Carrie Ryan is the author of The Forest of Hands and Teeth (2009) and The Dead-Tossed Waves, both from Delacorte. Ryan is currently crossing the country on tour to celebrate the publication of her new novel. PW caught up with her via phone on her Lansing, Mich., stop. She will be married on April Fool's Day of this year; The Dead-Tossed Waves is dedicated to her fiancé.
Do you think of The Forest of Hands and Teeth and The Dead-Tossed Waves as zombie novels?
I think of them as novels that happen to have zombies in them. When we say zombie novels people expect the zombie apocalypse. But my books are about how you survive intense challenges in life and there are zombies around while you are trying to survive them.
How about as dystopian novels?
I don't know if I'd consider them dystopian. Though I think that people who like dystopian novels would like my books because society has fallen apart and the stories are about how you live in such a society.
How did you conceive of the world?
I became fascinated by zombies when my fiancé took me to see Dawn of the Dead. That's when I began a steady diet of zombie movies and books. Then for NaNoWriMo [National Novel Writing Month] in 2006 I had to start a new novel and for the fun of it I decided to write my zombie apocalypse. The first line came to me on the way home one day and this book eventually became The Forest of Hands and Teeth. I wanted to experiment with voice—I didn't think it would go anywhere really—it really was an experiment. The dedication of the book is to my fiancé JP for giving me the world-we spent so much time talking about zombies and the world for this book.
Why so bleak all the time?
That's just the world of my protagonists. It's a terrible world. It's a world that isn't fair. A lot of what Mary—my heroine in The Forest of Hands and Teeth—has to do is constantly make hard choices. She was to decide what she is willing to give up in order to take risk on her own behalf. I thought her story and Gabry's story—my heroine in The Dead-Tossed Waves—are hopeful in the end. In both books the characters learn a tremendous amount about themselves. They learn to trust others, and to rely on and believe in themselves.
Why did you switch heroines between books?
The first book was supposed to be a standalone. When we talked about the possibility of a sequel I was excited because I loved Mary's world. Then I thought it would be unfair to Mary to get her all the way to where she was at the end of The Forest of Hands and Teeth—which I think was a really hopeful place after so much loss and difficulty—and then say, "psyche!" and push her into more peril for the next book. Besides, I really like introducing a reader to a world through someone who has always lived in it, and Mary hadn't grown up in Gabry's world, which is the setting for The Dead-Tossed Waves.
Where do you get your inspiration to write?
A lot of times something that unsettles me will stick in me and I want to figure it out, figure out why it's unsettling. When I was watching Dawn of the Dead I started wondering what I would do to survive a zombie apocalypse. When something doesn't fit together in my head I usually figure it out through telling a story about it, and with these two novels I am trying to figure a zombie apocalypse out through these two characters and by asking how far they are willing to go to survive.
How would you describe your writing style?
One thing that really matters to me is the rhythm of the world—I don't use a lot of commas and I want the reader to literally be breathless. The voice for The Forest of Hands and Teeth is a voice I found first in college and I'm really glad I found it again. I was taking a personal essay class and the assignment was to echo Jamaica Kincaid. This story I wrote came out with this rhythm and a lot of repetition—it came from nowhere. When I think about where the voice of these two books came from I can pinpoint exactly this story from college.
Has your writing process changed at all since you got published and started making a name for yourself?
Before selling books I had all the time in the world to figure my story out, but now I'm under more pressure. But I also have the experience of being able to make a story work at least once or twice before, so now when I start to feel panic I also have more confidence in being able to do it again this time.
Tell us what's next?
There is a third book in the series coming out in a year—next spring. It's called The Dark and Hollow Places. It's already written.
Will you ever write a happy book?
I'm not telling—that would be a spoiler! Well, I don't think my books are unhappy books, really. People say they're scary and I didn't intend them to be scary. I feel like even in a world that's terrifying you still have friends and love and hope—it's just friendship and love and hope that are appropriate to the nature of that world. Mary and Gabry both have to have happiness in these things, because without them they'd just give up. In even a dark, dark time you can find happiness.
What are you doing to celebrate the release of The Dead-Tossed Waves?
I'm on tour and it's great—I have an event every night and I'm having the best time. I started the tour the Tuesday the book came out—March 9th. I love talking to readers and writers and meeting people. A bookstore is actually hosting a zombie prom on Friday night to celebrate my book in Rochester Hills, Michigan. Then in Seattle, a bookstore has two makeup artists coming in to turn everyone into zombies.
Did you tour for The Forest of Hands and Teeth, or is this your first time?
I did a pre-publication tour for the first book to New York, Chicago, Seattle and San Francisco. One of the coolest things about being on tour is when I run into a fan who says, "I didn't really like reading and then I read your book and now I love reading." The idea that my book is starting someone down the road to a love of reading is an utter and absolute dream come true. Reading is so important to me! I feel like one of the luckiest people in the world.
The Dead-Tossed Waves by Carrie Ryan. Delacorte, $17.99 Mar. ISBN 978-0-385-73684-8
The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan. Delacorte, paper $9.99 Feb. ISBN 978-0-385-73682-4