I tried really hard not to use the words “timely” or “relevant” in this introduction about a book about a school shooting that was written over ten years ago (originally published by River City Publishing and now reissued digitally by MG Press). It seems those words get thrown around a lot these days when speaking of books and movies and streaming television shows adapted from books that got written along time ago but now seem all-too-accurate in their portrayals of the dumpster fire of depression, malaise, and self-righteous anger that is our daily news feed.
How about this: the reissuing of Kali VanBaale’s novel The Space Between is necessary. My reading of this novel this summer was necessary. Your reading of this novel in the near future is necessary. This novel’s continued existence is necessary. VanBaale’s writing and publishing future is necessary.
The Space Between is a novel about a school shooting, yes, but it is also a novel about family and tragedy and the way we treat misfit kids and the way misfit kids deal with rejection—from school, from peers, from females, from their own family.
But mostly, it’s the story of a mother who’s trying to keep her shit together in the wake of her son killing himself and three others at his high school.
Remember when we all hated the Klebolds and Harrises after their kids went on a horrific killing spree at Columbine High School? What kind of parents could not realize they were raising cold-blooded killers? What kind of parents could turn a blind eye to all the obvious warning signs?
Which of course, we now know all too well—the stuff about Marilyn Manson and Hitler and the trench coat mafia (which wasn’t really true) and the obsession with guns and homemade bombs. Which again brings us back to the parents: How could they not have realized that their Marilyn Manson loving, trench-coat wearing, Hitler-quoting, gun-crazy sons were heading down a dark path?
But before I get too caught up in the depressing cycle of school shootings and the politics of “thoughts and prayers,” I need to tell you this is not that book. The Space Between is not a political book. Or rather, it’s not a “look at how fucked up our culture of guns, violence, and toxic masculinity is.” It’s not a book that’s going to make you feel better about how you already feel about these things.
It’s a book about how fucked up it is to try to be a human being in the face of how fucked up life can turn when you’re not ready for it.
Actually, no, that’s not quite right either.
It’s a quiet book. It’s often dark but never gratuitous. It’s a book that’s brutally honest in the way it portrays a mother trying to save her family while holding on to her own sanity all the while friends and neighbors and the culture at large demonize her dead son and the part her parenting played in making him that way.
As the title suggests, it’s a book about all the tiny moments in between the big moments that make the headlines. It’s the hours before the shooting, it’s the days after. It’s months, even years in between all the news coverage and the lawsuits that get filed long after.
It’s somehow a book that makes us uncomfortable in how long it dwells inside the head of the mother of a killer while at the same time making us keep turning the next page as we look for the the revelations, the turning points, the easy answers, all the now obvious reasons that hindsight is supposed to provide in these stories—which (spoiler alert) VanBaale never really provides.
I think this is part of what I find most necessary about The Space Between: it’s never easy. It’s never trying too hard. It’s never trying to exploit tragedy or violence to sell a book. It’s not trying to fan flames of outrage or score political points. It’s not trying to glorify, vilify, or absolve.
It’s short and compact with no wasted moments, no rambling on the way longer books might. It’s always just enough—always the right amount of white space—to let you breathe at the same time as you get claustrophobic about the uncomfortable truths that get stuck in your head in a simultaneously healthy and unhealthy mental loop of what-ifs.
Hopefully, this interview with VanBaale will feel to you just a little bit necessary too.
– Benjamin Drevlow
BD: As someone who published a book ten years ago and hasn’t published another book since, I’m cringing as I ask you this question, but here I am still asking about that ten-year gap between your first book and second book.
I know you got this question a lot with your second book (The Good Divide, also by MG Press), but I was more thinking about the mental calisthenics that went into re-issuing your first book a couple years removed from everything that happened between your first and second book.
I guess I’m thinking about how it can be hard to go back to old writing (or writing from our younger years), and then there’s everything that’s wrapped up in a “first book” and then there’s everything that’s wrapped up in the “long-awaited” second book and now suddenly you’re delving back into that first one and reissuing it for new audience.
