become so whitewashed in the public memory.

Speaking of In Cold Blog, you contribute articles to them regularly. Tell us a little about In Cold Blog and the kind of articles you enjoy writing for them.

I was at a book signing at Barnes & Noble here in San Antonio a few years back and a man came up to me and said, “Hey, I’m a fellow Kensington [my publisher for Dead City, Apocalypse of the Dead, The Ninth Plague, and The Zombie King] writer named Corey Mitchell and I wanted to introduce myself.” He was so modest that I failed to associate him with Corey Mitchell, the New York Times Bestselling true crime writer. I didn’t make that connection until after he told me about his pet project, an online true crime magazine called In Cold Blog, and asked me to be a regular contributor to the magazine. When I did finally make the connection, I was tongue tied.

Corey has been great. He told me that I was free to write about anything I want to write about, as long as there’s a true crime tie-in, and I’ve taken him to his word on that. I am still a homicide detective for the San Antonio Police Department, and my department has specific rules about writing for publication. I can’t, for example, write about cases that I have been involved in, or that I use my official position to research. But that leaves me a lot of ground to play around in. My favorite stories are ones dealing with Texas history around 1900. I have done articles on Officer William Lacey, one of the first San Antonio police officers killed in the line of duty, and on Gregorio Cortez, the Mexican outlaw who led a vast army of lawmen on a 30 day long chase across South Texas, becoming a folk hero in the process. But I also do stories on modern crimes. For example, I wrote a story on Benita Veliz, a college graduate who came to America as an eight year old little girl and who now faces deportation for immigration violations committed by her parents. I also wrote about the grave robbing going on at Burr Oak Cemetery. My favorite articles so far have been on the history of the board game Monopoly (a seedy story of theft and deception if there ever was one) and the story of Officer William Lacey.

My next article for In Cold Blog will be on the police shooting of a seven year old girl in Detroit just a few days ago.

You mentioned in another interview that you outline your novels. Tell us about your writing process.

You know, the other day I was driving through my neighborhood, and I saw this dad and his two kids on a sidewalk that leads up this pretty big hill. The dad was hunched way over, pulling a kid on a tricycle with one hand and pushing his own bike with the other. And he’s got his older boy’s bike, which has a flat, draped over the crossbar of his bike, his older son walking along behind him, balling his eyes out. I looked at that poor guy and I thought, “That guy did not think his plan through before he left the house.”

I know a lot of writers – or, rather, a lot of people who wish they could write – approach writing like that dad approached taking his kids for a ride. They start out with great intentions, but pretty soon all they’re doing is trying to push a mismatched bunch of junk uphill.

In my mind, the problem is that they don’t outline their stories before they start writing.

Now, invariably, people bring up one major objection when I start talking about the importance of outlining.

It stifles creativity.

Every professional – that means working – writer I know works from outlines in one form or another. Their outlines may be cursory, just a scribbled line or two to describe what’s going to happen in a chapter, or they may be almost as long as the finished work itself, but they use outlines. And these are working writers. In other words, these are people who produce enough writing of professional quality that they can support themselves and their families on their writing. In short, they get ideas, and they turn them into stories.

These are pros, mind you. The guys who write the books that get published.

But when I look at the folks who object to outlines, invariably I see folks who hardly ever complete stories of saleable quality, and in most cases have been sweating over the same incomplete novel manuscript for six years now.

I ask you: Who is more creative, the writer who gets stories written, or the person who spends a decade spinning their wheels without result?

It’s quite simple. Writers write. They complete projects on a timely basis. They keep a steady stream of product going into the magazines and to the publishers.

Creativity is a marvelous thing – as long as you remember that the root verb behind the word is “to create.” Good intentions don’t amount to diddlysquat if you don’t get the story written.

Like everything else about writing, there is no one and only right way to do it. If it works for you, then that’s the right way to do it.

Personally, I have two main methods.

For short stories and essays I generally start by writing out, in a few lines, my central idea or premise. I don’t try to constrain this process. If the ideas are coming, I just write and write. I may get four sentences, I may get four pages, but I write as long as the muse is riding my back.

This passage will generally form the nucleus of my worksheets. I may not use any of it in the final draft, but it is useful nonetheless.

Once I have that passage, I start thinking about the various component pieces that make up a story. That will usually give me a few more pages of notes.

From there, the story is usually pretty well realized. I will then write out, in a few sentences per section, the main action. After that, I take this rough outline to the composition phase.

