- The Ark
- The River Between Us
- A Short History Of Nearly Everything
Visit Mike at http://mikemullinauthor.com
C. G. Cooper: Welcome to Books in 30, with me, C. G. Cooper. Here at Books in 30, we discuss great books with some of today's top authors. So welcome to our listeners and a big Books in 30 welcome to today's guest Mike Mullin.
C. G. Cooper: Mike first discovered he could make money writing in sixth grade. His teacher, Mrs. Brannon, occasionally paid students for using unusual words. Mike's first sale as a writer earned 10 cents for one word: "tenacious." Since then, Mike has always been involved with literature. One of his early jobs was shelving books at Central Library in Indianapolis. Later, he paid his way through graduate school in part by serving as a reference assistant for Indiana University's library. Mike has worked in his mother's business, Kid's Ink Children's Book Store, for more than 20 years, serving at various times as a store manager, buyer, school and library salesperson, and marketing consultant. Mike wrote his first novel in elementary school, Captain Poopy's Sewer Adventures. He's been writing more or less nonstop ever since, but fortunately for his readers, Ashfall was his first published novel. Mike holds a Black Belt in Songahm Taekwondo. Did I pronounce that correctly, Mike?
Mike Mullin: Close. “Songahm.”
C. G. Cooper: Songahm.
C. G. Cooper: He lives in Indianapolis with his wife and her three cats. He is represented by Kate Testerman of kt literacy. Welcome, Mike. How are you, my friend?
Mike Mullin: I'm doing great. How are you, Carlos?
C. G. Cooper: I am very good. It's a Thursday, at least as we're recording this. That means Friday is tomorrow and I am loving the fall weather. How's the weather where you're at?
Mike Mullin: Oh my gosh. It's just a beautiful, sunny day. I went for a walk earlier, stopped, wrote for three hours, walked home. It was wonderful.
C. G. Cooper: I love October. I think it might be my favorite month for weather. That and when spring finally comes.
Mike Mullin: Yeah.
C. G. Cooper: Well, tell you what, I read your bio, but how about you give the listeners a little snapshot, a quick snapshot of why you became an author.
Mike Mullin: Oh. I'm an author today because I got fired from every other job I tried. You laugh, but that's true. Finally, I got fired from my latest string of jobs I absolutely hated. I turned to my wife and said, "Honey, I'm going to write a novel and I'm going to sell it."
Mike Mullin: She turned to me and she said, "Fine. Whatever. Just do something, would you?"
Mike Mullin: So I did. I wrote this young adult horror novel called Heart's Blood. Now, if you cut that into internet, you'll notice that doesn't exist. It never sold because it sucked. Oh my God, it was bad. Then I wrote Ashfall. I actually broke through very, very quickly. I was very fortunate.
C. G. Cooper: Well, good. Good. Tell us a little bit about what Ashfall is and where that came from. What was your inspiration?
Mike Mullin: Yeah. Sure. Ashfall is about a teenager struggling to survive and find his family after the Yellowstone super volcano erupts and plunges the world into this horrible natural disaster. I got the idea from that book, like I get the idea from most of my books, by reading other people's books. At the time I was trying to write this, of course, I wasn't earning anything. So we were trying to live off my wife's income and we're just dirt poor. I mean, really. We thought we were going to lose our house for awhile. So I walked to the library, checked out all the books. I still walk to the library and check out most of the books I read, even though I can buy them now.
Mike Mullin: As I'm walking though Central Library in Downtown Indianapolis, near where I lived at that time, and I saw this huge book on display: Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything. At that time, I didn't know Bryson's work. I hadn't read any of it. So I picked it up and I kind of paging through it. I'm thinking, "No. No. No. No way. This is not a short history of nearly everything." Because I'm a history nerd. My favorite history of just the Revolutionary War, Angels and the Whirlwinds, is like 1200 pages. This book is 600 pages. So he had to had missed something, right? Yeah, so I checked this book out because I was going to read it. Then I was going to write Mr. Bryson a snarky letter about everything he missed in his book. You can do that now. You can write snarky letters to authors. I know because I get some.
