The Space Between: An Interview with Kali VanBaale

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Iowa-based Kali VanBaale is the author of two novels, including The Space Between (MG Press, 2018), which recounts the story of Judith, a mother who finds her life forever changed the instant her son opens fire in his high school. It’s a story about the dark secrets looming within one household. It’s a story about those left behind to sort through all the pieces of tragedy, and somehow make meaning out of them. It’s a story that reveals insight into the spaces (and people) often silenced and shamed by society, and it’s a story that never attempts to be tightly wrapped with a bow, that doesn’t exploit victims or look for political gain, and which allows each character to confront the incident together and on their own. Although only 114 pages, VanBaale’s compact story allows for reflection, for breath, and for space to meditate on the incredible increase of school shootings — Columbine, Virginia Tech, Newtown, Parkland, and more — to have occurred in the last two decades. 

VanBaale deftly and respectfully gives the reader access into a family’s quiet spaces, in between all the loud headlines. She reveals that these significant, private moments of guilt and grief and love and memories and silence are not wasted space. Sometimes they are all we have to hold onto in the aftermath of life’s scariest turns.


The Space Between has a very interesting publication history. It was first released in 2006 by River City Publishing, winning high praise and several awards including the 2007 American Book Award and the 2006 Fred Bonnie Memorial First Novel Award. What was the catalyst for the digital re-release with MG Press twelve years later?

It’s hard to believe, but back in 2006 when The Space Between was first released, digital books were still pretty new, so it was released in hardback only. The book was also released one year before the shootings at Virginia Tech, so Columbine still stood out in everyone’s minds as the worst of what we would see. Little did everyone know, myself included, it was just the beginning. Far, far worse was yet to come, and would continue to come for the next twelve years.

Midwestern Gothic Press had published my second book in 2016, and in late 2017 the managing editors, Jeff Pfaller and Robert James Russell — great guys — approached me about a digital re-release of my first book as they felt it was still timely, twelve years later.  

In this MonkeyBicycle article, you mention that you wrote the first line while sitting in a booth at a Perkins restaurant: “The last morning Judith Elliott saw her son alive, he asked for blueberry pancakes drowned in maple syrup with a side of cinnamon toast and orange juice.” When you wrote these words, did you know how Lucas Elliott was going to die? Did you know the heinous actions he was about to commit?

I did. I’d started thinking about some version of Judith Elliott and her son Lucas the day I watched the Columbine shootings unfold on television in April of 1999. For whatever reason, as much as my heart and mind went out to the parents of the victims, my thoughts really centered on the parents of the boys who committed the shootings. Not in blame or anger, but pity. I kept thinking about what they must have done or felt that morning — worrying about their children just like everyone else, only to discover the horrifying truth that it was their son who committed the shootings. From the beginning, I knew I had to write about a mother who makes this horrifying discovery, and her journey thereafter.

The main character of The Space Between is the mother, not of a school shooting victim, but of the school shooter himself. I love this twist in perspective because it deeply humanizes the people who often find themselves demonized by society in the aftermath of such horrific events. As Judith herself feels like a victim of a tragedy she could not control, she can’t help but look for reasons to blame herself in all the years leading up to the event. What does this internal conflict add to Judith’s development as a character? What were the difficulties in writing a character so full of contradictions?

Being a new parent of two young sons myself at the time, I was constantly plagued by doubts about my parenting abilities, fearing I was failing in ways I might not see or understand for years to come, so I really started writing Judith from a raw place of personal experience. She was cathartic for me to write, however maddening her behavior was at times.  

The biggest challenge of writing Judith’s perspective was doing it in a way that was at once authentic and real, but also didn’t disrespect parents of the victims. I didn’t want to disregard their pain and suffering by giving voice to hers. And at the same time, I was trying to create a character who willingly examines herself, her spouse, her children, and her family in the aftermath, and to be honest about what she sees with hindsight, while also trying to look forward toward possible healing.

You have mentioned that you wrote The Space Between “out of order.” Yet, as I read the novel, I never experienced any moments of distrust in the narrator’s ability to give me the most necessary details exactly when I most needed to know them. I held on to the narrative thread, comforted that you were there, several yards in front, leading me ever forward. What was that sequencing process like for you? Did you have to add material or take out any chapters? Do you use index cards, Scrivener, etc. to help you organize? Take us through a brief visual journey of this book’s quilting!

