FAQ about this FAQ
Q: So, has anyone actually ever asked you any of these questions once, let alone frequently?
A: Um, no? But I’m asking myself. Doesn’t that count?
Q: Isn’t answering your own questions a sign of schizophrenia?
A: Should I really be answering that question in public?
Q: Answering a question with a question is even worse. Now I know you’re schizophrenic.
A: Dude, that wasn’t even a question. You’re falling down on the job here.
Q: So are we going to answer any real questions?
A: I don’t know. Are you going to ask any?
Q: Okay, okay–
A: Like, now would be good.
Q: How many Ashfall books are there?
A: It’s a three-and-a-half-ology. There are three main books and also a novelette titled Darla’s Story that tells everything that happens to Darla between when the supervolcano erupts and when she meets Alex.
Q: Is there a discussion or curriculum guide for ASHFALL?
A: Yes, Tanglewood Press created a great discussion guide. Check it out on their site. There are several other curriculum or discussion guides linked here.
Q: Why did you set the beginning of Ashfall in Cedar Falls, Iowa?
A: Originally Ashfall was set in Indianapolis, where I live. (Write what you know, right?) Alex fled from Indianapolis toward a farm in Yellow Springs, Ohio, modeled on my brother’s farm. But as I researched the Yellowstone supervolcano, I quickly realized that the disaster wouldn’t be bad enough in Indianapolis. It would be horrible everywhere, as food supplies ran out and mass starvation ensued, but I wanted to write about ash, lightning, and collapsing buildings–not slow death by starvation. Based on maps of the Yellowstone super-eruption of 2.1 million years ago, I estimated that the closest Alex could start to a similar eruption and have a realistic hope of surviving would be about 900 miles. I got out an old Rand-McNally road atlas and drew a circle around Yellowstone 900 miles in radius. That circle neatly bisected Waterloo, Iowa.
Later, my wife and I traveled to Iowa. I wanted to fill in details of the story and get the road names and neighborhoods right. We drove every mile that Alex walks or skis through Iowa and Illinois. In Waterloo, we searched for Alex’s house. I needed it to be an older neighborhood with two-story homes. It also had to be hip enough that Joe and Darren could live across the street. After several hours of roaming more or less randomly, we found the perfect house for Alex in Cedar Falls, just across the river from Waterloo. Alex, and the start of Ashfall, moved to Cedar Falls, Iowa.
Q: How long did it take you to write Ashfall?
A: I wrote one scene, about 20 pages, late in 2008. Then I put it away for about nine months to gestate while I worked on drafting another book and researching supervolcanoes. The first rough draft of Ashfall took me about six months to write. Then I spent another six months rewriting parts of the draft, editing, and submitting the manuscript to agents and publishers. Tanglewood Press bought it in August 2010.
Q: How did you balance the science behind Ashfall with the need to tell a compelling story?
A: As an author of fiction, my first obligation is to tell an entertaining story. But to really make that story engaging, I also wanted it to be as realistic as possible. So whenever there was a conflict between the story and the science, I chose to depict the volcano in a way that was plausible (but not necessarily the most likely, scientifically). The best example is the premise of the book itself: it’s plausible that the Yellowstone supervolcano will erupt soon, but very unlikely. For more on the science behind Ashfall, please check out my guest post on the Our Time In Juvie blog.
Q: Are you available for author visits?
A: Yes! I do free Skype and relatively inexpensive in-person visits. More info.
Q: I heard you break concrete pavers with your bare hands at your author events. Is that true?
A: Yes, here’s video evidence:
Q: Can I interview you for my blog?
A: Yes, you can! Email me at email@example.com.
Q: Could the disaster depicted in Ashfall–the eruption of a supervolcano under Yellowstone National Park–really happen?
A: Yes, there is a massive volcano under much of Yellowstone. The caldera is visible in some places as a ring of cliffs and measures roughly 34 by 45 miles. The volcano has erupted three times in the last 2.1 million years. It is an active volcano and almost certainly will erupt again–hopefully not in our lifetime, though.
Q: How can I learn more about the Yellowstone supervolcano?
