I would like to welcome a very special guest to Alison's Book Marks this morning. Mike Mullin, author of ASHFALL and its sequel ASHEN WINTER, has so graciously agreed to stop by!
First of all, thank you, Mike, for coming by Alison’s Book Marks, I’m thrilled to have you.
It’s my pleasure to be here. Thanks for hosting me!
I am a HUGE fan of ASHFALL, which easily earned one of the top spots on my Best of 2011 List, and the sequel ASHEN WINTER proves to be just as powerful!
We really should have done this interview when we met back at BEA – I was too busy gushing and thinking up fun book-blog-war ideas.
BEA was crazy! And fun. Probably easier to do the interview now.
You're right. Now that I’m in a relatively calm place, I’m ready. Are you ready?
I always find it fascinating to know what our favorite authors would be doing if by some turn of fate pointed them in a different direction. If you weren't writing, what would you be doing instead?
I could see myself as a teacher, librarian, or bookseller. For a while I toyed with the idea of getting a doctorate and teaching at the university level. I even took a couple of classes before realizing that I just don’t like school enough to bother with a doctorate. My publisher offered to hire me as a marketing director, but I said no. I really just want to write!
You would have rocked the front of any lecture hall, Professor Mullin, but I am glad you chose writing instead of teaching, or marketing. I have to say, I think it's a huge testament to you and your work ethic that Tanglewood wanted you around their offices on a daily basis! There is obviously more behind the man than writing. What do you like to do when you’re not writing?
I read! I eat books like a hyena snapping up mice. Become my friend onGoodreads if you want to see everything I’m reading and talk books with me. I also train in taekwondo, hike, ride my bicycle, canoe, and play computer games. My wife and I enjoy cooking, trying new restaurants, drinking wine, visiting state parks, picnicking at Symphony on thePrairie, and, um, logical other stuff that doesn’t probably need to be spelled out in a family-friendly blog, right?
My favorites changed as I grew. From age two to four it was Where the Wild Things Are. My younger brother and I had a special ritual for it—when Mom reached the words, “’And now,’ cried Max, ‘let the wild rumpus start!’” we would begin to dance. We didn’t need any music, just the example of Max and his subjects over the three full-page spreads that followed. The other book I loved at that age was Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel. When Darla is geeking out over construction equipment in ASHFALL, I’m definitely writing what I know.
Our family was firmly middle class, and I got all the usual stuff for Christmas: Lincoln Logs, Legos, even a bicycle one year. But the best Christmas gift of my childhood was the one I got while I was in fourth grade—a boxed set of The Chronicles of Narnia. I read the series eleven times over the following year, keeping count with hash marks inside the front covers. That year I’d been placed in a gifted and talented class with a particularly mean-spirited teacher, Mrs. Walsh, and C.S. Lewis provided me with a much-needed escape. Once, I escaped in a literal as well as figurative sense—Mrs. Walsh interrupted her excruciatingly boring lecture about reading to scream, “Michael Mullin, if you’re just going to read that book under your desk, you can go out in the hall to do it!” Busted! So I calmly got up, left the classroom, and settled in one of the study carrels in the hall to finish The Horse and His Boy.
As a teenager, I needed the escape books provided even more desperately. I read adult science fiction and fantasy voraciously, but my favorite book was one written for teens: Tunnel in the Sky by Heinlein. It described my perfect world—one without adults, where teens could live without the oppressive constraints of parents and teachers. Like the protagonist, Rod Walker, I was interested in primitive survival at that time. I practiced building shelters, foraging for edible plants, and matchless fire starting, both on my own and with the Boy Scouts. Today I prefer a lighter or matches for starting fires and hotel rooms over improvised shelter, but I still enjoy foraging for edible wild plants.
