New Voice: Mike Mullin on Ashfall

By Cynthia Leitich Smith

Mike Mullin is the first-time author of Ashfall (Tanglewood, 2011). From the promotional copy:

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 Yellowstone 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.

What were you like as a young reader, and how did that influence the book that you’re debuting this year?

My first reading materials were library science textbooks my mother foisted on me.

Actually, that’s not entirely accurate. The truth is that, in a way, I foisted the library science textbooks on her.

Before I was born, she taught kindergarten in the Denver Public School system. They had a crazy rule that any pregnant women had to resign her teaching position and couldn’t return until her youngest child turned two. (I still don’t understand exactly where they thought all those kindergarteners came from.) Dad was in seminary and regularly driving their only car to Medicine Bow, Wyoming to preach.

Luckily, their apartment was next door to the University of Denver’s librarianship school, so Mom and I attended together.

I mean that literally. Mom was a great believer in reading out loud to babies. She would bounce me on her knees while reading her librarianship textbooks to me. It worked, too, since I was reading on my own before I turned four. But I still have a powerful aversion to reading library science textbooks.

Eventually, I graduated from textbooks to picture books. From age two to four my favorite book was Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak (Harper & Row, 1963). My younger brother and I had a special ritual for it—when Mom reached the words, “‘And now,’ cried Max, ‘let the wild rumpus start!’” we would begin to dance. We didn’t need any music, just the example of Max and his subjects over the three full-page spreads that followed.

The other book I loved at that age was Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel by Virginia Lee Burton (Houghton Mifflin, 1939), for perhaps obvious reasons. When Darla is geeking out over construction equipment in Ashfall, I’m definitely writing what I know.

By kindergarten, Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie (Hodder and Stoughton, 1911) had supplanted Sendak. I even went so far as to organize a production of it in my backyard. I recruited classmates to act, held rehearsals, and scheduled a big opening night (well, afternoon) with parents and classmates comprising the audience. When Mom asked why I didn’t have a role in my own play, I told her indignantly, “I can’t act—I’m the director.” The young actor assigned to play Captain Hook froze up with stage fright so bad he peed his pants. I convinced Dad to jump in and improvise the role.

Our family was firmly middle class, and I got all the usual stuff for Christmas: Lincoln Logs, Legos, even a bicycle one year. But the best Christmas gift of my childhood was the one I got while I was in fourth grade—a boxed set of The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis (Geoffrey Bles, 1956).

I read the series eleven times over the following year, keeping count with hash marks inside the front covers. That year I’d been placed in a gifted and talented class with a particularly vicious and mean-spirited teacher, Mrs. Walsh, and C.S. Lewis provided me with a much-needed escape.

Once, I escaped in a literal as well as figurative sense—Mrs. Walsh interrupted her excruciatingly boring lecture about reading to scream, “Michael Mullin, if you’re just going to read that book under your desk, you can go out in the hall to do it!” Busted! So I calmly got up, left the classroom, and settled in one of the study carrels in the hall to finish The Horse and His Boy (1954).

As a teenager, I needed the escape books provided even more desperately. I read adult science fiction and fantasy voraciously, but my favorite book was one written for teens: Tunnel in the Sky by Robert A. Heinlein (Scribner, 1955). It described my perfect world—one without adults, where teens could live without the oppressive constraints of parents and teachers. Like the protagonist, Rod Walker, I was interested in primitive survival at that time. I practiced building shelters, foraging for edible plants, and matchless fire starting, both on my own and with the Boy Scouts.

Today I prefer a lighter or matches for starting fires and hotel rooms over improvised shelter, but I still enjoy foraging for edible wild plants.

With Ashfall, I attempted to write the sort of book I would have loved as a teenager. So I dispense with all the adults in Alex’s life in the first chapter, much as Heinlein did in Tunnel in the Sky. And though the positive reviews and awards Ashfall has garnered have been thrilling, my highest hope for my work is that it will provide a few teens what Heinlein, Lewis, Peck and so many other authors provided me: a few hours of blissful escape from a childhood that was sometimes difficult to endure.

How did you go about connecting with your agent? What was your search process like? Who did you decide to sign with? What about that person and/or agency seemed like the best fit for you? What advice do you have for other writers in seeking the right agent for them?

Shirley and Mike Mullin at Kids Ink

When I finished rewriting and polishing the manuscript for Ashfall, I spent more than two weeks working on the four paragraphs of my query letter. I chose five literary agents to send it to, working mostly from Casey McCormick’s excellent Agent Spotlight series of blog posts.

Four hours later, I had my first request for a full manuscript. What’s all this fuss about how difficult it is to get a literary agent? I wondered.

Well, I found out. Two months and three batches of query letters later, every agent that responded had rejected Ashfall.

At the same time my mother, who now owns Kids Ink Children’s Bookstore in Indianapolis, had mentioned the manuscript to two editors.

One still hasn’t responded to my submission. The other was Peggy Tierney of Tanglewood Books.

With a firm offer of publication in hand, I figured signing with an agent would be easy. Not so much. I added a sentence about Tanglewood’s offer of publication to my query letter and sent it off to five more agents. Four of them rejected Ashfall, and one never replied.

Frustrated, I gave up and negotiated my own contract. I’m still not represented by a literary agent, although now that Ashfall has sold through its first printing in four weeks flat and been listed on Kirkus Review’s Best Teen Books of 2011 list, I’ve had agents sending me queries.

If you’re struggling with getting published, take heart from my story. Yes, your work might not be ready. But it might also be great work that simply hasn’t found a champion.

I’m pretty confident that Ashfall wasn’t garnering rejections due to its quality. The prolific science fiction author Jay Lake said it best: to succeed as a fiction writer you need psychotic persistence. Or a mother in the industry. In my case, it took both.

3 thoughts on “New Voice: Mike Mullin on Ashfall

  1. I loved this book. It doesn't surprise me that Kirkus listed it among the best books of 2011. It does surprise me that no agent jumped on it when he queried. Bet they're kicking themselves now!

  2. Happy reading, Tricia! I'm so glad you enjoyed the story behind the story, too!

    Sherrie, thanks for chiming in with your cheers! Hopefully, the perfect agent is just around the corner. (Or reading these comments). 😉

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