Special Guest Stars: Carrie Ryan


Carrie Ryan is the author of the young adult (YA) fantasies The Forest of Hands and Teeth, a tale of love, determination and the groaning undead, and The Dead-Tossed Waves (coming to a bookstore near you on March 9!)  Carrie, a former litigator,  now writes full time.   She 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.

YA is a rapidly growing subset of the fantasy market, and features some remarkable stories.  Today we’re delighted to talk to Carrie about why she chose to write for the young adult market.  Please welcome Carrie Ryan!

Why I Write YA

The first time my mom and I went to the bookstore after I sold my first book, my mom asked me to show her where it would be shelved.  I gestured to the Young Adult/Teen section and she said “Go with me.”

I looked at her.  “Why?”

She glanced back at the teen section.  “Because I’m an adult.  That’s the teen section.  I feel weird just going over there by myself.”

<Insert me rolling my eyes.>  “If you want to buy my book eventually, you’re going to have to get over that.”

<Insert her giving me the “I’m the mother so what I say goes” look.>  I escorted her into the YA section.

Fast forward a few years — my first book has come out in hardcover, the paperback of it just released this week and the second is on its way.  Now whenever my mom goes to the bookstore, the Teen section is her first destination. In fact, when I come home to visit, if I don’t have a bag of the latest YAs in my car, I’m lucky if she lets me in the house.

Recently, she called me up and asked for a recommendation.  “I want a book with maps,” she said.

“Huh?” I asked.

“Maps – I love the maps in the front.  I love how these books create these really complex worlds with rules and history and detail.  But I really love the maps.”  She told me she’d been reading and loving Kristin Cashore, Tamora Pierce and Alison Croggin.

I thought about this for a moment.  “Mom, I think what you love reading is fantasy.”

“Huh,” she said, somewhat surprised.  Not once had it occurred to her to wander into the Fantasy section of the bookstore.  Up until she started reading YA, she was pretty much the exact demographic Target goes after with it’s Bookend Bookclub selections and that’s what she stuck with.  But now that she’s been reading YA… she’s found some new loves.

What’s funny is that I used to be just like my mom.  I’d go into the bookstore or library and head straight to the Romance section.  I knew the authors, I knew the stories, I knew how to choose a book I’d like.  The rest of the bookstore or library just felt so overwhelmingly foreign to me.

So it was no surprise that when I first began writing, I started with romance novels.  I did a ton of industry research and became very acutely aware of the “strong guidelines” involved (such as the happily ever after).  I’d go to conferences where people would say to write the book of your dreams, but always be aware that when you go to sell it, the bookstore needs to know where to shelve it.  I think this is something that genre writers are very aware of — when to bend the rules, when to break them, and when to adhere to them.  Sure there are adult books that cross genre, but sometimes those can fall through the cracks or be more of a risk to market (I’ve had more than one friend unable to make a sale because an agent or editor just doesn’t know where it fits in the market).

One of the great things about YA is that all the books are shelved together (or split into “realistic books” and “SFF books”).  There’s no distinct category for high fantasy or science fiction or romance or historical or contemporary issues.  YA books can pull from anything they want so you can have a book that’s a post-zombie apocalypse romance that may or may not have a happily ever after or you can have a book about a school where cheerleaders are high tech spies thwarting an assassination or a book about killer unicorns and the virgin descendants of Alexander the Great who hunt them or one about a high school valedictorian who ends up pregnant and doesn’t know what to do.

Sometimes I wonder when it happens that we “graduate” from YA and “choose” our section of the bookstore.  Sure some people read across all genres, but a lot find their niche and stick with it.  I was in high school when I pretty much started choosing books only from the Romance section and now I realize just how much I was missing by not branching out.  On one hand, it’s nice to walk into a bookstore and straight to the section that has books you pretty much know you’ll love.  On the other hand, I kind of like it when all our books are jumbled together and as a reader you don’t know what you’re going to get other than (hopefully) a pretty awesome story.

To me, this is one of the greatest thrills writing (and reading) YA.  I don’t have to worry where my book is going to be shelved or how the booksellers will be pitching it (my next release has the tagline “Eat, Prey, Love”).   I get a huge thrill when readers tell me that they never considered they might like zombies or horror or post-apocalyptic romance but that they enjoyed my book and that it made them look for others like it.

I also have to admit that I was pretty thrilled that by introducing my mom to YA books, I ended up introducing her to a whole new world of fantasy.   And no, my books don’t have maps in them, but when my mom asks, I’ll draw them for her all the same.


14 comments to Special Guest Stars: Carrie Ryan

  • Hi, Carrie, thanks for posting. I love the idea of YA as a kind of genre melting pot. No wonder (as one of those writers who fell between shelves for years) I’ve found myself drawn to it lately. I wonder if other “rules” come into play in place of those which are genre specific: on tone or pacing, for instance?

  • Hi Carrie. Thank you so much for appearing here today. It’s a treat for our readers and for us!

    The same thing happened to my mom when I started writing Fantasy. Once she got her jaw off the floor. Now she looks forward to several authors.