What’s this process been like?
KV: In a word, ugh.
Ten years between books is a lifetime in the publishing world, but the gap I experienced wasn’t for lack of writing. I actually finished The Good Divide (book 2) and signed with an agent around year four or so. The agent then tried to sell the manuscript for over a year, and meanwhile I worked on a third book. After nearly two years together, however, the agent abruptly left the agent biz altogether, so I had to start over from scratch looking for new representation. Two more years went by before I landed another agent, but that was for book 3, not 2. I’d all but given up hope book 2 would ever see the light of day.
Luckily, around that time I connected with Jeff Pfaller and Robert James Russell, the managing editors at MG Press, and eventually sent them the manuscript for what would become The Good Divide, and they ended up acquiring it. By the time it was published, ten years had passed since the first.
Then, about a year ago, they approached me about the digital rights from my first book, The Space Between, which was only released as a hardback in 2006. I had such a great experience working with them on The Good Divide that I didn’t hesitate to say yes.
It was strange, though, to revisit characters and words I hadn’t looked at in nearly a decade. I’m proud of that book, but I have grown and changed a lot as a writer over time, so there are parts of that book I would write so differently if I wrote it today.
BD: With the Space Between, I was really in awe of the way that you managed to write this really quiet and intimate book about a mother and her family dealing with a great and complicated tragedy, but also making it such a “page-turner”—not a “who done it” so much as a “why done it.”
And you manage to pull this off while almost downplaying the actual events of the school shooting and getting it out of the way fairly early on. And then you make this all suspenseful without trying to give any of the easy, predictable answers.
I know that you have talked about all the different permutations of your second novel: How was plotting/outlining like for this one? Were there big cuts that you made? Rearranging? Shifts in the time frame?
KV: The Space Between was actually the third book I ever wrote (the first two manuscripts ended up, after massive revisions, being The Good Divide and still unpublished book 3). At the time, I wasn’t interested in the gratuitous details of shootings themselves, as you said, but more in the dynamics of this family through the point of view of the mother. I didn’t use an outline, and started out free-writing, trying to connect with what might be Judith Elliott’s innermost thoughts in the aftermath, and that’s how the structure emerged: chapters with traditional scenes layered with Judith’s journal entries. And I wrote the majority of the book out of order and put it all together once I had enough material.
This method … I do not advise. It left lots of gaps and missing transitions and created continuity problems. Every other book I’ve worked on since I’ve written linearly. I’m now a big believer in outlines. I know outlines don’t work for every writer, but they definitely help me.
Otherwise I have no sense of where I’m at in the story, where the major events are falling, and I lose continuity too easily. (I blame this on my now middle-aged memory.) I discovered that I’m a bit of a visual writer, so I need to see a plot laid out in front of me with an outline or storyboard.
BD: In so many ways, this book feels like it could’ve been written yesterday. Very much “ripped from the headlines” as Law & Order would put it. It was eerie in some ways to think about this being written pre-Virginia Tech, pre-Newtown, pre-Elliott Roger/UC-Santa Barbara, and all the other horrifying high-profile school shootings that seem to have happened every two months for the last several years.
Can you take us through your perspective on the subject matter, then and now? It’s such a haunting book that deals so deftly with these uncomfortable and ugly truths about grief and tragedy, but I also imagine it would be a bit uncomfortable and ugly at times to have to watch these narratives play out over and over again—especially from the perspective of a mother of three, two boys and a girl, growing up in this same era?
KV: In 2000, when I first started thinking about this story, my oldest son was a newborn, and Columbine was, at that time, what everyone thought of as “the worst.” The most horrifying, the penultimate of school shootings. It was a scary time to become a parent. Scary thinking about the safety of kids in public schools, but also scary thinking about how do these shooters get to this point? I wrote The Space Between in response to that haunting question, but also while thinking that society was on the backside of the mountain and making the trek down. That we were in the reflection stage. The “figuring out why” stage. I never imagined that Columbine was just the start. That far, far worse was yet to come.
