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
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.
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.
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?
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.