It seems slightly unfair (if hardly inaccurate) to label Joe McKinney one of the reigning kings of zombie fiction, because his work has extended beyond the walking dead into ghost stories (his novels Inheritance and Crooked House), virus thrillers (Quarantined), and hardboiled noir (Dodging Bullets). However, McKinney has found the greatest success with his Dead World series, which consists of Dead City (2006), Apocalypse of the Dead (2010), Flesh Eaters (2011), and Mutated (2012), all published by Kensington Books. In addition to being a Bram Stoker Award-winning (for Flesh Eaters) horror writer, McKinney is also a lifelong Texan, a husband and father of two, the holder of a Master’s Degree in English Literature, and a San Antonio police officer who has also worked as a homicide detective and disaster mitigation specialist. McKinney’s next book, The Savage Dead, comes out this month from Kensington.
Let’s start out with a bang: Why zombies? You’ve written in your blog about why horror—“fear is the most authentic, and the most useful, emotion available to the storyteller”—and elsewhere you’ve compared zombies to abandoned buildings, but what is it about zombies specifically that’s so compelling for you?
Night of the Living Dead was the first horror movie that ever really scared me, and it remains one of the few that’s ever done so. I remember watching that when I was about thirteen or fourteen and then going off to bed every night for the next three weeks clutching a baseball bat. My fascination with zombies began right then. The trouble was—except for a few movies of varying quality—they were hard to find. As I got older and busier with my career, I resigned myself to watching Night and Dawn and Day of the Dead over and over again.
But then, in 2003, I became a father. I had been a bit of an adrenaline junkie up to that point. That was what brought me to my career as a cop. Back then I worked hard and I played hard. I loved chasing motorcycles on the highway and burglars through backyards. But then, boom, fatherhood, and suddenly I had a whole new list of concerns. I remember looking in on my newborn daughter in the nursery and feeling like the world had just become infinitely more complex. Suddenly I had responsibilities coming at me from every side, and it made me kind of anxious. I went looking for a way to let that anxiousness out, and I decided to try to write about it. I’ve been writing stories since I was about twelve, just as a hobby mind you, and so I thought I could make it work for me here.
I started writing this space opera novel called The Edge of the Map and got about eighty pages in before I finally admitted that the story sucked ass. It was terrible. And worse still, it wasn’t helping me to articulate the anxiousness and fears I was experiencing in real life. So I tried again. I figured, “Hey, I’m a young patrolman with all these huge responsibilities coming at him from every side. Why not write about a young patrolman with zombies coming at him from every side?” Once I did that, everything clicked. I went from hating sitting down at the typewriter (because back then it was an IBM Selectric III) to getting there every chance I got. The story came out in a flood, and I loved every second of it. Why zombies? Because, to me, they were a metaphor for the fears of being a parent and screwing up the only job that really counts for anything in this world.
You started writing your first novel, Dead City, while you were completing your Master’s degree in English. Does that make you the first guy who got a Master’s Degree to write zombie books?
Oh no, not by a long shot. One of my favorite zombie writers is Kim Paffenroth, and that guy has a doctorate in theology from Norte Dame. So, when you want to talk about overly educated writers hanging out with the zombie horde, you should be talking to him.
Even still, my Master’s degree did play a small part in my zombie writing. You see, when I wrote Dead City, I knew absolutely nothing about professional writing. For example, I didn’t know the rules on using real place names in a work of fiction. I didn’t know if I needed to get permission from somebody or what. But Dead City was told from Eddie Hudson’s point of view, and Eddie Hudson was a cop. That meant that he couldn’t drive anywhere, even in the midst of the zombie apocalypse, without knowing what street he was on. Any decent cop would even be able to tell you the block number. And as the book was told in first person, those details had to surface. I figured if I didn’t know the rules then I shouldn’t take the chance. San Antonio is a huge town, the sixth largest in the country, in fact, so I could easily make up a few street names. Plus, I didn’t want some citizen going before an Internal Affairs review committee with a copy of my book in hand demanding to know if this was really what the San Antonio Police Department thought of their neighborhood. (A truthful answer would have been yes, but that’s beside the point.) Simply put, I wanted to avoid that scene. So I made up some street names. I was studying for my Master’s degree in English Literature at the time, so I simply used the names of famous poems for street names. There’s a big scene in the beginning of Dead City that takes place at the corner of Resolution and Independence. You Wordsworth fans will immediately recognize the importance of that. Those familiar with San Antonio, on the other hand, will immediately recognize the scene in the book as the intersection of Culebra and Zarzamora. Every street name mentioned by Eddie in Dead City, in fact, is borrowed from the title of a poem or its author. One of the major scenes toward the end of the book, for example, takes place on Plath Street. And if you don’t get the importance of a novel about death and screwing up parenting taking place on Plath Street, well, I can’t help you.