Book quilting — that’s a great way to describe it! The Space Between was actually my third attempt at a novel. At that point, I had two failed novels in computer files that I had written sequentially. This novel, however, came to me in pieces, like images, so I wrote whatever images were on my mind that day. For example, the first actual scene I wrote was where Judith rushes to the school to find Lucas. Early on, I also wrote the scene where Caroline (the mother of one of the victims) parks her car in front of Judith’s house. Then, I started free-writing Judith’s thoughts, trying to get to know her better, and those free-writing exercises eventually evolved into her journal entries. After I had enough material, I started piecing it together sequentially so I could see where and how the story unfolded.

It wasn’t a terribly effective method, as I had a lot of continuity problems in my first draft, a lot of inconsistencies to fix, and holes to fill. I think the only reason I was able to pull it off was because the book is not a plot-centered story. It’s more about the reckoning of one woman in her journey through grief. It’s the only time I’ve ever written a book this way, and I’ve now written four.

I doubt I’ll ever attempt that method again.

In your acknowledgments, you thank the Polk County Sheriff’s Department for “answering all [your] legal questions…” What was your research like for this book? What books/movies/newspaper clippings did you encounter while preparing this manuscript?

Photo of Kali VanBaale by Bethany Kohoutek.

I did mostly legal research for this book. I chatted with a local sheriff and asked questions about how they respond to active shooter situations, about investigative interviews, things like that. I also did quite a bit of research and reading at the Drake University Law Library on depositions for civil lawsuits (of which I knew nothing about before this book). Then I read a lot of newspaper archives about the Columbine shooting, and also the shooting at Heath High School in West Paducah, Kentucky in December, 1997.

I started writing The Space Between in early 2001 and finished it in 2004, so back then, there wasn’t much literature on mass shootings or the psychology of shooters. There wasn’t even all that much on the Internet yet. Not like there is today. Magazine and newspapers were my biggest source.  

But I do enjoy researching for novels and I typically do several months worth before I even start writing. I never know when I’ll stumble across something in the research stage that will spark a new idea for a book.

How does the Ohio landscape play into the Elliotts’ story? Why did you choose this particular setting? How are stories of the “small midwestern town” and the people who live there integral contributions to the literary world?

I chose to set the story in Ohio because the Midwestern landscape there is so similar to Iowa, and I understood it. I also knew I wanted Judith’s husband to be an executive at a huge company. At the time, one of my dear writing friends had lived in Akron, Ohio when her husband was an executive for Firestone, so I suppose that’s how the seed was unconsciously planted.

While researching my fourth novel a few years ago, I read a dissertation by an Iowa writer named Paul Mokrzycki called “Lost in the Heartland: Childhood, Region, and Iowa’s Missing Paperboys,” and in it Mokrzycki says:

The Midwest is often constructed and construed, both within and beyond the region, as America writ large. Iowa, for one, is often the butt of jokes regarding American “averageness” or “typicality.” Test marketers flock to the Midwest because of its reputation as “the most American region.” They believe that “if a product will sell in Des Moines or Columbus”…it will sell anywhere.

Therein lies my drive to write stories of the Midwest. Real stories of real social issues, problems, and even crimes — not “averageness” or “typicality.” Midwesterners may try to proclaim “not here, not us,” but it’s a false belief. Midwesterners are just as capable being completely f-ed up as anyone else, and anywhere else. I’m a firm believer that Midwestern literature should reflect that.

Although you treat the subject with extreme empathy, the world presented in this novel is ripe with violence, abuse, guilt, and fear. Everyone is trapped in one way or another. One element that stuck out to me was that the chief antagonist, Lucas Elliott, was found out to have been severely bullied in the past. You have personally worked on the front lines of the mental health crisis in Iowa for years now. In your experience, why do you think these cycles are so difficult to break?

Stigma, stigma, stigma. It still persists. Just this past spring in a suburb of Des Moines, residents fought against the construction of a desperately-needed mental health facility because they claimed “mentally ill people are dangerous.” One youth even called mental illness “contagious.” Mental illness is still tragically misunderstood and many people are still uncomfortable and reticent to engage in meaningful dialogue about it.

When your child or spouse or sibling is suffering from a mental illness and is seriously ill, no one brings you casseroles, or offers to mow your lawn, or ties colorful ribbons around town in honor of your sick loved one. People don’t really want to hear about how your loved one tried to commit suicide, how they can’t get out of bed for days or weeks on end, how they hear voices, or how they cut themselves, or struggle to hold down a job, or can’t make friends, or how they’re relentlessly teased at school. You deal with a mentally ill loved one in private, and mostly alone.

Until we learn to openly talk about it as an illness — not a character flaw or a choice, but a genuine medical condition just like cancer or heart disease — the stigma will continue, and so will the cycle.

In another sense, how did your work with mental health treatments influence your approach to telling Lucas and Judith’s story, if at all?

