Monday, October 11, 2010

Lowlifes, Cops and Zombies

An interview with Joe McKinney by M. C. O'Connor

Joe McKinney is a Stoker-nominated author operating successfully in two genres - horror and crime fiction - and a full time homicide detective in San Antonio, Texas. In the following interview he discusses his just-released crime novel, Dodging Bullets, his love affair with zombies, and the finer points of real life detective work.

In Dodging Bullets, Peto, the main character, gets the holy bejeesus beaten out of him, but he carries on. How much beating can a man take and keep going?

I was a street cop for a number of years before becoming a detective, and I remember dealing with people who absolutely refused to go to jail. I once saw a man get shot six times and still wrestle an officer’s gun away from him and kill two cops with it. I’ve seen meth freaks running naked through traffic with temperatures of 110 degrees and a pulse over 200. I saw a petite little stripper on coke snap a pair of handcuffs like they were made of taffy. I can’t tell you how many traffic accidents I’ve seen where drunks get their heads bashed in and live to tell about it. Cops call it the cockroach factor. An ordinary, upstanding citizen…if we got stabbed or shot or crunched in a car like that, we’d be toast. But the scum of the earth…they always seem to survive impossible injuries.

Of course, there’s more to it than that. I think the body can take whatever the mind tells it to take, you know? Ultimately, sure, there’s a limit…I mean, you can’t walk through a nuclear blast wearing nothing willpower…but willpower can take you a long way. And that’s what Peto’s got going for him. Willpower and love. Maybe he has a little bit of the cockroach factor, too, but it’s his love for Shannon Dupree that makes him get up every time he gets knocked down. That’s why he was such a fun and compelling character to write. Somebody with that level of commitment is like a god - possessed of an inner power that is awesome and more than a little frightening. How could you not have fun with that?

Without giving away too much, I think we can say that Peto gets a shot at redemption in Dodging Bullets. How do you see redemption in your stories? And in real life? Do real folks get those chances to turn it around? Do they succeed?

Redemption is a complicated issue, and I guess the answer to your question really depends on the story being told and the characters in that story. Peto gets a shot at redemption because he is basically an average guy caught in between forces that are, quite frankly, way over his head…and yet he never stops fighting, even when the obstacles seem insurmountable. That, to me, is the kind of character who deserves at least a crack at a better life. He may not get it, but at least the chance is there.

See, I don’t believe in fate. I don’t think there’s any sort of redemptive gyroscope in the world that looks for ways to put you back on track. Fixing your life, improving it, is a personal choice. You either make that choice or you don’t. You either take charge of your circumstances or you don’t. Most people in Peto’s position don’t know or care about redemption. But Peto is different. He’s sensitive to the possibility of a better life, but he’s also aware that it won’t be handed to him. He’s going to have to take it. And Peto does take it.

"Peto’s shot at redemption comes because he is fighting for true love. He is playing to his higher nature, instead of merely wallowing in his vices. Most people, though, they’re content to wallow."
I think the same thing carries over into real life. I cannot tell you how many times I have gone to notify the next of kin of some piece of shit gangster or drug dealer and I’ve had to listen to them wailing about how poor little Johnny was really a good boy and how he was finally getting his life back together. Those situations are hard – I mean above and beyond the fact that you have to tell some lady that her kid is dead – because you have to sit there and listen to her delude herself about how Little Johnny was getting his life back together. Inevitably they ask how it happened. Then I have to find a polite way of saying that Little Johnny was shot twelve times by the drug dealers he cheated out of $80 worth of heroin. You don’t have to experience that too many times before you sour on the idea of redemption as a real possibility for most people.

The difference between Peto and all the other Little Johnnys in the world is motivation. Peto’s shot at redemption comes because he is fighting for true love. He is playing to his higher nature, instead of merely wallowing in his vices. Most people, though, they’re content to wallow.

We hear a lot about the Eme, the Mexican Mafia, here in Northern California, mostly in connection with pot plantations in the forests. What should we know about them that we don't hear about in the news?

The Mexican Mafia was born a few short blocks from where I work. There’s a section of San Antonio’s shallow West Side that is sort of like the Mexican Mafia’s version of Sicily. According to legend, you can’t be a part of La Cosa Nostra unless you hail from Sicily. In the Mexican Mafia, if you want to rise to the top of the organization, you need to hail from that little corner of San Antonio’s West Side. What that means in practical terms is that all the founders of the Mexican Mafia grew up within a few blocks of each other.

It’s not that way, anymore…at least from what I’m told by my friends in the Gang Unit. These days, the Mexican Mafia has expanded from its prison gang origins to a multifaceted criminal organization with its fingers in just every pie it can find. To my knowledge they don’t do much with pot plantations here in Texas. Around these parts, it’s prostitution and heroin and guns and extortion.

Dodging Bullets treats the organization fictitiously, of course. In real life, the Mexican Mafia would have probably smoked Peto faster than you’d slap a mosquito on your arm. I’ve tried to capture just how vicious and tough some of the established members of the organization can be, but it’s really hard to overstate just how vicious and tough they are. Every time you think you’ve heard the worst, something else comes along. That’s what readers should take away from Peto’s story. Things can always get worse.

