Thursday, February 9, 2012

A Curious Interview: Mike Mullin

We'll let Mike start us off in his own words: 
 "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."

I had the privilege of meeting Mike  at Tanglewood Press’s Authors’ Retreat last summer (good times). Since then, Mike has published his debut novel ASHFALL which has received starred reviews, mounds of praise and is topping the charts of best teen books for 2011. It features a brave kid looking for his family and the gutsy girl who saves his life in the aftermath of a Yellowstone supervolcano explosion.
Mike is as engaging in person as he is in print given his knowledge of the industry and a wicked Lady Gaga impersonation.We've tried to enlighten you about his writing style, Victorian house, and martial arts skills below...what can we say? He's a man of many talents.

Ginger: Your debut novel ASHFALL has been called “YA for guys,” although plenty of girls are big fans, too. Did you set out with that plan or did it just sort of happen?
Mike: I write YA geared for guys from a noble aspiration to uplift the hordes of young minds suffering—
Oh, who am I kidding with this bull? I write from a guy’s perspective because I can’t write from a girl’s. I have a drawer novel written half in female point-of-view. It’s been “read” by my paper shredder more times than by any human. It’s become kind of a ritual, feeding that thing to the shredder after the latest complete rewrite. I’ve done it five times now.
And yes, ASHFALL has female characters. Many readers love Darla, which is a relief, to say the least. But even with Darla, I cheated. If you took my brother Paul, made him seventeen, considerably less nice than he is, and gave him a sex change, then presto, you’d have Darla. (I really hope Paul doesn’t read this.)
So the perspective pretty much had to be a guy’s. As far as the subject matter and pacing, I set out to write the kind of novel I would have loved as a teen. One with a big disaster, lots of suspenseful situations, and short chapters. Apparently, given ASHFALL’s success, guys and gals of all ages still enjoy that kind of novel.

Ginger: Your book has really dark moments. How do you prepare yourself for the challenge of creating emotionally difficult scenes?
Mike: I guess I’m a method writer, because I need to feel whatever emotion I’m writing. For example, my favorite chapters in ASHFALL are 37 and 38. They were never part of any outline. I added them spontaneously as I was visiting my Uncle Chuck, who was in the final stages of his battle with colon cancer. The most affecting part of that visit wasn’t my Uncle Chuck’s frailty and obvious pain—it was watching his wife and children showering love on him while trying to hide their own grief.
In chapter 37, Alex and Darla meet a woman on the road who is grieving the loss of her husband and desperately trying to protect her children. The first time my wife read those chapters, we were driving. (Well, I was driving. She was riding along and reading. It’s safer if you don’t read and drive.) I looked over at her and saw tears streaming down her cheeks. I thought, yes, nailed it! (I’m a really terrible husband.)

Laura: As an admirer of the Victorian Era I want to know all about your house! In addition to its historical credentials I hear it even has a literary background.
Mike: We purchased an 1895 Queen Anne in Indianapolis about ten years ago for little more than a song. It had been cut into eleven apartments, survived at least three fires, and been vacant for nine years after serving as a brothel and crack house for more than a decade.
I wasn’t aware of its historical significance until I went to the Indiana Historic Preservation Commission to get a permit for the remodeling work. They maintain records of the house’s earlier owners including William Conrad Bobbs, who bought it at the turn of the century. Bobbs was part owner and manager of the Bobbs-Merrill Publishing Company, which published James Whitcomb Riley and some of L. Frank Baum’s work. So I keep hoping my house is haunted—I’d love to meet those guys and ask them some questions! No luck yet, though.

Suzanne: As a fellow black belt and martial artist, I’d like to know your approach to Taw Kwon. Do you prefer the forms or sparring, and why?
Mike: I enjoy both forms and sparring, but my favorite workout is striking the punching bags. In sparring you learn control, but I worry about training myself to pull my punches and kicks—if I ever had to use it for real (heaven forbid), would the sparring practice hurt me? On the punching bags, I can go all-out all the time without worrying about hurting anyone but myself.
One of the things I love about my dojang (Korean for martial arts studio) is all the equipment—there are enough punching bags that we can do whole-class workouts on them, and get to use them nearly every day.

Patty: What part of your geology-themed talks do kids enjoy the most?
Mike: After I’d done a couple of presentations, I realized that the scale of the Yellowstone supervolcano wasn’t coming through. My solution? An analogy. Now I tell kids that the eruption of 640,000 years ago made a crater the size of Chicago and deeper than the Sears (now Willis) Tower is tall. That seems to make the point.
Suzanne: Do you really own a pair of Dungeons and Dragons dice?
Mike: I own two sets—i.e. 14 of them. (People who know D&D realize this marks me as a rank newb—most D&D’ers have bags with hundreds of dice. In my defense, I gave all my old dice to my nephew a few years ago, and I’ve only recently begun rebuilding my collection.)

Cabinet: Who are your favorite authors?
Mike: I keep a list of my all-time favorite books on Goodreads. My favorite author is probably Richard Peck. He started writing at about the age I am now, and he’s been going strong for almost 40 years. He’s still writing outstanding books in his seventies. Plus he’s one of the most gracious, friendly people I’ve ever met. And he speaks extemporaneously in sentences better crafted than my fifth drafts. He’s the author I most look up to, and would like to emulate in my own career.

