Blog Archive

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Interview with Mike Mullin, author of the YA thriller, Ashfall

How did you come up with the idea for Ashfall? What drew you to writing for the YA genre?
I write young adult novels because that’s what I’ve been reading for the last 30 years. I grew up reading Blume, Peck, and Cormier and never quit. It helped that my mother was a librarian and later a children’s bookstore owner. I worked in her bookstore off and on for more than twenty years, and I’m still occasionally involved.

The idea for ASHFALL started with a trip to Central Library in downtown Indianapolis. They had a display that included Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything. It was the big, lavishly illustrated version, but it still didn’t seem weighty enough to cover nearly everything. So I checked it out, determined to discover what hubris had led Bryson’s publishers to select that title. When I got to the section on the Yellowstone super-volcano, I was hooked.

Could you give my readers a short synopsis of the story?
Sure, ASHFALL’s about a teenager struggling to survive and find his family after the cataclysmic eruption of the Yellowstone super-volcano. Alex faces darkness, ash, bandits, and desperate refugees during a perilous journey across northeastern Iowa on foot.

Since this is your first book let’s talk about the process. How many publishers did you contact to produce your book? Did you contact any agents?
ASHFALL was rejected at some stage—query, partial, or full—by 24 literary agents. If you’re struggling with getting published, take heart from this. Yes, your work might not be ready. But it might also be great work that simply hasn’t found a champion.(Take a look at the list of awards and blurbs at, including a starred review from Kirkus.)I’m pretty confident that ASHFALL wasn’t garnering rejections due to its quality.)

Two publishers requested ASHFALL after hearing about it from my mother. (She owns a children’s bookstore, remember?) I haven’t heard back from one of them yet. The other was Tanglewood Press.

From the time you sent in your manuscript to your Tanglewood Press how long was it before you got any feedback?
It was about two weeks before I got “The Call.” That conversation basically boiled down to, “I love ASHFALL, I want to buy it, but you have to fix the ending.” So, luckily for my readers, I did fix the ending. Six times. It was a bit harrowing while I was in the middle of the process, but now I’m grateful to my editor at Tanglewood for continuing to push me. She knew I had something better inside, struggling to make its way out onto the page.

What type of publicity do you expect your publisher to do in promoting your book?
Honestly, I expected they’d do very little. I’ve been thrilled to discover that’s not the case. Tanglewood placed ASHFALL on NetGalley, printed more than 500 ARCs, gave me several cases of ARCs to use in promotions, gave me twice as many hardbacks as my contract calls for (again, for promotion), placed a full-page ad in Publishers Weekly, flew me to New Orleans for the American Library Association convention . . . and that was just what they did in June and July of this year. Monday (9/19), I’ll start a book tour that will include three bookseller shows and more than 100 library, bookstore, and school appearances stretching from Rhode Island to Iowa and lasting until mid-December.

It sounds like you will be really busy.Tell me about that experience.

I’m about as stressed out as I’ve ever been in my life. I have to keep reminding myself to breathe and relax. I know I’ll be fine once I’m in the middle of it—I’m an excellent and practiced public speaker—but right now it feels overwhelming. I’m also gaining weight, which is not acceptable. Grr. More exercise, less food. But that whole internal conversation isn’t helping my stress level either.

I’ve put a lot of effort into social media, amassing more than 17,000 followers on Twitter, Goodreads, Facebook, and Google+, but I’m not completely convinced that’s been the best possible use of my time. I know I’ve reached a lot of book bloggers, writers, librarians and teachers there, but I’m not reaching much of my target audience: teens.

It’s possible that I would have been better off skipping all of those channels and focusing on YouTube and Tumblr instead, but I’m naturally more of a writer than a visual person, so those channels are outside of my comfort zone. It’s something I need to give some more thought to and possibly adjust in my marketing.

What surprised you about the published process in a good way?
Tanglewood Press’s promotional effort has been a massive and welcome surprise. I fully expected that ASHFALL would be thrown out there like many small press and midlist large-press books are—with very little support other than what the author provides.

What has been the most frustrating part?
That moment when the manuscript left my control was really hard. I know indie authors have a hard row to hoe marketing-wise, but I’m jealous of their ability to constantly tweak and improve their work. Going in, I didn’t realize how much dread I’d face when ASHFALL went from a file on my computer that I could tinker with anytime to a PDF file on Tanglewood’s computers and then into a printed book that can’t be changed at all.

What do you wish you had known earlier?
When I was querying agents, I didn’t realize how difficult it is to sell a young adult novel with a male protagonist. I mean, I knew it was tough in the bookstore, and that most YA sells to girls, but I never made the logical leap to the idea that publishers wouldn’t be seeking male protagonists.

So I internalized too many of the literary agent rejections as “Your book sucks” instead of what they were really saying, which was, “We’re not sure we can sell this.”

What is the best piece of advice that you have received about writing?
Jim McCarthy of Dystel and Goderich offered some generous advice: to add more tension and emotion to my story. ASHFALL improved as a result, and he’s the only literary agent I thank in the acknowledgements.

What advice would you give to other writers for encouragement?
If you pursue this career, you can read, write, and talk about books all day and call it “work”. What’s not to love? My number one piece of advice to other writers: read. Read a lot. No, read even more than that.

Reading is how you learn what works and what doesn’t, and how you discover whether your story ideas are fresh or clich├ęd. You need to read deeply in your genre of choice and broadly outside it.

If you'd like to learn more about Mike's book tour or his writing go to his website where you will even be able to read the first two chapter of Ashfall. Here's the info In addition, here's some links if you would like to buy the's a direct link to Amazon or Barnes & Noble


  1. I'm one of Mike's followers on Twitter and Goodreads and I have to say he's an extremely nice fellow on top of everything else. He's answered comments from me on both Twitter and Goodreads. Also, I'm going to be targeting Tanglewood Press in the future for my writing. I never expected to hear so much support from today's publishers.

    Best of luck to Mike and may he sell millions ;)

  2. Yes, it's great to hear that a publisher is that supportive of a new author. Who knows maybe it will push Mike into best seller status!

  3. Based on my experience, I highly recommend Tanglewood. If you've got a great children's manuscript, send it to them. Like all publishers, they're very selective--they only publish 8-12 titles per year, but you don't need an agent to submit. Here's where you go for more info:

  4. Congratulations, Mike. The book sounds interesting and I hope you do well with it.