Your work—as a detective—gives you a unique view of human behavior. How does it influence your character-building?

Well, it certainly has a significant impact on the types of characters I choose. And my police work is also responsible for my biggest step forward as a writer…that is, as a writer who is interested in the craftsmanship of writing. I think it was Stephen King who wrote that every writer has a book or story – preferably early in their career – that forces them to step outside of their comfort zone and go for something more than they thought they were capable of doing. Taking gambles, basically. You try to tackle a story or a point of view that maybe you don’t feel quite ready for, but when push comes to shove, you do tackle it and you end up learning from the experience. You become a better writer.

For me, that experience was my second novel, Quarantined, in which San Antonio gets quarantined by the U.S. military in order to prevent a pandemic outbreak of a killer flu virus. The main character in that book is a female homicide detective named Lily Harris. For years, I had watched female police officers get treated as second class citizens, both by their fellow officers and by the public at large. Within the department, there was this attitude that the ugly ones must be dykes and the hot ones must be sluts. There seemed to be no middle ground, and acceptance into the boy’s club that is police work was granted only with reluctance. And the public at large was no better. I remember making calls with female officers, entering a crime scene, or a family disturbance that’s turned violent, or just about any situation that was going to require the police take immediate charge of the situation, and more often times than not the parties involved would walk right by a female officer and go to the first male cop they saw. So when it came time to write Quarantined I channeled all the indignation and frustration I’d witnessed from the female officers I knew and put it all into Lily Harris. She remains, for that reason, one of my favorite characters.

In Dodging Bullets the female lead is a college girl named Shannon Dupree. She’s rich, frisky, fun-loving, and enjoys a good roll in the hay, if you get my drift. But she’s not a cardboard cutout by any stretch of the imagination. Nor is she simply a rich and ditsy nympho. Her character is a fond evocation of the women I knew in college. But of course I’ve changed a lot since college, and the naïveté with which I’ve shaded her character is, I suppose, an inevitable byproduct of that.

Policemen figure prominently in Dodging Bullets. What's it like working with real policemen all day and then inventing more of them later? Do you ever get sick of policemen?

"I guess there’s just something about being able to stand over a headless, footless and handless corpse while arguing with your partner about where you’re going for lunch that creates lifelong friendships. "
Strangely, no, it hasn’t gotten old yet. I still love going to work. And the reason for that has to be the people. Believe it or not, car chases get old. Shooting guns gets old. Kicking open doors in the middle of the night gets old. (Actually, kicking open doors in the middle of the night gets old in a hurry when the people inside start shooting back at you. Go figure.) But the friendships I’ve made doing police work haven’t gotten old. I guess there’s just something about being able to stand over a headless, footless and handless corpse while arguing with your partner about where you’re going for lunch that creates lifelong friendships. I can’t explain it any better than that.

Tell us about the zombie obsession—your Amazon page lists four zombie novels!

Ah, zombies! I love those shambling corpses. But why is that? Well, I guess it all started with George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. I remember watching that movie when I was about fourteen or so, and being totally blown away. I mean, here’s this young angry black man fighting with an old rich white guy for control of a house, and all the while this tightening ring of paranoia (here played by the zombies) closes in upon them. The cast is in a pressure cooker, waiting to explode. I remember thinking, Holy Shit, this isn’t just gore…this is an allegory for race relations in America. It was like an intellectual slap in the face. That was the work that convinced me that horror could be about something more than just naked bimbos getting chased through the woods by axe murderers. Not that there’s anything wrong with naked bimbos, you understand, but it’s nice when a horror story can get your mind working.

Since then, I’ve seen zombies exploited for their metaphorical potential in just about every way imaginable. It doesn’t matter what your issue is, zombies are essentially a blank slate and can be adapted to illustrate that issue. What scares you? Contagion? Illegal immigration? Terrorism? The fate of education in America? It doesn’t matter what it is, we’ve got a zombie to exploit that fear. Did you see Shaun of the Dead? I bet you laughed your ass off, right? It’s a great movie. Well, watch it again, but this time, look at it as an allegory of the drudgery and futility of life in the modern workforce. Eh? Do you see it? Gives whole new meaning to the term “working stiff,” doesn’t it? That’s what I love about zombies. I love that there are endless opportunities to use them.

What's up next—flesh-eaters or cops-and-robbers?

Well, my next two releases will be horror novels. One of them, called Apocalypse of the Dead, is a big 500 page zombie novel. The other is a far more subtle coming of age horror novel called Lost Girl of the Lake. I’m also editing an anthology of horror and dark crime stories that focus around abandoned buildings and how they got that way. Those three projects should be hitting the bookstores late this year and early next year. Anybody who wants up to date information on new releases can visit me at my website Old Major’s Dream.


  1. Excellent questions, excellent answers!

  2. Matt, I appreciate getting the chance to contribute to the blog! Thanks. And Joe sure has a lot of interesting things to say--I think I need to buy that guy a beer or two and hear some more.

  3. Great interview. I've already pre-ordered this one. Can't wait.

  4. Okay. Got the book and blasted through it in 2 days. What a ride! Extremely well written, lightening pace. Loved it. What a great kickoff to Gutter Books. Kudos to Joe and Matt.