On my desk right now is the rough outline of a ghost story. The sentences that define the main sequence of events are a bit cryptic to those who don’t have my notes. They read something like this:

    The saying that brings back Harry Mardell’s memories
    Kicking in doors for drug warrants is a young man’s game; that’s why the shooting took place; he’s not a young man anymore
    Recounting the shooting, losing a partner. Again.
    He starts walking as part of his therapy and gets a little stronger each day
    By the time the other officer dies Harry has gotten to the point where he can walk by the old neighborhood where he sees the way it’s fallen apart . . . everything’s abandoned, he barely recognizes it.

And on and on.

As I get to each section, I will do a more detailed outline, but in the same fashion, for that specific section. In that way, I build a road map that takes me through the composition process.

I use a similar process for novels. Usually, I will sketch out a paragraph for each chapter, and then, as I get to that chapter, I will outline it much as I do a short story, first by overall course, giving a paragraph to each section, and then a more detailed sketch of each section within the chapters.

But the larger outline of a novel really depends on the type of story being told.

Dead City and Quarantined, my first two novels, were first person narratives. That meant telling the story from a single point of view and allowed me to write my outlines in a more or less linear fashion.

My third novel, Apocalypse of the Dead, is a big novel, following multiple storylines that are all on a collision course. That meant keeping track of at least six sets of characters, each with their own storyline. To manage that, I wrote out each storyline separately, put each stage of each storyline on a separate sheet of paper, and then arranged them on the living room floor like parallel drop down menus on your computer. I then went up to the railing overlooking the living room and began the slow process of assembling them in a master order.

That’s how I do it. You may have other ideas. If they work, run with them. But if you find you’re not getting projects completed, ask yourself why.

I suspect the answer is simply a lack of organization.

And don’t be afraid to go off the map. This is fiction, after all. A lot of it is about prior planning, but there’s tons of room for inspiration. If something good comes up, go with it.

This is why you keep your outlines fast and loose and simple. Follow your inspiration, then work your way back to the map as necessary. Or create a new map. Outlining is a tool to keep you focused on a goal, not a straightjacket to enslave you to formulaic fiction.

You recently helped edit the anthology Dead Set. Tell us about Dead Set.

Dead Set was my first venture into editing . . . and I loved it. The project started out with a series of emails to the managing editor of 23 House Publishing, Mitchel Whitington. Mitchel was really pleased with a story I sold to a previous 23 House vampire-themed anthology called Nights of Blood 2. We started talking about zombies, and Mitchel found out that I am a major geek on the subject. I have read nearly every zombie book out there, and I think I own every zombie movie ever made . . . including the God-awful ones, and believe me, there are plenty of those. He told me he wanted 23 House to do a zombie anthology, and that he wanted me to co-edit it with Michelle McCrary. I was intrigued. I researched 23 House and found out that most of their horror anthologies have been for charity, and that really touched me. Service is a big part of my life, and having the opportunity to turn my writing to a charitable end really sealed the deal for me.

Editing the book turned out to be a fantastic process. We received hundreds of submissions . . . so many, in fact, that for a while I thought we were going to have to do two volumes. But in the end we were able to narrow the field down to 20 amazing stories. What really excited me, aside from the quality of the stories, was the range of subject matter. It quickly became obvious to me that we were dealing with a collection of subject matters that promised to take the zombie story into places it had not been before.

Lisa Mannetti, for example, gave us a wonderful medical thriller with a historical twist. Lee Thomas used the zombie as a metaphor for the frightening specter of AIDS. Bob Nailor and Michelle McCrary gave us some great humor. Mark Onspaugh and Judy Comeau took us far into the future with some very Twilight Zone style stories. And Boyd Harris gave us one of the most emotional zombie stories I’ve ever read. I’m really proud of Dead Set . . . and I’m especially proud that it gave me the chance to contribute my passion to the Make a Wish Foundation, which is where my profits from the anthology are going.

Which do you find yourself enjoying more, writing or editing and why?

Writing, definitely. Editing is fun, don’t get me wrong, but the thrill of capturing the stories in my head and translating them onto the page is what got me into this business . . . and it’s what keeps me coming back to the empty page every night.

I have heard writers wax eloquently about why they write, not because they can, but because they have to. I think that’s a lot of prosaic horse manure. They don’t have to. Nobody has to. They do it to get their rocks off, plain and simple.

I write for the pure joy of watching a creation take shape. The printed word just happens to be my chosen medium. Some people seek that creative outlet through cooking, others through painting, still others through playing music. But whatever the path, the destination is the same. There is a joy in creating something. There is a mad, unbridled, fevered excitement in watching nothing become something. So, yeah, for me it’s writing all the way.

Tell us where we see you next and what projects you have lined up for the upcoming year.

