Author Interview with Mike Mullin

I had the opportunity to ask Mike some questions and he kindly answered them for me. I want to thank him so much for taking the time out of his busy schedule and doing this.

Alex Halprin spends his time in Cedar Falls, Iowa playing computer games, arguing with his mom, and practicing taekwondo. A few weeks before his sixteenth birthday, his parents leave him home alone for the weekend while they visit an uncle in Illinois. Three hours after they leave, the Yellowstone supervolcano erupts, plunging the U.S. into a cataclysmic natural disaster. Alex is forced to begin a lonely and dangerous trek across northern Iowa and Illinois to try to find his family.

Q&AWhen I first read what Ashfall was about I wanted to start reading it there and then. How did come up with such a great story? The idea for Ashfall started with another book—Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything. Dozens of novel ideas lurk within its pages, but the one that stuck with me was the idea of a supervolcano eruption at Yellowstone. A few weeks later, I woke at 3:30 am with a scene occupying my head so completely I was afraid it would start spilling out my nostrils and ears. I typed 5,500 words, finishing just before dawn. Then I put the project away and let it gestate for nine months. When I returned to it after researching volcanoes and volcanic ash, I realized the inspired scene I wrote in the middle of the night wouldn’t work, and ultimately that whole section had to be scrapped.

 Where do you get your inspiration from?

 Reading, sleeping and living. First, I read voraciously and omnivorously. I will literally read an old phone book if nothing better is handy. (They’re a great source for character names.) I’ve read at least a few books in nearly any genre you’d care to name. I get a lot of my reading material from the library now, in part because all of the 29 bookcases in my home are packed full. Reading also directly inspired Ashfall. Reading in Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded, August 27, 1883 about the fearsome noise that eruption made inspired the early chapters of Ashfall in which Alex contends with the earthshaking noise of the Yellowstone supervolcano.

Second, I find that sleep is very important to my creativity. For one thing, I write better when I get enough sleep. I’ve known this for years, but there’s some new research that shows that when you feel sleepy, it’s because part of your brain is sleeping. Writing is hard enough without having any brain cells out of action. For another, I’ve trained my brain to work on plot problems while I sleep. As I drift off at night, I’ll review where I’m at in my work-in-progress and think about what I’m going to write the next day. Sometimes, I’ll wake up in the morning with a great idea. Many of the twists in Ashfall started this way.

Third, to write well, you have to live well. Scenes in Ashfall involving greenhouses, goats and ducks were inspired by helping my brother’s family care for their small farm. When I realized that Alex would spend much of his time cross country skiing, I went to Oregon to learn how (and to visit Mount St. Helens). When Alex picked up a jahng bong, or bō staff, I enrolled in jahng bong lessons at my dojang. (I now hold a black belt in Songahm Taekwondo.) Without real-world experience in each of these areas, I wouldn’t have been able write convincingly about them. 

What's a normal writing day like for you?

 I get up, eat a small breakfast (usually a banana and a diet coke) and start writing. I write almost every day, including weekends and holidays. I’ve recently started breaking my writing goals into chunks of 500 words. When I reach my first goal, I get a reward like a walk to the library or a bike ride. Then I shoot for another 500 words. I can sometimes reach 2,000 words a day in this manner, but more often I only get 1,000 or so. On a day like today, when I have lots of other stuff to do, I might settle for just 500 words so I can devote time to responding to my email and whatnot. When I’m editing I set goals in terms of numbers of chapters rewritten. If I’m doing heavy revision, two short chapters is a solid day’s output for me. 

Is there any Authors/books that you like?

In young adult literature my favorite authors are Richard Peck (particularly The River Between Us), Michael Grant (Gone series), Suzanne Collins, Chris Crutcher (especially Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes), M.T. Anderson (Feed is my fave), Gary Schmidt and Jerry Spinelli.
In science fiction I love David Brin, Paolo Bacigalupi, Alan Dean Foster, David Weber’s early work, Gordon Dickson, Phillip Dick and Robert Heinlein.
In fantasy I adore Cinda Williams Chima, Kristin Cashore, L.E. Modisett, Two Moon Princess by Carmen Ferreiro-Esteban, Tolkien, Lewis and Robert Jordan.
My two favorite non-fiction books are Guns Germs and Steel and Lies My Teacher Told Me.
A few miscellaneous books I love include The Road, March, Charlotte’s Web and Marcelo in the Real World.

There are a zillion other books I like—look me up on Goodreads here to see them all and talk books.

Ashfall is your first novel, Is it going to be a sequel?

Yes! I’m grateful to my publisher and editor, Peggy Tierney, because she has already purchased the sequel to Ashfall! Its title is Ashen Winter, and it’s scheduled to be released by Tanglewood Press in fall 2012. I’m about 55,000 words into the first draft now. 

Have you started writing any new books that could be released in the future?

 I finished my fifth rewrite of a young adult horror novel recently. At some point I plan to dig it out again, polish it, and see if anyone wants to publish it. Plus I’ve got bits and pieces of about 15 other novels written. Some of them are just a page or two of ideas, some have several scenes written. All of them are at least potentially young adult novels, but their genres are all over the map otherwise: science fiction, horror, fantasy, thriller, mystery and realistic fiction. 

I'm an aspiring author is there any advice you could give me as well as other aspiring authors out there?

The most important part of being a writer is reading. You have to read to experience the despair of prose so lovely you know you can never match it and the vicious little satisfaction of whispering "I can do better" to yourself after reading a particularly bad piece. If you don’t read widely in whatever genre you choose to write in, how will you know if your work is original or not? That great idea for a post-apocalyptic reality show in which children battle to the death? Yeah, it’s been done.
I read more slowly now that I’m writing professionally. I often reread sections and puzzle over word and plot choices, trying to answer the question: how did the author do that? But although my pace has slowed, if anything, the volume of reading I do has increased. And that’s one of my greatest satisfactions in writing—I can curl up on the couch with a good book and a cat in my lap and honestly say, "I’m working."

A big thanks again for answering these questions.

Mikes Official:

Has anyone read Ashfall? Thoughts? what did everyone think of the interview??


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