A: I’ve placed a list of some websites with tips on volcano preparedness and some of the books I used to research Ashfall here.
Q: Is the Yellowstone supervolcano overdue for an eruption?
A: No. It’s often said that the Yellowstone volcano is “due” for another super-eruption since the last three were 640,000, 1.3 million, and 2.1 million years ago, respectively. Actually, it’s extremely unlikely that the volcano will explode in our lifetime. The eruption preceding the last three was 4.2 million years ago, so the regularity of the most recent events is deceptive.
Q: Would we get any warning before an eruption of Yellowstone?
A: No one knows exactly how much warning we’d get before an eruption at Yellowstone. There hasn’t been a supervolcano eruption in recorded human history. It’s possible it could happen suddenly, but more likely there would be years of earthquakes and topographical changes to warn us. The USGS maintains a volcano observatory at Yellowstone–you can see their forecast of the risk of an eruption here (updated monthly). So we’re likely to get at least some warning of a Yellowstone eruption. Whether we’d prepare adequately is another question, of course.
Even the well-forecast and relatively small (compared to Yellowstone) eruption at Mount St. Helens killed 57 people, in part because the eruption came in a direction (sideways), time, and magnitude that wasn’t possible to predict precisely. Hurricane Katrina killed 1,836 people, even though we’ve known basically forever that a Category 3 hurricane could hit New Orleans, and we had a three day warning before it did. So it’s entirely plausible that the fifteen-year-old protagonist of Ashfall might not believe the Yellowstone volcano posed any threat to him in central Iowa. It would be less believable if he were concerned about it in advance. There a detailed post about the science behind Ashfall on the Our Time in Juvie blog here.
The Puyehue-Cordón Caulle eruption on June 4, 2011 happened with fewer than 4 hours notice. There’s a fabulous set of pictures of the eruption’s aftermath here.
Q: Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?
A: Yes. Do three things: 1) read a lot, 2) write a lot, and 3) show your work to people who are willing to tell you why it sucks. (It will suck at first.)
Q: What are your favorite books/who are your favorite authors?
A: I keep a list of my all-time favorite books and authors on BookLikes here. But there are many other books I love, too. Join me on BookLikes to keep up with everything I’m reading. My favorite books about writing are listed here.
Q: Are there any websites where an aspiring author can post their work and have it critiqued by someone with more experience?
A: I used Critique Circle when I was working on ASHFALL. Now I have a local critique group, but there is a lot of useful information on Critique Circle, and it’s a good way to get a lot of different perspectives on your work.
Q: What’s your writing process?
A: I usually sit down in the morning after I’ve had breakfast and coffee and try to write 500 words. If I get my first 500 words, I give myself a little reward. This is a technique you can use to help yourself accomplish any difficult task–break the big, complicated task (writing a novel) down into little easy chunks (writing 500 words), and give yourself a reward after each chunk. I’m such a huge nerd that my reward is usually a walk to the library. I sit down at the library and try to write another 500 words. If I get my second 500 words, then I get to eat lunch. And I like my lunch. So if it’s 1:00 or 2:00 in the afternoon and I haven’t finished at least a thousand words, I’m strongly motivated to get working!
Q: Do you listen to music as you write?
A: No, but I do listen to music while I’m editing. I have a Pandora station seeded with Metallica (heavy metal), Big Smith (bluegrass), and Time for Three (classical) that I like to listen to while I edit. I think the jarring changes in the music help keep me from becoming too complacent as I hack up my own work.
Q: I want to become an author, but how do I know if writing is just a hobby or if I can make it into a career?
A: I think the best careers are hobbies too–things you’d do even if you didn’t get paid. So start writing as a hobby–that’s the way most authors got started. You’ll know it’s also a career when/if you’re making enough money to quit your day job.
Q: What do you do if you have writer’s block?
A: I get up and do some kind of physical activity: walking, riding my bike, or practicing taekwondo. Other authors find physical activity helps them get unstuck, too. Some dance, work out, or do yoga.
Q: What do you do if you’re stuck in a rut?
