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Sunday, 22 July 2012 14:50
Q and A with Mike Mullin

1. A tragedy causing an apocalypse is something most people probably don't think about, but it could happen. What was the inspiration for this story?

The idea for Ashfall started with another book—Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything. I found it on a display at Central Library in downtown Indianapolis. 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 after I read it, 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 to gestate for eight months. When I returned to the story 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. The only word that remains from that draft? Ashfall.

As I was drafting ASHFALL I realized that I had more plot than would fit in one book, and planned a rough outline for a trilogy. ASHEN WINTER is the second book in that trilogy, and I’m currently working on writing the third and final volume.

2. The plot involves a lot of science, geography, and agriculture. How much research did you do in preparation for writing the books?

I had an interest in volcanoes before I started, but it was the sort of ‘look, shiny!’ kind of interest lots of people have in Mother Nature’s most impressive temper tantrums. 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’sSupervolcano: The Ticking Time Bomb beneath Yellowstone National Park was particularly usefulas 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 and Wikipedia 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.

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.

For ASHEN WINTER, I conducted more research. I learned more about firearms from my father-in-law and the husband of a librarian friend. I spent two days at the Ropkey Armor Museum learning everything I could about several types of military vehicles. Half adozen parents of autistic children and two autistic teenagers helped me bring the character Ben to life. The head of a local shortwave radio club, Ken Bandy, spent hours with me explaining shortwave radio operation and etiquette. Maybe you can tell: I love research and do a lot of it.

3. How long have you been writing, and what is a typical writing day like for you?

I started writing in sixth grade. Until I was eleven, I attended a brick box of a school, antiseptically clean and emotionally sterile. The children marched in files down the halls, mumbled math facts in unison, and occasionally did a craft project about a book.

When I turned twelve, I escaped from that intellectual prison camp and went to a noisy, dirty, chaotic school where I was—gasp—expected to write. Every day. And—double gasp—read. I wrote my first novel in sixth grade—Captain Poopy’s Sewer Adventures. Sadly, Dav Pilkey beat me to publication with Captain Underpants, although I still spell better than him. (You don’t see me typing Mik Mullin, do you?) I’ve been writing ever since.

On a typical writing day, 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.

4. I know you have a lot of followers on Twitter and Facebook, are you also doing school visits and speaking engagements.

Yes, I’m doing tons of school, library, and bookstore visits! ASHFALL has been out about 9 months, and I’ve done about 180 presentations so far. I can keep track easily because I break a concrete block during every talk (with my bare hands!) Then I sign the pieces and give them away. I’ve bought 200 blocks so far, and I have about 20 left. If you’d like to see my presentation, I list all my upcoming public events here. If you’d like to schedule a talk at your library, school, or bookstore, check out this page. And if you’re interested in seeing me break a concrete block, here’s a video from my launch party for ASHFALL.

5. I read Ashen Winter in two days and am hoping there will be another book in the series, are you working on a third one now? Or are you working on a new book?

I’m glad you enjoyed ASHEN WINTER so much—that’s a beefy book to read in two days! Tanglewood Press has already purchased the final book in the ASHFALL trilogy, and I’m working on writing it now. The title and publication date are not final yet, but I’m calling it SUNRISE as I work on the draft, and hoping to finish in time for late 2013 or early 2014 publication.

Last Updated ( Saturday, 25 August 2012 07:06 )

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