Interview with- the awesome!- Mike Mullin

IB Teen's Interview with ASHEN WINTER author, Mike Mullin

Mike Mullin first discovered he could make money writing in sixth grade. His teacher, Mrs. Brannon, occasionally paid students for using unusual words. Mike’s first sale as a writer earned 10 cents for one word: tenacious.

Since then, Mike has always been involved with literature. One of his early jobs was shelving books at Central Library in Indianapolis. Later, he paid his way through graduate school in part by serving as a reference assistant for Indiana University's library. Mike has worked in his mother’s business, Kids Ink Children’s Bookstore, for more than twenty years, serving at various times as a store manager, buyer, school and library salesperson, and marketing consultant.

Mike wrote his first novel in elementary school—Captain Poopy’s Sewer Adventures. He’s been writing more or less non-stop ever since, but fortunately for his readers, ASHEN WINTER will be published October 16, 2012. His debut, ASHFALL, 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.
Mike holds a black belt in Songahm Taekwondo. He lives in Indianapolis with his wife and her three cats.

Book 1 Paperback Edition just released 10/16/12
IBT: One of the questions I have been dying to ask since having read ASHFALL is this; when Alex meets Target, they share a meal of what Alex describes as some mystery pork-like meat. In my mind I was sure it was, or rather used to be, a person. I imagined it was most likely the person whose property they were on. That Target was roasting the person whose too-small clothes Target was wearing. If I’m right, then does the Alex of ASHEN WINTER know what it was on a subconscious level, but a fact the rest of his brain doesn’t want to acknowledge?

Mike: I intentionally left this open for the reader to decide what the meat is. Your interpretation is perfectly valid, as is the interpretation that it’s pork, rather than the other other white meat.

Alex is still very naïve at this point in the story, so I doubt it even occurs to him that he might be eating human flesh.

IBT: What are your key ingredients to a good story?

Mike: Interesting characters placed in a situation that creates a lot of conflict.

IBT: I imagine that the young would have a better chance of surviving the apocalypse due to their adaptability, whereas people upwards of thirty would breakdown a lot easier.

You’re absolutely right. In a survival situation where food is limited, those between the ages of 6 and 35 tend to survive. Outside that age range, your odds decrease dramatically. Check out this research on the Donner party for more information. Interestingly, 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 greater reserves. Also, from an evolutionary standpoint men are superfluous—since we can’t have kids, we aren’t nearly as important to the survival of the species as women.

IBT: What characteristics do you look for in a heroine?

Mike: I like a heroine who charts her own destiny—who has aspirations independent of any man she might love. Strong heroines don’t need to shoot a bow, be expert fighters, play football, or become vampires—although it’s fine if they do, of course. They do need to have definite goals that survive any romantic entanglements that occur. True love to me means in part that each partner helps the other meet his or her goals. I’m very fortunate to have that kind of relationship in my own life, and indeed Darla is largely modeled on my wife, Margaret.

IBT: Do you feel there are any different ones for the hero? After all, men and women are different creatures in more than just anatomical ways.

Mike: I enjoy reading about heroes who are kind and empathetic. Our society places such emphasis on individualism and competition—particularly among men—that we tend to undervalue empathy and cooperation.  But I don’t see anything incompatible between strength and empathy, and since I enjoy reading that sort of character, that’s what I chose to depict when writing Alex.

IBT: What do you think makes a good villain? Your series is one of the great examples that the scariest things out there are not necessarily the things that go bump in the night, that in reality it would be the person next to you.

Don't let go!!
Mike: Realistic motivations and complexity make a good villain. Target isn’t so much evil as he is aggressively self-interested. When all the rules we live by are overturned, psychopaths like Target will have an edge, at least initially. They’ll be able adjust faster to the post-disaster world, since they have no empathy to restrain the range of actions they can contemplate. Ultimately, most psychopaths will wind up dead or as leaders, just as in our current society the two places you’re most likely to find psychopaths are prisons and CEO’s offices.