Mike Mullin: But instead of being history like history class, this book was a geological history of the earth. In the middle, I learned about the Yellowstone super volcano. I thought, "Ah. That's what I ought to write about." So I did.
C. G. Cooper: Nice. So did you have any bad dreams about that? I know I've ... With my writing, sometimes it comes from the dark place. You know, it's something that I'm afraid of. Was the super volcano something you worried ... You're going to Yellowstone and it happens to you? I mean, did you put yourself in that place?
Mike Mullin: Yeah, I mean, at first a little bit. But as I researched it more and more, I actually learned more and more about the super volcano, because I didn't know anything about it when I started writing Ashfall. I got actually less and less nervous about it because it's actually very unlikely to erupt in my lifetime. You know, these things happen over a geological time scales of hundreds of thousands of years. You know, I'll be really, really lucky if I get another 40. So yeah, I don't worry about it a whole bunch. Although, I did think ... This makes me a horrible, horrible person, but I gave a copy, a very early draft to my mother. She read it and said it gave her terrible nightmares. I thought, "Yes. I nailed it. I got into her head." Yeah, I'm a bad, bad son.
C. G. Cooper: It's for all the peas she made you eat as a child, right?
Mike Mullin: Exactly. Yes. Yes. The awful medicine I was forced to consume. God, I hated that stuff.
C. G. Cooper: Well, hey, let's dig into the meat here. Let's talk about something that you're reading right now or something that you've finished that you think the listeners would love to know about.
Mike Mullin: Yeah. I just finished it up this morning. I read all kinds of stuff, lots of what I read. Yesterday, I started this book The Ark by Patrick S. Tomlinson. It's sci-fi and it really... I saw something about it on Twitter, I think. The description kind of appealed to me because it's a remnant of humanity fleeing after the earth is destroyed. So they're in this ark type spaceship that only holds 50,000 people. They've selected the very best and brightest of humanity and created this utopian society within this ark fleeing to Tial City. Obviously, things go horribly, horribly wrong. That kind of utopian fiction and the whole premise of having kind of a mystery, a murder mystery within a sci-fi novel. Oh, very much appeal to me. I like gender bender. Not gender bender. Ha ha, GENRE bending books of any type and especially genre bending sci-fi.
C. G. Cooper: Very cool. The Ark by, you said, Patrick Tomlinson.
Mike Mullin: Patrick S. Tomlinson.
C. G. Cooper: Okay.
Mike Mullin: Yeah. First book I ever read by him. I guess he's got three or four out. This is the first in a trilogy. So, yeah. I don't know. I got it from the library. I think I'm actually going to order the trilogy because usually when I find a book I really like from the library then I go ahead and buy it because, I don't know, authors like money.
C. G. Cooper: No, we don't. Do we? Oh, yeah. We do.
Mike Mullin: Oh, yeah. We do. Amazingly, I've tried and tried and tried to go to Kroger and trade words for groceries. They never will go for it. I don't know what the deal is. They want money.
C. G. Cooper: Maybe you're not saying it right or maybe you're just giving a piece of paper. Maybe you should try that.
Mike Mullin: No, no. I'm pretty convincing.
C. G. Cooper: Well, let's move on to the one that seems to be ... It's turning into the most controversial of questions on the show. What is your favorite book of all time?
Mike Mullin: Well, it's really hard, but I do get asked that question quite a bit. I got a list, if you go on my website you can find a list of my 30 all time favorite books. I realize I find fantasy. So it's C.S. Lewis and Tolkien and Dune. But if you going to force me to chose just one, I'm going to choose something a little more obscure just because I wish it were read a lot more than it is. It's The River Between Us by Richard Peck. It's actually a work of historical fiction. It looks at the Civil War and race during that time period in a way nothing I've really read before does. I love this book. I've read it many, many times since it came out in the late '80s. You know, it's kind of a book I wish were written more often. I think it belongs on shelves with Huckleberry Finn and To Kill A Mockingbird.