How does being a lifelong Texan inform your work?
You know, I didn’t start thinking seriously about this question until I attended the Popular Culture Association’s annual convention in Washington DC last year. The PCA is a gathering of college professors from all over the world. It’s basically a chance for academics to geek out on stuff they’d never get to publish in respected academic journals. So I was going through the programming (all three hundred pages of it!) and I saw this panel of presenters talking about Texas horror writers. Naturally, I had to go. I was sitting in the audience listening to this one professor from Our Lady of the Lake University and my jaw nearly hit the floor. She was talking about this very question, and using Stephen Graham Jones, Joe R. Lansdale, and myself as her subjects. It was an odd experience, to be sure, listening to yourself getting dissected by a pro. I felt like Tom Sawyer attending his own funeral.
But the more I thought about it, the more sense it made that Texas should cast such a long shadow over fiction written by Texans. Lansdale has made the swamps of East Texas pretty much his own. Stephen Jones is just as good, in my opinion, at describing life in a small West Texas town, as Larry McMurtry. But I’m different from both those guys. My experience has developed from time spent in both San Antonio and Houston, the two biggest cities in Texas. Houston, as I remember it from my sheltered suburban childhood, was Texas glitz surrounded by swamps and inundated on a yearly basis with the most violent weather the Gulf of Mexico can throw landward. San Antonio, on the other hand, is a beautiful mix of Anglo and Hispanic cultures. You need to speak Spanish to fully enjoy the many sides of San Antonio. For example, on a drive through town you’re just as likely to wander upon crumbling Spanish ruins as you are high-rise buildings or dilapidated pioneer farmhouses. And because I live in the Texas Hill Country, I get to enjoy the best landscapes on Earth. We’ve got five hundred feet-high cliffs and vast cave networks and bat colonies so huge they show up like storm clouds on the weather radar on the nightly news. We’ve got pastures nearly as big as Manhattan. And in April, when those pastures are covered in bluebonnets, you can stand in the middle of one of them and watch the wind send waves through the flowers and feel like you’re lost at sea. We don’t get gentle rain showers here. We get apocalyptic rainstorms that tear trees from the ground and then are followed by a hundred days of blasting heat. In the winter, you can stand in the middle of a grove of frozen oak trees and listen to the limbs crack and shatter under the weight of the ice. San Antonio is a city of ghosts and cowboy glamour, of third world superstitions and some of the most advanced medical communities in the United States. We do Mexican food better than they do in Mexico. It’s my home and I love it. And yeah, it works its way into almost everything I write.
When I picked up Dead City, it had me at the first line: “There’s an empty parking lot near the corner of Seafarer and Rood where I used to go to fight with my wife.” Did you start writing with that line (which really sets up the tone and heart of the book), or did it come later?
No—but thanks! I actually started with a scene near the end of the novel. At that point in the story, Eddie Hudson, the main character, has just reunited with his family on the first night of the zombie apocalypse. He’s holding his infant son in one arm and wielding his police baton with the other hand, and he’s hacking and slashing at this tightening ring of zombies all around him. That was the vision that first popped into my head. I imagined that, and once it got into my head, it wouldn’t go away. I thought of writing it as a short story called “Dead End” (because I imagined that scene happening in a suburban cul-de-sac), but I kept wondering what brought that cop to that position. How did he get there? Who was he? It didn’t take long to figure out that we were one and the same. I’m not an especially fantastic shooter, and neither is Eddie. But I can make a Crown Victoria stand on the head of a pin and dance, and so can Eddie. You see where this is going? One by one I created these set pieces that traced Eddie’s course through the first night of the zombie apocalypse, and before I knew it, I had an outline for a novel.
