Thursday, March 13, 2014

Author Interview: Mike Mullin on the ASHFALL TRILOGY

Before I welcome our special guest today on the blog, I'd like to introduce him for those who have not officially met Mike Mullin, author of the ASHFALL series.

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. Sunrise is his third novel.  Ashfall, the first novel of the trilogy, 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.

The Yellowstone supervolcano nearly wiped out the human race. Now, almost a year after the eruption, the survivors seem determined to finish the job. Communities wage war on each other, gangs of cannibals roam the countryside, and what little government survived the eruption has collapsed completely. The ham radio has gone silent. Sickness, cold, and starvation are the survivors’ constant companions.
When it becomes apparent that their home is no longer safe and adults are not facing the stark realities, Alex and Darla must create a community that can survive the ongoing disaster, an almost impossible task requiring even more guts and more smarts than ever—and unthinkable sacrifice. If they fail . . . they, their loved ones, and the few remaining survivors will perish.
This epic finale has the heart of Ashfall, the action of Ashen Winter, and a depth all its own, examining questions of responsibility and bravery, civilization and society, illuminated by the story of an unshakable love that transcends a post-apocalyptic world and even life itself.
Thank you for agreeing to this interview, Mike. I'm excited to talk about SUNRISE, as well as the ASHFALL trilogy. Having read all 3.5 books in this series, I found it an enjoyable and satisfying read, one that my wife and oldest son have joined me in reading, a series that can easily be a great read for the entire family.

I’m honored to learn that your whole family is enjoying my work. I realize that I’m biased and opinions may vary, but I think young men could do a lot worse than to learn something from the way Alex conducts himself in my books. And I’m thrilled that my books might be an inspiration for family conversations on all sorts of important topics.

You've shown incredible attention to detail throughout the series, and this is true for SUNRISE as well. What elements of the series did you incorporate without research versus those things which required extensive research to be included? What elements can we expect to see in SUNRISE?

I research everything. The sociology of disasters, the street names, the vehicles, the technical marvels Darla and Uncle Paul cook up . . . everything. My early drafts are littered with notes in all caps: “RESEARCH THIS,” “CHECK INTERNET,” or “NEED TECHNICAL TERM HERE.” I replace all these notes with facts as I write my second and third drafts. I do very little research during the first drafts, because it can become a huge distraction and time sink, slowing my writing process.  
I wrote a long guest post on the research that went into ASHFALL on the Our Time in Juvie blog. That’ll give you a good idea of the scope of the work and travel I put into getting the factual parts of my novels right.

ASHFALL focuses primarily on Alex and Darla surviving and reuniting with his family. ASHEN WINTER continues this theme, but extends to long term survival in order to make it through a post-eruption winter. In SUNRISE, this is fine-tuned to springboard into sustaining an entire community, and by extension the human race, without losing our identities in immoral or corrupt choices for survival.

Absolutely. I’m intentionally and consciously expanding the scope of my work in each installment of the trilogy. ASHFALL is about survival and Alex’s relationship with Darla. ASHEN WINTER is about family. And SUNRISE is about building a community strong enough to outlast the long volcanic winter. Each novel also has a larger cast of characters than the preceding one as the scope of the trilogy increases.

ASHFALL and ASHEN WINTER show the collapse of our government with the camps holding survivors in "yellow zones" in nearly starving conditions. What happens in SUNRISE further sharpens the need for community to sustain long term survival. What can you speak about with regards to the government and how they play into the series, as well as where this goes in SUNRISE?

People often ask me where I got the idea for FEMA’s inept handling of the disaster. Sadly, I’m the least creative novelist ever—I didn’t have to make anything up. Almost everything Alex and Darla experience in ASHFALL is lifted directly from incidents that actually happened during Hurricane Katrina. Pets being killed by police? That happened. Punishment huts? Yep, something similar to that happened, too. Massive relief efforts led by Baptists? That’s real. If you’d like to know more about our response to Hurricane Katrina, I recommend two non-fiction books: A Paradise Built in Hell by Rebecca Solnit and Zeitoun by Dave Eggers.

The series has introduced one of the harshest forms of survival in cannibalism. Gangs, including the Dirty White Boys (DWBs) and Peckerwoods are often among those who are called "flensers," known for eating human flesh. In SUNRISE, you've shown where this ultimately leads, and why it is not a viable option for Alex and his family and friends. What revelations did this provide you along the way as you wrote this into the series?

I researched cannibalism (along with nearly everything else in the trilogy). The book that was most influential to my thinking on this topic was Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond. He argues that environmental degradation was a primary cause of societal collapses among the Maya, the Easter Islanders, and other cultures. In that sense, their fate is similar to that of victims of a supervolcano—the ash and climatic changes would be a form of total environmental disaster. One of the traits nearly all these failing civilizations had in common was a descent into cannibalism.

SUNRISE introduces a new vicious and ruthless villain in Red, the leader of Stockton, whose adoption of "the old ways" makes building a community of survivors difficult for Alex and Darla (to say the least) being so near the wall-of-upended-cars city. Without spoiling anything, what can you say about Red? I was especially intrigued by his array of knives (each with their own name), and his vast medical knowledge of the human body.