    I hadn’t thought about YA all being jumbled together or crossing over genres. Those readers will grow up *expecting* different kinds of reads, crossover stories, and genres with slippery boundries. How nice for us writers! Hmmm. I kinda like the unicorns / Alexander’s virgin daughters storyline… (grins)

  • Hey AJ – that’s a great question! I do think that YA’s tend to jump into the action a little faster and often have a quicker pace overall (there always exceptions). I wonder if adults have more patience to let a book unfold at its own pace and teens want to get into it now now now?

    My experience is that tone can be just as dark as any adult though that might restrict getting into school libraries (which can account for a lot of sales). One thing I have noticed is that while buyers have a high tolerance for violence, they have a very low tolerance for sex and often cursing. A friend set his book in a dystopic future and made up curse words for it and got dinged in more than one review for having words “that were clearly intended to be curses” when they were just made up in real life.

  • Faith – I totally agree! It’s really nice to have readers growing up expecting more blurred boundaries. I’ve had some friends struggle with the science fiction/romance gap — booksellers often don’t know where to shelve them and readers don’t know where to find them. I wonder how online shopping has helped bridge those gaps — now if you find an author you love who straddles that line, the online bookstore will suggest similar titles.

    If you like the killer unicorns idea, then Diana Peterfreund is your go-to girl! Her fantastic book Rampant came out in the fall and that’s what it’s about.

  • Welcome, Carrie. Nice to see you here, and nice to hear that your Mom is looking for books with maps. I have quite a few titles that I could recommend to her….

    I’m bending the boundaries a bit on my new project (historical/fantasy/mystery) and worry about the marketing a bit. On the other hand, we have to write the story inside us and worry about the marketing later. I’m wondering if you have any adult novels in the works (either ones you’ve started writing, or ones you’re still conceptualizing), and if so, where they fall along the subgenre continuum. Also, if you stick strictly with YA, will you also stick with Zombies, or do you have other approaches in mind?

    Again, thanks for visiting us here at MW!

  • Wolf Lahti

    It’s often been said that Young Adult books are meant to be read and Adult books are meant to be talked about. My coffee table has always held books that I want to read.

  • David – funny you should say that, you were first in my mind! I remember hearing you talk about world-building at Con Carolinas and knew my mom would LOVE it!

    I agree totally about writing the story inside us. When I started writing The Forest of Hands and Teeth I was *convinced* it wouldn’t sell. But I loved the story and it was flowing so I stuck with it. Turns out it just sort of hit the market at the right time (luck).

    Right now I don’t have any plans for adult titles. I have three YA zombie books in this series – The Forest of Hands and Teeth is already out and then two companion books (The Dead-Tossed Waves in March and then untitled book 3 in Spring 2011). I also have a few short stories set in the same world coming out this year. All of that’s written so I get to start on something new!

    Right now, though, I’m working on an unrelated proposal. It’s similar in that it’s dark paranormal YA and will likely have a romance in it, but I’m *just* getting started so who knows. I love to talk about branding with a friend and she gave me great advice — to strive for the reader experience to be the same with each book even if the content isn’t.

  • And that’s why I hate YA. In a very jealous sort of way.

    When I go to the bookstore, I head straight for the SFF section. It helps me avoid the romances, but I’m not going to find the next Kazuo Ishiguro there. Sometimes I wish there was more of a mash-up.

    (Not that I have anything against Romance, it’s just not what I read.)

    Boostores should be arranged entirely for my convenience. And when I figure out what that convenience is, I’ll be sure to send them a memo.

  • LOL Atsiko – I know what you mean! I feel like sometimes each section in the store has their own “language.” When I go to a new section of the store I often feel lost and don’t know where to begin!

  • What a great post, Carrie! As an adult reader of YA, this really puts into words what I love so much about it. And I’m glad that your mom is feeling the love, too. I’m hoping soon we can break down the stigma that comes with YA, and more people will be in the YA section and getting their hands on some of the amazing writing that is there right now.

  • Yes, it’s quite nerve-wracking. It’s also why I get nervous going into the YA or music sections. They’re not my usual places.

  • I thought about this for a moment. “Mom, I think what you love reading is fantasy.”

    When my book was getting ready to hit stores, my mama worried that people would think I was secretly into all sorts of Satanic this and that, because I wrote a book with magic in it. Then she read it. Suddenly she was pushing it on her friends and telling people how magic was okay and not at all evil. *smile* I’ve ended up with a delightful subset of female readers over the age of 60!

  • Carrie, I really enjoyed reading this and learning more about you, your book and writing. I haven’t had a chance to read it yet. I just got on twitter recently and have seen you there and heard about this article there. I got on twitter for writing/reading purposes and I’m so glad that I did for reasons such as this. I love what you have to say about the YA section and I never really thought about it that way. I do read adult fantasy/para as well, but it does make some sense. Though I tend to see “little sections” within the YA section such as SF and para and vamps/weres and zombies, but I think you are right we are free to roam within the section and that is part of the journey as a reader and for those who write them as well. I also really enjoyed hearing about the journey between you and your mom as well and the maps and reading fantasy. I’ve had similar conversations with my mom and explaining what I read and now am working on writing myself and it wasn’t easy at first. I especially thought “And no, my books don’t have maps in them, but when my mom asks, I’ll draw them for her all the same.” was really sweet! I look forward to reading your books and hearing more about them on twitter. Take care. ~Shauna