C. G. Cooper: Wow. That good.
Mike Mullin: Yeah. Richard Peck is just a wonderful human being. A really nice guy. He's been writing 40 years. He's probably like the author I look up to the most or would like to most be like when I grew up, if I grow up. I don't know. Yeah. Yeah. It's just amazing work. If you enjoy historical fiction, look it up. It's YA, but, you know, YA is for adults too. I mean, various majors anywhere from 50% to 80% of our readership is adults. This is definitely work that can be sophisticated and can be very much enjoyed by adults, as well as teenagers.
C. G. Cooper: Nice. A River Between Us. Historical fiction.
Mike Mullin: Richard Peck.
C. G. Cooper: Richard Peck. Got it. Got it. I'm a huge historical fiction buff. Do you read any of the Michael and Jeff Shaara books like ... Oh my goodness. Good grief. Now it's totally flying off my head. The Killer Angels. Have you read that?
Mike Mullin: No. I haven't.
C. G. Cooper: Oh my goodness. If you're into history ...
Mike Mullin: I should, huh?
C. G. Cooper: Absolutely. Civil War.
Mike Mullin: What time period do they deal with?
C. G. Cooper: The Killer Angels is specifically Gettysburg.
Mike Mullin: Oh, cool.
C. G. Cooper: It was required reading when I was in the Marine Corps, but I think I read it before that. I've probably read it, I don't know, 10, 15 times. It's just the way they do, you know, Josh Chamberlain who was from Maine who basically saved the battle for the Union Army and then Robert E. Lee on the other side. All these characters that we've read about for years and years, but, you know, they've thrown into a fictional world. But heavily, heavily based in historical fact.
Mike Mullin: Well, that sounds like it's right up my alley. I'm going to see if my library's got it after we get off this call.
C. G. Cooper: It definitely does. The Killer Angels. It's fantastic. All right. Well, let's move on to your work. Did you happen to bring a snippet with you of something that you've written?
Mike Mullin: Oh, yeah. My most famous book, most popular book is Ashfall. It's the first book in a trilogy, so it's really the one you want to start reading, if you're interested in following my writing. Yeah, I got a little section of this I very often read, if you want me to go ahead and do that.
C. G. Cooper: Yeah. We are all about it. If you want to set it up and then read for us.
Mike Mullin: Yeah. So Alex is a 15 year old who lives in Cedar Falls, Iowa. One week, his mother said she wants the whole family to visit relatives in Warren, Illinois, about 140 miles away. Just for the weekend. Alex doesn't want to go. He's got his friends, his bike, his computer games. Everything he likes is in Cedar Falls. The only thing in Warren on his uncle's farm are goats, stinky goats. So Alex complains and complains and talks his mother into letting him stay home alone just for the weekend. She figures he's 15. He's a pretty responsible kid. What can go wrong?
Mike Mullin: Well, what does go wrong is while he's home alone, the Yellowstone super volcano erupts. So this is what it's like for Alex. He's home alone. He's on the second floor of his house. He's playing a computer game and this is what happens to him.
Mike Mullin: [Reading from his book, Ashfall]: There was a rumble, almost too low to hear, and the house shook a little. An earthquake maybe, although we never have earthquakes in Iowa. The power went down. I stood open the curtains. I thought there might be enough light to read by, at least for a while. Then it happened. I heard a cracking noise like the sound the hackberry tree in our backyard had made when my dad had cut it down last year, but louder. A whole forest of hackberries breaking together. The floor tilted and I fell across the suddenly angled room. My arms and legs flailing. I screamed, but couldn't hear myself over the noise. Boom and then a whistling sound. Incoming artillery from a war movie but played in reverse. My back hit the wall on the far side of the room and the desk slid across the floor toward me. I wrap myself into a ball. Hands over the back of my neck. Praying my desk wouldn't crush me. It rolled. Painfully clutch my right shoulder and came to rest above me, forming a small triangular space between the floor and the wall. I heard another crash and everything shook violently for a moment.
Mike Mullin: I'd seen those stupid movies where the hero gets tossed around like a ragdoll then springs up unhurt and ready to fight off the bad guys. If I were a star in one of those, I'd suppose I would've jumped up, thrown the desk aside, and leapt to battle whatever malevolent god had struck my house. I hate to disappoint, but I just laid there, curled in a ball, shaking in pure terror. It was too dark under the desk to see anything beyond my quivering knees, nor could I hear the noise of those few violent seconds that had left my ears ringing loudly enough to drown out a marching band, if one had been passing by.
