Last year I contacted Joe regarding his novel, Dead City. Horror is my favorite genre we all know this. Although vampire fiction holds my heart (pun intended) Joe's zombie novel was so compelling I couldn't resist the urge to do a review. Thankfully he obliged and actually sent me another novel as well with a compilation of zombie short stories, Dead Set. He has also submitted to my intense gruelling interview (LOL!).
You have co-written with another author? What are your thoughts on that?
That’s right, I co-wrote my upcoming novel, LOST GIRL OF THE LAKE, with Michael McCarty, and I had a great time with it. The project developed out of a coming of age story I wrote a few years back. When the first draft was done, I had about 80 pages of pretty good horror…but something was missing. I’d read through it, try to fix it, but it just never came out right. By the time I was fed up with messing with it, I had 120 pages of a story that just didn’t seem to be going anywhere. Around the same time I started corresponding with Michael McCarty. I knew Michael had collaborated on a number of projects with other writers, and so I asked him if he’d like to take a look at LOST GIRL. As it turned out, he was between projects, and agreed. He came back to me with a great angle on the story, and I realized that he had hit on that certain thing that had been eluding me about the story. We started trading the manuscript back and forth. Next thing you know, we had a really great take on the coming of age story…and a full-sized novel. We sent it off to Bad Moon Books, and they loved it. Michael and I are currently working on another collaborative project, this one about meth zombies in the abandoned Midwest of near future America.
Do you feel working as a homicide detective was a direct influence to your sci-fi and horror writtings?
Absolutely. I think every horror writer is going to need the police sooner or later. I mean, you can’t have a barn full of dead people without the police showing up, you know? So being a cop has given me a great deal of confidence to handle those types of scenes in my writing. And of course a general knowledge of police procedure is valuable in a number of other ways too. But more to the point of your question, I think being a cop has given my writing a thematic focus. You see, most supernatural horror is intensely private. That means that whatever supernatural thing is going on usually happens to only one person, or at a minimum to a small group of people, within the world of the story. That tight focus is necessary to create the tension on which horror feeds. Cops, by their very nature, are public agents. When a cop describes an incident in a report, that incident takes on a public personality. It becomes a matter of public record, available to all through the Freedom of Information Act. It gains credibility, in other words. The cops’ role in horror fiction has always been strained as a result. Think back on all the horror books you’ve read. Nearly all of them have to bring in the police at some point, and then figure out how to get rid of them because making the incident that is at the heart of their horror story a matter public would make it a little more ordinary, and therefore less scary. What I bring to horror is a dose of reality when it comes to police procedure, and hopefully a new take on how to use the cop’s official function in our society as a third column in fiction.
Did the author aspect of your life come about as a hobby? Or did you just want to pursue a new endeavor?
Like a lot of writers, I started writing fairly young. I think I was in my early teens, probably around 12 or 13. I used to write stories on loose leaf notebook paper, staple them together, and leave them on the corner of my desk for a week or two before throwing them away. I never really thought about writing as something I could do for a living. It was always just a hobby. Being a cop, that was my career.
And then, a few years back, my oldest daughter was born. I remember feeling this panicked need to freeze time, to capture who I was at that moment. I don’t know if any of the parents out there can relate to that, but for me, looking in on my new daughter in the nursery, my mind reeling from all the new responsibilities I was under, I felt like I had to express once and for all who I was at that moment in time.
I got lucky enough to sell my first novel to a major New York publisher. After that, the little hobby that I used to do whenever the mood struck me became the job that I did every chance I got.
You have quite a collection of novels, novellas, and short stories. Which of those do you find come easier to write about?
Well, I don’t know if any one of those genres come easier than any other. At least, not for me. Though I can tell you that my favorite form to write is the novella, or short novel. I am really comfortable in the 10,000 to 30,000 word range. It gives you enough space to fully develop a concept without sacrificing the pace and immediacy of a short story. Looking back on my personal favorites from my writing I see that most of them are novellas.