IBT: As of the end of ASHEN WINTER, Alex is using every bit of his potential because there is no other option. There is no shelter from the constraints placed by his parents, or those placed by society due to his age, or hiding from fears he could have avoided in another life. When it’s all said and done, will the apocalypse have made Alex is an extraordinary young man in a way normal life most likely would never have?

Mike: Yes, absolutely. Alex would never have become as self-reliant and tough without the disaster. As I planned ASHFALL, I envisioned Alex as starting out naïve and kind, but losing those qualities as the story progressed and the situation around him deteriorated. Instead, as Alex got tougher his kindness deepened. Chapters 37 and 38, in which Alex meets and attempts to help a family on the road, were never in any of my outlines. I wrote them while I was visiting my uncle, who was in the final stages of a losing battle with colon cancer.

The first time my wife read those two chapters, we were in the middle of a long car trip. I glanced at the passenger seat and saw her cheeks shining with tears in the late afternoon sun. Yes, I thought, nailed it! (I think we can all agree on one thing: I am a truly terrible husband.)

IBT:  Am I right in saying that some point, becoming accustomed to the apocalypse has to make you a weird person doesn't it? Violence, despair, and the indignities suffered due to the environment they now inhabit have to warp people. I found the scene between Alex and the bandit (when they're at the doctor’s office) fascinating because you see the bandit realize all the humanity he had sacrificed in the name of survival, and even with almost no hope, practically dying from his injuries, he’s still doing whatever he needed to do to survive.

Mike: Yes, I believe that the environment we live in has profound effects on our actions. For most of us, how we behave is determined far more by the situation than any innate characteristic—there’s a famous study of seminary students that showed that a majority of them would stop to help a person in distress if they were told they had plenty of time, but not if they were late to a presentation (on the good Samaritan, no less). There’s a minority—something on the order of 1 in 10—who will behave altruistically regardless of the circumstances. There’s an even smaller minority who will act in a self-interested manner regardless who they hurt.

The bandit in the doctor’s office is one of the normal type of person—the majority—whose actions are shaped by their circumstances rather than any innate characteristic. When the bandit is returned to something resembling civilization, the horror of what he’s done crashes down on him and the emotional shock of it is almost too much for him to take.

IBT: Inside the confines of the ash-affected areas civilization has almost completely broken down. As conditions worsen predators are expanding their territory and consuming every available resource imaginable from the other survivors. The violence has become so prevalent that distrust runs rampant. To survive won’t the good people of the series eventually have to trust each other, gang up and fight and survive as one? After all, civilization presupposes that everyone else will be civilized as well, right?

Mike: Yes, although with a few exceptions I don’t think anyone is wholly good or evil. Even Target is more viciously self-interested than purely evil. So you may be surprised by some of the people who begin banding together in book 3. You have a hint of this, I suppose, in my treatment of the bandit that Alex and Darla capture.

!! Caution, Spoilers ahead! Read at your own risk!!
IBT: Did you feel that you had to separate Alex and Darla in order to grow Alex as a character? Darla is much more ruthless, much smarter, and much handier than he is. He had to be tested on his own again right? He had to be forced into making ruthless decisions, taking charge of people, and pushing himself.

Mike: I’ve had the scene where they get split up in my head since before I finished the first draft of ASHFALL. It’s not so much that I needed Alex to grow—he could have done that alongside Darla—it’s more that I’m always thinking about what’s most important to my characters and asking myself how I can test that—take it away. The most important thing in Alex’s life is his relationship with Darla. So I test that—both by splitting them up and by putting Alyssa in Alex’s path. I like the way Alex responded. I hope I would be equally loyal if I should ever have the misfortune to be in a similar situation.
!!End of Spoiler!!

IBT: Would Alex and Darla have been compatible in another life, one where the volcano at Yellowstone never erupted?

