INTERVIEW: Joe McKinney, author of “Dating in the Dead World”

Tell us a bit about your story. What’s it about?

It’s been almost twenty years since Hurricane Mardell swept through Houston, flooding the city and giving birth to a virus that turns the living into the walking dead.  The world has been overrun by zombies and left in ruin.  But there are still groups of people left alive, and they are carving out an existence in the wasteland.

Some of the survivors have moved into protective compounds, but Andrew Hudson wasn’t lucky enough to grow up in one of those.  He was raised as a street urchin out in the ruins of San Antonio, where he makes a living as a special courier between the strongholds of the dead world’s warlords.  During one of those runs he had the good fortune to meet the daughter of the area’s most powerful warlord, and he won her heart.

Now, they’re going on their first date.  How hard could that be, right?  Kids have been dating forever.  Well, when taking your date out involves high speed pursuits through zombie-infested ruins and being used as pawns in an underhanded power grab scheme, nothing is as easy as it seems.

What was the genesis of the story–what was the inspiration for it, or what prompted you to write it?

“Dating in the Dead World” was written right about the same time that Kensington Publishing came asking me to do another zombie book.  I had made a few readers mad with the ending to Dead City, and I wanted to address the criticism before I went on with the rest of the series.

The first person narrator of Dead City is a police officer named Eddie Hudson.  The thing to remember about Eddie Hudson is that he is not a reliable reporter.  Most people get that wrong about him.  He’s deeply fractured by the events he recounts in the novel, and the optimism he expresses at the end of the story is…well, let’s just say he’s not telling you everything.  He’s telling you about the world he wants to believe in, not the world as it really is.  “Dating in the Dead World” came from that issue.  And because “Dating in the Dead World” was written to refute Eddie Hudson’s optimism, the logical lead for the story was Eddie’s son, Andrew Hudson.  So this story really becomes as much a conversation between father and son as it does a commentary on the Dead City series itself.

Was this story a particularly challenging one to write? If so, how?

“Dating in the Dead World” came surprisingly easy.  After I finish a novel, I’m usually struck by a sort of separation anxiety.  So much mental effort is put into world building and getting to know the characters that it seems a shame to simply cut and run.  I personally have a hard time leaving it all behind.  So what I usually do is write a few short stories set in the world of the novel I’ve just finished.  They don’t always involve the same characters, or even take place at exactly the same time, but they all help me, in their own way, go on to the next book.  “Dating in the Dead World” was a part of that process, and because I knew the world of the story already, the story developed without a lot of birthing pains.

Most authors say all their stories are personal.  If that’s true for you, in what way was this story personal to you?

Personal accountability is a big deal for me.  I don’t respect a person who can’t accept responsibility for your actions.  That’s something I learned from my dad, and something I’ll always be thankful for.

But he also gave me a related piece of advice.  Right before I left for my first date, he gave me the only bit of parental sex education I ever received.  “Remember this,” he said.  “You will be held personally accountable for everything that happens to that girl from the moment she leaves her front door to the moment she walks back in it.  Conduct yourself accordingly.”

It wasn’t until after I’d written “Dating in the Dead World” that I realized I was channeling that advice.  I guess it took.

What kind of research did you have to do for the story?

Well, the “world” of this story was one I already knew quite well, but I did do research on the use of cadaver dogs, and on building protective compounds.  Believe it or not, there’s a lot of material out there on how to create your own fortress to guard against the end of the world.  To me, that’s almost as scary as the end of the world itself, you know?

What is the appeal of zombie fiction? Why do so many writers–or you yourself–write about it? Why do readers and film viewers love it so much?

I bet there are a million answers to this question.  I imagine at least a few zombie fans see the genre as the safe way to fulfill a world destruction fantasy.  After all, what better way to express our fears of society’s ills and our collective self-loathing for the mess we’ve made of things than to turn the idiots responsible into zombies.  But I think the lasting appeal of the genre has to go beyond the simple urge to destroy.  And in that sense, zombies are really part of the larger scope of apocalyptic fiction, which is, ironically enough, life-affirming in the end.  These are stories about survival, after all.  These are stories about life holding on, no matter how bad things get.  The world may be ruined; the dead may be gaining ground; hope may be a snow ball sweating away in hell–but still we fight on.  And isn’t that why we love these stories?  What fun would it be if we had an apocalypse and we didn’t get to live through it?

What are some of your favorite examples of zombie fiction, and what makes them your favorites?

Metaphorically speaking, zombies are blank slates.  That’s been said enough times by now that just about everybody gets it.  You can make the subtext of a zombie story about anything you want.  George Romero did that with racism in the original Night of the Living Dead, for example.  I love zombie fiction because it’s so flexible that way.  They can be symbols of profound loss and grief, and our inability to completely process those emotions, as they are in Dan Simmons’ “This Year’s Class Picture,” or cautionary warnings about the dangers of conformity, as in Adam Troy-Castro’s “Dead Like Me,” or even joyful symbols of the redemptive power of love, as in Joe Hill’s “Bobby Conroy Comes Back from the Dead.”  They are, potentially, all over the map, just waiting for a message to get imprinted.