A: There are two ways of looking at ruts, right? They can get you stuck, or they can help keep you on the road. If you’re stuck, try any kind of physical activity you enjoy. Changing up your reading can also help. The good kind of rut keeps you on the road. Having a daily writing routine can do this–for me, I always write first thing in the morning, and I always set the same goals. Five hundred words earns some kind of small reward, usually a walk to the library. Then if I get another five hundred words, I’m allowed to eat lunch. Yum, lunch.
Q: How much of what you write is from personal experience, and how much is made up?
A: I believe everything is written from personal experience–either directly or vicarious experience via reading. I’m not convinced that anything is ever wholly “made up”–it’s just repurposed and repackaged by the writer’s imagination. All most all the characters and events described in my books are based on real people or inspired by other books I’ve read.
Q: What tips do you have for developing strong, realistic characters?
A: Ask yourself why a lot. Why is my character reacting this way? What does she want in this scene? Why does she have this particular trait or belief? There’s a section in Cheryl Klein’s Second Sight that does an excellent job discussing character development–part of it is posted here, but if you’re serious, you’ll want to buy her book.
Q: Where do you get your ideas from?
A: Mostly from reading, although the ideas are the easy part. ASHFALL started with Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything, which is where I learned about the Yellowstone supervolcano. But anything can be the basis for a book idea. When I lead writing workshops, I pick up a random item in the room and challenge the group to come up with novel ideas based around it. I’ve never yet had a group that couldn’t come up with more than ten solid ideas in less than five minutes.
Q: Is it hard to come up with original ideas?
A: Yes. Nearly every idea you can imagine has been written by someone already. But none of them have been written the way YOU would write them. It’s important to read tons–that’s how you keep your finger on what’s being published and learn how your work would fit in.
Q: Can you make enough to live on as an author?
A: Yes. The median salary for writers and authors is slightly higher than the overall median salary in the U.S. It can be tough to get started, and most authors have other jobs or multiple streams of income. Check out the Bureau of Labor statistics data here. Writing is definitely a career you can start while doing something else to pay the day-to-day bills.
Q: What kind of classes should I take in high school or college to prepare to be an author?
A: Take whatever interests you. High school and college English classes weren’t very helpful in preparing to write fiction. I had to unlearn a lot of bad habits I developed for school. If you want to be an author, don’t wait–start writing!
Q: Do you enjoy writing?
A: Yes! I love it! I sit down every morning and type lies into my laptop, and they send checks to my house for that! It seems like a scam, but it’s not. That said, writing is a lot of work, and it’s difficult some days. If you want to be great at anything, you’ve got to be willing to put in the work.
Q: Did you always get good grades on essays in school?
A: I’ve always been a pretty good writer. When I cared enough to try, I got good grades on the assignments I wrote for school. There were times both in elementary school and high school when I just decided I didn’t care anymore and quit doing most of my work. Then I got ‘F’s. If you don’t get good grades in school, it doesn’t really affect your ability to be or become a writer. Gary Paulsen was terrible at school, and he’s made an incredible living from his writing. Albert Einstein was a ‘C’ student. I flunked out of high school (because I quit doing the work), and I still got an undergraduate degree, a master’s degree, and became a good enough writer to make my living at it.
Q: Did you always want to be a writer?
A: No, at first I wanted to be a firefighter (natch). Then I decided I wanted to be a ballet dancer. (I had a crush on a ballerina, what can I say?) Later I decided I wanted to go into marketing and make a lot of money. So I got an M.B.A. and worked in big companies for a while. I was miserable. I like this career much, much better.
Q: How did you get started as a writer?
A: I started writing in sixth grade. I had this crazy science teacher, Mrs. Rittman, who was also my homeroom teacher. She made everyone write a page a day to get out of homeroom. If you didn’t finish your page, she’d keep you there all day–even after school if necessary. And you could only get away with the giant handwriting once, then she was on to you. I had her again for seventh and eighth grade. So I wrote my first novel one page a day for three years, an epic work of genius titled Captain Poopy’s Sewer Adventures. About twenty-five years later, I got back into writing mostly because I had been fired from every other job I tried.