By Pam Kelley

“The story goes that even after the Return they tried to keep the roller coasters going. They said it reminded them of the before time. When they didn’t have to worry about people rising from the dead, when they didn’t have to build fences and walls and barriers to protect themselves from the masses of Mudo constantly seeking human flesh. When the living weren’t forever hunted. They said it made them feel normal.”

—from Carrie Ryan’s The Dead-Tossed Waves

Carrie Ryan '00
Carrie Ryan ’00

New York Times best-selling author Carrie Ryan ’00 seems an unlikely chronicler of the undead. A debutante from Greenville, S.C., she swore off horror movies as a child after being traumatized by Poltergeist.

For years her goal was to write “chick lit,” a genre that often revolves around a woman in her 20s moving to a big city and trying to find her way as an adult. “It was kind of my life,” she says, “except for living in the big city.”

So after graduating from Williams, the English major headed to Duke University for law school, figuring it would lead to a job in a glamorous city where she could glean plenty of material. There she started dating J.P. Davis, a fellow law student who shared her passion for fiction writing.

She let Davis talk her into watching Dawn of the Dead, the 2004 remake of George Romero’s classic zombie movie. When it was over, she realized she had enjoyed herself. Davis then read to her Max Brooks’ best-selling self-help manual The Zombie Survival Guide. Ryan was hooked.

“What I find fascinating,” she says, “is not necessarily the zombies, but the surviving.”

The couple moved to Charlotte, N.C., working as lawyers by day (Ryan in trusts and estates). In the evenings, still intent on her original goal, she labored over a novel she’d titled Dead Bodies and Debutantes, about a young woman who takes a summer job in a coroner’s office. Yet she and Davis, who was working on his own short stories, spent a lot of time talking about zombies. On walks, they’d imagine a world decimated by the undead.

One evening on her way home from work in 2006, Ryan was contemplating an article she’d read about the overfishing of tuna. How strange, she thought, to imagine a future where something as common as canned tuna was unknown. She wondered what other parts of our civilization might be forgotten in a future world.

Suddenly, she had an idea for a story about a world nearly destroyed by a zombie plague—a place where people have lived so long in their fenced-in village, sealed off from the zombie-filled forest, that they’ve collectively forgotten about the world’s oceans. She pulled out her BlackBerry and e-mailed herself a single sentence—“My mother used to tell me about the ocean”—that would become the first line of her critically acclaimed debut novel, The Forest of Hands and Teeth.

“I hope you don’t mind, but I’m using your world,” Ryan told Davis shortly after beginning the first draft, which she finished in six months.

Meanwhile, she began contacting literary agents “the old-fashioned way,” Ryan says, researching their client lists and recent sales before sending out queries. She took a chance and sent a letter to Jim McCarthy of Dystel & Goderich Literary Management. “Since Jim had just sold a zombie book,” she says, “I figured at least he’d read the rest of my letter.”

He did, and it was a good fit. He sent Ryan’s book out one Friday in 2007. That Monday, she received a six-figure offer from Delacorte Press for a two-book deal. She quit her law firm job in late 2008. The two-book deal expanded to three. (Ryan has since sold three more young-adult books to Random House Children’s Books, including a short story anthology she’s editing.) The Forest of Hands and Teeth hit bookstores in 2009 and made The New York Times best-seller list for children’s paperbacks in 2010, the same year she published its sequel, The Dead-Tossed Waves.

The apocalyptic vision of Ryan’s books is well timed. Teen end-of-the-world dystopian novels are so hot that The New Yorker took note in its June 2010 issue, describing The Forest of Hands and Teeth as taking “an insular, vaguely medieval community reminiscent of the town in the M. Night Shyamalan film The Village” and adding George Romero-style zombie attacks plus “a love quadrangle with enough emo angst to rival Twilight.”

Ryan now is on the cusp of another nationwide publicity tour, this one for The Dark and Hollow Places, the much-anticipated third and final book of the series, due out in March. (The book’s ad campaign: “Eat. Prey. Love.”) In February she participated in a panel discussion at Williams with author Jay McInerney ’76 and literary editor Gary Fisketjon ’76 on a the realities of being a writer.

These days, Ryan, 33, writes at her computer near the fireplace in her Charlotte home. She wears sock-monkey slippers and rainbow fingerless gloves that keep her wrists from aching as she types. She prefers rainy, gray weather for writing.

She and Davis married last year, and it’s not hard to imagine the dinner conversations at their house: How could you quarantine a continent? If zombies attack, where would you flee for safety? And her favorite question: What’s the worst thing that could happen?