Cabinet: You've had a number of jobs. Which ones have provided the best material for writing?
Mike: I’ve worked in two different liquor stores. You meet some amazing characters working in a liquor store. The only problem: I’ve had to tone some of them down a little bit, or they wouldn’t be believable in fiction.

Ginger: You are a wizard of social media. How do you feel your online presence has affected your novel's debut?
Mike: Twitter and Facebook have helped me connect with librarians, bloggers, and teachers. But I don’t think they’ve done much to build my audience among teens. Physical promotion—visiting schools, libraries, and bookstores—has been more valuable than online promotion. I can tell this by looking at the Nielsen Bookscan market-level data Amazon provides. For most of the fall, eight of the top ten markets for ASHFALL were places I’d visited and held events.

Ginger: Is Ashfall the first novel you've written and how long did this debut publishing process take for you?
Mike: No, ASHFALL was the third complete novel I’ve written. Now, with ASHEN WINTER, I’ve written four. To tell you about the first one, I have to start my story in fifth grade.
At that time, 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 went back to a traditional school in 9th grade, and my novel-writing impulse went dormant for 25 years. Then, about four years ago, I decided to try again. I wrote a YA horror novel that was so bad that two of the three literary agents who read it quit the business forever. Then I wrote ASHFALL.

Cabinet: Where did you get this brilliant idea anyway?

Mike: The idea for Ashfall
started with another book—Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything. 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. Only three words remain from that original scene: Ashfall, Alex, and Darla.

Cabinet: We know there will be a second in the Ashfall saga...can we hope for a third?
Mike: Yes, I’ve planned ASHFALL as a trilogy from the beginning. You can expect a third novel, but most likely, that will be the last one in the ASHFALL universe. I’ve got about 15 other ideas begging for my attention.

After reading this interview, you'll know you can pretty much ask Mike anything and expect a well-thought out response. Head over to his website at or connect with him anywhere and everywhere online:
Mike's Social Media Links

Thursday, February 2, 2012

An Old-Fashioned Girl

That's me. When I was little my favorite TV show was Little House on the Prairie. Being named Laura, with long brown hair, you can guess who I wanted to be. As a young teenager, I fell in love with Victoria Holt and her Gothic 19th-century-set novels about governesses in remote English castles with ghosts and handsome, but misunderstood, owners. In later teen years I fell in love with British history and devoured stories and biographies spanning the medieval, Renaissance, and Victorian age.

Not that I really wanted to live in those worlds--not once I was old enough to understand that 'quaint' is another word for 'no indoor plumbing, or heat, or bathing more than once a week (or month).' I just liked to inhabit them from the comfort of my soft bed, with a cold Diet Coke at hand.

However, in some ways I remain staunchly old-fashioned.

Take the world of agents and publishing.

Everywhere you look in the book world today are stories about e-publishing stars. Amanda Hocking self-published on Amazon and sold so many books that now she has a significant six-figure deal with a major New York publisher. I'm impressed. Primarily because I would never have made it if that had been my only option.

Not that finding an agent was easy. I got mine the old-fashioned way: through lots of queries and lots of rejects. I got form rejects and silence. I got boxes checked as to why my manuscript was being rejected. I got the (very) occasional note of what could almost be called encouragement. I got the (even more) occasional request to see more. Which generally led to a rejection further down the line. All but one of these queries was cold--meaning I did my research as to which agents repped the genre I was writing, then carefully followed instructions for sending my query. Not one agent that I queried had I ever met at a conference.

Then an agent read my query and ten pages and asked to see fifty pages. After the fifty pages, she asked to see the entire manuscript. After reading the full, she told me what she liked and didn't like and said if I was interested in rewriting she'd look at it again. I rewrote for her three times before she offered to take me on, eight months after I'd sent the initial query.

Slow, yes. Frustrating, absolutely. Worth it? Without question. Here's why:

1. I'm lazy. If I had to self-publish and self-market in order to feed my family, they would starve. Even more then they already do. I want someone to send out my work and deal with the initial rejections. I want someone to intervene if I'm in disagreement with an editor. I want someone to send me my tax form at the end of year. If she would come make my ten-year-old do his homework on time, I'd pay her considerably more than 15%.

2. I'm insecure. There's nothing like having someone say, "I love this book! I want to sell it for you" to boost confidence. I like having someone wholly on my side, who wants me to succeed as much as I do.

3. I'm imperfect. No matter how many flashes of ego-induced pride I might feel while writing, I well know that my books get better with revisions. And though some writers might be able to see clearly what the problems are in a story, I'm not one of them. Sure, sometimes the comments I get are ones that have crossed my mind, but even then there's something creatively motivating about having someone professional say "This isn't working." I love that my agent isn't going to let me send out a book that isn't ready. It's a safety net that I find invaluable.

4. I'm new. I don't have a big name, I don't have any previous publishing credits, and I don't have any contacts in the literary world (besides buying lots of books.) I guarantee that I would never have gotten the deal I did last summer without an agent--certainly I wouldn't have sold a trilogy.

So congratulations to Amanda Hocking and all those brave souls who do the all work of writing and publishing and marketing solo. It's quite possible you are the future.

But me? I'm happy living in my old-fashioned world.