School Library Journal recently interviewed me about my debut novel, ASHFALL. If you didn't see it, here's a link to their excellent piece. Space constraints didn't permit them to print the whole interview, so for those of you who can't get enough (hi Mom!), I'll put it here:
SLJ: Right now you’re in the middle of a six-state tour promoting your first novel, Ashfall (Tanglewood, 2011), visiting libraries, conferences, and book festivals in Michigan, Iowa, Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, and Rhode Island. What has been your favorite moment so far?
Mike: I spoke to the kids incarcerated at the Cedar Rapids Juvenile Detention Center on October 26th. The detention center has a small but well-chosen library of young adult titles, and reading is considered so important that each kid is required to have a book on hand at all times.
(One of the things that I know sometimes concerns librarians about new authors is this: is the author a competent public speaker? If any of you are harboring doubts about my abilities, let me point out that I kept the entire population of the detention center, by definition juvenile delinquents, rapt for two hours. I’m fairly confident I can handle whoever shows up for an event at your library.)
My favorite moment of that presentation was at the end—the first kid out the door laid down the book he’d carried into the library and picked up ASHFALL. The library only had two copies, so there was an immediate clamor from the kids behind him, and the staff had to make him leave ASHFALL behind until they had a chance to raffle off the rights to be one of the first two kids to read it.
Before we left, my host, Amanda Zhorne from the Cedar Rapids Barnes & Noble, generously donated five more copies of ASHFALL to the detention center’s library so that the kids wouldn’t have to wait as long to read it. Amanda is a force for underprivileged kids in the Cedar Rapids area and currently a Library Science student. She’s going to be a fabulous librarian.
SLJ: With a plethora of dystopian novels being published and the popularity of the Hunger Games series (Scholastic) and its upcoming movie adaptation, post-apocalyptic novels are all the rage with teens. Why do you think young adults are so drawn to the genre?
Mike: Three factors contribute to the attraction of the genre: First and most important, it’s chock full of captivating stories. If conflict is the fuel that drives story, then a post-apocalyptic setting is a nitrous booster, punching these narratives to record speeds.
Second, the tropes of the genre have a particular appeal to teens. Most of these novels dispense with parents and other authority figures early on. This is, of course, incredibly attractive to teenagers struggling to differentiate themselves from their parents’ generation. Also, the protagonists in post-apocalyptic novels often exercise some measure of control over their society. Katniss, for example, literally becomes a king-maker in Mockingjay. To teenagers trapped in a world made by adults, the idea of throwing off the strictures of their world and creating their own holds a special allure.
Third, our world is already in the opening stages of an epic disaster. The settings in the genre merely reflect and magnify trends that are already well underway. Teenagers are far more willing than adults to acknowledge this fact, perhaps because they aren’t complicit in creating the problem. The human race is emerging from a period of unprecedented prosperity fueled by cheap oil. Instead of using this wealth to prepare for the future, my generation has amassed colossal environmental, fiscal, and social debts. Today’s teenagers will be forced to pay those bills. It’s no surprise that they would want to vicariously experience and thus prepare for some of their possible futures.
SLJ: What was your inspiration for writing Ashfall?
Mike: Almost every day I walk to Central Library in downtown Indianapolis. On one of those trips more than three years ago, I happened across a display that included Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything. It was an impressively sized book—the large, illustrated edition, but not nearly big enough to include nearly everything. I checked it out, thinking I might write a snarky letter to Bryson about the stuff he missed—some obscure Revolutionary War battle, perhaps. Instead, I learned about the Yellowstone supervolcano.
I’d long toyed with the idea of writing a disaster novel—I’ve read them voraciously since I was a teenager. My early favorites included The Postman, Day of the Triffids, Z is for Zachariah and Alas, Babylon. The Yellowstone supervolcano is the mother of all natural disasters, a cataclysmic event of such power that it could easily end life as we know it. Aha, I thought, here’s the perfect backdrop for my own disaster novel.
At about the same time, a friend was attacked while riding his bike on the Monon Trail a few miles from my house. A group of five guys beat him, hitting him over the back of the head with a 2x4 and kicking him more than twenty times. They broke his skull and numerous other bones, thought they’d killed him, and dragged him into some bushes to hide his corpse. My friend survived, although he still suffers from irreparable brain damage.
The episode had a profound effect on me. I became unreasonably fearful, unable to leave my house to walk around my neighborhood. Instead of becoming a shut-in, I enrolled in taekwondo.
There I met Ben Alexander, a fifteen-year-old third-degree black belt. He was a wonderful teacher: patient, kind, and friendly to me, the newbie white belt. He’s a small guy—I have five or six inches and maybe 80 lbs. on him, but when we spar, he can pretty much kick me in the head and knock me down at will. He became the inspiration for Alex.
