Wednesday, September 11, 2013

A Dead City, Flesh and Words of Horror: An Interview With Joe McKinney

Closer, closer, creeps the H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival and CthulhuCon. The horror will usher itself into the Warner Grand Theatre in San Pedro, CA from September 27-29th.

Among the major sponsors this year has been the Horror Writers Association, an international network of writers, artists and visionaries committed to building greater audiences and professionalism to the horror genres of the arts. You can learn more about the work of the Horror Writers Association over at (naturally.)

This week, I had a chance to interview Joe McKinney, one of the officers of the Horror Writers Association to speak about his work and his love of things horrific. Not surprisingly, he is also a fan of the work of H.P. Lovecraft. You can visit Joe McKinney's work at his website at: for more to sink your teeth into.

Hi, Joe! Tell us a little about yourself. How did you get started as a horror writer? What was one of the hardest things for you to learn? 

Thanks for having me. My name is Joe McKinney and I’m a father, a husband, a sergeant in the San Antonio Police Department and, for the last ten years or so, a professional writer. I’m also the Secretary for the Horror Writers Association and winner of the Bram Stoker Award for my novel Flesh Eaters. I’ve written fifteen books to date and a whole slew of short fiction, reviews, articles, essays and other odd jobs. Most of my writing has been in the horror genre, though I also write crime fiction and a little science fiction from time to time.

I got my start as a horror writer with my novel, Dead City, which was the first piece of fiction I ever published. The book came about shortly after my oldest child was born. I remember looking in on the nursery, seeing my little girl sleeping in there, and thinking to myself that the world had just become so much more complex. Being a parent is probably the most important, and scariest, job in the world, and I was terrified that I’d screw it up. You know what I mean? I just wasn’t ready. So I decided to write a story to help me put my thoughts in order. I started out with a science fiction space opera that was absolutely awful. Every time I sat down at the typewriter (because back then it was an IBM Selectric III instead of the Mac I use today) I felt unfocused and frustrated. It simply wasn’t working. The story didn’t matter to me.

Eventually I wizened up and turned to my first literary love: horror. Growing up I was junkie for the stuff. Movies, comics, novels, old pulp magazines, you name it. If it had horror in it I devoured it. And my all time favorite work of horror was Night of the Living Dead. I was a young patrolman with responsibilities rushing in on him from every side, so I decided to write about a young patrolman with zombies rushing in on him from every side. Once I made that decision the book just gushed out of me. At the time (this was in 2005) there just wasn’t that much zombie fiction out there. But the mood was right for a zombie novel, and my book came along just as the zombie market started to migrate out of the fringes of horror to its main stage. Dead City sold a lot better than my publisher expected it to, and the next thing I knew, I was a professional writer juggling a growing family, a police career, and the demands of a full time writing schedule. I’d say the hardest thing for me to learn was how to devote the time and attention that all three of those responsibilities require. It was a hard lesson to learn, but the journey’s been a blast.

What's your favorite H.P. Lovecraft story?

Definitely “The Shadow Over Innsmouth.” Yeah, definitely. Well, maybe “At the Mountains of Madness,” which was also really cool. Or maybe “The Dunwich Horror.” Or maybe…oh hell, I don’t know. I love so many of them.

When have you been really satisfied with one of your creations? What was the most unexpected surprise you've found for yourself as a writer?

My most satisfying moment came with finishing my second novel, Quarantined. It’s the story of a female homicide detective in the San Antonio Police Department trying to solve a murder in the ruins of San Antonio, which has been walled up and quarantined to prevent a pandemic flu outbreak. In my police career I’ve worked as a patrolman, a disaster mitigation specialist, a homicide detective, a patrol supervisor and even ran the city’s 911 Center for about a year.

Not only did Quarantined give me a chance to capitalize on all those different experiences, but it gave me the opportunity to discuss the prejudices that female police officers experience from both the public at large and the male officers with whom they work. It’s not as bad as it used to be, but when I first started as a cop, women really got a raw deal. If you were pretty, you must be a slut, or looking for a husband. If you were rugged, you had to be a bull dyke lesbian. I had to watch many of my female friends turn bitter and resentful toward their careers. For some of them it grew unbearable, and the stress wore them down.

When I wrote Quarantined I tried to put that frustration, that rage, that prejudice, into the story, and I was immensely happy with the results. It was the first time I’d ever tried to carry off a novel-length narrative from a woman’s POV, and it taught me a lot about my craft as a writer. I’ve been grateful for that education ever since.

That experience of living in a woman’s head was one of the most unexpected surprises of my writing career. I found, much to my delight that I could use the skills I’d learned as a policeman, such as the art of talking to people and getting at what makes them tick, to craft honest characters that made stories come alive.

What other themes do you like to work with in your art?

I already mentioned that my first novel was basically a metaphor for my fear of becoming a parent, and that fear has never really left me. Nowadays, I’m more afraid than ever that I’m going to screw that kid up somehow. I guess every parent knows that feeling on some level, and I think that’s why I’ve never tired of dealing with issues of guardianship in my fiction. I have expanded the scope of that theme though. I still deal with the parent-child relationship, but I’ve expanded the scope of my approach to include the state and the citizen, cop and criminal, handler and spy, cult leaders and disciples, and artist and creation.

What's a project you really hope to take on in the next few years? Where do you hope to go from here? 

I am in discussion to develop the Predator property right now as a graphic novel. My vision for the property is to pit the Predator against a planet overrun with zombies, so hopefully that will go through. I’ve also just signed an eight book deal with JournalStone Publishing and a four book deal with Kensington, so I’m going to be pretty busy for the next few years at least.

What's your favorite music to listen to as you create your art?

When I write I like to have the house as quiet as a tomb. I know lots of writers who crank the music up loud when they write, but I find it too distracting. I tend to research scenes in my head before I write them, and I just can’t do that if I’m singing along with my favorite tunes. But if I had to listen something, it’d probably be a mix of vintage Country and Western and 70s era classic rock.

What's your biggest advice for anyone interested in becoming a member of the Horror Writer Association?

Get involved in the organization. Volunteer. With over a thousand industry professionals in our membership, we’ve got a lot to offer the writer looking to grow his or her brand. But to take advantage of it, you have to get involved. And there’s a lot of ways to do that. You can volunteer to represent the organization at conventions like BEA or the American Library Association. You can become a mentor. You can volunteer to sit on one of the Bram Stoker Award juries. You can become active in a local chapter, or volunteer for our Publishers Liaison Committee, or our Grievance Committee, or any one of our dozens of other committees put in place to promote the genre and the author’s place within it. But it doesn’t stop there. 

Through our newsletter, we help our membership keep a finger on the pulse of the industry, and through our Facebook page and private forums we create a free exchange of knowledge and support that you just can’t get on your own. I joined the HWA back in 2006, back when the organization was struggling to define itself and its mission. In the years since, I have watched the organization grow in numbers while focusing its vision to be the voice of the horror industry. I am very proud of the organization and the progress it’s made and I think anyone looking to join will find an environment that benefits their career.

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