By Ethan Cross
Joe McKinney’s incredible new book, PLAGUE OF THE UNDEAD, has been described by Bram Stoker Award-winning author Brian Keene as “merciless, fast-paced and genuinely scary”while author Weston Ochse says that “McKinney writes zombies like he’s been gunning them down all his life.” Here’s a description of it:
For thirty years, they have avoided the outbreak of walking death that has consumed America’s heartland. They have secured a small compound near the ruins of Little Rock, Arkansas. Isolated from the world. Immune to the horror. Blissfully unaware of what lies outside in the region known as the Dead Lands. Until now. Led by a military vet who’s seen better days, the inexperienced offspring of the original survivors form a small expedition to explore the wastelands around them. A biologist, an anthropologist, a cartographer, a salvage expert—all are hoping to build a new future from the rubble, which they call the “Dead Lands.” The infected are still out there. Stalking. Feeding. Spreading like a virus. Wild animals roam the countryside, hunting prey. Small pockets of humanity hide in the shadows: some scared, some mad, all dangerous. This is the New World. If the explorers want it, they’ll have to take it. Dead or alive. . .
The prolific McKinney, who’s had much success of late, graciously agreed to answer a few questions.
Tell us about PLAGUE OF THE UNDEAD in one line.
Thirty years after the zombie apocalypse, a ragtag group of explorers sets out to see what remains of their world.
What kind of research did you conduct for PLAGUE OF THE UNDEAD?
PLAGUE OF THE UNDEAD takes place thirty years after the zombie apocalypse. My explorers are from a small town that walled itself up during the worst of the initial zombie outbreak. Since that time, their community has not only survived, but thrived, and now it’s time to see what lies beyond the walls. I spent a lot of time thinking how a community like that would organize itself, and what kind of jobs its people would work at. One of the main characters is a salvage expert, and when things start to go really wrong for the group, he uses all his improvisational skills to make what the group needs to survive. Some of the things I researched were how to silence a rifle using only trash found on the ground, how to build a still out of old car parts, and the art of mapmaking. The research was a blast.
Describe your typical writing day. How do you balance your writing with marketing, editing, plotting, and all other commitments?
In my day job I’m a sergeant for the San Antonio Police Department, and that schedule is pretty crazy. I usually work from 4:30 in the afternoon until around 3 in the morning, Friday through Monday. On top of that, I’m the father of two young girls, and as you parents know, you can never put in enough time with your kids. That leaves me with the middle of the day to write, while the girls are in school. I prefer to write late at night, but I’ve learned over the years that if the writing is going to get done, I need to do it in the middle of the day. It works out pretty well.
Do you have any marketing advice for your fellow authors? Any techniques that you feel have worked especially well for you?
Personal appearances in schools, definitely, and especially in middle schools. I write a lot of zombie fiction, and the kids eat that stuff up. I don’t write my books specifically for kids, but they still make up a large segment of my readership, and I’m good with that. I love getting in front of a large group of students because their enthusiasm is infectious. But for those authors who don’t like to travel, I would recommend getting onto a school library Listserv. You can always make the appearances via Skype. I’ve done it both ways, and afterwards, I always feel like I’ve had my batteries recharged.
What do you like to do when you’re not writing?
When I’m not writing, I’m working at my police job. And when I’m not doing that, I’m coaching my daughters’ basketball and soccer teams, taking them to horseback riding lessons (we live in Texas, after all), or just hanging out with my wife, Tina. Seems I don’t have nearly enough time to sit on the couch and read comic books anymore, but I still sneak that in whenever I can.
As a reader, what are some of your personal pet-peeves? In other words, what’s your list of writing dos and don’ts?
There are lots of lists out there that do this, and I think I’d probably share a lot of pet peeves with the authors of those lists. Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules for Writing, for instance, is a classic. But me, I’m a story guy. I believe there is no substitute for interesting characters getting caught up in interesting situations. No amount of literary fireworks will save you if you don’t have that going for you. So I guess my main pet peeve that hasn’t been covered elsewhere would be with authors who ignore the importance of constructing a good story. I see this a lot when I speak at conventions. People sometimes tell me they have a novel they’ve been working on for years and just can’t seem to finish. Then they’ll ask what the secret to getting the book written is. Now, I outline everything I write in exhaustive detail. For a novel, my outlines will sometimes go 70 to 90 pages. When I tell this to the would be novelist, they scoff and say something like, “Oh, I couldn’t do that. Outlining would stifle my creativity.”I just smile and nod, because, to my mind, it seems like not ever finishing the book would be a lot more stifling than outlining. But that’s just me.
What are you reading now? What are some of your favorite books/authors and who has had the greatest influence upon your own work?
Robert Jackson Bennett’s CITY OF STAIRS. I got hooked on his stuff after MR. SHIVERS and have devoured everything he’s written since. After I finish Bennett’s book I’m thinking of starting David Liss’new YA series, starting with RANDOMS.
What’s something that you’ve learned about the publishing business that you weren’t expecting?
How important it is to learn to say no. My first book was a pretty decent success, with about a hundred thousand copies sold to date. At first, I was delighted with all the emails asking for my advice on writing and how to get published and all the offers that started rolling in to write short stories and novellas for various small press publishers. And for a while, I honestly tried to read the manuscripts struggling writers sent me, and to write short stories for the various editors offering me a spot in their latest anthology. But I very quickly got overwhelmed with the work. It drove me crazy with worry and stress because I couldn’t fathom the thought of saying no. I guess I was afraid that if I said no, people would stop asking, and then they’d stop reading. Learning to say no, and realizing that I’d be okay for saying it, was a hard lesson to learn, but one I’ve finally mastered.
Do you have any advice for aspiring (or struggling) writers out there?
Yes, and I think you’ll hear it from just about other published author out there. Put your butt in the chair and write every day. Start with a workable, achievable daily goal, like 500 words a day. Work up from there. But you must write every day. That masterpiece floating around in the back of your brain will not write itself. You must do it, and you get it done the same way you eat an elephant, one bite at a time. Also, if you’re not reading voraciously, chances are the stuff you’re writing isn’t going to be very good. Reading is as important to your craft as actually putting your butt in the chair.
What’s next for you?
Well, I’m coming up on a busy time. I have three books coming out over the next five months, and I’m going to be traveling quite a bit to promote those. As I hop from hotel to hotel on that tour, I’ll be writing the sequel to PLAGUE OF THE UNDEAD, and starting up a new YA trilogy I’m writing. There’s quite a bit coming out soon, and the best place for readers to catch up with me is on Facebook and at my website, Old Major’s Dream.
Joe McKinney has been a patrol officer for the San Antonio Police Department, a homicide detective, a disaster mitigation specialist, a patrol commander, and a successful novelist. His books include the four part Dead World series, Quarantined, Inheritance, Lost Girl of the Lake, The Savage Dead, Crooked House and Dodging Bullets. His short fiction has been collected in The Red Empire and Other Stories and Dating in Dead World. In 2011, McKinney received the Horror Writers Association’s Bram Stoker Award for Best Novel.
To learn more about Joe, please visit his website.