So, three things combined to inspire ASHFALL: Bryson’s book, living with and overcoming a visceral sense of fear, and meeting a model for my protagonist, Alex.
SLJ: You don’t shy away from the tough stuff in this book. Alex, the protagonist, and Darla another survivor, encounter horrific dangers, including violence, looting, and many near-death experiences. Why did you think it was important to make this part of their story?
Mike: All writers have a responsibility to tell the truth of their stories. For those of us writing for teens, that responsibility is redoubled. If you lie to a teenager, you’re lying to humanity’s future.
Natural disasters magnify both the best and worst tendencies of humans. In considering what might happen after the supervolcano, I found Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell particularly helpful. She chronicles human reactions to disasters, from the utopian free-food kitchens that formed after the San Francisco earthquake to the gangs of whites who shot blacks attempting to flee New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
In ASHFALL, I attempt to show both extremes: some communities working together to survive (like Worthington) and others reacting with fear and violence, attempting to control refugees instead of offering them aid (like Camp Galena).
Our culture has a strange take on violence. Television shows like CSI and games like Call of Duty depict every kind of horrible behavior I write about in ASHFALL in far more graphic detail. But there are no lasting effects of violence: the protagonists proceed unscathed to next week’s episode; the avatar revives unhurt. In ASHFALL, by contrast, violence has serious, realistic physical and psychological consequences for Alex and the people he loves. I believe that’s a healthier and more honest way to portray violent behavior, and so far, most of my readers have agreed.
SLJ: Despite all of the hardship, Alex and Darla experience some tender moments too. Was it hard for you to find a balance between the good and the ugly?
Mike: No, although I did actively seek out moments in the story where I could give the reader a chance to take a breath. We all turn to those closest to us for support, so it felt natural to me that some tender moments would arise between Alex and Darla. During the editing process, I worked to intersperse those with the more active parts of the plot.
I’ve occasionally read a book that’s almost all action, which I find boring. I never get a chance to identify deeply with the characters and the tension eventually fades to numbness for me. I knew I didn’t want to write that type of book, so I was careful to include quiet and humorous moments as well as action scenes.
SLJ: From the science behind a supervolcano eruption to creating gristmill from grave stones, you paid a lot of attention to crucial details on Alex and Darla’s survival. What was your research process like?
Mike: I definitely didn’t know enough to write ASHFALL without a ton of research. I started by reading all the books I could find on the subject. Greg Breining’s Supervolcano: The Ticking Time Bomb beneath Yellowstone National Park was particularly useful as was Savino and Jones’s Supervolcano: The Catastrophic Event that Changed the Course of Human History. You can find many of the sources I used on my website. Online resources like the United States Geological Survey were helpful as well.
From there, I delved into primary sources, reading many of the scholarly articles cited in the secondary sources I read. I found several relevant articles in The Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research. I visited the Indiana University Geology Library in Bloomington during this phase, passing myself off as Margaret Mullin (my wife, who is a doctoral student) so I could check out books.
I got stuck at one point during the writing process. The solution: road trip! My wife and I took off for a week in romantic Iowa. We drove every step of the route Alex takes through northern Iowa and Illinois. Many of the scenes in ASHFALL were created as a direct result of our trip. Later, I flew to Portland to relearn cross-country skiing and visit Mt. St. Helens.
Many minor details of ASHFALL—like the rabbit butchering scene—were drawn from my long-time interest in primitive living and survival skills. For others, I tapped my sister-in-law’s expertise in raising goats and ducks. My brother, who’s an electrical engineer, helped me figure out Darla’s MacGyver moments and coached me on greenhouse farming.
Finally, I sent a manuscript to two geologists and made numerous changes based on their suggestions. There’s a more detailed discussion of the science behind ASHFALL on the Our Time in Juvie blog.
SLJ: One of my favorite scenes is when Alex and Darla meet the fearless librarian, Rita Mae. Have librarians been influential in your life and work?
Mike: Yes. I almost became a librarian. I started very early; in fact, I was nearly born in the University of Denver library school, where my mother was studying.
I asked my mother about this incident a few months back, since my prenatal memory is sadly deficient. She said, “You know, you were the reason I attended library school.” Well, how did I accomplish that while in utero, I wondered. At the time I was born, Mom had been teaching kindergarten in the Denver Public Schools for two years. They had a crazy rule that pregnant teachers had to resign their positions once they began to show, and couldn’t return until their youngest child was two. Dad was in seminary, and regularly driving their only car from Denver to Medicine Bow, Wyoming to preach, so Mom’s options were limited. Luckily, the precursor to Ruffatto Hall was right next door to her apartment building. So we went to library school together.