Mike Mullin: Plaster dust choked the air and I fought back a sneeze. I lay in that triangular cage for a minute, maybe longer. My body mostly quit shaking and the ringing in my ears began to fade. I poked my right shoulder gingerly. It felt swollen and touching it hurt. I could move the arm a little, though. So I figured it wasn't broken. I might have lain there longer checking my injuries, but I smelled something burning. [end reading from Ashfall]
Mike Mullin: So Alex is trapped in his house. His house just fell on its head and the house is on fire. That's just the first chapter.
C. G. Cooper: All right, man. Thank you. Do you do theater on the side?
Mike Mullin: Oh, no. But I do a ton, a ton of public speaking. So I travel all around the country and talk at high schools and middle schools and colleges and sometimes even to adult audiences. That's the reading I always do, so I practice it just a little bit. In fact, that's memorized. I looked at the book while I was reading it just now and realized that I'd been reading one sentence wrong for months, but that's okay. Nobody called me on it, so I think it's cool.
C. G. Cooper: That's good. Well, thank you for reading that. That as great. I really appreciate it. Well, how about the favorite part of our show, which isn't always a favorite part for the author. I know it's not always for me when I'm reading mine, but mean reviews. Did you happen to bring any or any funny ones?
Mike Mullin: Yeah. I just got a couple little snippets and kind of a funny story. I really believe in the right of reviewers and readers, in general, to receive the work the way they want to, right?
C. G. Cooper: Yeah.
Mike Mullin: I mean, I sort of create ... I mean, I have one movie running in my head when I'm writing, but the reader has a different movie running in their head when they're reading. I think one of the cool things about books is their movies just as valid as mine. So yeah, you know, I appreciate all reviewers. Actually, very soon after Ashfall came out I got this one star review that was just ... It was very well written and interesting, made a bunch of good points about the book. I could definitely see where she was coming from. But yeah, it's hard to read the first time.
Mike Mullin: But then I shared it around. Just said, "Hey. This is a really cool, good review. I thought it was really thoughtful." Probably got more response to that, to sharing a bad review than I ever got through the good ones I sent around. In fact, then my publisher used a pole quote from it when they printed the paperback version of Ashfall. There's like pages and pages, four or five pages, in the front of nice things people had sad about the book, which I thought was really cool. Publisher's weekly and the Horn Book, Library and Media. Blah, blah, blah. Then they put a pole quote of the bad review right on the imprint of the front of this, which I thought was just brilliant. It says, "This book is going to have you running in the opposite direction like a bat out of hell."
C. G. Cooper: Well, that will grab you, right?
Mike Mullin: Absolutely loved. Then they did some other goofy stuff. I think whoever was putting this together was, you know, enjoying a little liquid refreshment while they were doing it. Right in the middle of the English edition: "Ashfall, a un bellisimo libro, bien scripto, y gente." I can't read Italian (?) very well so there's all these weird Italian and bad reviews and whatnot right in the middle of the first four pages. I don't know if people pick it up in the book store and notice those or not, but I think it's funny so I love it.
C. G. Cooper: That's good. Well, tell me, I mean, how do you personally deal with that when you get a bad review in?
Mike Mullin: Oh, I just usually pour some whiskey and try and move on.
C. G. Cooper: Best not to deal with it, right?
Mike Mullin: I have a really good bottle for that. I break out the Glenlivit when I've got a bad review.
C. G. Cooper: The mean review bottle of whiskey. I like it.
Mike Mullin: You know. Yeah. You know, the other thing I always remind myself, and it's hard to do this but it's true. The best research on reviews that's been done was actually conducted by the business school at Wharton. They did this huge study using a Nielsen book scan data and New York Times book reviews. Basically studied what happens when you get a good or bad review in the New York Times. The interesting thing they found out is that for authors who were last well known, they define that as people who had 10 or fewer books out at the time the review appeared. A bad review did more for their sales than a good review. Their sales increased more when they got trashed in the Times than when they got a good review in the Times.
