Rachel DeFriez never thought she would write a zombie novel.
"I'm really astonished to find myself writing about horror, when I'm scared of the dark," said the Draper resident and creative-writing teacher at Alta High School.
A Brigham Young University graduate, DeFriez came up with the idea for Grey Matters while cooking dinner for her daughter Natalie and her friends.
The teens thought a zombie romance book would be a welcome addition to the slew of recent paranormal romance novels.
The self-published novel, released in May, is DeFriez's fifth book. She also has written the Rath Haven Chronicles, an urban fantasy series.
Grey Matters' central character is Evelyn Cross, a high-school student who contracts the zoser virus. Rather than turning into the average flesh-eating zombie, Evelyn and a select few turn into grayer, stronger versions of themselves. They still want to eat flesh, but they have self-control.
When pitching the idea, DeFriez encountered resistance from publishers who were tired of the zombie genre. But her novel provides a unique spin. Specifically, the narrator is a zombie, which sets the book apart from other titles such as The Walking Dead and World War Z. DeFriez's zombies also can independently think, control their actions and feel emotions such as love, remorse and anger.
The story is set in the fictional town of Eli, but there are familiar Salt Lake Valley landmarks, including TRAX, Pioneer Park and the University of Utah.
DeFriez believes that good novels reflect on ideas and problems in society.
"The whole idea of the zombie is that people sometimes move mindlessly throughout society," said DeFriez, who also finds inspiration from the Egyptian mummies. "It always seemed to me that mummies and zombies are almost the same," she said, noting the slow, staggered, mindless method of walking they share.
The characters in DeFriez's books are always modeled after someone she knows. "I find that if you have a real person in mind, you can have a lot of cohesion for the character." Evelyn is similar in personality to DeFriez's daughter Natalie, who is studying marketing at the University of Utah. There are even traces of Natalie's life in the book, such as when the family moved from Texas to Draper. Natalie was popular and lettered in track at her high school in Texas. Before contracting the virus, Evelyn had similar accomplishments.
"She wanted to divorce us," DeFriez said of Natalie when the family moved to Utah. DeFriez's real offspring and her fictional character "had everything and lost everything."
The character finds herself in a rising conflict, which "doesn't always show up in a zombie novel," said DeFriez, who also teaches French, and not surprisingly gets inspiration from her students. The way they speak and interact helps her develop characters.
"My characters live because they get life from the students I'm around every single day," said DeFriez, whose father was a teacher and inspired her.
She hopes to do the same for others by offering a "Starving Students" tab on her website. It allows others besides just the creative-writing teacher to read students' work.
"These kids are writing such great stuff," she said. "I just want them to feel the excitement of having other people read what they wrote."
DeFriez recently completed Killstreak, a ghost thriller set in the Salt Lake Valley about a gamer boy who gets a friend request from a dead girl.
A sequel to Grey Matters, tentatively titled Grey Tides, is about 50 percent complete. In that story, Evelyn is caught between two young men who "represent the two sides of her that are at war."
"As that struggle continues," DeFriez said, "those young men will come into play."