I mean that literally. Mom was a great believer in reading out loud to babies. She would bounce me on her knees while reading her librarianship textbooks to me. It worked, too, since I was reading on my own before I turned four. But I still have a powerful aversion to reading library science textbooks.
Later, after we moved to Indianapolis, I was a latchkey kid while Mom worked first as a reference librarian for IUPUI, and then founded the library at Riley Hospital for Children and served as its director for eight years.
I always figured I’d follow in her footsteps and become a librarian myself. So shortly after my sixteenth birthday, I got a job as a page at Central Library in Indianapolis. A year of shelf-reading cured me of the idea of becoming a librarian. My head got stuck sideways. And I never got to do the real work—connecting readers with books.
This is how you separate the real librarians from the wannabes. Many of the real librarians love to shelf-read. I tweeted about a smart phone app that partially automates shelf-reading, thinking the librarians who read my feed would love it. Not so much. I got tweets back rhapsodizing about the joys of shelf-reading; the serendipity of a stumbled-upon book.
Despite my summer of shelf reading, I took another library job, this time as a reference assistant at Indiana University library, to help pay my way through graduate school. Then I went over to the dark side, working in marketing and advertising.
Becoming an author feels like returning home to me. I’m back to spending my time reading, writing, and talking about books all day. And thankfully, I get to spend much of that time in libraries or talking with librarians.
SLJ: Ashfall is getting so much praise not only from bloggers and teens but respected authors like Richard Peck and Michael Grant, and even a starred review from Kirkus. How does that make you feel as a debut novelist?
Mike: Grateful. And humble. And worried that I won’t be able to make my sophomore novel, ASHEN WINTER, as good as my debut. I’m incredibly neurotic about my writing. I’m told it only gets worse. Which means I’ll probably write my third novel by flashlight while locked in a closet. Maybe I should cut a slot in the door now, so somebody can feed me while I write.
SLJ: On your blog you mention that you wrote your first novel in elementary school—Captain Poopy’s Sewer Adventures. You’ve been writing ever since then, but this is your first published novel. Can you tell us a little bit about the long journey to being an actual published novelist?
A: I started attempting to write a novel for publication in 2008. I wrote a young adult horror that year and submitted it to three literary agents. It was so bad that two of the agents quit the profession not long after reading it. At the same time, however, I had the idea for ASHFALL and began researching it.
ASHFALL was rejected at some stage—query, partial, or full—by 24 literary agents. (If you’re struggling to get published, take heart from this. Yes, your work might not be ready. But it might also be great work that simply hasn’t found a champion. Take a look at the list of awards and blurbs at www.mikemullinauthor.com, including a starred review from Kirkus Reviews. I’m pretty confident that ASHFALL wasn’t garnering rejections due to its quality.)
Two publishers requested ASHFALL after hearing about it from my mother, who owns Kids Ink Children’s Bookstore in Indianapolis. I haven’t heard back from one of them yet. The other was Tanglewood Press.
SLJ: Also part of your tour was a writing workshop with 826michigan, a nonprofit in Ann Arbor. What advice can you offer aspiring teen writers?
- Read. A lot. Every day.
- Write. A lot. Every day.
- Submit or self-publish your work.
It’s that easy. And that hard.
The other piece of advice I offer is that money always should flow from the publisher to the author. The good kinds of self-publishing are nearly free. Those ads that promise to publish your work for a low fee, or publish it if you buy 100 books, or put your poem in an anthology if you buy two copies—they’re all scams. It takes an incredible amount of effort to produce a publishable piece of writing—if you succeed, you deserve to get paid for your effort.
SLJ: What are you working on now?
Mike: Writing a response to one of your excellent interview questions. Wait, you mean that figuratively? Oh, okay. I’m working on my fourth rewrite of ASHEN WINTER, the sequel to ASHFALL.
SLJ: What can you tell us about Ashen Winter, the sequel to Ashfall, coming out in October 2012?
Mike: ASHEN WINTER begins about eight months after the end of ASHFALL. The volcanic winter has worsened—the book opens in northwest Illinois in June, and the temperature has recently plunged as low as forty below at night. Alex and Darla are surviving due to an ingenious system of heated greenhouses Darla devised. But as the death toll from the brutal winter mounts, the people around them grow more and more desperate, threatening their tenuous grip on survival. At the same time, Alex discovers a clue to the whereabouts of loved ones he’d believed lost and decides to attempt a rescue mission, returning to the chaos in Iowa.