Author Interview with Mike Mullin

We're very excited to have Mike Mullin, author of Ashfall, on the blog today. I recently read Ashfall (see review here) and asked Mike if he would answer some questions for us. Lucky for us, he said yes.

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, Indiana with his wife and her three cats. ASHFALL is his first novel. 

On to the interview!

Hi, Mike! Thank you so much for stopping by the blog today. I read Ashfall recently and I have to say that I loved it. It was hard to read at times because I was really afraid for Alex and Darla and what was going to happen to them.  I was so immersed in their world that I felt like I was on the road with them and it was pretty scary.

Thanks for inviting me, Thuy. I’m glad to hear you enjoyed ASHFALL!

Your online bio says that you once had a job where they showed slides of poopy diapers. What kind of job was this and how long did you work there?

I was an Assistant Brand Manager for Pampers Diapers at Procter & Gamble for a few years. At the time I worked there, the heads of Marketing and Product Development hated each other. So whenever Product Development had to give a presentation to Marketing, they’d schedule it at lunchtime and bring color slides of the most disgusting diarrhea-loaded diapers they could find.

Did you set out to write a YA novel or why did you choose to make your protagonist a teenager? 

I set out to write a YA novel. I grew up reading Peck, Cormier, and Blume and never quit. Since I’ve been reading (and geeking out over!) YA novels for more than 30 years, it was natural to choose to write in that category.

There seems to be a lot of dystopian and apocalyptic fiction coming out lately. I think Ashfall is unique in that the story begins before the disaster happens. Why did you decide to start the story before the volcano erupted vs after?

I wanted to start Ashfall out with a bang (bad pun fully intended).

How much research did you have to do before you started writing Ashfall? Did you visit any volcanoes?

I spent 8 months researching volcanoes before I even began the first draft for Ashfall. Then I continued my study of geology as I wrote and rewrote Ashfall over the following two years.

I visited Mount St. Helens as part of my research. It has mostly recovered from the 1980 eruption, although the Toutle River is still an ash-choked mess in some places and inspired my description of the Mississippi in Ashfall.

There’s a more thorough discussion of the research I did for Ashfall on the Our Time in Juvie Blog.

I love Darla! She’s so badass. She knows all kinds of useful stuff like how to make a corn mill and how to skin a rabbit. Was she inspired by anyone in particular and/or why did you decide to make her the more skilled out of the two in terms of being able to live off the land?

Thanks! Darla is like my wife, Margaret, in her toughness, loyalty, intelligence, and willingness to rein Alex in when necessary. Unfortunately, Margaret can’t repair cars—it’d save us a lot of money if she could.

When I need Darla to accomplish some mechanical miracle, I call my brother Paul, who is an electrical engineer, and ask him, “So how would Darla…?” So I guess you could say she’s a bit of an amalgamation of my wife and brother.

I’ve always seen Alex as a city boy. So if he were going to survive, he needed to meet someone with the skills he lacked. And I liked the idea of turning the clichéd romance—boy rescues girl—on its head.

Alex is big on tae kwon do and I see from your website that you are a black belt. Why did you decide to give Alex this skill? Do you and Alex have anything else in common? 

As I was planning Ashfall, I realized my protagonist would have to be someone exceptional to survive. The more I read about the Yellowstone supervolcano, the more shocked I became at what a devastating natural disaster it will be when the volcano erupts again. But at the same time, I’ve been an avid reader of dystopian and apocalyptic literature for years, and I wanted my book to be a little bit different from the excellent current crop of apocalyptic novels—I wanted it to be intensely realistic.

So, I decided my main character would be a martial artist. The only problem: I knew next to nothing about martial arts. I suppose I could have read a bunch of non-fiction about martial arts, but instead I decided to find a studio and train for a while. I happened across ATA Black Belt Academy, really enjoyed training in taekwondo, and stuck with it, earning my black belt not long before Ashfall was released last year.

Given what you know now about what would happen in the event of a sudden volcanic eruption, how long do you think you would survive should it actually occur?

Not long. Maybe a month or two. I researched this question: who survives natural disasters and why? Some of the best epidemiological research on this topic has been done on the Donner Party. To summarize, it shows that to have the best chance of survival, you need to be between the ages of six and thirty-five, female, and have family with you. I’m too old and too male to be a good candidate for surviving the kind of apocalypse I depict in Ashfall. If the supervolcano erupts in my lifetime, my goal will be to die in a way that’s consistent with my values—helping the younger generation to survive and rebuild.

A disaster occurs and you have five minutes to leave your home. What do you take with you?

If it’s a global disaster—a supervolcano, asteroid strike, or similar—I don’t leave my home. If it’s a local disaster, I grab a pack; throw in all the bottled water from the fridge, a knife, matches, a plastic tarp, rain poncho, fleece hoodie, and all the bottles in our medicine cabinet (aspirin, Tylenol, etc). I could grab that much in five minutes. You can survive a long time without food, so the immediate concerns are keeping warm, dry, hydrated, and healthy.

If you could choose, would you rather face an apocalypse from a natural disaster or a zombie apocalypse?

A natural disaster. Fighting zombies is fun in Left for Dead, but I don’t think I’d enjoy it for real.

What can you tell us about Ashen Winter, which comes out later this year? I want something good to happen to Alex and Darla but I have a feeling that isn’t going to happen.

No, Ashen Winter is, if anything, even darker than Ashfall. It starts six months after Ashfall ends—it’s June and the volcanic winter has only deepened. It’s still below freezing outside, and none of the four-foot blanket of snow smothering Iowa and Illinois has melted. Many survivors are desperate for food, and some of them will do anything—eat anything—to stave off starvation.

Some random questions we like to ask:

If you could go back in time (and not mess with the space time continuum), what would you tell your younger self?

Don’t quit writing Captain Poopy’s Sewer Adventures—this guy named Dav Pilkey is going to make a bundle selling Captain Underpants just nine years from now.

If you weren’t a writer, what would you be?

Probably a teacher of some sort.

Cake or pie and what kind?

Pie—coconut crème with a meringue topping.

Last book read?

Ripper by Amy Carol Reeves

Favorite guilty pleasure movie?

Highlander—the first movie and the first year or so of the TV shows. The sequels are worthless.

Song that you can’t help singing along to when you hear it?

“Fire Water Burn” by The Bloodhound Gang.

Strangest food you’ve ever eaten?

Termites, on a dare from the resident entomologist at a company I worked for that made and sold insecticides.

Last thing - will you be doing any touring later this year for Ashen Winter (meaning where can your fans stalk you)?

I’ll be touring a ton. I’ll be at Book Expo America, The American Library Association, The Assembly on Literature for Adolescents of NCTE, and numerous libraries and bookstores. You can find my schedule here. Check back frequently—there are a lot of events in the works, and I’ll add them to that page as soon as details are available.

Thanks for stopping by, Mike. We’re really looking forward to Ashen Winter and wish you the best. :)

Thanks for inviting me to visit Read Now Sleep Later!

Thank you, everyone, for hanging out and reading our interview with Mike. Ashfall is out now and its sequel, Ashen Winter, will be released in Oct 2012.

You can find Mike online at the following:

Purchase Ashfall
Barnes & Noble