Between your detective career and personal life how do you manage to set aside time to make so many of your author accomplishments possible?
I’m pretty organized when it comes to my writing. I usually write for about an hour in the morning, before the rest of my family wakes up, and then for another two hours after everyone has gone to bed. When it actually comes time to sit down at the computer to write, I almost always have an outline in front of me. Outlining, I’ve found, is the writer’s best friend. It gives you ability to see the whole story first before you start carving away at it. I’ve tried writing without an outline, but to me, it always feels like I’m stumbling around in the dark…which is cool for characters, not so much for writers.
Your first book, Dead City, you're turning into a series. Why did you chose to further its story?
The Lord of the Rings was about the only series I ever enjoyed reading. The overall storylines of most series, generally speaking, tend to be clumsy in their construction. Reading them, you can’t help but wonder how much of the work was stretched for the money. I didn’t want to do that with my writing career. I didn’t want to be that guy.
Still, as a writer, you invest a lot of mental energy in writing a novel. You spend all this time creating a world, creating histories for your characters, you put your heart and soul into it. That happened to me with Dead City. At the end of it, I realized I had suggested a lot of things that were going on outside of the main plot. The City of Houston was underwater. A quarantine wall had been erected along most of the Gulf Coast. The global economy was ruined. So it occurred to me that I could make a series of the book, and still avoid the pitfalls other series have fallen into. I set out to write books that forwarded the overall scenario to its logical consequences, but I would do it by following separate characters in each book. That way, it would be possible for readers to pick up any one of the books in the Dead City series without feeling like they’d come in halfway through the movie. The books can be read in any order, and while they make reference to each other, one is not dependant on the others in any way. The next book, called Apocalypse of the Dead, comes out in November.
Recently you began editing a few short story anthologies. Was that of your own pursuit? If so why?
My first editing job literally fell into my lap. I had published a short story in an anthology called Nights of Blood 2 through 23 House Publishing. I’ve always believed in the power of a handwritten thank you note, so when the book came out, I sent a note to Mitchel Whitington, the publisher, thanking him for letting me be in the anthology. That turned into a running email conversation, and before you know it, he’d talked me into co-editing Dead Set with Michelle McCrary. It was a great experience.
Mitchel and I kept trading emails after that, and that’s how we discovered that we both loved exploring abandoned buildings. For a long while I’d been talking with another friend of mine named Mark Onspaugh about editing an anthology of horror stories set in abandoned buildings, and the time seemed right for the book to finally take shape. We went to Mitchel, and he loved it. So, right now, Mark and I developing a project called The Forsaken, about how abandoned buildings got to be the way they are. The Forsaken is a little different than Dead Set, though, in that this one is invitation only. We’ve managed to get quite an impressive group of writers together, including Piers Anthony, Norman Prentiss, David Liss, and many others. I’m really excited about this project, which should drop in stores in April, 2011.
Is it harder to write on criminal vs horror, considering conflictions of work protocols?
Right before my first novel came out I was approached by an Internal Affairs sergeant who had some concerns about what I was writing. Was I compromising any police tactics or procedures, he asked. “Well,” I said, “my novel is about a zombie apocalypse, so if you anticipate us having one of those any time soon, then yeah, I guess we’re going to have a problem.” I trailed off with a shrug. “Otherwise…”
Of course I was just having fun with him. He knew that. But we both got the point, I think. You see, my department has some very specific rules about writing for publication. They don’t want officers compromising tactics and procedures, sure, but just as importantly, they don’t want officers writing about open cases or cases they have worked on in the past.
So why is that? Well, there is a public trust involved. Imagine a sexual assault victim finally working up the courage to go in to police headquarters and tell her story to a detective. She bares her story, one of violation and shame and bottomless anger, to this total stranger, trusting that he’s serious about the oath he took to be professional, confidential and honest. But then, the next thing she knows, she reads some salacious version of her story in a magazine or a crime novel.