Mike Mullin: Now, for authors who are very well established and they define that has people who had 10 or more books out. You know, they're household names, basically, at least among readers. That was not true. A bad review actually hurt their sales. But for people like me, I mean, you know, my fourth, fifth, depending how you want to count it book is coming out in May. Yeah, bad reviews are only helpful. Go ahead. Trash my book. You know. I don't mind. I don't share them around as much as I used to just because now I have kind of a fan base and I worry about people ganging up on them. Or I'm worried about the whole internet mob thing. So I can't really share them the way I used to. But I don't mind. Whenever I meet people that have read my book, whether they liked it or not, you know, I say, "You know, if you like it or not, please leave a review somewhere. That's a real big help for me. I'd love it if you did that." I never ask them leave me a good review either. I mean, leave an honest one. Whatever you believe.
C. G. Cooper: I do the same thing. An honest one. Now, you know, you hope that they skew towards the four, five star, but, you know, whatever. It's life, right?
Mike Mullin: I don't know. I'm not sure if it's true, but I heard that the number of reviews you get on Amazon matters way more than the quality.
C. G. Cooper: It does. I mean, you can't have a below average rating and still do super well, but yeah, definitely the number of reviews helps. But, you know, it is what it is. You encourage people to do it and, like you said, encourage them to write an honest review.
Mike Mullin: Absolutely.
C. G. Cooper: Yeah. Well, cool. Well, hey, I'm curious, because of your background, I've got a question that I hadn't shared with you before, but I think it'll be right up your alley.
Mike Mullin: Yeah. Yeah. Sure. No big deal.
C. G. Cooper: It's sort of a kind of a pet project of mine. I love helping kids learn to read. Not teaching them to read, per se, but to love books. So how do you think that we can help kids learn to love reading?
Mike Mullin: Well, I mean, various perspectives to that. I mean, if you're a parent, read to them. Keep reading to them, even after they're so old that they think it's geeky or stupid, right? Even after they get to that stage. You know, that's how I learned to love to read is my parents read to me and continued reading. You know, we had this sort of a "chapter every weekend book" that was always running in our household right up until I was probably 13 or 14. There's no reason you can't continue it after that unless you have a really horrible kid like I was.
Mike Mullin: But then from an author's standpoint, I mean, what I was kind of looking at is there's an enormous drop off, right? In the later years of middle school, seventh, eighth grade. Particularly among boys reading. Boys, by in large, quit reading around seventh or eighth grade. Thinking about it, why is that? I think about my own development. I skipped from reading middle grade and YA adults, right to adult. I mean, that was about the time I went to started reading Stephen King and Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov and Frank Herbert and just kind of left the young adult world completely. I think a lot of young men do that. You also have girls and sports and all these other things and video games that are, in some ways, more compelling than some of the fare we're offering as authors.
Mike Mullin: So what I was trying to do with Ashfall, and to a certain extent think I exceeded with, is write something that would be so fast paced, so compelling, and honest that it might attract a few teenagers to spend a few hours with that instead of Call of Duty, for example. So like in Ashfall, I don't shy away from violence at all. I mean, I depict the apocalypse as realistically as I possibly can. That includes, sadly, I think it would include quite a bit of violence. So it's kind of an unusual YA novel in that sense compared to a lot of the fare out there. It's also unusual in that the vast majority of the YA audience right now, 70% plus is young women. Certainly there are lots of young women who enjoy Ashfall, enjoy my work, and that's great. But I was really writing from the standpoint of let's try to keep some of the young men in this market and reading.
Mike Mullin: The best kind of fan mail I get and I do occasionally get these letters is sometimes it's mothers saying, "This is the first book my 14 year old has read in four years." Sometimes it's high school students. I was giving a presentation on the south side of Chicago last year and a kid got up and asked me a question. Senior in high school and after I finished answering it, he librarian whispered to me, "I'm pretty sure that's the first book he's actually read cover to cover while he's been here." So, yeah. I love that.