Once I had the rough outline, which equaled about twenty pages of material, I sat down to write chapter one. The first thought that came to mind was of this old oak tree where I used to go to write reports and call my wife. That’s the tree under which Eddie is sitting in the opening scene of Dead City. There is one key difference, though. Eddie went there to fight with his wife. I generally went there to ask what our brand new little girl was doing. That right there is the key difference between Eddie and myself. Eddie was troubled at home. Me, I’m the luckiest man in the world, because my wife rocks. She would have to, though, to put up with all the crap that comes with being married to a writer and a cop.
Do you have a typical writing process? And do you outline your novels?
Absolutely. I outline everything I write. Believe it or not, I’ve even outlined some of the longer emails I’ve written. Weird, I know, but it works for me and so I go with it. When I started writing, I knew I’d have to squeeze it in whenever I got the chance. Between a full time job as a cop, and a wife and two kids, and about a million other crazy things going on in my life, writing became a guilty pleasure, like sneaking off for a smoke or something. So, with only twenty minutes here, an hour and a half there, I had to know exactly what I was going to be working on when I sat down to do it. Guilty pleasures aren’t fun, after all, if all they do is frustrate you. Outlines helped me with that. And outlining also helped me to see the structure of the story. I’m a firm believer in structure, the blueprints of a story. Outlining helps me see the big picture.
My outlining has gotten more involved as well. Nowadays, for a novel, my outlines can run anywhere from seventy to ninety pages, and include character studies and dress rehearsals for scenes that may or may not appear in the finished version. That’s the thing about outlines. They should be living documents. They are essentially roadmaps, but roadmaps that can change with the feel of the story. I think that sums up my writing process: approach it in an ordered way, but be prepared to turn left when you thought for sure you were going to take a right.
Did Dead City sell quickly? How did it change your life?
The mood was right for a zombie novel when Dead City first came out. Brian Keene had done The Rising, and Skipp and Spector had done some amazing anthologies, and Kirkman had recently launched The Walking Dead, but there wasn’t a whole lot else out there. Not for readers, anyway. I recently had a late night martini-fueled Italian dinner with my editor at Kensington, and he told me about the time he first picked up the manuscript for Dead City. He told me that he and his friends had been up most of the night drinking and watching the Romero zombie films, and he was wishing he could find a good zombie novel. He woke up the next morning painfully hung over and seriously considered not going into work. But he did, and the first manuscript he picked up from the slush pile was mine. A zombie story, he told me. “Please Lord, don’t let it suck.” Evidently, it pleased, for he bought it, and I suddenly went from somebody who wrote solely to amuse himself to somebody who was paid a decent amount of cash to talk about his issues with being a dad.
That part was good, but the powers that be at Kensington didn’t expect Dead City to sell well. They remembered the horror bust of the nineties and were leery of anything that would have horror written on the spine. So they commissioned a crappy cover and did nothing to promote it. Still, the book sold. It wasn’t a gangbuster by any means, but it sold through its initial print run and they had to go to a second printing to fulfill bookstore orders. And then Amazon got big and I went from a writer who was happy to make back his advance to a writer that Kensington was writing some surprisingly large checks to four times a year.
These days, writing is the McKinney family’s main source of income. My wife is a college English professor, and I’m still a San Antonio Police sergeant because I love it so and never want to give that life up, but writing pays most of the bills. So I would say Dead City has cast a very long shadow over my life. I went from somebody who looked on writing as a hobby to somebody who now looks on writing—and zombies—as the thing that is going to put my two daughters through college and grad school. The writing life is a good life!
Why hasn’t Dead City been made into a movie yet? Has it ever been optioned?
Through no fault of my own, I assure you! Dead City has been optioned a total of four times now. I remember the first time vividly. This Hollywood producer called me up and told me all these grand schemes he had for turning the book into a movie. I got casino eyes, thinking about all the money I would see. But then my agent told me, “Hold up a sec, don’t buy your tuxedo just yet.”
