Interview with Mike Mullin
Chicago Public Library Teen Volume Clubs featured Mike Mullin as part of the 2012 Summer Reading Program, Rahm’s Readers: You Are What You Read, focusing on health and books.
In his programs, Mike demonstrated taekwondo, and talked about the similarities between the discipline required for to break a cement block and write a novel. Additionally, Mike read from his novel, Ashfall (a Chicago Public Library Best of the Best teen selection), and his forthcoming novel, Ashen Winter
Matthew G. (MG), a Chicago Public Library Teen Advisory Council member, interviewed author Mike Mullin (MM), and wanted to share what he learned.
MG: How did you start up Tae-kwon-do?
MM: My interest in taekwondo grew in tandem with Ashfall. A few years ago a friend of mine was attacked while riding his bike on the Monon Trail in Indianapolis. A group of five guys hit him with a 2x4 and kicked him more than twenty times. They broke his skull, thought they had killed him, and dragged him into some nearby bushes to hide him.
My friend survived and partially recovered, but the incident had a deep impact on me. I became unreasonably fearful, not wanting to leave my house or walk around my neighborhood—even though the attack didn’t happen there. Instead of becoming a shut-in, I enrolled in taekwondo. I met Ben Alexander there, who at the time was a fifteen-year-old third degree black belt who could kick my much larger body up one side of Pendleton Pike and back down the other while sipping a chai mocha latte. (He still can, but he’s nineteen now.)
Mike Mullin at Little Village Branch.
At the same time, I’d begun working on Ashfall. I knew my protagonist would have to be extraordinary to survive, but I wanted to write an intensely realistic book, so giving him magic, superpowers, or some such was out. Instead, I made Alex a martial artist—modeling him on Ben Alexander. I stuck with taekwondo even after Ashfall was finished and finally earned my black belt right before the book was released last year.
MG: How did you get pulled into the world of super volcanoes and what made you so darn interested in them?
MM: The idea for 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? Ashfall
MG: What made you decide to become a writer? Did you have any influences or inspirations?
MM: Until I was eleven, 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’ve been writing ever since.
MG: Following the last question, what inspired you to combine all your favorite things, tae-kwon-do, super volcanoes, and writing, to produce a fantastic and very original novel?
MM: The moment I first learned about supervolcanoes, while reading Bryson’s book, I knew I wanted to write fiction set in the aftermath of a supervolcano. In fact, I put A Short History of Nearly Everything down and visited Amazon’s web site to figure out if anyone else had written about the aftermath of a supervolcano. At that time, no one had. I enrolled in taekwondo not long after that, in part to prepare myself to write Alex’s story.
MG: Do you have any advice for all of us out there who will soon be making their way through as many, if not more, odd jobs than you, as we go on our separate paths through life?
MM: Don’t be afraid to quit. That’s probably not really great advice, but I do get sick of all the exhortations we give teens to always persevere and stick to it and blah, blah, blah. If I had persevered in any of the first 47 things I tried, I’d be stuck in a crappy job I hated. Instead, I get up every morning, type lies into my computer, and THEY PAY ME FOR IT! How awesome is that?
MG: Have you been in any situations where it was necessary that you had to use your skills to defend yourself or others? and if so, and if you feel comfortable, could you share them with us? Are they in any way similar to the situations Alex's in your book? Did they inspire any of the conflicts Alex had?
MM: No, thank God. And even though I’ve earned a black belt in taekwondo now, my first choice in any real-life situation will be to run away. Why? Because in a real fight, even the “winner” gets hurt. We have lots of small, easily breakable bones in our hands and feet—I’ve seen people break them while training at the dojang; it’s not fun. If someone’s life is at stake and there’s no other option, of course I’ll wreck my hands defending myself. But I’d prefer to run away.
I do act out all the fight scenes I put in my books. This can be a little embarrassing if you’re writing in public. The people at Starbucks look at you funny when you get up and throw a crescent kick, reverse side-kick combo to make sure the move you’re describing makes sense. Oh well, being a little strange seems to go with the territory when you’re a writer. There’s still nothing I’d rather do.
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. Ashen Winter is his second novel. 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.