Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Author Bites - Mike Mullin Waxes on Apocalyptic Accuracy

As you all know, I love me my accuracy in dystopian/apocalyptic novels. A single line can often derail an entire book for me. How can I trust it when the author gets one cataclysmic element wrong that should have a massive chain reaction throughout the rest of the book? But when I read ASHFALL by Mike Mullin, he proved to me that a few authors still give a damn about scientific accuracy in the popular genre. And he's agreed to stop by and say a few words about it. Thanks for coming by, Mike!

I grew up reading dystopian and post-apocalyptic novels. Some of my early favorites included Z is for Zachariah, The Postman, The Day of the Triffids, and Alas, Babylon. So when I started writing for publication three years ago, it was natural that I’d choose to write in that milieu. (I’ve been writing more or less non-stop since sixth grade. But I didn’t decide to try to write a publishable novel until 2008.)

Unfortunately, the first idea that called to me was a young adult horror concept. While I was working on that, I happened across a display in my local library that included the lavish, illustrated edition of Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything. It’s an impressively-sized book, but, I thought, nowhere near big enough to merit the title. So I checked it out, and learned about the Yellowstone supervolcano in its pages.

A few weeks later, I woke in the middle of the night with a scene from ASHFALL bubbling in my brain. (I know it’s a cliché—the writer dreaming his book—but evidently my subconscious doesn’t care.) I wrote 5,500 words before dawn. When I returned to ASHFALL eight months later, after finishing my YA horror novel and researching supervolcanoes further, I realized that the scene I’d written in the middle of the night was junk. Only one word survives from the 5,500 I wrote that night: the title, ASHFALL.

One major issue remained: what would make ASHFALL any different from the wonderful and diverse dystopian and apocalyptic young adult novels being published in the wake of The Hunger Games? I thought about this question a lot as I was writing ASHFALL. While I love the current crop of apocalyptic novels, I often find myself wondering: Could this really happen? Sometimes the world-building seems designed with more of an eye to drama than realism. Also, little details knock me out of the story—toilets that still function after a brutally cold winter without power, for example.

I decided I’d attempt to differentiate ASHFALL by making it unflinchingly realistic. So, for example, I asked myself whether ASHFALL should include any mention of cannibalism. The obvious answer is that no, it shouldn’t, because it will gross out the teachers, parents, and librarians who are so influential in putting books in the hands of teens.

Instead of accepting the obvious answer, I researched the question. And sadly, the truth is that collapsing societies experiencing widespread starvation virtually always turn to cannibalism. Check out Jared Diamond’s excellent Collapse, or follow this link to an interesting study of the Donner Party for more info on that topic.

I attempted to portray the full range of human behavior in an apocalypse, from the most brutally savage to the most sublimely selfless. Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell was useful for stimulating my thinking—it chronicles responses to real natural disasters ranging from the San Francisco earthquake to Hurricane Katrina.

In real disasters, how we respond depends largely on how we see the victims. If we see them as people like us, then incredible utopian communities often emerge, like the free food kitchens that formed following the San Francisco earthquake. If we see survivors as different from ourselves, we get police and volunteers lining up to shoot African-Americans attempting to flee the Superdome in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. In ASHFALL, I capture this range of responses in my depiction of Worthington and later via the division of Americans into “red state” and “green state” groups.

So, to summarize, I attempted to provide my readers the thrill of an apocalyptic novel, while differentiating ASHFALL by making it unflinchingly realistic, on both a scientific and human level. I hope you’ll give ASHFALL a couple hours of your reading time and judge for yourself whether I succeeded.


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 hoping this writing thing works out.

Mike holds a black belt in Songahm Taekwondo. He lives in Indianapolis, Indiana with his wife and her three cats. ASHFALL is his first novel.


Many visitors to Yellowstone National Park don’t realize that the boiling hot springs and spraying geysers are caused by an underlying supervolcano. It has erupted three times in the last 2.1 million years, and it will erupt again, changing the Earth forever.

Fifteen-year-old Alex is home alone when the supervolcano erupts. His town collapses into a nightmare of darkness, ash, and violence, forcing him to flee. He begins a harrowing trek in search of his parents and sister, who were visiting relatives 140 miles away.

Along the way, Alex struggles through a landscape transformed by more than a foot of ash. The disaster brings out the best and worst in people desperate for food, clean water, and shelter. When an escaped convict injures Alex, he searches for a sheltered place where he can wait—to heal or to die. Instead, he finds Darla. Together, they fight to achieve a nearly impossible goal: surviving the supervolcano.


The first two chapters are available on my website: www.mikemullinauthor.com.
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