The idea for Red came in part from a real person described in Sam Sheridan’s excellent work of narrative non-fiction, The Disaster Diaries: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Apocalypse.

Throughout the series, you've written many detailed, seemingly minor characters that lend a tremendous sense of harsh or grim reality to the novels at times. In ASHFALL, I think immediately of the woman with the small children trying to survive in a car, who ultimately dies, prompting Alex to give the children what they can from their meager supplies. In ASHEN WINTER, Alex chooses to help Alyssa (mistaking her for Darla) and Ben, and Ed, all of whom join his community and have significant contributions to Alex's survival. How did you keep track of all of these details, and why did you include them in the novels?
Late in my drafting process in each novel—around the fifth or sixth draft—I build a spreadsheet to keep track of all the minor details and characters. It lists every scene in the novel, which characters appear, what they do, what they’re wearing, and scads of other relevant details.

The minor characters are always there for a reason—otherwise I would have cut them in my editing process. The Barslows are introduced in ASHFALL to show the reader how the vast majority of people would deal with an apocalypse—by being as decent and helpful to their neighbors—and even strangers—as they can. It’s a necessary counterpoint to Alex’s later encounter with the family at the gas station and the prison escapee, Target.

Alyssa and Ben allow me to show just how bad the apocalypse can be. Alyssa doesn’t have Darla’s mechanical skills, and must use very different strategies to survive. Ben came about because I was thinking about what kind of person would have the most difficult time in an apocalyptic environment. Teens with autism need predictability and routine—an apocalypse destroys all hope of that. So it was an interesting challenge to think about how Ben and Alyssa would cope with the loss of everything from their pre-apocalyptic life.

With Ed's character, you show the redemption of a character who has a past among the "flensers." This arc brings home the idea that every choice has consequences, some good, some bad. For Alex, he gets into a lot of trouble when the part of him that wants to help others gets in the way of the practical side of him who should be focused on the mission of survival and the good of those he cares for. Alex pays the price time and again for his idealistic "boy scout" choices. Why did you feature him among all the characters you've written for the series?

Psychological research has shown that for the vast majority of us, our ethical choices are situational. There’s a famous research study which showed that 90% of seminarians on their way to deliver a talk on the good Samarian would not stop and help a person in distress if they believed they were late to the talk. Only about 10% of us are truly altruistic—i.e. will try to help others even when it results in harm to ourselves. Alex is part of that 10%. That, plus his impulsiveness, gets him in a lot of trouble in ASHFALL and ASHEN WINTER. But that empathy saves his life repeatedly in SUNRISE, as he starts accumulating a group of followers like Ed, Darla, Alyssa, and Uncle Paul—people who would literally lay down their lives for Alex if necessary. Empathetic people make fabulous leaders, although they rarely want the responsibility that leadership brings. I believe George Washington was one such leader—a man who agonized endlessly over the hardships his people were facing, and ruled just long enough to insure that our budding democracy would survive and then retired to his farm.

You are the master of cliffhanger chapter endings. Specifically, I'd love to go through the entire series and just count those chapters that end with someone holding a gun (or a weapon) pointed at someone else, usually Alex or Darla. This definitely led me to keep furiously turning pages. Why must you torture your characters so?

I took some advice I read in Cheryl Klein’s excellent book Second Sight to heart. She recommends ending every chapter with either a cliffhanger or a fermata, which she defines as an emotional summation of the chapter. I want to write books so engaging and so fast-paced that teenage guys will put down the controllers of their X-Boxes and read.

I work in the mental health field with school aged clients, many of whom have significant trauma histories. I noticed the theme of PTSD touched on at times, and in SUNRISE, I think this played out with Alex's mom. Why does the ASHFALL series lend itself to addressing such topics, and what have you learned about the way this affects our humanity?

One of the worst aspects of our culture is the way we trivialize violence. As you know from your work, real violence is terrifying and often leaves both physical and emotional scars. I was stabbed by a homeless man last year. I’m fine, and he’s in jail now, but the incident left me nearly unable to sleep for a week, and still has a near-daily impact on my life.

There would be violence in the aftermath of an apocalypse. I didn’t feel I could write a realistic book on this topic without including a lot of violent content. So I intentionally tried not to trivialize the violence. I tried to make it as graphic and shocking as I could. Because real violence is graphic and shocking. I also tried to get the emotional and physical consequences right, and I’m absolutely thrilled that you, a mental health professional, recognized the theme of PTSD throughout the trilogy and particularly with Alex’s mom in SUNRISE.

ASHFALL has been optioned for production as a television series, and I’m thankful that the production company is not considering turning it into a movie. The Motion Picture Association of America has had a horribly pernicious effect on American culture by banning all blood from PG-13 movies. So we get a completely fictitious, bloodless, consequence-free depiction of violence from our most popular movies. The Hunger Games, for example, was intended in part as an anti-war statement—a message that comes through clearly in the book but is mostly lost in the glitzy movie. Television—particularly cable television--can be more honest in this respect, and some of the best film-making today isn’t film—it’s T.V. 

