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Author Carrie Ryan MAG
It is said that writers write about what they know. Fortunately, Carrie Ryan doesn't have much first-hand knowledge of zombie apocalypses. However, her Forest of Hands and Teeth series incorporates many of the same themes she has dealt with in real life. This keeps her novels fresh and unique, and helped her become a New York Times best-selling author. The third and final book in the trilogy is The Dark and Hollow Places.
Shelby DeWeese: How did you get started writing about zombies?
Carrie Ryan: I've always been afraid of scary movies, and then somehow when I was in law school, my then-boyfriend, now-husband convinced me to go see the “Dawn of the Dead” remake. And I was terrified the whole time, but I couldn't get it out of my head. I've always been fascinated by what people will do to survive when everything around them has changed. My husband found Max Brooks' The Zombie Survival Guide, and would read it to me. It was sort of a joke between us. A couple years later, I was doing National Novel Writing Month, and one of the rules is that you have to start a new project, so I was whining that I didn't know what to write, and he said I should write what I love. Sort of as a joke I said, “That would be the Zombie apocalypse,” and he looked at me like yeah.
So I started writing The Forest of Hands and Teeth. The first line came to me a couple days later, walking home from work. I e-mailed it to myself so I wouldn't forget, and when I got home I wrote the first 2,000 words. I didn't even notice time passing. I never thought it would get published. I wrote it because I have always loved the idea of survival and zombies.
With the current prevalence of zombie and vampire books, how do you keep your ideas unique?
Well, when I was writing Forest in 2006, there wasn't that prevalence. I think mine stand out from other zombie books because I go so far past the zombie apocalypse. The zombies are such an everyday part of life; they have existed for 100 years. I feel like my book isn't as much a zombie book as a book that happens to have zombies in it.
What is the most difficult thing about getting published?
You think that when you get your book published, you won't have to worry anymore. But anyone who has the tenacity to keep writing books and submitting them and dealing with rejection is someone who sets really high goals for themselves. And it's easy not to acknowledge when you've met those goals and constantly keep moving the goal line. You need to stop and think, Hey, I had this book published. This is the fulfillment of a life-long dream. The hardest thing is remembering to step back and just enjoy the process. To be an author still feels insanely surreal to me.
What message do you want readers to take from your books?
I don't necessarily want readers to feel like they need to walk away with a message, though I definitely work in themes of hope and perseverance. More than anything I want them to enjoy the story and I hope that they think about how they live their life, what's important to them.
What I did want, what I played around with at least in the first book, was the idea that we should question what we're told. It's very easy to control a population by limiting information, and you should try to get as much information as you can to make informed decisions in all areas of your life.
Have you ever felt discouraged as a writer?
There have definitely been moments with each book where I've found myself feeling like I didn't like the book, and I thought it was broken and I couldn't fix it. But I feel the same with every book, and with every book I somehow figure out a way to fix it. So now whenever I feel lost, I just remind myself that I've been through this before, I've gotten through it, and I can do it again.
I know people whose first book published was the thirteenth they had written. Beth Revis – I heard her give a talk the other day – said, I think, Across the Universe might have been her tenth book.
What is your average day like?
I once thought life as a full-time writer would be having a clean house and organic home-cooked food, and a trip to the gym every day. And the reality is, in a typical day I still get up at the same time I did when I was a lawyer, and I have an office in my house but I still write on the couch.
And so I sit and I check my e-mail, I deal with anything with urgent, cook breakfast, read the news, and then it's just a matter of going through the list. And it can change depending on where I am in the process. Like right now I have a book that I'm waiting for edits on and I'm getting ready to go on tour. And I have a short story that I'm writing, and so, round about 2 p.m. when I start panicking that I haven't done any creative writing for the day, I'll work on that.
Part of the fun of being a full-time writer is that every day is a little different. When I am revising, I tend to ignore e-mail, I tend to ignore everything and just put my head in that book and stay in that world all day.
What skills are important for someone who is interested in being a writer?
That's a good question. One of the great things about being a writer is that there's no required skill set other than the ability to write. As a lawyer, you have to go to law school and you have to pass the bar. As a doctor you have to go to med school. But writers come from various backgrounds.
There are writers out there who have graduated from college and those who haven't, those who have an MFA and those who don't. I know a lot of authors say one thing you need is a variety of experience to draw on. I just think you need to be able to write. You should know grammar – you should probably read Strunk and White at some point – but editors are there to help you with all of that stuff.
Do you ever experience writer's block?
Yes and no. I think there are varying degrees of having a difficult time writing. Sometimes I have a difficult time because I've written something leading up to that point that is wrong. It's a gut feeling saying you made a mistake and need to go back and figure out what it is. Sometimes I'm just distracted and will force myself to write anyway knowing that nine times out of 10 I'm going delete what I wrote.
And generally if I don't know what comes next and I'm really stuck, a lot of the time I ask myself, what is the worst that could happen? Happy people make for short books; you need to get your characters into trouble.
What words of wisdom would you offer a young writer who is working on his or her first book?
I would say read – and read things beyond your comfort zone. If you experiment with what you read, it really opens your mind to new possibilities. I also think that what becomes difficult for lot of people who are starting out is writing the beginning. They keep going back and revising and revising and revising. One of my pieces of advice would be to push past the opening and complete something so you know that you can.
And also, be gentle with yourself. I think a lot of writers are very hard on themselves, and there are some days when you have to say, “The words just aren't coming today, and that's okay. I'll go outside and take a walk.” Just make sure you are not taking so many walks that you are not writing every now and again.
For a young writer who has already written a book and wants to get it published, what advice do you have?
Well, I've heard from a lot of writers who've been published as teens that they wish they'd taken more time before they were published. But I've also heard from other published teens that they're doing fantastically and love it.
So I guess I'd say, go for it, but at the same time, don't rush. You have your whole life ahead of you to write. Make sure you take the time to revise. Make sure you take the time to find a good agent. I think the adage is true that a bad agent is worse than no agent. A life of writing isn't about the end point of getting published. It's a lot more than that. We must enjoy all aspects of it.