CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Carrie Ryan 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.” Her goal, for years, was to write chick lit.

Instead, her debut novel last year was “The Forest of Hands and Teeth,” a young-adult book set in a future where a zombie plague has destroyed modern civilization.

Not exactly a 20-something romantic comedy.

The critically acclaimed novel just cracked The New York Times best-seller list for children’s paperbacks. Last week, her equally creepy sequel, a dark romance called “The Dead-Tossed Waves,” hit stores. Ryan, a rising star in the world of young-adult literature, is embarking on a nationwide publicity tour. The campaign includes stickers with this line: “Eat. Prey. Love.”

How’d she go from chick lit to zombies? The answer involves law school, George Romero, and, like so many good stories, true love.

It began soon after Ryan, 32, graduated from Williams College in Massachusetts with an English degree. She wanted to write chick lit set in a big city. She had zero experience with big cities, however.

So she decided, in what she calls “my grand plan,” to go to law school. Her logic? With a law degree, she could work in a glamorous city, gleaning material. She enrolled at Duke University, where she met J.P. Davis, a fellow law student from Chapin, S.C., who shared her passion for fiction writing.

Somehow, probably because she was in love, 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.

the time she and Davis got their law degrees and moved to Charlotte, Davis had read her “The Zombie Survival Guide.” She was hooked.

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

In Charlotte, the couple worked as lawyers by day. In the evenings, she wrote chick lit and Davis worked on his short stories. They talked about zombies. On walks, they’d imagine a world decimated by the undead.

Then, one evening in 2006, Ryan was leaving her office in the Bank of America building, contemplating an article she’d read on the overfishing of tuna.

How strange, she thought, to imagine a future where something as common as canned tuna was unknown. What other parts of our civilization, she wondered, might be forgotten in a future world?

Suddenly, she had an idea — 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.

After working for a couple of evenings, she told Davis she was writing about zombies. I hope you don’t mind, she told him, but I’m using your world.

Ryan’s sentence about the ocean became the first line of her book.

In 2007, she sold “The Forest of Hands and Teeth.” Her agent had sent the book out on a Friday. On Monday, she had a six-figure offer from Delacorte Press for a two-book deal.

In late 2008, she quit her job.

Today, instead of working in trusts and estates, Ryan writes at her computer near the fireplace in her home. She wears sock-monkey slippers and rainbow fingerless gloves that keep her wrists from aching as she types.

On a good day, the weather is rainy gray, and she’s asking herself one of her favorite questions: What’s the worst thing that could happen?

When you’re writing about a zombie-ridden post-apocalyptic world, it’s an excellent question to ask.

Recently, Ryan sent the third and final book in her series to her editor. It’s scheduled for publication next year.

Her apocalyptic vision was well timed. Teen readers are eating up end-of-the-world dystopian novels.

Ryan never uses the word “zombie.” In her first book, the undead are called the Unconsecrated. In the second, set years after the first, the townspeople call them Mudo, the word for mute in the Caribbean language of Papiamento.

But they’re definitely zombies. They moan and seek human flesh. With one bite, they turn the living into the undead.

In the world Ryan creates, they’ve been around so long they’re viewed as a part of life, unfortunate but inevitable.

Ryan and Davis have been engaged two years now. They plan to marry in April.

In addition to practicing law with James, McElroy & Diehl, Davis has published several short stories. He also serves as Ryan’s first reader. “He’s so good at seeing what the story needs,” she says. “He’s honest, but in a kind way.”

The undead remain a part of their relationship. You can imagine dinner conversations in the Ryan/Davis house: How could you quarantine a continent? If zombies attack, where would you flee for safety?

The practical among us might point out that Ryan wasted a good bit of money on a law degree.

She doesn’t see it that way. Because if she hadn’t gone to law school, she wouldn’t have met Davis. She wouldn’t have discovered zombies. She’d have no book.

So of course she dedicated her first book to her fiance. The line seems cryptic — unless you know their story.

To J.P., it says, “for giving me the world.”


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