Interview with Arthur M. Mills, Jr.
The Crawl Space
Arthur M. Mills, Jr. Branching Plot Books (2012) ISBN 9780986016608 Reviewed by Ben Weldon (age 14) for Reader Views (9/12)
Today, Tyler R. Tichelaar of Reader Views is pleased to interview Arthur Mills, who is here to talk about his new middle school-age book “The Crawl Space.”
As a teenager and young adult, Arthur Mills wanted to make his own decisions. His parents, teachers, and just about everyone else told him what to do and how to do it. To escape these formidable years, Arthur dove into books. However, he soon discovered the authors of those books were no different: they were just as controlling.
Decades later, Arthur is now an author and has vowed to let his readers control the story with his new series, Branching Plot Books and the first book in the series “The Crawl Space.” Readers no longer passively read along but instead become part of the story and actively make decisions. Control is back in the right hands: the reader’s!
Arthur is also the author of the award-winning part-memoir and part-fiction book, “The Empty Lot Next Door.” He is a Warrant Officer in the U.S. Army and has lived throughout the world. Arthur and his wife, Yonsun, have two children, Arthur and Allen.
Tyler: Welcome, Arthur. It’s a pleasure to get to talk to you again. I’m very intrigued by “The Crawl Space.” Will you start out by telling us about the basic scenario the main characters find themselves in when the book opens?
Arthur: The story starts when the three worst bullies from Dawson Middle School attempt to force a weaker student into the crawl space under the school stage. According to rumor, it is haunted by the ghost of another student who, early in the school’s history, was forced into entering the crawl space, never to return. The principal catches them and puts a stop to it. The boy’s punishment for their bullying behavior is to clean out the crawl space over the weekend.
Tyler: How would you describe the three boys? Who are they in terms of personality and their friendships with one another when the book opens? Just how bad are they?
Arthur: The three main characters are so bad that they are known around school and their neighborhood as, “The Unholy Three.” Bruce is the leader of the group. Bruce is physically strong and enjoys watching others feel intimidated when he speaks. Bruce’s only weakness is the fear he feels when he is around his controlling father. Mark is much less physically strong, but he is the prankster of the group. Mark usually is the one to come up with the perfect ways to “torture” the “weaker students.” Charles is the brain of the group. Charles is very calculating and cunning. Bruce relies on Charles to help plan the group’s ideas. Charles was once bullied by Bruce, but he found refuge by befriending Bruce and Mark and eventually joined forces with them. As far as, “How bad are they?” The Unholy Three are feared by other students and even the teachers. The boys have stolen lunch money, vandalized school property, beat-up other students, and even locked the school janitor in his supply closet.
Tyler: And what about the branching plot idea? What made you decide to use a plot about bullying to let readers make choices about what happens to the characters?
Arthur: Since I’m in the Army, I go overseas a lot. Most of my time overseas is without my family. However, in 2007 I was able to bring my wife and our two young children with me to Korea. At that time, the Post Exchange didn’t have much of a selection of children books. Since my eleven and nine year olds were avid readers, I had to order books online. Sometimes, we would discuss the books at the dinner table. Both of my boys would talk about how they wished they could rewrite the stories to make them better. Then a light bulb went off in my head. Why not write a book where the reader can guide the story? That way, the story could be tailed to each individual reader. Of course, this isn’t my idea, interactive fiction goes way back, but I felt I could help contribute to the art and even help children’s imaginations grow.
As far as to why I choose a bullying theme: I was bullied as a child but not as much as my slightly older brother, Ricky, was. Ricky was the family and neighborhood punching bag. Ricky committed suicide when he was just twelve years old. His suicide letter mentioned he couldn’t take the pain any longer. I couldn’t help Ricky back then, but I can help other children who are bullied now. I would also like to help the bullies as well. What better way to help the bullied than helping the bullies? I think bullies just need to understand the pain, the agony, and the despair their victims feel. I’m not suggesting we bully the bullies. I’m just suggesting we place them in a safe and fun scenario; maybe we can help change the hearts and minds of many children.
Tyler: Would you say that part of helping bullies is to understand them as themselves suffering? For example, Bruce is obviously a bully as the result of being bullied by his father? Do you think bullies have been bullied and we should, therefore, feel sympathy for them to some degree?
Arthur: Bullies are often bullied themselves. Studies indicate bullies are often abused at home. Studies also show that bullies were more likely than non-bullies to live in families without two biological parents and were at high risk for alcohol and substance abuse. Bullies were also at higher risk for mental health problems, including depression, anxiety, and hostility. So we can’t just focus on the children being bullied; more focus needs to be on the bullies. It’s the basic, cause-and-effect dilemma. Society focuses almost completely on the effect (bullied children) not on the cause (bullies).
Tyler: Getting back to the book, Arthur, would you give us an example of the kinds of choices readers get to make in this Branching Plot book?
Arthur: Bruce, Mark, and Charles enter the crawl space on a Saturday morning so they can meet their obligation to clean the crawl space. After their eyes adjust to the darkness, they find an old wooden box and three keys. They find a rusty key, a shiny key, and a dull key. The reader is then presented with a question:
WHICH KEY SHOULD THEY USE TO UNLOCK THE WOODEN BOX?