My agent was right, of course. Hollywood producers are part used car salesman, part whore. They follow the money, and when something with a bigger moneybag comes along they follow that. My first option on Dead City died on the vine. Since then I have let my cop cynicism of human nature color my dealings with Hollywood producers. “Just hand me the fucking check,” has become my new motto. I don’t want to hear your sales pitch, because I’ve heard it before. If you’ve got the cash, pony up, otherwise shut up. I’m sorry if that sounds like a sell-out or whatever other sort of derogatory term might apply, but I’ve found that it weeds out the frauds from the workers.
Currently Dead City is on its fourth option, this time with a promising indie filmmaker named Tek Doko. Tek impressed me from the very beginning, not with his promises, but with his upfront efforts. So, hopefully, my gamble on Tek will result in something worthwhile. I think he’s got what it takes to make it happen, so I’m holding my breath to see his vision (and mine!) become a reality.
How soon after you finished Dead City did you start the follow-up, Apocalypse of the Dead?
That actually took about three years to happen. Even after Dead City got published, I didn’t think of myself as a writer. I was still looking at this whole writing thing as a hobby at that point. What I’d always wanted to do was write short stories, and after publishing a novel that was getting pretty positive reviews, I suddenly found it easy to get those stories published. I was getting paid for my hobby, and that was cool.
A year went by. I had a book out there, and it was still selling well, and I had probably twenty stories sold to various markets, but I didn’t give much thought to doing another novel. It would have been nice to have a mentor at that point, somebody to step in and tell me to get busy on the next book; but, like I said, I wasn’t thinking of myself as a writer at that point. And then my editor at Kensington called and wanted to know about my next book. I was stunned. I had just assumed that Dead City was it. That was my only novel. But he wanted a series. He asked if I could write it that way, and my first reaction was to tell him absolutely not. Eddie Hudson’s story was told in Dead City. There was nothing else for him. And besides, I’ve always had a hard time with a series that follows the same characters from one book to the next. Most of the time the magic dies for me midway through the second book. But they wanted a series, and so I asked if they’d let me do a series the way I’d want to do it. I told my editor that I had created this huge world outside of the events in Dead City, so why not explore it? He agreed. He said write me something epic, something like The Stand or Swan Song. I said okay and I was off. I started writing Apocalypse of the Dead and suddenly the Dead World series came together.
You’ve accomplished something almost unique in contemporary horror fiction: You’ve written two horror novels that feature strong, believable, action-oriented female protagonists (Eleanor Norton in Flesh Eaters and Lily Harris in Quarantined). Can you tell us a little about why you decided to use women as the lead characters in these two books, and what it was like to write from a female perspective?
Let me try to answer that with a quote from Stephen King. (This comes from his introduction to the Pocket Paperback edition of The Shining.) He writes: “I think that in every writer’s career—usually early in it—there comes a ‘crossroads novel,’ where the writer is presented with a choice: either do what you have done before, or try to reach a little higher.” That was me after writing Dead City and a whole slew of short stories.
As I said, I hadn’t given much thought to a novel. But when my editor called and wanted Dead City to be a series, I got busy writing novels. The energy I’d previously used on short stories now went into books. I wrote Apocalypse of the Dead, yes, but I also wrote Quarantined and the first draft of the novel that would one day become Inheritance and a still unpublished crime novel called Internal Affairs is Hell. But of those books, Quarantined was the next one I actually finished writing. For it, I decided to do something a little different. Eddie Hudson hadn’t fallen far from the authorial tree, but for Quarantined, I wanted to flex my muscles a bit and see if I could do more. I work in one of the few remaining boy’s clubs in the American job market. Nearly everyone, even those of us who consider ourselves forward thinkers, picture a man when someone says the word “cop.” But I have known a great many female police officers over the years, and I have watched them deal with a lot of resistance and prejudice, both from the public at large and from their fellow cops. It’s hard to be a woman in law enforcement. If you’ve got the game to handle yourself in a fight, surely you must be a bull dyke lesbian. If you’re pretty and petite, well, surely you fucked your way to the soft assignments and the fast promotions. That’s the kind of thinking that predominates, even today, in law enforcement circles. Things are changing, but slowly. Anyway, I had heard a lot of the issues real women in law enforcement dealt with from my female friends, and I thought Quarantined would be a great opportunity to tell their story. So that’s what I did. And I’m so very glad I did. I learned lessons about writing from writing a novel in a woman’s head that I would have never learned any other way. Quarantined, in many ways, made me believe that I could actually make a go of this writing thing.
