Interview: Carrie Ryan on Zombie Fiction

Born and raised in Greenville, South Carolina, Carrie Ryan is a graduate of Williams College and Duke University School of Law. A former litigator, she now writes full time and is the author of The Forest of Hands and Teeth and The Dead-Tossed Waves. Carrie lives with her writer/lawyer fiancé, two fat cats and one large puppy in Charlotte, North Carolina. They are not at all prepared for the zombie apocalypse.  Visit her online at

John Ottinger: How would you define zombie fiction?

Carrie Ryan: I think for me anything that has zombies in it falls under that category (and I’m inclusive on that note—so even something like 28 Days Later where they’re not technically zombies, I still call it a zombie movie).

JO: What is it that makes zombie fiction appealing to readers (and to younger readers in particular)?

CR: That’s a great question I feel like a lot of people are asking right now. Part of it’s that talking about zombies is an easy way to talk about fears without hitting too close to home. It’s much scarier to talk about something real like an H1N1 pandemic or nuclear war than it is to talk about something like zombies, but you can still address the same issues. At the same time, there’s not a terribly long tradition or set canon for zombies yet, so you can make them whatever you want.

JO: Has zombie fiction seen its apex? Or is there more that can be done with the archetype?

CR: I don’t think zombie fiction’s reached its apex, I see people really expanding the genre in a lot of ways. At the same time, I do think that zombies are somewhat cyclical—they’re an easy way to look at social fears and we happen to be living in a time with a lot of social angst (fear of economic collapse, swine flue, weapons of mass destruction, the environment—our future in general).

JO: Why would you say zombies are scarier en masse than as individuals?

CR: Well, first I think that zombies can be scary as individuals, but it’s a different kind of fear. With an individual you’re dealing one on one with the epitome of death and sometimes the monster might be someone you know and loved and you have to face that. En masse they’re terrifying because there is no “end” to them as a group—it’s almost impossible to comprehend. I love talking to students about this because their first instinct when we talk about something like a zombie apocalypse is to grab guns and so I ask them what the population of their city is and then ask them if they have that many bullets. It’s just so hard to think about an entire city becoming infected and what that means: where you chose to hide out is where you’ll often be trapped for a long long time.

JO: Most current zombie fiction seems to posit a scientific basis for the creation of zombies, rather than the mystical origins of the original tales. Why do you think there has been a shift from the fantastic to the scientific?

CR: I think having a scientific explanation makes it feel more real, as if it could somehow happen. I never get into the explanation in my book because (a) I feel like that’s part of the sub-genre, everyone sort of jokes about how so few books and movies actually ever explain exactly how it happens and (b) it’s not important to the people in my world anymore. It’s been many many generations and well over a century since the zombie apocalypse—they’re past caring about how it happened because it’s just a part of their every day life. Now they just live with it—it’s part of their reality.

JO: A lot of zombie fiction is closely tied in with a doomsday or apocalyptic scenario. Why are the two so closely linked?

CR: Even though zombies are technically undead, they often represent ultimate death and that’s so closely tied to the apocalypse—it’s not just your death, but the death of the world as you know it. At the same time, on a more practical level, you have an easily-transmitted disease that’s 100% fatal… that’s going to really throw a wrench in things, and when you start thinking about the effects of that you realize just how fragile our infrastructure is and how easy it is to shatter it.

JO: How is it that zombies can also be as humorous as they are scary?

CR: I don’t use humor in my book, but there are definitely others who use it quite well. Sometimes you can get an easy laugh with zombies—the naked zombie or a clown—snapshots of people’s individual lives that can be funny. But I also think a lot of humor in zombie movies comes from the juxtaposition with the horror, how out of place it can seem. Often I think the humor is a way to counterbalance the tension inherent in a zombie story.

JO: In The Forest of Hands and Teeth you are writing primarily to a teenage audience. What aspects of teenage life are you exploring?

CR: I was trying to find something universal in the teen experience that everyone can relate to regardless of age (in fact, my book is sold by an adult publisher overseas). Really, my main character, Mary’s struggle is to figure out who she is, whether she can trust her dreams, and what she’s willing to do and sacrifice for those dreams—how far she’s willing to go. At the same time, she grows up in a world surrounded by death and she has to figure out what separates herself from the undead—they’re nothing but existence and if she has no hope or dreams, then what is she? I think this is something we can all relate to—how we define our lives beyond mere existence and what we’re willing to fight for.

JO: You story bears some similarity in construction to M. Night Shyamalan’s movie The Village. How does your work differ from his?

CR: It’s funny, I’ve heard this comparison before but I never even thought about it when I was writing the book and in fact remember very little about the movie. I think the idea of a world cut off from everyone else and wondering if there’s a world outside is somewhat universal (and is often the result of a zombie apocalypse because it becomes almost impossible to move around in a zombie-infested world). In The Forest of Hands and Teeth the monsters are real and are visible at all times and the Return is real—there’s no lying about the fact that the rest of the world is overrun by zombies.

JO: Your protagonist is a young woman, as opposed to most zombie fiction, which is predominantly male. How does having a female protagonist make your work differ from that of those with male protagonists?

CR: Great question—it’s interesting because I haven’t thought about that before. My first introduction to zombies was through movies and there are a lot of female protagonists in zombie movies. I think with my book it’s not all just about the zombie apocalypse which is what a lot of zombie fiction focuses on. I purposefully set mine several generations after the Return because I wanted to see what it took to survive. Because of that, Mary’s focus isn’t really on the zombies and how to defeat them (at this point, they’ve accepted that this is the reality of their world) but more on her life lived in a world with the constant threat of them.

JO: Lots of reviewers have called The Forest of Hands and Teeth a “zombie love story”. How do you feel about this characterization, and what are its positives and negatives in describing your work?

CR: The only problem with that characterization is that with the current trend of YA romances involving vampires, fallen angels, etc., calling The Forest of Hands and Teeth a zombie love story can make it sound like my main character falls in love with a zombie (that the love interest is a zombie) which very definitely isn’t the case. Otherwise, it’s true that one of the plots in the book is a romance, but I also think there’s a lot more going on as Mary deals with questions of religion, of being raised in a society that restricts information in the guise of protecting them, and how to deal with her family and friends as things around her shift and she has to define her own reality.

JO: Can you tell us about any forthcoming work you may have?

CR: My next book, The Dead-Tossed Waves, is a companion to The Forest of Hands and Teeth and came out March 9, 2010. I call it a companion because even though I address issues raised in the first book and have some overlap in characters, the story is told through another point-of-view character and takes place well after the end of the first book. Right now I’m working on a third book set in the same world.

JO: Thank you for your time.

CR: Thanks so much!


Back to the top of the page

This post is closed for comments.

Our Privacy Notice has been updated to explain how we use cookies, which you accept by continuing to use this website. To withdraw your consent, see Your Choices.