Author Interview: Carrie Ryan on The Forest of Hands and Teeth & The Dead-Tossed Waves

Carrie Ryan is the young adult author of The Forest of Hands and Teeth (Delacorte, 2009) and The Dead-Tossed Waves (Delacorte, 2010).

A former lawyer, she now writes full time and lives with her fiancé, two fat cats and one large lazy dog in Charlotte, NC.

What were you like as a YA reader? Who were your favorite authors? What were your favorite titles?

I read anything and everything! I’m the youngest of three girls, so mostly I’d just rifle through my older sisters’ bookshelves (this is probably why I got into romance novels at a very young age).

I remember spending many nights staying up late reading Christopher Pike and R.L. Stine. To this day, I credit them with making me a speed reader–I turned those pages so fast they were almost on fire.

What first inspired you to write for teens?

When I was still in high school I read an interview with a romance author who said she’d decided to write after finishing a book and thinking, I could do that.

As soon as I read those words, I thought the same thing: I could do that too.

For some reason, it just always stuck in my head that I’d write romance novels. It wasn’t until 2006, when I really dedicated myself to writing, that I realized that I could write something other than romance, and that’s when I realized that YA books were really exploding.

I remembered how much I adored reading as a teen, and it seemed like the most perfect fit! It sounds a bit lame, but until that point it had just never occurred to me that I could write for teens–I only needed a little nudge.

Could you tell us about your path to publication–any sprints or stumbles along the way?

I’ve been phenomenally lucky in my path to publication. A few months after starting in private practice as a lawyer, I realized that I didn’t want to be doing that forever and I wondered what would have happened if I hadn’t quit writing romance novels to go to law school.

I decided that I’d spend the next 10 years writing, revising, and submitting books (in addition to practicing law) and not allowing myself to quit when I hit stumbling blocks and rejections.

When NaNoWriMo came around in 2006, I knew I wanted to do it, but I had a collection of half-finished books and one of the rules of NaNo is that you have to start something new.

I whined about this to my fiancé, wondering what I should write next.

He said, “Write what you love.”

I laughed and said, “the zombie apocalypse.”

And he smiled and shrugged.

A few nights later on the way home from work, a first line popped into my head and I emailed it to myself.

Two weeks later, I’d written 20,000 words on this crazy post-apocalypse book with a voice I hadn’t written in since college. I was loving every minute of it, but knew it would never sell–it was just too different. I didn’t let that stop me, I kept writing because I loved it and my fiancé loved it.

When my critique partner, Diana Peterfreund, read what I had so far, she encouraged me to keep going (and I knew she was being honest cause she’d been “meh” about an earlier project of mine–thank goodness!).

I ran into the usual stumbling blocks: fear that I’d mess up the story, not knowing what happened next, etc.

Once the first draft was finished, I spent a lot of time revising–as much time or more than I’d spent writing the book in the first place!

I wanted to know when it got rejected that I’d given the book my best shot–there was nothing more I could have done.

As beta readers were going through my drafts, I spent a lot of time researching agents. I still didn’t think the book had a shot (in fact, I thought agents would laugh at my query letter with the word “zombie” in it,) and so one of the agents I queried was someone I didn’t know as much about but who’d recently repped a zombie book (so at least I knew he wouldn’t laugh too hard at me!).

A few weeks after I sent my query, I signed with that agent–Jim McCarthy at Dystel & Goderich. After a few revisions, he sent the manuscript out on a Friday afternoon, received a pre-empt offer Monday morning, and I’d signed by the end of the day.

Total and absolute dream come true.

Congratulations on the success of The Forest of Hands and Teeth (Delacorte, 2009, 2010)! Could you tell us a little about the book?

The Forest of Hands and Teeth is about a girl, Mary, who grows up in a village surrounded by a forest full of zombies about 150 years after the zombie apocalypse.

Her village has been totally cut off from the world and told by the ruling Sisterhood that they’re the last humans left.

But Mary’s grown up with stories about the ocean (which most people in the village think is a myth), and she thinks it’s a place that’s safe from the undead.

She just has to decide if she’s willing to risk the Forest to find out if there’s still a world beyond the fences. There’s also romance.

What was your initial inspiration for the story?

Like a lot of books, there were several random inspirations.

I became fascinated with zombies when my fiancé took me to see the remake of “Dawn of the Dead”(2004)(he then bought me The Zombie Survival Guide [by Max Brooks (Random House) and read it out loud to me when we should have been studying in law school).

Part of what I loved about the zombie books and movies was the idea of survival–how we cope with an event that totally devastates and alters our world.

It was around Halloween when my fiancé was talking about a short story idea set in a zombie world with a forest and a village. In his mind, it was right after the apocalypse and the village was at the edge of the forest. But in mine, it was generations later and the village was utterly cut off. Off and on, we talked about this world, but I really hadn’t planned on writing in it.

Then one day I read an article about the overfishing of tuna, and I thought how odd it would be for future generations to grow up in a world without tuna when most of us today have cans of it stacked away in our pantry.

This made me think about what we lose over time–how something so common in our world could be lost to another.

That evening when I was walking home from work a first line popped into my head. It dovetailed so perfectly with the world my fiancé and I’d been discussing that I ran with it!

What was the timeline between spark and publication, and what were the major events along the way?

I still have the email I sent to myself with that first line on Nov. 2, 2006. I finished the first draft that April and revised it through the summer.