That’s unacceptable, right? Sure, we can all agree on that. And that’s why I’ve always been careful to respect that confidentiality in my fiction. I have never, nor will I ever, write about real life cases in which I have personally taken part. You might think that horror fiction would be easier for me to write as a result, but the truth is that I can do both without overstepping the public trust I’ve been given as a police officer.
Still, I’m reminded of that line from THE HOBBIT that describes how way leads onto way. Even though I never use real life incidents for my fiction, I don’t ever hesitate to let reality carry me off on plot ideas. I imagine it’s the same for musicians. They may hear something and their mind starts riffing off of that, and before you know it, they’ve got a whole new song…and only the guy who wrote it will be able to recognize the seed from which that new song grew. Writing fiction is that way too.
You say that you read as much pulp fiction as you can. What it is about this genre that interests you so much?
Well, it’s all about that sense of wonder you get when delving into a really great story. I know I’ve found a good one when I catch myself leaning forward over a book or magazine, totally caught up in the characters and the story’s premise and the way the story is told. I don’t find that perfect marriage of circumstances coming together often enough, but I’ve found it more in the pulps than I have elsewhere.
Or, if you’ll let me continue the musical theme from my last answer, you could look at like the difference between a polished, professionally produced Broadway musical and an underground punk rock concert. I mean, Les Miserables is cool and all, but seeing The Clash in some smoky London nightclub is something else entirely. That’s why I like pulp fiction so much. I like the rough edges, the writers whose reach many times goes farther than their grasp. I like Chekhov and James and Virginia Wolff, sure, but give me giant city-destroying worms and battling spaceships and zombies crawling up from the grave any day. That’s where my heart is.
Can you tell us more about the charity anthology, Dead Set. Regarding reader's purchase, details, etc?
There are a ton of zombie anthologies on the market right now. Some of them are quite good. Most, however, are not. So, when the folks at 23 House asked me if I’d be interested in editing a zombie anthology, I was hesitant. I didn’t want to dump more crap into an already overly crappy field.
But 23 House Publishing is a really great outfit. They do primarily regional nonfiction titles, which means books about East Texas. However, they also put out one horror anthology a year and donate the profits to charity. That impressed me. Service has always been a big part of my life, and before I knew it, I found myself agreeing to co-edit the book with Michelle McCrary, who, in addition to being a fine writer in her right, is also the coordinator for the Shreveport Food Bank. Working together, we came up with a great lineup. Here’s the table of contents:
“Resurgam” by Lisa Mannetti
“Jailbreak” by Steven W. Booth and Harry Shannon
“Recess” by Rob Fox
“Biting the Hand that Feeds You” by Calie Voorhis
“Judgment” by Stephanie Kincaid
“Hatfield the Usurper” by Matthew Louis
“Ruminations from Tri-Omega House” by David Dunwoody
“Zombies on a Plane” by Bev Vincent
“Category Five” by Richard Jeter
“Survivors” by Joe McKinney
“Pierre & Remy Hatch a Plan” by Michelle McCrary
“Recovery” by Boyd E. Harris
“In the Middle of Poplar Street” by Nate Southard
“Seminar Z” by J.L. Comeau
“Only Nibble” by Bob Nailor
“Inside Where It’s Warm” by Lee Thomas
“Survivor Talk” by Mitchel Whitington
“The Zombie Whisperer” by Steven E. Wedel
“Good Neighbor Sam” by Mark Onspaugh
“That Which Survives” by Morgan Ashe
The stories span a considerable range of subject matter and emotions, and I think it’s a valuable contribution to zombie genre. Readers can find the book at Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and through 23 House Publishing’s website. Profits go to the Make a Wish Foundation.
It's interviews like this that make me smile! I love when author's can take a simple one sentence question and write a few paragraphed response to. That is what makes a true writer and an experienced author. Thanks again Joe for allowing me to do the review for Dead City, the gift of Dead Set, and this zombielicious interview.