Mike Mullin: Like you, I'm all about how can we get more kids to read more. Specifically teenagers to read more, in my case. It's an important question. I mean, it's not just because I'm an author and I make money off of people reading, right? There's all kinds of research on this question. Kids who read for pleasure are better at math, which you wouldn't think. But there's a huge study. 8,000 teenagers in Britain approved that. They're obviously better at reading. They have stronger vocabularies. They're less likely to get involved in the juvenile justice system. They're less likely to try illegal drugs. They typically delay the start of sexual activity. When they do start having sex, they're more likely to do it responsibly. I mean, those things are things that pay off to our society as a whole, right? I mean, it costs us ... I don't know what the number is in Indiana, but nationally, it's over $40,000 a year to keep a kid in juvey. You know, we can turn a few of those kids into readers, we save cold hard cash with that. Not to mention that we make their lives better.
Mike Mullin: So, to me, it's really important. Aside from, you know, making a decent living and having some fun, that's what I'm trying to achieve as an author.
C. G. Cooper: Awesome. I love it. I'm so glad I asked that question. I had a feeling that you had more insight than you were letting on before. So I'm really glad I asked that and thank you for answering.
Mike Mullin: Yeah. It's a great question.
C. G. Cooper: Good. Well, all right. Let's move on to our speed round. I got four questions left. We'll just get through them pretty quickly. Are you ready for the first question?
Mike Mullin: Shoot.
C. G. Cooper: All right. Number one, what's your favorite thing--
Mike Mullin: Oh, wait. You're an ex-Marine. I probably shouldn't say shoot.
C. G. Cooper: You're good. What's your favorite thing about being an author?
Mike Mullin: I don't have a boss. I love that. Man, I hated working for other people. I also discovered, I owned a company for a while, and I discovered I also dislike customers and employees. So I sort of had customers. I don't have any employees, thank goodness. I don't really have a boss. My editor's sort of a boss, but I can go a month without even emailing her, so it's a boss with a pretty light touch. So yeah, I love that.
C. G. Cooper: Good. All right. Number two, what is the best advice you ever received? This is not just about writing. I'm talking about life in general.
Mike Mullin: Oh. Wow. Best advice I ever received. I don't know what to say to that. That's pretty good. I don't have a great answer to that. I always tell people, writing advice I always give and I've heard is just read a lot and write a lot. That'll make you a better writer.
C. G. Cooper: Fair enough. All right. Number three, what is one piece of technology you could not live without?
Mike Mullin: You know, I've very briefly been without a toilet. I really dislike that. I mean, I can live without it. I don't absolutely have to have one, but I'm not sure. I don't know. Yeah, no. No. I like toilets. As far as computers and the internet and all that, uh, yeah. It's helpful. I kind of like it. I kind of feel though like we're running an enormous experiments on the human race that we haven't really ... Like maybe, we should've done a trial run first to see what it actually does and how it turns out. So I'm not a 100% sold on pretty much any technology, except toilets. I'm 100% sold on those.
C. G. Cooper: I am 100% with you on that. All right. Number four and we'll keep this super brief. Who do you look up to?
Mike Mullin: Oh, Richard Peck. He started writing when he was about the same age that I started. Now he's in his 70s and still going strong, still putting out a great book every year. Yeah, I'd like to be Richard Peck when I grow up.
C. G. Cooper: Awesome. You might still get there. All right, Mike. Thank you so much for visiting. Thank you so much for answering my questions honestly. Can you give a few last words to our listeners. Let them know where they can find you.
Mike Mullin: Oh, sure. I'm at MikeMullinAuthor.com. That's my email too. Mike@MikeMullinAuthor.com. You can find my books anywhere. Barnes and Noble, Amazon, your local independent book store. Love it if you'd support them. Any way you like to buy books. So anyway, I hope you give them a try and I hope you enjoy them. Ashfall's the best one to start with because it's the beginning of my trilogy. I will have a new book called Surface Tension, a young adult thriller out in May. So I hope you'll look for that when it comes out.
C. G. Cooper: Awesome. All right. Check out Ashfall by Mike Mullin. This has been Books in 30 with C.G. Cooper. Thank you for listening and don't forget to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to say hello or let me know about an author you'd like to see as my guest on the show. Thanks for tuning in. C.G. Cooper out.
BOOKS IN 30 Podcast