The Big Idea: Carrie Ryan

When we know something, it’s not just what we know but how we came to know it that determines how useful it is to us: How did we learn it? Is it from a trusted source? How will we save and store that knowledge? How will we pass it on? In a world where we can store entire encyclopedias on flash drives the size of a fingernail, this doesn’t seem like much of an issue. But it’s not that difficult to imagine a world where it might be.

Such a world exists in The Dead-Tossed Waves, author Carrie Ryan’s follow-up to her bestselling debut, The Forest of Hands and Teeth. In these books, the world of the living is small, poor, and clearly demarcated. In that world, what we know and how we know it has implications not only for how people live day to day, but also how they see the world… and how they imagine how the world can be.


In my first book, The Forest of Hands and Teeth (released last year) Mary, my protagonist, lives in an amazingly circumscribed world — a small village in the middle of a forest full of zombies where everyone’s told there’s nothing left of humanity past the fences. Mary lives about 150 years after the zombie apocalypse and her village has nothing left from the before time — no books (other than one religious text), electricity, maps and the like. Every bit of information and knowledge they have is passed down through several generations.

I think of it a bit like playing a game of telephone — you know where one person whispers a phrase to the person sitting next to them and it gets passed around the room such that “I had eggs for breakfast” somehow becomes “bacon taped on cats is yummy”?

The idea of memory and the corruption of information over time fascinates me. We’re so reliant on outside sources of information today that if the apocalypse hit… what stories would we remember to pass down?

Because here’s the thing… once, about a decade ago, I sat with my ill grandmother while she told me stories from her life. In one of them, she described going to a dance at Amherst with her mother as a chaperone and wearing lavender stockings (during a time when such a color stocking was rare). One of the matrons at the dance asked my Nana to leave because of her shameless attire (re: lavender stockings). Her mother, my great-grandmother, straightened her back and gave one of the best retorts I’d ever herd — so perfect and cutting and yet also so poised. I remember listening to that story and thinking “this is where the strength of the women in my family comes from — this is how I am who I am.”

And yet I can’t remember what my great-grandmother’s oh-so-perfect retort was and no one else in my large family ever heard the story. It’s lost to time. This is the corrosion of memory.

Now imagine that on a larger scale: how to build things and cure things and repair things. How many miles in a light year or which clouds are cumulus and which are cirrus. All the things we turn to Wikipedia and books for — just slowly eroding away.

This is Mary’s world in the forest: the only information the villagers have is what’s passed down year after year with no influence from the outside world. So when I decided to write a sequel/companion book set beyond the forest, I suddenly had to figure out what would we retain and remember given slightly more resources?

My answer: not much more. In my second book, The Dead-Tossed Waves, Mary’s daughter, Gabry, grows up in a dead-end town at the edge of the ocean. There’s little communication between enclaves of survivors (no electricity because resources for things like wires is rare and travel is dangerous because roads are still rife with zombies). But even more disturbing is that there’s a pervasive feeling among the survivors of “what’s the use?”

What’s the point of caring or learning about art or physics or calculus in the face of everyday issues like keeping the town safe, farming fields, feeding mouths? Knowledge and learning becomes a luxury pretty quickly. At one point in the book a teacher comes to town and talks about the universe and gravity and most of the families pull their kids from school because to them, such information is useless.

Sometimes I think of these characters in my books — these random survivors — as living their lives with their heads down, sometimes glancing over their shoulders to ensure no zombies have breached their carefully structured safety. And then I imagine my protagonists standing, head raised, looking to the horizon and wondering what’s out there.

In the first book, this is Mary, staring at the forest and wondering if there’s a life on the other side. In the second book this is Gabry, growing up in a lighthouse by the ocean wondering if there’s an easier and safer life out there. And then the real question becomes: what causes someone to raise their head from the ground, to not just stare at the horizon but to go out after it?

Zombies can embody all sorts of themes: the slow crawl of death, fear of science/religion/technology/ourselves, inescapable nihilism. But to me, they often represent a life not fully lived. They are nothing more than pure existence shuffling through time with no dreams, hopes, desires or memories. This drives me to wonder what separates the character living life staring at the ground and the zombie straining at the fence?

What makes us raise our heads and go after something more? What makes us care about lives apart from our own? What’s the difference between the person who stands at the edge of the ocean day after day wondering what’s past the waves and the person who gets in a boat and paddles off to find the answer?

Often, it’s my own fear of not taking advantage of this life — of forgetting my grandmother’s stories, of not bothering to read poetry or look at art or remember what kind of flower grows on my front porch or caring about a dispute between two warring tribes on the other side of the world — that causes me to write about people who do take advantage of what they’re given and constantly grasp for more. I hope their drive and determination will bolster my own.


The Dead-Tossed Waves: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|IndieBound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. See the book trailer. Visit Carrie Ryan’s blog. Follow her on Twitter.