Earlier biographies of you listed The Zombie King as the fourth of the Dead World books—was that just an earlier title for Mutated, or was that an entirely different book?
Mutated and The Zombie King are the same book. I had a good chunk of the book written under the title The Zombie King, about two-thirds of it actually, and I had started mentioning it in public as “my upcoming release” or something like that. As originally written, it was going to be a fast-paced shoot ‘em thriller, like The Wild Bunch meets The Walking Dead. But then, during a meeting with my editor at Kensington, I brought up the idea for the book that would become Flesh Eaters, and he fell so hard for it that he asked me to make that one my next book. So I did that. But shortly after I finished Flesh Eaters, a very good friend died unexpectedly at the age of thirty-two. I took his death pretty hard, and when I came back to Mutated, I ended up putting a lot of my feelings about his loss into the rewrites. The tone of the book really changed. It got a lot darker, a lot more introspective, and when my editor read it, he suggested we change the title. We bounced ideas back and forth, and eventually came up with Mutated.
Your new book, The Savage Dead, is set on a cruise ship. Is it part of the Dead World series, or a stand-alone book?
No, it’s a stand-alone. With The Savage Dead I finally got the opportunity to write about the troubles along the Texas-Mexican border. This is a topic I’ve been wanting to explore in fiction for a long time, because I feel that it gets largely ignored, or worse, twisted to one side of the political agenda or the other, and hence the real import of what’s going on there gets lost. The Savage Dead is the most overtly political novel I’ve ever written, and as such, I’m bracing myself for reviews that approach the novel, not as a work of fiction, but as a piece of political commentary. I think it’ll be interesting to see the tone of the conversation that (hopefully) comes of the book.
Two of your most recent books—Inheritance and Crooked House—are ghost stories, and seem to employ a slightly different (though still recognizable) style. Did you approach these differently from your zombie books?
A zombie story, generally, requires a lot of action. Fans of the zombie like to see a lot of interaction between human and once-human. Sometimes—and, perhaps, most profitably—that interaction is deeply personal and emotionally intense. But you have to fire bullets, too. The best zombie stories explore what it means to be human, and what it means to confront love and death and pain, but they also satisfy the need for action. So when I set out to write a zombie story I know that I will be doing some fairly aggressive pacing. The action will be at the forefront, and the character conflict will be layered into the action invisibly. With luck, you won’t realize that you’re reading about characters deeply developed and cared for because you’re so busy reading about exploding headshots.
Ghost stories carry a different sort of expectation. Or, at least they used to. I write the “they used to” kind. The “they used to” kind of ghost story was a lot like riding a roller coaster. The narrative would slowly pull you up that first big climb. You’d look around, feeling at first thrilled, but the coaster climbed higher and higher, moving at a crawl but always getting farther and farther from the ground that meant safety. A good ghost story builds that way, like a roller coaster. It makes you feel like you’re leaving that which formerly meant safety but is now so remote that coming back to it would mean death. Witness Oliver Onion’s “The Beckoning Fair One” if you want further clarification.
What I write about is loss and unresolved conflict and love. Those are the only things, I think, that could bring a person back from whatever lies beyond this world. Despite having written a story about the afterlife, I make no claims about knowing what comes after. I know only that in this life love matters, and if the random genetic accident of our intelligence makes any sense at all, it must be focused on that which we love. Does the human spirit survive after death? Hell, I don’t know. But if it does, love must be at the root of it.
I also very much enjoyed your foray into the territory of hardboiled crime thriller, Dodging Bullets, which really captured the feel of a classic pulp novel. Did you read a lot of pulp novels as a kid/teen?