You've written and completed your first series. Congratulations. How did you do it? Can you speak about what it took to keep everything organized? You've got many storylines which extend through all three books, or two books. How satisfied are you with the way the series turned out? Did it say everything you wanted it to? What elements of the books were you not able to explore, and might we see any future writing for this series or these characters?

I got partway through the first draft of ASHFALL and realized that I had way more story than would fit in one book. So I sat down and outlined the whole trilogy. I’ve been working from that outline for five years now. I changed it and diverged from it in many places, but the basic turning points in the story and the ending for the trilogy were all laid out in my original outline.

Currently, I’m not planning to write any more books in the ASHFALL universe. Perhaps some of the fanfic community will pick up the slack.

What writing projects are you working on now (that you can talk about)? When might we expect to see these projects come our way?

I’m about 30,000 words into the first draft of SURFACE TENSION, a young adult thriller. It’s about a teen who sees a group of terrorists crashing an airplane from the ground. He’s the only one who knows how they did it, and they want him dead. I haven’t sold it yet, so I don’t know when or even if it will be published. Wish me luck!

Without spoiling a major plot point, Chapter 38 of SUNRISEparticularly the last page—literally led me to tears. The reality of struggling to survive is as sharp as the edge of a knife at this point, and both Alex and Darla face their harshest brush with death yet. What can you say about this, and why did you have to go there?

That scene was not part of my outline, and I had no idea I was going to write it that way until I did. I try to imagine each scene in each character’s perspective, and as I was thinking through what Red would want from that scene, the idea struck me. At first I was a little bit aghast with myself, but then I decided I needed to write it that way. The results played havoc with the rest of my outline, of course, but I think it was worth it.

SUNRISE brings in the next level of survival, human creativity and resourcefulness. I was impressed with how this played out in the middle and end of SUNRISE. At times, I cheered and gasped with the thrill of the finds that Alex and Darla are able to utilize for the community of survivors in their care. How does this impact the story as a whole? Where might this lead beyond the story of SUNRISE?

I’m planning to leave what happens next up to the reader. So your answer as to where Alex and Darla go from here is every bit as good as mine.

Hope and security are important themes addressed in SUNRISE. For Alex and Darla personally, it determines whether they can carve out a future where they can marry and have children. Without hope and security, the idea of getting married or conceiving a child are too risky to consider. Alex and Darla aren't the only characters affected by these topics. Why is this so central to the story you tell in SUNRISE?

It’s a topic I’m interested in, particularly in light of my and my wife’s decision not to have children. For a post-apocalyptic society, though, children represent the ultimate declaration of hope—a declaration that there will be a future for those children to inhabit.

The tension and stakes present in SUNRISE (and the entire series) are huge, all the way up to the ending. I would describe it as a thriller. Do you agree? Why or why not? What made you write at such a break-neck pace?

Yes, I’m flattered that you would describe it as a thriller. I don’t think of my competitors in the young adult market as being other writers. My competition is everything other than reading that teens can do with their time. Computer games, movies, television, etc. I’m doing my best to write books so enthralling that a teenager who puts down the X-Box controller to read one won’t be disappointed.

What can you say about the mechanical elements to the story and plot? My absolute favorite example is Bikezilla, and all her iterations. BZ250 and BZ450, for example. What were your personal favorites, and what mechanical marvels didn't make it into the story?

When I have an idea for a mechanical marvel, I usually call or email my brother Paul and ask him how Darla would accomplish it. I had an idea for storing potential energy and water via the two watertowers in Warren, Illinois, but ultimately figured out that it would take too much energy to keep the water liquid, and so that idea had to be scrapped. 

Where can we get all of your books, and in what formats are they available?

Purchase Links

I'd like to ask whether Tanglewood Press would consider putting together a boxed set of your books with extra goodies for fans of the series as a whole?

For example, could the boxed set include a map of the United States detailing the destruction of the eruption, the zones, and the rough path Alex travels throughout the books? Can the boxed set include schematics of the windmills, designs for Bikezilla, the camps, the gristmill, and the greenhouses?

Please leave a comment below if you'd like to let Tanglewood Press know of your interest in purchasing a boxed set of these books.

That would be awesome! It’s not really up to me, though. If you’d like to let Tanglewood Press know about your excellent ideas for an ASHFALL boxed set, contact them here:

Thank you so much for joining me for an interview, Mike. I appreciate the chance to chat with you about your books, and I look forward to the next ones yet to come. Thank you very much! Best of luck on the launch of SUNRISE. Where can readers find out more or join in with the blog tour?

Social Media Links

Thanks for the interview, Donald! You can find out more about the blog tour and follow along here:


The first two chapters are available on my website at:
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This giveaway is sponsored by Books With Bite. It is one complete set of The Ashfall Series (Ashfall, Ashen Winter & Sunrise) from The Book Depository. Please make sure they ship to your country. Open to everyone! It also includes a second prize of Sunrise Pendants. This is also open International.

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