A warm welcome to author Mike Mullin, whose debut novel Ashfall, a modern-day apocalyptic novel, will be released this October! I both read and loved Ashfall and am excited to have Mike on our blog as he gives us great insight into how he got the ideas for his book as well as the scienc e behind it all. (Don’t forget to check out our review if you haven’t already!)
I adore dystopian and apocalyptic literature. I’ve been reading the genre since I was a teen: Z is for Zachariah; Alas, Babylon; The Day of the Triffids; Nineteen Eighty-Four; and The Postman were among my early favorites. So the current boom has left me giddy with delight. I’ve flitted from bestsellers like The Hunger Games to books that ought to be bestsellers like XVI, from the deservedly famous Gone series to the undeservedly not-famous Epitaph Road.
Perhaps it was inevitable that I would try to write my own. I was working on a young adult horror novel when I happened upon Bill Bryson’s amazing A Short History of Nearly Everything. Dozens of novel ideas lurk within that book’s pages. But the one that stuck with me was the idea of a supervolcano eruption at Yellowstone. A few days after I read Bryson’s book, I woke at 3:30 a.m., my mind overflowing with a scene. I wrote 5,500 words before dawn, the gist of which was a boy and girl fleeing down an ash-covered Indiana highway on a bicycle. Despite my excitement, I resisted the insidious novelists’ disease known as Shiny New Idea Syndrome and put the scene away to gestate for eight months while I finished my horror novel (which may well languish in a drawer forever). Of the words I wrote that night, only one survived the editing process: the title, Ashfall.
When I returned to Ashfall, I thought about how I could make my novel stand out in what was, even in 2008, a crowded field of young adult dystopian and apocalyptic literature. One minor complaint I have with the current crop of dystopian novels is that some of them don’t feel plausible—while I love the stories, I’m not convinced they could really occur. My idea, I thought, would lend itself to an intensely realistic treatment. I took heart from Life as We Knew It, a realistic disaster novel which had recently hit the New York Times bestseller list despite a plot that’s arguably less flashy than most bestsellers.
So I started by reading. I read everything from Winchester’s elegant and scholarly Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded, August 27, 1883 to the obscure self-published The Mount St. Helens Ash Ordeal: An Eyewitness Account of the Mount St. Helens Ash Fall and Its Aftermath, from articles in the Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research to USGS pamphlets on volcano preparedness. It quickly became obvious that the scene I wrote in the middle of the night was useless. Maps of the ashfalls that followed the last three Yellowstone super-eruptions showed that Indiana wouldn’t get as much ash as I wanted to inflict on my protagonist, Alex. Ashfall moved to Iowa. First-person accounts and USGS warnings described how slippery volcanic ash is—nearly impossible to navigate on a bicycle. Alex left his bicycle in the garage and took up skis.
Still, I didn’t have the visceral experience I needed to make my novel convincing. I flew to Portland and drove to Mount St. Helens. While I enjoyed hiking around the park, very little ash remained in the areas I could visit. What ash I did find was mixed with organic material—not the fine, powdery, fresh stuff I was looking for.
While I was in Portland, I took the opportunity to relearn cross-country skiing. I knew by then that skis would play an important role in Alex’s struggle with the ash and subsequent volcanic winter, and while I go downhill skiing almost every winter, it had been more than 20 years since I had last been on cross- country skis.
When I got home, I ordered a bag of fresh ash from a scientific supply company. I kept the ash in a big bowl on my desk so I could play with it as I continued drafting Ashfall. That lasted, um, until my cat found the bowl and decided that volcanic ash is an acceptable substitute for kitty litter. After that, I hid the remaining ash in a Tupperware container. Fiddling with the ash helped to keep my head in the landscape. The other thing that helped was posting a selection of pictures from the Mount Pinatubo eruption on the wall above my computer.
However, something was still missing. Although I had a firm picture of the post-apocalyptic landscape and ash, I didn’t have a solid grasp of the pre-eruption terrain in Iowa. The solution: road trip! My wife and I packed two bags and made sure the toilet was open in case the stupid cat spilled all his water. We drove every step of Alex’s journey through Iowa and Illinois, snapping pictures and quizzing locals as we went. I replaced most of my invented roads and places with real ones. Whole sections of Ashfall were created as a result of our trip, such as the chapters set at Mississippi Lock and Dam #12 in Bellevue, Iowa.
Once I completed and polished my draft, one final step was needed. I reached out to friends, asking if anyone had connections to a geologist who might be willing to review my book. Amazingly, I found two: one who had worked on the Mount St. Helens eruption and another who spends summers studying Yellowstone. They suggested dozens of changes, many of which probably won’t be noticed by the casual reader, but may perhaps make Ashfall feel more realistic.
Despite their help, I had some difficulties in trying to keep Ashfall realistic. First, the last supervolcano to erupt was Lake Taupo in New Zealand about 26,500 years ago, so there are no written records of any supervolcano. Everything we know about them is gleaned from studying supervolcano ejecta or smaller, modern eruptions. Occasionally I had questions no source addressed, and I had to imagine a plausible answer.
Second, my first priority in writing Ashfall was to tell an engaging story. It is fiction, after all. In several cases, I chose to depict a scientifically unlikely (though still possible) version of events. For example, most volcanic events are preceded months of earthquake swarms. The USGS maintains volcanic observatories all over the U.S. (including Yellowstone) to monitor earthquake activity and attempt to predict future eruptions. But despite their vigilance, volcanoes can erupt with little advance notice. Redoubt Volcano in Alaska, for example, erupted on December 14, 1989 after only 23 hours of earthquake swarms.
In Ashfall, my fifteen-year-old protagonist is unaware of the imminent eruption at Yellowstone. I made this choice for three reasons: First, it heightens the drama of the story. Second, while it’s likely we’d get more warning than Alex did, it’s also plausible that Yellowstone could erupt unexpectedly. Volcanoes are notoriously difficult to predict, and we have no experience at all in predicting super-volcanic eruptions. Third, I believe that even if we were warned of an impending eruption at Yellowstone, we would fail to prepare adequately, or perhaps at all. The scale of the evacuation needed would overwhelm both our credulity and capacity to respond.
I hope you’ll give Ashfall a few hours of your reading time when it is published in October. And I hope you’ll find it compelling for both the story and the science behind it. Although no-one can predict exactly when the Yellowstone super-volcano will blow, there’s one thing virtually all scientists agree upon: someday, it will erupt again.
Ashfall is the first in a trilogy–learn more about author Mike Mullin and his books at his website, www.mikemullinauthor.com!