March 22, 2008
Lifestyles, The (Batavia, N.Y.) Daily News,
By Ben Beagle
As one book closes, another book opens.
Isn’t that how the saying goes?
Thomas Mullen, the featured author for this year’s recently completed “A Tale for Three Counties” community reading project, has been back in Washington, D.C., for several days, reading from a stack of other authors’ books as he awaits word from his editor about his second book.
And the librarians behind the Tale project are doing some reading of their own, looking at potential titles and authors for the 2009 Tale project.
About 350 people listened to Mullen’s talks in Batavia, Medina and Perry, and many more read the book and participated in book discussions at area libraries in the weeks leading up to Mullen’s visits on March 13 to 15.
“This book, to me, was something I can really relate to,” Helen Hudson of Castile, said after having her copy of Mullen’s debut novel, “The Last Town on Earth,” signed by the author in Perry. “I can tell if it’s a good book or not by if I can put it down after a chapter or two. But this one I could not put down. I had it with me and was reading any chance I could.”
It’s a sentiment shared by many readers. Last Saturday, all 22 copies of Mullen’s novel, “The Last Town on Earth”, were checked out of Richmond Memorial Library in Batavia.
At each talk Mullen shared inspirations for “The Last Town on Earth,” a historical fiction story about an isolated Pacific Northwest mill town trying to protect itself from the flu even as the country reacts to an unpopular war. He also offered a brief history lesson of the period in which his novel was set – 1918 – when government policies created a culture of fear and suspicion on the home front.
Some readers wondered if the timeliness was intentional.
“Any writer to a degree is a product of their times. You don’t write in a vacuum,” Mullen said, “but I did not want to be overt. I was struck by the similarity of human nature. I simply wanted to explore how people respond to a threat.”
Next Saturday, Mullen will join novelists Nicholas Griffin (“Dizzy City”) and Jacqueline Winspear (Maisie Dobbs mystery series) for a moderated discussion, “Echoes of the Great War,” about World War I literature at the Virginia Festival of the Book in Charlottesville, Va.
With another Tale in the books, here are five more stories from Mullen:
Why the flu?
Mullen, who read a selection from his book at each appearance, said he couldn’t resist writing a novel focusing on the 1918 flu epidemic that killed millions worldwide.
“Writers want to tell new stories. No other novelist had written a story about the 1918 flu – that was one of the reasons I wanted to write a book about it,” he said during his appearance at Genesee Community College.
Later that night at Richmond Library, Mullen explained that part of what made the flu so terrifying was that “reports of the number of flu deaths were not in the paper, even as people could see hearses driving by their neighborhood. There was no guidance from public officials.
“Maybe it was inevitable that the flu would take over, but I can’t help but wonder if maybe with a little guidance it wouldn’t have been so bad.”
A favorite character?
Mullen said he tried not to play favorites with the many characters that populate his novel.
“There are so many characters, and often they disagree. I tried to be impartial, even if they were saying something I didn’t agree with,” Mullen said. “The things they do, they have reasons for doing. Everyone thinks they are doing the right thing.
“In order to write convincingly,” he said, “I needed to get into everyone else’s mind. I had to be able to see why they acted this way.”
What about Philip?
Philip Worthy, the 16-year-old at the center of the story, was the hardest character to write, Mullen said.
“Even now, 16-year-olds are hard to write,” Mullen said. “Back then there was no youth culture. It was tough to get control of the character. Sometimes, a teenager shows a side that is so much more mature for their age; other times they’re just so silly.”
Adding to the difficulty, writing in 1918 meant Mullen had to avoid slang and long sentences. That simply wasn’t the style in 1918, said Mullen, who read many novels written in the era to get a handle on the language and cadence of the period.
“It’s not like I was writing a Jane Austen novel,” he said. “1918 was not that long ago, yet it’s still one of the toughest to get the style down.”
Readers were divided on the ending. Some wanted to know what happened to Philip after he leaves Commonwealth, while others were satisfied that the story of the town had reached its conclusion.
“I liked that he goes back to his itinerant past,” Mullen explained. “He’s a teen; he wanted to prove himself in a town full of all big, burly men. He was insecure. And by the end, he was disillusioned in Commonwealth and the way adults acted. He realized that he was not the only one trying to figure things out. That made him more secure in himself.”
The next book?
Mullen isn’t planning to write a sequel to “The Last Town on Earth” despite readers’ pleas to tell them more about Philip. He did acknowledge that the time may come when he revisits the characters. It could be a follow-up book or, as he suggested during lunch with winners of the Tale book review contest, it could be a story that features characters introduced in “The Last Town on Earth.”
But that book would be years away.
In the meantime, his second book was sent to his editor just before he left for Batavia.
The new book is set in the Midwest during the Depression. It is a story about a family and their three sons – two of whom become famous bank robbers. In the opening chapter something unusual happens, and the rest of the novel explores how the family deals with the unusual occurrence.
“It’s both an exciting and nervous time waiting to hear” what the editor thinks, Mullen said after the Perry program. “No one has ever read the whole book before.”
So many stories …
Since the book’s publication in 2006, readers have shared stories with Mullen on how the flu epidemic affected their own families.
“A lot of people who tell me about their stories, say it was something the family never really talked about,” Mullen said. “It was too difficult, I imagine. But I like that the book has been a way to help fill in that gap for families.”
Courtesy of Batavia Newspapers Corporation