INTERVIEW: Carrie Ryan, author of “Flotsam & Jetsam”

Tell us a bit about your story. What’s it about?

In “Flotsam & Jetsam” two boys are stranded on a life raft, one of them infected and the other not and the question becomes: what’s the difference?

What was the genesis of the story–what was the inspiration for it, or what prompted you to write it?

One of the things that fascinates me about the zombie apocalypse is the idea of survival and I always wonder if everyone has a point at which they just throw up their hands and give in.  My original idea for this story was to have infection break out on an airplane which caused airports to constantly divert it.  I wanted to know what people would do being trapped with infected (not necessarily zombies, just the promise of zombies) with nowhere to go and time running out.

As I thought more about the idea, I wanted to simplify it and boil it down (and I didn’t want to deal with the complications of the FAA and international flight rules).  I was out to dinner with friends and talking about my idea (it’s rare that dinner conversations with me don’t turn to the subject zombies at some point or another) and my fiancé suggested using a boat instead.

Immediately the entire idea coalesced in my head and I saw these two boys in a life raft having just escaped from a cruise ship.  One of them would be bitten and infected (and hiding it) and the other would have to figure out what to do about it.  I’d also been doing a lot of research into the Rime of the Ancient Mariner for another project so the first line was obvious and the entire story unfolded from there.

Was this story a particularly challenging one to write? If so, how?

This is the first time I’ve written from a male’s point of view and I found that challenging but fun.  I’m also not used to writing short stories–you have to find a complete and complex idea and then find a way to express it in only a few thousand words.  I’m used to have 100k words to work through conflicts.

Most authors say all their stories are personal.  If that’s true for you, in what way was this story personal to you?

I think in any zombie story you’ll see someone who gives up and stops fighting because it becomes too hard.  I think there’s always a part of me that wonders if that would be me and so I create characters and push them to extremes just to see how far they’ll go (and perhaps to reassure myself that I wouldn’t stop fighting).

What kind of research did you have to do for the story?

I did a fair bit of research into the kind of life rafts a cruise ship might carry: the different types, what requirements they must meet (which depends on how far away from land the ship travels), and what kind of supplies it might have (which also depends on where the ship travels).  At first I just pictured the raft as a round rubber open-aired tube but found out quite quickly that life rafts are a lot more sophisticated than that.

What is the appeal of zombie fiction? Why do so many writers–or you yourself–write about it? Why do readers and film viewers love it so much?

It’s funny because I was pretty much ambivalent about zombies until my fiancé talked me into going to the opening night of the Dawn of the Dead remake.  Up to that point I’d eschewed all scary movies after a babysitter convinced me to watch Poltergeist when I was five (she said I’d love it because the character was just like me: same name, same looks, same closet full of stuffed animals).  Sitting in the theater, squeezing the life out of my fiance’s fingers, I just became enraptured; I was so terrified and yet after the movie I was so pumped up!  I couldn’t stop wondering what I’d have done in their shoes, what I’d do if the zombie apocalypse hit now and my fiancé fed my addiction with a steady diet of zombie books and movies and I was pretty much hooked.

I think part of the appeal of zombie fiction is that it’s an easier and safer way to talk about the really scary things going on out there like flu pandemics, nuclear weapons, global warming and our own impending deaths.  But I also think it’s more than that–zombies have always been monsters, they’re not sexy like vampires or werewolves.  They’re our neighbors and family and friends come back to life with the specific aim of killing us and doing us harm.  And on top of that, there’s no escape.  You might be able to outrun a zombie for a little while, but they’ll always catch up and they’ll never stop their pursuit.  Eventually, even safe places will fall to them.

I also really love using zombies in writing young adult fiction because it allows me to ask the question of what differentiates the living from the dead? What do the living do beyond simply existing the way the zombies do?  How to we determine our own lives and futures beyond mindlessly doing what someone tells us?

What are some of your favorite examples of zombie fiction, and what makes them your favorites?

When I first saw Night of the Living Dead I hated it because I just couldn’t understand why the stupid characters couldn’t work together to save themselves.  And then I heard George Romero talk about the movie and explain that was his whole point–to show that even when faced with the most dire consequences, human beings continued to screw things up by not working together.  This made the film absolutely brilliant to me.  I also love Shawn of the Dead because it covers such a huge range of emotions–you go from laughing hysterically to terrified to sobbing.  The graphic novel, The Walking Dead, is also a favorite because it asks the question that fascinates me: how do you continue to survive?