I am beyond thrilled to share with you my interview with Mike Mullin, whose Ashfall series is cli-fi at its best. Anyone who loves strong character development will love Mike’s books. But be prepared to grip pages with white knuckles because Ashfall is full of suspense. You can read my review right here.
Many followers of my Facebook page, The YA Gal, are Ashfall fans too. They helped brainstorm the following questions:
Shelley “I grew up with a mom who worked with FEMA and was constantly called out to emergency disasters, so it’s something that I’ve grown up with and around my whole life, especially now with a husband who also works in city government. However, even after reading those books, I still question my family’s ability to survive in a post-apocalyptic, or post natural disaster world. My question for Mike is, did doing the research and writing these books change the way his family is prepared to deal with an emergency disaster? Does he have a back-up plan now, such as to-go bags, gallons of water etc., in his home in the event of an emergency?
Mike: Thanks for the great question, Shelley. I have a sophisticated, point-by-point, detailed plan for what to do if my book comes true. Do you want to read about it? Are you ready to take notes? Here it is: I’d die.
It’s a liberating plan. It means I don’t have to worry about prepping or trying to forecast whether there will be a disaster or not. I plan to live my life pretty much the same way whether there’s an imminent disaster or not.
It’s also a realistic plan. The super volcano I depict in ASHFALL would directly kill hundreds of thousands, maybe millions. 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.
I do believe it’s smart for everyone to have enough stored food or water to survive three weeks or so. That’s enough to get through a really bad regional disaster, something like Hurricanes Katrina or Sandy. So yes, I do some simple prepping. But if the end or the world as we know it comes, almost all the hard-core preppers you see on television will be just as dead as I will. They’re generally too old and too male to have any kind of decent chance at survival.
Christina “I’d ask how he got the idea for the title of Ashfall?”
Mike: The idea for the book 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 and let it gestate for eight 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. The only word that remains from that draft? The title, ASHFALL.
Sami “Being a YA author how do you find subjects that can relate to young adults in different situations, how do you make a well round yet unique character development?”
Mike: I owe a debt to the editor, Cheryl Klein, for her book Second Sight: An Editor’s Talks on Writing, Revising, and Publishing Books for Children and Young Adults. I don’t feel like I got particularly good at character development until I read it. It’s got a list of questions to ask about your characters, like so many other books on the writing craft have. But Klein emphasizes something even better—she challenges writers to ask the question “Why?” about every facet of their characters. These questions—why is my character a martial artist, why does he feel so protective of his sister, why does he spar incessantly with his mother—inevitably lead to backstory. And that backstory, even though I only rarely use it in the actual text of the novel, informs every action my characters take and word they speak as I’m writing.
Michelle “I know he said “maybe” to a 4th Ashfall book… If that doesn’t happen, what’s coming next from him? Will he stay in the YA genre?”
Mike: Yes! There will be a fourth ASHFALL book. I have signed the contract with Tanglewood Press and cashed the advance check. As it’s planned now, the fourth book will start about two years after SUNRISE ends. Alex and Darla have started a family, but a terrible new threat arises to put their lives and the survival of everyone in Speranta at risk.
That’s the most detail I’ve offered yet to anyone other than my editor and my wife on book 4, by the way. Unfortunately, there will be a long wait for ASHFALL #4. I’m slogging through the fourth draft of a young adult thriller called SURFACE TENSION, and plan to resume work on ASHFALL #4 as soon as that’s finished.
I do plan to continue to write YA. There are two drivers of any novel: change drives the characters, and conflict drives the plot. When in our lives do we have more change and conflict than as teenagers? Adult books sometimes seem kind of boring to me by comparison, and I have no interest in writing any. One of the gratifying parts of the current YA market is that it includes so many adults: 55% to 65% (depending on which estimate you believe) of YA readership is adults.