The Big Idea: Carrie Ryan
You know, it’s not very often that the mere title of a book scares the crap out of me, but I have to tell you, The Forest of Hands and Teeth gives me the willies just looking at it. And as for the book itself, well, it comes with the coveted Kristine Scalzi Seal of Approval (which is to say, she read the book, came back when she was done, and said “hey, that was a good book”), so that’s always a positive. Everyone’s happy!
With a title like that, it should not be surprising that there are zombies involved. What may surprise you is that a certain amount of romance — and law — is also involved in the book’s creation. Here’s Carrie Ryan to explain how.
I wish I could remember what JP, then my boyfriend and now my fiancé, said to convince me to go to opening night of the Dawn of the Dead remake. I’m not a scary movie person and haven’t been since my babysitter turned out all the lights and made me watch Poltergeist with her when I was five (during which time she never failed to point out the similarities between me and the girl being chased by ghosts – same name, same hair, same closet full of stuffed animals). And yet, the theater filled to capacity, the lights dimmed, the movie began and I spent the next two hours alternately gripping his arm (finally understanding why boyfriends everywhere like to take girlfriends to scary movies) and checking the time on my cell phone mentally trying to calculate how much of the movie I had left to endure. It terrified me.
And thrilled me. Walking out of the theater that night I couldn’t stop talking about it, wondering what I would do faced with the same situation. Because at one point, while watching the worst of the worst parts of the movie I wondered if I could do it, if I could really survive. Or if I would give up.
This is how my love of apocalyptic fiction (especially the zombie apocalypse) began. JP brought home Max Brooks’ Zombie Survival Guide and read aloud from it during slow law school evenings (of which there were many). He promised to warn me of the scary parts when we watched 28 Days Later. We devoured the original Romero movies, the remakes, the spinoffs. We bought the books, the graphic novels, the television shows, more movies.
But I was still writing chick lit YA books. It just never occurred to me to write about a post-apocalyptic world even though that was what I was reading, watching, and dreaming about.
Until one day when JP and I were at lunch and we started to talk about a town surrounded by a forest full of zombies. He wanted to write a short story set in that world and I was mesmerized by the idea of it. Except that our visions were totally different. His world still had cars and roads and the people in the town knew about the outside world.
My version was set much much later in a tiny village where the people had forgotten everything beyond the forest: history, the ocean, even the cause of the Return. And though time had continued forward, it was as if the village had fallen back, regressing to an almost Puritanistic lifestyle and belief system.
JP wrote his story and I loved it. But, still my vision of the world kept tugging at me. I was obsessed; yet it never occurred to me to write anything set in that world. Until I was lamenting to JP one day that I didn’t know what project to work on for National Novel Writing Month and he told me to write what I love.
“You mean the zombie apocalypse?” I joked with him and he smiled. He was right. Two days later, on my way home from work a first line popped into my head. I emailed it to myself and when I got home I started writing. When JP came home a few hours later I’d drafted the first chapter. I read it to him and he loved it. That drove me to keep writing – the desire to keep unfolding for him the story of Mary and her village.
My book became a sort of love letter to JP, sparked by the movies we’d watched together, all the books we’d read, all the walks we’d taken imagining worlds and characters. I wanted to give back to him a fraction of what he’d given to me.
When I finished the first draft and JP read it, I said jokingly that he’d have to tell me if I needed to change anything since it was his world I’d used. I wish I could describe the look on his face, the way his voice sounded when he told me that this was my world – that it had always been my world.
I sometimes joke that I’m a full time writer still paying off my law school loans. People ask me if I regret having gone to law school since I only practiced for three years. But how can I? If I hadn’t gone to law school I wouldn’t have met JP. He wouldn’t have taken me to opening night of Dawn of the Dead and I would have held fast to my scary movie phobia. I never would have written The Forest of Hands and Teeth. JP truly did give me the world.