The next two years are going to be full ones. Let’s see, I’ve got a novella called “Blemish” in Dark Recesses #12, another one called “Dating in the Dead World” in John Joseph Adams’ The Living Dead 2, and a third coming out in Amazing Alternity Stories. Each of those novellas should be out sometime this year.

As for short stories, I have one called “The Sixth Mission” coming up in Permuted Press’ Best New Tales of the Apocalypse, another called “Eyes Open” that will hopefully be appearing in an upcoming issue of Cemetery Dance, and a third called “Lost Voices, Lost Places” that will be coming out in an upcoming anthology I’m editing for 23 House Publishing called The Forsaken. In The Forsaken, my co-editor Mark Onspaugh and I are collecting stories that deal with abandoned buildings. I’m really excited about it.

As far as novels are concerned, I’ll be publishing two through Bad Moon Books. The first is a coming of age tale called Lost Girl of the Lake that I co-wrote with Michael McCarty. The second is a solo novel called The Red Empire.

Kensington is also rereleasing Dead City on October 2, 2010. That will be followed by the sequel, Apocalypse of the Dead, on November 5, 2010. The third book in the series, called The Ninth Plague, comes out in April, 2011, and the fourth book in the series, called The Zombie King, comes out in November, 2011.

Readers are encouraged to come by my website,, for up-to-date information on publication dates and the latest news.

I hope you enjoyed our interview with Joe McKinney. You can also catch Joe’s articles at In Cold Blog.

*Let it be noted that this particular interviewer will no more put a dog in the “best chili in Texas” fight than she will ever divulge where the “best BBQ” can be found in North Carolina. It’s just not worth the death threats!

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About T. Frohock

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4 Responses to An Interview with Joe McKinney

  1. Matt Cardin says:

    Now that’s my idea of an interview. Thanks to both of you, Teresa and Joe, for a very worthwhile read.

    Loved your detailed thoughts on the writing process, Joe.

  2. Jan O'Hara says:

    T, you’re determined to expand my reading repertoire, aren’t you? Thank you for doing so.

    I very much enjoyed this interview, and in part it’s because I carry my own psychic stain from my former career in medicine. It’s nice to read how other people can use the material and personal insights gained to enhance and inform their writing. I hope I can do the same with my work.

    WRT the romanticizing of serial killers, I’d really love to know what Mr. McKinney thinks about the hit TV series “Dexter”…

  3. Joe McKinney says:

    Jan (and Matt),

    Thanks for the great comments. This interview was a blast for me, and it’s good to know that others enjoyed it too.

    As far as Dexter goes…I’ve got to preface my remarks by saying that I don’t follow the show regularly. I have seen, probably, ten episodes. Also, I haven’t read any of the Jeff Lindsay novels where the show was born. But, that said, I think I get enough of the concept to weigh in on your question.

    Dexter seems to me to be an agent of retributive justice. He only kills those who he knows are killers themselves, and only kills them after he has established that they are a continuing threat. For whatever reason, his victims have escaped prosecution (and sometimes detection) by the state. Dexter steps in for these special cases and metes out the justice all of us would like do ourselves. And, perhaps most importantly for the current discussion, he usurps the official function of the state as a disinterested third party and takes punishment into his own hands. He is a vigilante, yes, but his “Code” elevates him above this status. This is not a Charles Bronson film, after all. There is more philosophical complexity to the show than that.

    So here’s the philosophical issue, as I see it. You have two basic theories of justice. Retributive justice is the Biblical standard of an eye for an eye, a life for a life. Dexter falls solidly in this category. The other theory of justice is based on utilitarian philosophy. The prosecution of crime, and its eventual punishment, are expected to serve some larger social good, such as a visible deterant to future crimes. The United States government, and all of the fifty states, have a penal system based on utilitarian philosophy. The state derives its authority to punish precisely because it is not the victim of the crime in question. This is why an executioner at a prison is not a murderer, but rather an agent of justice.

    However, the reality of a utilitarian system of punishment is that many, many crimes go unpunished. And those that do often don’t get the punishment that our personal values feel is appropriate. Ask the men and women in Mothers Against Drunk Driving about this. Some drunk kills their child, and the bastard gets off with five years probation. You call that justice? It’s an insult. Dexter, as a character, steps in to fill this frustration that we, as victims, feel. To paraphrase Aristotle, this is our catharsis, our reward for investing ourselves emotionally in the show.

    But of course good drama is more complicated than that. After all, we know the truth about Dexter. We know he’s really a sociopath who just happens to have been put on a path that benefits us. That distinction creeps us out – or at least it should. Personally, I could never really get my head around this side of the story. Knowing what Dexter is, I have this mental block against him. Maybe that’s why I never got into the show.

  4. Kelly Bryson says:

    Great interview. Thanks!

Comments are closed.