Mike: No. Alex would still find Darla attractive, but there’d be no opportunity for Darla to see the parts of Alex’s personality that attract her. He’d just be another frivolous teenage boy—a distraction from her drive to keep the farm going and thereby honor her memory of her father.

!! Caution! Spoilers ahead!!
IBT: This may be a question that I’m either reaching, or one that you may not be able to answer. But it’s a question that really got under my skin. I know that Darla says nothing happened to her during her time in captivity. I was unbelievably relieved to read this. But once I finished the book a thought struck me, would Darla have even told the truth? She's tough; I imagine she would have wanted to bury any horror so deep that every time she says nothing happened. I think she knows Alex so well that she knows he would blame himself- he already does.

Mike: Darla would tell Alex. She certainly hasn’t shied from telling him painful truths before.

I did write a draft of ASHEN WINTER in which Darla was raped. It was much darker—at the end every major female character was suffering terribly in some way. My critique group talked me down from that ledge, and I’m grateful to them for it. I rewrote about the last third of the book fairly late in the process—dramatically improving it.
!!End of Spoiler!!

IBT:  Why is it that blood, violence, and even murder are abundantly present in YA, yet sexual situations or content is far less prevalent? One of the best things about your books is that you don't shrink from letting the characters have a relationship that feels natural, especially in the world they live in.

Mike: Our society has an unhealthy attitude toward violence and sex. We casually accept the most brutal violence, yet demonize sex—a natural and pleasurable activity. Often these attitudes are cloaked in a “Christian” mantle, but they have nothing to do with Christ. He abhorred violence, even in self-defense (Matthew 5:38-42) and His only teachings on sex were not to divorce (Matthew 5:31-32) and not to look on others with lust (Matthew 5:27-28).

Young adult literature merely reflects this broader malaise in our culture. In fact, it’s not completely fair to single out young adult books—there’s a famous saying in Hollywood that, “You can slice a breast off onscreen, but you can’t kiss it.” I don’t know what to do about this problem other than continuing to talk about it and supporting those books and films that embrace a healthier outlook. If anyone out there has other ideas, let me know.

IBT: If the disaster has made Alex a better man, what changes has it made in Darla?

Mike: Alex and Darla's relationship makes both of them better. Some of their positive qualities rub off on each other. So as Alex gets tougher and less impulsive, Darla gets kinder. Yes, she's still intensely practical, and she still argues with some of Alex's humanitarian impulses, but ultimately she goes along with him--not because she's subordinating her will to his--that could NEVER happen--but because she agrees with him at some deep level.

Thanks Mike, interviewing you has been on my wish list since reading ASHFALL. Readers can find him on his Website, Blog, Google+, Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, and Pinterest. Or you can buy Autographed Copies, and can also be purchased from Indiebound,  Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or The Book Depository.

Ashen Winter Giveaway!
  • Win a copy of ASHE WINTER and ASHFALL by Mike Mullin 
  • Win a packet of Kale Red Winter Seeds- you'll see why.
  • Win 400 Heirloom Common Grain Barley Seeds- you'll understand after reading ASHEN WINTER! 

This contest has ended:(


SusieBookworm (Susanna) said...

Thanks for the great interview and giveaway! I've been wanting to read this series for months now...

old follower

bookwormsusanna AT gmail DOT com

Ash said...

I've heard a lot of good things about this series. And I always get more interested in books after reading about the author too, adds an extra layer I guess.

Old follower too. :]


KMichelleC87 said...

this looks really good and i love the cover. im an old follower


mamabunny13 said...

Great interview! I can't wait to read Ashen Winter.
mamabunny13 at gmail dot com

mamabunny13 said...

I follow via gfc mamabunny13
mamabunny13 at gmail dot com

Amy Quinn said...

New follower. I'm dying to read these books!


thursday_skylight (at) yahoo (dot) com

I Talk Books! said...

Great Interview. You asked all the questions that I had in my mind. Thank you.

um...Is the giveaway international?
I will leave my email in any case:
GFC: booksaremybestfriend