IF YOU CHOOSE THE RUSTY KEY, TURN TO PAGE 31.
IF YOU CHOOSE THE SHINY KEY, TURN TO PAGE 84.
IF YOU CHOOSE THE DULL KEY, TURN TO PAGE 105.
The reader chooses the key and then turns to the corresponding page.
Tyler: How many choices and possible endings are there in “The Crawl Space”?
Arthur: There are 44 choices and 11 possible endings. However, there is only one ending where the three boys make it out of the crawl space alive. In fact, several choices make the reader go back to a part of the book already visited. It’s like a large maze. The purpose of the maze isn’t to trap the reader but to teach the reader that not all decisions are black and white or right or wrong. Some decisions can just lead you down a different path.
Tyler: How did you ever keep track of all those choices? Will you tell us a little about your writing process in creating the book?
Arthur: I had a nice head of hair before I sat down to write this book. Well over a year later, my wife points out a large bald spot on top of my head! I literally and figuratively pulled out chunks of hair as I attempted to keep track of the storyline, the characters, the choices, and the endings. I taped a dozen or so sheets of paper on the wall and drew out the storyline. In the end, the storyline was not horizontal like other stories, but more like a tree with its 44 choices and 11 endings as branches and twigs. I followed the map rather well but as I made edits, and added the sketches, the page numbers kept shifting. This meant I had to keep updating the pages that houses the choices for the readers. The “Turn to page ___” kept changing and so my hair kept thinning.
I started writing “The Crawl Space” before deploying to Afghanistan for a yearlong deployment. I continued writing while in Afghanistan as well. After working my 14-hour shift, I would return to my tent or visit the moral tent and continue writing. It was hard to concentrate on writing fiction after a long and hard day at work but when there’s a will there’s a way. However, I began to develop severe aura migraines and I developed a condition that caused my arms and sometimes my legs to go completely numb. This continued for months and the condition forced me to be medically unfit for duty in Afghanistan and I returned to Fort Lewis, Washington. After months of treatment, I returned to the book and started again. However, this time I was not able to type the way I wish, so I purchased speak recognition software and allowed my computer to do the typing for me. Again, where there’s a will, there’s a way!
Tyler: That’s fascinating, Arthur. Would you say the book has a message about bullying or anything else?
Arthur: The book definitely has an anti-bullying message. Maybe there is a hidden feeling of guilt for not helping my brother more when he was bullied. However, I was only eleven years old at the time but I can offer more help now. In fact, I once had a soldier tell me he wanted to commit suicide. I told our boss and the unit got him some help. A year later, he told me I saved his life.
Tyler: Arthur, you’ve had some dark experiences with bullying in your own history. How did you use that to inspire your writing, and was it difficult to create distance between yourself and the characters?
Arthur: The characters in “The Crawl Space” are completely fictional, but we all know people like Bruce, Mark, and Charles. They are in every school, playground, and office. However, I did base the individuals on realistic characteristics of bullies and victims. I wanted the characters to be as realistic as possible-but not necessarily based on my own experiences. I left that for “The Empty Lot Next Door.”
Tyler: You’ve visited us previously when your first book “The Empty Lot Next Door” came out. What would you say is the main difference between the two books, and did you have more fun with “The Crawl Space” or find it easier or more difficult a subject to write about?
Arthur: “The Empty Lot Next Door” is based on a true story of the ordeal Ricky and I had to face. “The Crawl Space” is fictional but the bullying nature of Bruce, Mark, and Charles is very real.
“The Crawl Space” wasn’t fun to write. Due to my injuries, writing and even speaking was very difficult. In fact, I gave up many times and even deleted the files from my computer to insure I wouldn’t change my mind and start writing again. Nevertheless, after a few weeks, the urge to write again came back. I would then frantically search the archives to try to piece it all together again.
Tyler: I know you plan to write more Branching Plot books. Any idea what the next one will be about?
Arthur: I don’t have much hair left. Maybe I can pull out arm hair instead. If I write again, maybe the next Branching Plot Book will be about kids in a haunted house. The reader will be presented with not just choices, such as which direction to go or which door to open, but it will also include which weapon to fight with and the story could be written from the antagonist’s perspective as well. There will also be more than one way out of the haunted house, instead of just one way out, as in “The Crawl Space.”
Tyler: That sounds fascinating, Arthur, and the choice of weapons reminds me of many current video games. Would you say video games have influenced you in writing these books, or do you see them as in competition with books, so you feel the need to write books with options so they feel more like virtual reality for kids?
Arthur: Video games didn’t influence my writing and I don’t see them as competitors. I think it was interactive fiction that influenced video games. Reading has been known to help increase logical thinking and overall cognitive ability. Reading Branching Plot Books will do the same but it will also help with improving young children’s decision-making abilities. Did I mention it would be fun too?
Tyler: Yes, “The Crawl Space” is definitely a fun book to read. Thank you for the interesting interview today, Arthur. Before we go, will you tell us about your website for “The Crawl Space” and what additional information we can find there about you and your books?
Arthur: You can get more information at www.the-crawl-space.com. You can read an in-depth synopsis of the book and read in-depth character profiles. There is also a section devoted to bullying.
Listen to Live interview on Inside Scoop Live
Read Review of The Crawl Space
Make Comments on weblog