With ASHFALL, I attempted to write the sort of book I would have loved as a teenager. So I dispense with all the adults in Alex’s life in the first chapter, much as Heinlein did in Tunnel in the Sky. And though the positive reviews and awards ASHFALL has garnered have been thrilling, my highest hope for my work is that it will provide a few teens what Heinlein, Lewis, Peck and so many other authors provided me: a few hours of blissful escape from a childhood that was sometimes difficult to endure.
Externally, Alex is based on a fifteen-year-old third-degree black belt, Ben Alexander, who I met when I started taking taekwondo classes. But internally, Alex is based on myself as a teenager. Both of us struggled with an inner rage and propensity to violence. Both of us were forced to cope with the self-loathing and fear that is the aftermath of violence. What if I hadn’t stopped fighting? One of the defining moments of Alex’s childhood was when he walked away after kicking his sister’s bully in the face, rather than continuing to fight. One of the defining moments of mine was when I held another boy’s head in my hands and somehow found enough self-control not to smash it against the sidewalk. Even after a supervolcano, there are no monsters beyond us as terrifying as the monsters within.
In ASHFALL, Alex confronts a world in which he must use violence to survive. One of the pivotal moments in the story comes when Alex has an opportunity to kill a man who has severely wounded him. Alex chooses to flee instead, searching for a place where he can die in peace. When given a stark choice between survival and retaining his humanity, Alex chooses his humanity. But instead of dying, Alex meets Darla and discovers a new reason to value survival.
Alex is similar to me as a teenager in other ways. His greatest dream is to earn the respect of those closest to him. He knows his family loves him, and he’s desperate to find them, but they still see him as a kid. Even Darla initially sees him as a helpless hanger-on, a leech. To earn the love and respect he craves in the midst of the worst natural disaster in recorded history, Alex will have to shed his teenage skin and become a man.
I think he's well on his way. Just as a reader, I was engrossed in Alex's struggle, and how he rises above the fear and grows up an awful lot within those pages. A catastrophe like that certainly brings out the worst, as well as the best, in people. It's a scary world you built there, and nothing that is outside the realm of possibility. What is in your super-volcano survival kit? (We especially want to know which book are you grabbing!)
I don’t have a supervolcano survival kit, although I do have a plan for a supervolcano. You ready for it? Here it is: I’ll die. Here’s why:
The super volcano I depict in ASHFALL would directly kill hundreds of thousands—maybe millions of people. 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.
If I did have a supervolcano survival kit, I’d put When Technology Fails: A Manual for Self-Reliance, Sustainability, and Surviving the Long Emergency in it. That book has been invaluable to me as a research tool for writing ASHFALL, ASHEN WINTER, and the final book in the Ashfall trilogy, tentatively titled SUNRISE.
Thank you so much for answering my questions! It was a pleasure meeting you, and I do hope to see you again!
Thanks for hosting me! I don’t have any East Coast tour dates at the moment, but when I do, I’ll post them here. If any of your readers live near Indianapolis, please invite them to stop by the ASHEN WINTER launch party—it’ll be a blast!
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 glad this writing thing seems to be working out.
Mike holds a black belt in Songahm Taekwondo. He lives in Indianapolis with his wife and her three cats. Ashen Winter is his second novel. His debut, Ashfall, was named one of the top five young adult novels of 2011 by National Public Radio, a Best Teen Book of 2011 by Kirkus Reviews, and a New Voices selection by the American Booksellers Association.
About ASHEN WINTER
It's been over six months since the eruption of the Yellowstone supervolcano. Alex and Darla have been staying with Alex's relatives, trying to cope with the new reality of the primitive world so vividly portrayed in Ashfall, the first book in this trilogy. It's also been six months of waiting for Alex's parents to return from Iowa. Alex and Darla decide they can wait no longer and must retrace their journey into Iowa to find and bring back Alex's parents to the tenuous safety of Illinois. But the landscape they cross is even more perilous than before, with life-and-death battles for food and power between the remaining communities. When the unthinkable happens, Alex must find new reserves of strength and determination to survive.
The first two chapters are available on the author's website: www.ashenwinter.com.
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