As a teen, yeah. I went through all the John D. MacDonald and Donald E. Westlake books I could find . . . and luckily, there were many. MacDonald, especially, became a towering influence for me. I remember—I was, I think, sixteen or seventeen—taking a John D. MacDonald paperback and copying out whole scenes onto a yellow legal pad just so I could dissect how he developed characters and built tension. I never had a formal education as a writer. I didn’t go to any boot camps or anything. But if I can point to one thing that shaped how I would one day write, it was those moments spent copying out and dissecting John D. MacDonald’s writing. That was how I learned to write.
You’ve also written around three dozen published short stories, including several award-nominated works like the recent “Bury My Heart at Marvin Gardens” (from The Best of Dark Moon Digest). I was lucky enough to see you read this story during the recent Bram Stoker Awards Weekend/World Horror Convention in New Orleans, and it was obviously difficult for you. Was it difficult to write? Do you generally try to challenge yourself emotionally when you write?
Thank you, Lisa. You witnessed the first, and almost certainly the only time I will ever read that story in public. It was incredibly difficult for me to finish, for the events that prompted me to write it are still so very fresh in my mind. But, oddly, that story didn’t give me a lot of resistance during the writing part of it—partly because it was written under an incredibly tight deadline. You see, one of the closest friends I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing had just died—quite unexpectedly, as I think I mentioned earlier—and his widow approached me and asked me to write a story that captured the spirit of her dead husband. Her wish was to put the story in that little booklet you get when you go to funerals, the one that names the various schedule of readings and hymns and such. I thought it was a terrible idea, for what work of fiction could ever truly capture the essence of friendship and of a human life lived to its absolute fullest? In a word, I didn’t feel up to the task. But she was insistent, and her husband had been a dear, dear friend, and so I took a bottle of wine into my study and opened my laptop and started writing. “Bury My Heart At Marvin Gardens” was the result. It took about four hours, but most of my soul, to write. I loved the man it was written for, and I loved the story that came out of me, but still I prayed she would come to her senses and not publish it, for it was too soon and wouldn’t be appreciated anyway by my friend’s family—none of whom understood his whole fascination with horror to begin with.
In your day job, you’ve been a beat cop, a disaster mitigation specialist, and a homicide detective. How often do you find yourself in the middle of a crime scene and already transposing it into fiction?
Can I answer this with a story? Okay, here goes. A long time ago, when I was a brand new patrolman who still enjoyed chasing people who would do anything to stay out of prison, I got this call for a naked man running down the middle of I-35. Now, a naked man running down the highway may seem odd to people who aren’t cops, but it actually happens a lot. Meth freaks and those fantastically high on cocaine, you see, sometimes go into a fugue state called excited delirium. The pulse races to as high as 200. Blood pressure soars. The body’s core temperature can rise as high as 108, maybe even higher. People in this condition are very near to death. And they are impossible to contain. I once had a 110 pound stripper high on meth break my handcuffs and fight six cops like a pit bull possessed by something out of a William Peter Blatty novel. It was ugly.
But back to the naked guy. They strip out of their clothes because they’re burning up. They run with traffic on busy roads because they zero in on the red taillights. It’s the same reaction that causes so many drunk drivers to run into the back of police cars doing lane closures. (Lots of cops die that way, unfortunately.) So I came up behind this guy and saw him chasing taillights. I knew right away what I had and called for EMS and any cover officers close by. But before my cover arrived, this guy suddenly veered off the roadway and started running through a tangled screen of huisache and mesquite. With every step he was shredding himself to ribbons on innumerable thorns. Whenever he’d bob above the scrub brush, I could see he was covered in blood. I didn’t want to catch him, but I knew if I didn’t he’d probably die from cardiac arrest. So I chased him.
But as I did, I couldn’t help but see the ruins of this abandoned cement plant rising above the ridgeline ahead of us. It was starkly beautiful. Broken and battered, crumbling like some old abbey out of a Wordsworth poem, and backlit by the orange lights of downtown San Antonio, the ruins seemed charged with an almost preternatural power. I had an “ah-ha” moment right then, and that moment eventually became my novel Inheritance, much of which takes place at that same abandoned cement factory. Inspiration comes from some mighty strange places, and sometimes, when it’s least expected.
Given some of the gruesome scenes you routinely deal with, is it difficult to really disturb you?