In August 2007, my critique partner got tired of me waffling about sending out query letters so she sent one for me, spurring me into action. I signed with Jim around Sept. 20, 2007; and he sold the book Oct. 15 that year. Two days later, I had my first edit letter!

Much of the year is a blur of excitement and nerves–I really had no idea what to expect and what the timeline was for a book.

Definite high points included seeing the cover in February 2008, getting ARCs, going on a pre-publication tour and meeting George Romero (I got to sign a copy of my book to him, and he asked about movie rights! When I got home after meeting him, I had author copies sitting by my door–perfect timing!).

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, and logistical) in bringing it to life?

I’m not an outliner, so I definitely ran into challenges when I wasn’t sure what should happen next in the book (I still face those challenges, but at least now I know I’ve figured it out in the past which gives me hope that I can do it again!).

Research was basically watching a lot of zombie movies and books and then building my own world. I spent time talking to my fiancé (who studied parasitology) and his brother (Ph.D. in biology) about the biological aspects of zombies. I also talked to doctors about wounds I inflicted on my characters, a forest firefighter about what that’s like, etc.

One challenge I have whenever I write a book is the fear of closing off plots. I always think of a new book as an endless series of hallways with infinite doorways and each word you write and each plot point you decide, you’re closing those doors.

It’s sad to think of all the potential ideas that never make it.

What was it like being a debut author?

Amazing and terrifying and wonderful and every other emotion all combined together.

I was so lucky to be a part of a group of debut YA and middle grade authors called the 2009 Debutantes, and so we all went through the experience together, propping each other up, cheering each other on, sharing information and stories. Being with them really enriched the entire experience for me.

I go through these moments of thinking that having a book out is ordinary, and then sometimes I pinch myself and ask if this is all really real.

Congratulations on the release of The Dead-Tossed Waves (Delacorte, 2010)! Could you tell us about this novel?

The Dead-Tossed Waves is a companion to The Forest of Hands and Teeth and is told from the point of view of Mary’s (the protagonist from the first book) daughter, Gabry.

Gabry grows up safe in a town by the ocean until one night, against her better judgment, she crosses the barrier to go hang out at an old amusement park with her friends (and the guy she has a crush on).

Being a book with zombies, things go terribly wrong, and she starts to realize that this safe little bubble she’s lived in has really been a lie.

Now she has to decide if living a safe life is really living at all.

How was it different, craft-wise, writing your sophomore novel versus writing your first?

I’d actually never planned on writing a sequel–to me, The Forest of Hands and Teeth was a stand alone, but when my editor asked me if I would write more I jumped at the chance because I loved my protagonist and her world.

However, when I sat down to write more of her, I realized that I hadn’t set up any story arcs that would carry past the first book and this tripped me up.

Eventually I realized that Mary’s story was pretty much finished, and I really wanted to write about a new character–someone who’d grown up in this town by the ocean.

But at the same time, I wanted to carry through some of the other threads and unanswered questions, so I figured the best solution was to have Mary still be a character, just not a major character.

Why spooky stories? Are you a spooky person?

What’s funny to me is that I never thought of The Forest of Hands and Teeth and The Dead-Tossed Waves as being spooky stories! It was just the world my characters lived in, and I think I accepted it as much as they did.

In fact, I’m someone who is very easily scared–I still jump when I watch “Dawn of the Dead” (even though I’ve seen it a million times), and I still freak myself out at night when I’m home alone.

If you could go back in time and talk to your beginning-writer self, what would you tell her?

That it would work out and to relax a little. But at the same time, one of the things I loved about being a beginning writer is that I had all these amazing things to daydream about.

I remember after I sold my book thinking, what will I daydream about when I’m falling asleep at night now? And I realized that I had to find new dreams to focus on.

What can your readers look forward to next?

I just finished the third book in the series, The Dark and Hollow Places, which should come out in spring 2011.

For those who don’t want to wait that long, I also have three short stories set in the same world coming out this year.

The first, “Hare Moon,” is coming out in the Kiss Me Deadly anthology, edited by Trisha Telep (Running Press, July 2010) and is about Sister Tabitha when she was a teen.

The second, “Flotsam & Jetsam,” is in The Living Dead 2 anthology edited by John Joseph Adams (Night Shade) and is about two boys on a life raft after the infection breaks out on their cruise ship.

Third is “Bougainvillea,” coming out in the Zombies vs. Unicorns anthology edited by Holly Black and Justine Larbalestier (McElderry, Sept. 2010). My story is set about 15 years after the Return on the island of Curacao–I’m so excited about all three stories!

Cynsational Notes

This is the first stop on Carrie’s blog tour! Here’s the whole line-up:

3/16: Cynsations
3/17: The Book Smugglers
3/18: “Hollywood Crush”
3/19: The Page Flipper
3/20: Through A Glass, Darkly
3/21: readergirlz
3/22: Mundie Moms
3/23: Cheryl Rainfield
3/24: Just Blinded Books
3/25: The Story Siren
3/26: Bildungsroman
3/27: Beautiful Creatures

From March 22 to April 4, you also can visit with Carrie at RandomBuzzers!

See a video interview with Carrie from Christ Church Episcopal School:

Check out the book trailer for The Forest of Hands and Teeth:

And the book trailer for The Dead-Tossed Waves: