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Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Interview: Mike Mullin, Author of Ashfall

Mike Mullin's first job was scraping the gum off the undersides of desks at his high school. From there, things went steadily downhill. He almost got fired by the owner of a bookstore due to his poor taste in earrings. He worked at a place that showed slides of poopy diapers during lunch (it did cut down on the cafeteria budget). The hazing process at the next company included eating live termites raised by the resident entomologist, so that didn't last long either. For a while Mike juggled bottles at a wine shop, sometimes to disastrous effect. Oh, and then there was the job where swarms of wasps occasionally tried to chase him off ladders. So he's really hoping this writing thing works out.

Mike holds a black belt in Songahm Taekwondo. He lives in Indianapolis with his wife and her three cats. Ashfall is his first novel.

What authors influenced your writing? Why Dystopia?
I grew up reading dystopian and post-apocalyptic novels. Some of my early favorites included Z is for Zachariah, The Postman, The Day of the Triffids, and Alas, Babylon. So when I started writing for publication three years ago, it was natural that I’d choose to write in that milieu. (I’ve been writing more or less non-stop since sixth grade. But I didn’t decide to try to write a publishable novel until 2008.)

Unfortunately, the first idea that called to me was a YA horror concept. While I was working on that, I happened across a display in my local library that included the lavish, illustrated edition of Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything. It’s an impressively-sized book, but, I thought, nowhere near big enough to merit the title. So I checked it out, and learned about the Yellowstone supervolcano in its pages.

A few weeks later, I woke in the middle of the night with a scene from ASHFALL bubbling in my brain. (I know it’s a cliché—the writer dreaming his book—but evidently my subconscious doesn’t care.) I wrote 5,500 words before dawn. When I returned to ASHFALL eight months later, after finishing my YA horror novel and researching supervolcanoes further, I realized that the scene I’d written in the middle of the night was junk. Only one word survives from the 5,500 I wrote that night: the title, ASHFALL.

Favorite Dystopian novel? Favorite Dystopian Movie?
There are so many great ones! The Hunger Games, Divergent, Gone, Feed, City of Ember, The Giver, Unwind, etc. Let me talk about one of my favorites that’s less well-known than it merits, Epitaph Road by David Patneaude. It takes place in a world in which a virus has killed 97% of the men. The fourteen-year-old male protagonist, Kellen, faces a life in which his choices in relationships and career will be carefully controlled. When he overhears a secret that calls into question the source of the plague and beneficence of the government, the thrill-ride begins. Epitaph Road is also notable for the economy and beauty of its prose. I enjoyed the epitaphs that open each chapter so much that I often return to the book and reread just those.

It’s not a movie, exactly, but I enjoyed the short-lived TV series, Jericho. The image of a small town of diverse and fractious people working together to survive an apocalypse resonated with me. It probably influenced my portrayal of towns like Worthington, Iowa and Warren, Illinois in ASHFALL. One caveat: the rushed conclusion at the end of the second season really didn’t do justice to the series, but despite that flaw, it’s well worth your time.

What makes Ashfall so different from other Dystopian novels in the market today?
I thought about this question a lot as I was writing ASHFALL. While I love the current crop of dystopian and post-apocalyptic novels, I often find myself wondering: Could this really happen? Little details knock me out of the story—toilets that still function after a brutally cold winter without power, for example.

I decided I’d attempt to differentiate ASHFALL by making it unflinchingly realistic. So, for example, I asked myself whether ASHFALL should include any mention of cannibalism. The obvious answer is that no, it shouldn’t, because it will gross out the teachers, parents, and librarians who are so influential in putting books in the hands of teens.

Instead of accepting the obvious answer, I researched the question. And sadly, the truth is that collapsing societies with widespread starvation virtually always turn to cannibalism. Check out Jared Diamond’s excellent Collapse, or follow the link to the Donner Party research below for more info on that topic.

I attempted to portray the full range of human behavior in an apocalypse, from the most brutally savage to the most sublimely selfless. Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell was useful for stimulating my thinking—it chronicles responses to real natural disasters ranging from the San Francisco earthquake to Hurricane Katrina.

If you had to live in Alex's world, do you think you'd be able to survive the conditions?
No. And I live in Indiana, where things would initially be much better than in Iowa, where Alex starts.

The super volcano I depict in ASHFALL would directly kill hundreds of thousands, maybe millions. But the bigger death toll would be from global starvation and disease in its wake. Twenty percent of the world’s grain supply is produced in the United States, primarily in areas that would be buried in ash. Globally, we have less than a 60-day supply of stored grain. Starvation would reach epidemic levels very quickly following a supervolcano eruption.

In thinking about who would survive and how, I found this research on the Donner party very useful. I have two strikes against me: I’m too old, and I’m male. Being female roughly doubles your odds of survival in a starvation situation. Women start out with an average of a third less muscle mass and higher body fat than men. So they both need fewer calories to survive and have a greater reserve.

Being between the ages of 6 and 35 also roughly doubles your odds, and I’m past that. (Only by a day or two . . . maybe. Ha!) The other thing that roughly doubles your odds is having family close. While my wife and I are lucky enough to have both sets of parents in town, they’re obviously even older than we are.

So my odds aren’t good. If the Yellowstone supervolcano erupts tomorrow, my goal will be to try to live the short remainder of my life in a way that helps the younger generation survive and rebuild.

What's next for you and your books?
I finished the third draft of ASHEN WINTER, the sequel to ASHFALL, yesterday (8/17/11) and sent it off to my critique group. It will be published by Tanglewood Press in October 2012. Once that’s finished, I’ll start work on the final volume of the ASHFALL trilogy. I’m also planning to start a seventh rewrite of my YA horror novel. Oh, and I had a crazy idea for a funny middle grade novel the other day. And there are about fifteen other book ideas at various stages of conceptualization on my hard-drive. So many books to write, so little time!

ASHFALL by Mike Mullin
Pub. Date: September 2011
Publisher: Tanglewood Press IN
Format: Hardcover , 476pp
Age Range: Young Adult
Many visitors to Yellowstone National Park don’t realize that the boiling hot springs and spraying geysers are caused by an underlying supervolcano. It has erupted three times in the last 2.1 million years, and it will erupt again, changing the Earth forever.

Fifteen-year-old Alex is home alone when the supervolcano erupts. His town collapses into a nightmare of darkness, ash, and violence, forcing him to flee. He begins a harrowing trek in search of his parents and sister, who were visiting relatives 140 miles away.

Along the way, Alex struggles through a landscape transformed by more than a foot of ash. The disaster brings out the best and worst in people desperate for food, clean water, and shelter. When an escaped convict injures Alex, he searches for a sheltered place where he can wait—to heal or to die. Instead, he finds Darla. Together, they fight to achieve a nearly impossible goal: surviving the supervolcano.

You can read the first two chapters here.


  1. Great interview. I love all the research Mike put into making ASHFALL realistic. I can't wait to read it.

  2. This is probably the most interesting author interview I've ever read. I love all the research he put into this book. I just spent the last 20 mins checking out the Donner Party info. So cool. I have had Epitaph Road on my wishlist for awhile. I will definitely have to pick up a copy soon. I completely loved Jericho too. I was so bummed when they canceled it. I would watch it and get so incredibly freaked out cause it just seemed so plausible.

    I've already read and loved Ashfall, but just want to say great interview!


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