Yeah, pretty much. I’ve seen some pretty fucked up shit on the job. I’ve seen more murder victims than I can count. More suicides than I can count. More decomposed corpses than I can count. I’ve smelled human skin sautéing on asphalt in the middle of a hot Texas summer day. I once carried on a conversation with a man who was holding his intestines in his hands. I once kicked open a door and saw a man in the process of raping a ten-year-old girl. I once saw the dead body of a six-year-old little girl who had been starved to death by her foster family. I once watched CSI dig a rape-murder victim out of a shallow grave. I’ve attended the autopsies of way too many children. The world is a savagely cruel and fucked up place, and there have been days I’ve gone home crying, wanting nothing more than to slip into my office and drink myself into a coma. Instead, I hug my wife and kids and thank whatever powers there may be for the love that it is in my life, for it sustains me through all the hard times. I think that’s the big reason why so much of the horror that I read and watch just falls flat for me. I haven’t been scared by a movie since I first saw Night of the Living Dead back when I was thirteen. Books I have better luck with, but I still come across a lot more misses than I do hits.
Do you sometimes encounter real-life scenes that are simply too horrific to deal with in fiction?
Do your two jobs—policeman and horror writer—ever cross in uncomfortable ways?
Yes. This one time, in district court, I was on the witness stand awaiting the first questions from the prosecution in a murder trial. I had just returned from the World Horror Convention in Salt Lake City and was still in the process of changing gears from writer to cop. Ordinarily the prosecution attempts to build up their police and other expert witnesses through questioning. I was used to the standard battery of questions. How long have you been a policeman? How long have you been a homicide detective? How many homicides have you investigated? How many times have you seen a history of family violence turn into a homicide?
All of those are standard questions.
But then the prosecutor asked: “But being a homicide detective isn’t your only job, is it?”
I was a little stunned, because I don’t typically fill out a “Permission to Work Off-Duty” form. It was long ago decided that my writing didn’t qualify under any sort of off-duty job qualification that cops usually hold. So, when the prosecutor asked me that question, the best I could say was, “Well, no, not exactly.”
She said, “Really? Isn’t it true that you’re also an award-winning author?” And then she proceeded to list quite a few of the books I’d written. She mentioned Apocalypse of the Dead and one of the jurors got all excited and even winked at me. It disturbed me that the prosecutor did that because I had prepared a thorough case against the defendant, and I didn’t want to think that a decision had been made in the jury’s mind based upon my fiction writing as opposed to the solid case that I’d prepared. Luckily, I never got a chance to weigh in on the matter, for the judge had seen the juror’s reaction and called her into his chambers. The juror was dismissed, and the case was won fair and square, but I hate to think of the ethical decisions I would have had to make otherwise.
Years ago I read a blog essay you wrote—“Cold Case: The Death of Officer William Lacey”—in which you detailed your investigation into the death of a police officer who died more than a century ago, and the story was deeply moving. Do you ever think about writing a nonfiction collection, or do you just automatically turn most of your day job into fiction?
I recently tried to collect all my nonfiction into a folder on my PC and realized that I had written nearly two hundred thousand words of nonfiction. I’ve done everything from blog posts to articles to reviews to true crime stories. I think I could put it all together into some kind of book at some point. Maybe a collection of my true crime articles. Actually, that’s a pretty cool idea.
What else is coming up for you?
I’m going to be a busy man for the next couple of years. The Savage Dead comes out this month, and I’m really excited about that. Then, in December, my contribution to JournalStone’s wonderful Double Down series comes out. I’m pairing up with the San Antonio-based writer and musician Sanford Allen for that one. After that I’ll be starting a new zombie series for Kensington and working on a six-book deal I have with JournalStone. In between all of that I have short stories due for various anthologies and magazines. It’s going to be crazy busy, but then, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
And lastly . . . Zombies: Fast or slow?
You know, I started out liking the slow ones, but I’ve since changed my mind on that. With slow zombies you get this sort of sense of hope that maybe you can make it through this. But with fast zombies, well, the question becomes much more in doubt. I think it was the opening scene in 28 Weeks Later that converted me. I loved the part where the guy is running from the farmhouse and the shot opens wide and you see dozens of zombies sprinting after him across the field. That was some really scary stuff right there.
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