Suppose you’re a 15-year-old kid growing up in Iowa. Suppose your parents leave you home alone for the weekend. Then suppose a super volcano blows its top, covering your world in fire, ash and a frenzy of post-disaster mayhem. Do you make it out alive?

In Ashfall, Mike Mullin has blended a knowledge of survival skills, from Tae Kwon Do to skinning rabbits, with geological and ecological authenticity to deliver an apocalyptic coming-of-age story that will make readers second-guess the comforts of their reality. Reflecting on Ashfall, he talks about how making your wife cry can improve your book, Viggo Mortensen’s allure and why batteries and bottled water aren’t as important as the people you surround yourself with.

Find more great fantasy, science fiction & the paranormal among our 2011 Best Books for Teens.

Before the eruption, Alex is a regular teenager in the Midwest. Along his journey, he surprises even himself with his survival skills. Is there anything he did that surprised you?

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Yes, as I planned Ashfall, I envisioned Alex as starting out naïve and kind, but losing those qualities as the story progressed and the situation around him deteriorated. Instead, as Alex got tougher, his kindness deepened. Chapters 37 and 38, in which Alex meets and attempts to help a family on the road, were never in any of my outlines. I wrote them while I was visiting my uncle who was in the final stages of a losing battle with colon cancer.

The first time my wife read those two chapters, we were in the middle of a long car trip. I glanced at the passenger seat and saw her cheeks shining with tears. Yes, I thought, nailed it! I think we can all agree on one thing: I am a truly terrible husband.

Darla is mentally agile, physically competent and brimming with common sense. Is there another female personality who, like her, leaves you in glorious awe?

My wife. Glorious awe is exactly right. In fact, you probably should interview her instead of me. She doesn’t have Darla’s mechanical skills, but in most other respects she is Darla—fiercely loyal, whip-smart and intensely practical. Need proof? She puts up with me. Now that takes an extraordinary woman.

There are also numerous fictional heroines that provided inspiration for Darla. I adore novels that feature tough female leads. D.J. from Catherine Gilbert Murdock’s outstanding Dairy Queen series was the most direct influence on my depiction of Darla, but [Kristin] Cashore’s Katsa [from Graceling], [Daniel] Woodrell’s Ree [from Winter's Bone] and [Suzanne] Collins’ Katniss [from the Hunger Games series] all seized and held my imagination as well.

What is your ideal post-apocalyptic disaster kit?

Nothing. Here’s why: The things in your kit don’t matter. What distinguishes disaster survivors from those who die is not the things they have—it’s the people around them. The will to survive is far more important than the means. For example, members of the infamous Donner party who were traveling alone were roughly twice as likely to die as those who had family with them. Those who had loved ones around them found the will to live, and that made the difference.

I attempted to show this dynamic in Ashfall. At one point, Alex has mostly given up—he’s badly injured and searching for a place to die in peace. Instead, he meets Darla and discovers a new reason for living.

What luxury would you most miss if every familiarity you’d ever known was gone?

The toilet. Ha, that’s not a luxury, you say? I take it you’ve never dug a pit toilet. Or trudged to an outhouse when it’s below zero outside. Some readers have wondered why Ashfall spends considerable time on bathroom issues—a subject most novels avoid. I wrote those scenes specifically to help readers internalize how different the world would be after this kind of disaster. Even something we take for granted, like a decent place to urinate, becomes a challenge. 

Alex encounters people in his journey who frighten, threaten and physically harm him. Do you think there’s a certain formula for those who maintain their humanity in the event of a natural disaster and those who don’t?

Start with the people themselves. How likely are they to react altruistically in the case of a disaster? For most of us, how we behave is determined far more by the situation than any innate characteristic. There’s a minority—something on the order of one in 10—who will behave altruistically regardless of the circumstances. There’s an even smaller minority who will act in a self-interested manner regardless of who they hurt.

But for most of us, the situation matters more than our innate character. The key factor here is how do we see the victims of the disaster? If they’re people like us, then incredible utopian communities often emerge, like the free food kitchens that formed following the San Francisco earthquake. If we see survivors as different from ourselves, we get police and volunteers lining up to shoot African-Americans attempting to flee the Superdome in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. In Ashfall, I capture the range of responses in my depiction of Worthington and later via the division of Americans into “red state” and “green state” groups.

Mad Max (1979) or Logan’s Run (1976)?

The Road. Both the book and the movie. Seriously, I’d pay to see Viggo Mortensen read from the phone book. My wife would pay extra if he were shirtless.