19 Comments on “The Big Idea: Carrie Ryan”

  1. Hmmmm. I’m more hopeful about the potential for human memory, because of an interesting story from Polynesia.

    See, the Polynesians were an oral society. No writing. When they built one of their canoes, they would designate someone as the measure of that canoe, and the proportions of his body to build the boat. The boat-builders memorized a series of proportions, and built the boat to one man’s measure.

    But more importantly, they had chants that could take a day or more to recite properly (the Kamapua’a cycle), just as the Celtic bards did, or the Navajo singers. Or modern theater actors.

    In the case of the Polynesians, some of the early missionaries recorded some of their chants. Two centuries later, ethnographers went to the same islands and recorded the same chants. The wording had not changed in two centuries, even though the language was considered archaic by the modern chanters.

    While I agree that books are better for retaining information, the potential for human memory is quite good. Thing is, it’s like a muscle, and it needs to be trained and used. As with our muscles, our memories are flabby and malformed, because it’s easier that way. And because people make money to remember things for us wholesale.

    Not that this should take away anything from what promises to be an excellent book. But there is reason for hope.

    Teach your kids to memorize! Do it yourself!

  2. Heteromeles: You’re right that human memory techniques can do amazing things; what fascinates me are the things people choose to remember. Some are practical, like your Polynesian boat builders, but many are religious (or have become religious, when the original reasons for remembering are forgotten) or historical, as a way of preserving a society’s identity.

  3. Thanks for the essay, Carrie. I loved the first book and am looking forward to picking up this one as well.

  4. Great post. FHT is already on mt TBR list, and it looks like DTW is following right after it.

    Of course, I may just be biased by how cool I think lighthouses are…

  5. I’m with Luisa–that is just a fascinating theme for a novel. It could have been written without zombies, I suppose, but why?

  6. Thanks for the comments y’all! So glad you liked the post!

    heteromeles – you bring up a great point about the strong oral traditions all over the world. I definitely spent a lot of time thinking about that but then realized that often those oral traditions are passed down through generations (and often involve a lot of training) and at the point of the apocalypse you’d have average, every-day people with access to only the memories they have.

    There are definitely many people in the world with memories better than mine is, but if we had to rely on just what I have in my brain, we’d lose a whole lot of information. I became really fascinated with what information would survive after several generations of retelling — what would we lose in that time?

  7. I read The Forest of Hands and Teeth and I am looking forward to reading The Dead-Tossed Waves. Carrie, you are an author celebrity to me. Thank you for writing this series.

  8. Okay now, what’s up with the zombies? Not, why are they there or anything so unimportant. Why are they the way they are, and what are they hanging around for?

  9. I’m torn on this. I hate Zombie Apocalypse! as a story trope, mainly because so little thought usually goes into the logistics and functioning of the zombies themselves, but the concept outlined here sounds interesting enough that I might well read the series anyway.

  10. Thanks for this excellent Big Idea post, Carrie! I got Forest as a Vine reviewer and loved it so much I pre-ordered and am just starting this new one. It’s exciting to hear what the themes mean to you.

  11. I enjoyed Forest a lot, and I look forward to reading Waves!
    One question I had was why there seems to be such a huge number of zombies still mobile in the world? Is there any attrition through rotting and such? Is this something addressed in the new book?

  12. I’m afraid I have to go with Mechalith here. It’s actually very hard to imagine how this future can work and be plausible. Lots and lots of resources left after the ZA that the zombies certainly aren’t going to need (of course, there can’t be MANY zombies, etc. etc, unless they’re immortal and the second law of thermodynamics doesn’t apply to them). The ZA meme only really works in terms of short-lived plagues (or pure fantasy).
    So far, I’m zero for forever on Big Idea posts but I actually see that as a feature, not a bug.

  13. VERY great Big Idea. I am currently 1/3 into the book and I love it. I love Mary. I love Gabry. I am going to be sad when I put it down because I just CAN’T put it down. I need to know what happens! Very good sequel and needless to say, very excellent first book. I love the writing style and the plots. Thank you Carrie for sharing your world of Zombies. Oops, I mean Unconsecrated. :)

  14. Also- Mechalith & Nelson, I actually think Nelson hit it on the head. PURE FANTASY. This was my first ‘zombie’ book as in I have no desire to read books about zombies. But this isn’t a ‘book about zombies’. It’s about people you grow to care about and are cheering them on when they are against huge, digusting, scary odds. It’s fantasy. Let fantasy BE fantasy. Especially, since, you know, ZOMBIES DON’T ACTUALLY EXIST. Sorry for the caps.

  15. is there a book after the dead tossed waves cause omg it cant just end this way, im freaking out, i want to cry lol, u have to have a 3rd book im going to go insane trying to find out what happens to them all….

  16. I think it’s worth mentioning: the next book, The Dark and Hollow Places, was published on March 22 (2011). Just an update/FYI. =D

    (Yay for correction! Boo for bad HTML because I’m at work and trying to do this quickly!)

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