Prior to writing full time, I’d been a county social worker for mentally and physically disabled adults and children, and had worked with many families, one on one, in their homes. Through that work, I really gained an understanding of what it’s like to raise a child who isn’t “normal” or “average”; meaning, a child who has a severe physical disability, mental disability, or mental illness. Parenting a perfectly healthy child is hard enough, but parenting a child with special needs of any kind … I think it must be like getting shoved off a cliff and told to sprout wings on the way down. If your teenager starts showing signs of depression, no one pulls you aside and politely tells you, “Timmy is suffering from clinical depression and here’s what you need to do to make him better. I’ve made you a handy list.” You’re really on your own to start figuring it out. That’s what I wanted to show in the Elliott family. They’d been shoved off the cliff and tragically didn’t get their wings built before they crashed into the ground.

You are so generous in your ability to let each character grieve in their own personal way. For the daughter, Lindsey, it’s playing violin. For Judith, grieving comes in the form of fussing over her African violets. What do you do when you need space away from the world? How do you create spaces to breathe and play both in your work and your personal life in order to balance the omnipresent stress and anxiety whirling about?

In this day and age, when I need space from the world, I first have to unplug from social media. As much good as social media brings in terms of staying connected and sharing ideas and information, it’s also weirdly isolating at the same time. Seeing a constant feed of anger and outrage, or what others are doing and accomplishing (in comparison to myself) regularly becomes toxic and I have to unplug as much as I can before I spiral down a black hole of despair and self-criticism. A one- or two-week break does my mental health wonders.

I also have an excellent support system of close friends — people I can call or get together with to talk, share, vent, and who don’t judge me or compete with me. They just love me for who I am. It’s like that saying, “Find your tribe. Love them hard.” I have a great tribe.

Your characters are forced to grapple constantly between the Before and After. In one moment, their lives are cracked in half and what comes after will never again be like before. Your novel highlights how quickly a life can change. The characters rewind over and over again: How could I have responded better, reacted differently, or spoken up instead of remained silent?

What I’m impressed with is how you explore the ways in which regret and guilt play into the grieving process, no matter whose “side” you are on. For me, the scenes depicting the budding friendship between Judith, the shooter’s mother, and Caroline, the mother of one of the victims, are some of the most tender moments, perhaps because they are similarly two mothers grieving for their lost children. This speaks to one of the novel’s central questions: “Are Befores and Afters really so different for families of the victim and families of the attacker? Must we find the differences between each other in times of tragedy?” What are your own thoughts on these questions?

Over and over I’ve thought that if the families of the shooters could speak freely and honestly, we might actually learn something that could, in turn, possibly help prevent future shootings. Whether it be missed or misunderstood warning signs, or aspects of an undertreated or undiagnosed mental illness, or “I wish I had done this…,” I think family members hold so much insight and information, yet they always seem to immediately retreat into obscurity. Probably from the fear of condemnation and potential litigation.

But we don’t work like that as a society. Our collective anger and blame drive family members into hiding and into silence. Writing the scenes between Judith and Caroline were my fantasy version of what might happen were these two sides allowed to speak without lawyers, litigation, or 24-hour news cycles between them.

I do think the two sides grieve differently. Families of victims are allowed to grieve openly and freely if they choose, because their loved one was exactly that: an innocent victim. Families of shooters don’t have the choice to grieve openly, because they not only must carry the burden of grief, but also blame.

With school shootings becoming, frankly, an epidemic, how do you think fictional stories, such as The Space Between, We Need to Talk About Kevin (Lionel Shriver, 2003), and Our Hearts Will Burn Us Down (Anne Valente, 2016), can help society eliminate these tragedies from occurring in reality?

I think most literary fiction attempts to not only tell a story, but to also reflect certain aspects of society back at its readers. The stories mentioned above may be fiction, but they’re heavily inspired by what’s actually happening in the world, and they ask hard questions. Only when we’re willing to ask the hard questions, willing to have the hard conversations, and willing to face the hard answers will we have even a glimmer of hope at preventing these tragedies.

What spaces are you currently between?

What an interesting question! I’m very much between spaces right now. I’m in a bit of a holding pattern. In a few weeks, I’ll send my oldest child off to college, I’ll be ready to start a new novel, and my recently-completed novel goes out on submission to hopefully get picked up by a publisher.

Everything feels transitional and unknown right now, so currently, my between spaces are exciting and terrifying all at the same time. Which, when I think about it, is actually a pretty great place to be. 


Find out more at kalivanbaale.com, or follow her on Twitter @kalivanbaale.

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