In the early 2000’s, school shootings were also primarily thought to be reactions to extreme bullying, including the Columbine shootings. In the wake of all the other mass shootings since, though, the motives of shooters have become harder to define. Mental illness. Isolation. Autism spectrum. Rage against rejection. After an exhaustive, 10-year investigation, one of the Columbine shooters is now believed to have been an undiagnosed sociopath. The other? Undiagnosed severe depression. Neither, it turns out, were severely bullied or tormented by classmates, and in some cases were delivering the torment themselves.
But it took over 10 years for forensic psychologists and investigators and journalists to reach that conclusion. At that rate, I fear we’ll never get to the bottom of “why” and “how to prevent it” before the next shooting occurs.
BD: For me one of the most difficult and best elements of this book is that you’ve written this all-too-common school-shooter story, but from the point of view of the shooter’s mother who is this highly complicated character, as the best characters are. And sure most of us strive for this kind of shades-of-gray character in our writing, but then, it’s a whole other thing to write from the point of view of a school shooter’s mother who is often less than sympathetic in a post-Columbine, blame-the-parents world.
I was especially cognizant of the narrative of “the broken-hearted boy seeking revenge against women” that’s become all too common as of late, along with obviously the lawsuits and the press coverage and the scapegoating of parents.
You have that one particularly gut-wrenching scene between Judith (the mother of the shooter) and the ex-girlfriend her son had been trying to shoot. I read that scene and read it again and kept thinking about it and I imagined it would be perfectly understandable for Judith to react that way, but I also kept thinking, Lord, the courage that you had to have had to write that scene and a lot of other tough scenes in here.
I guess I’m really asking: You’re a wife and mother of two boys, a mother of one girl, an author of a book from ten years ago about a boy who kills himself and three others in his attempt to kill the girl who dumped him. What’s your perspective on this epidemic with boys, masculinity, mental health, and violence towards girls, towards other boys, and towards themselves?
KV: You know, in 2006 it wasn’t an epidemic yet, and I had no idea I was writing about what was to become one, so that unsettles me to think about sometimes.
I certainly don’t have all the answers, but I do have a few theories on what’s fueling this growing epidemic. There’s no denying the mental health component. The combination of a degraded mental healthcare system, the negative effects of social media and isolation, and unlimited internet access to everything from porn to guns has been toxic for emotionally vulnerable young males.
At this very moment I have 3 teenagers, and I see how startlingly different their lives are from previous generations. They communicate differently. They entertain themselves differently. They learn differently. They date differently. It scares the shit out of me sometimes because we’re trying to parent something we never even remotely experienced at that age.
It’s the wild west of parenting right now, and I think this epidemic is a symptom of it.
As for Judith, it’s true that I did write about a less-than-perfect mother, because there are no perfect parents or families, despite how hard we all try to cultivate and polish our social media personas.
I wasn’t then, and I’m still not now, interested in writing about perfect families, or characters who are only adorably flawed. I’m interested in real flaws, in people fucking up, and in stories of struggle, even when they take me to dark places.
I suppose I’m willing to go there because I always write from a desire to better understand the world around me.
BD: I know that you’ve personally worked to help improve access to mental health treatment in Iowa. I was wondering if you could talk a little about your involvement with that as well as how this experience colors your perspective on the current calls for mental health reform in response to all these mass shootings.
As someone with my own issues with mental illness and a brother who killed himself, I am both encouraged by the push for reform in the way we treat mental illness but also a bit leery of our rush to label everyone with mental illness as potential predators to be treated like convicted felons on parole.
KV: Yes, so in April of 2017, my longtime neighbors, a husband, wife, and their 24-year-old daughter, were murdered by their mentally ill son/brother. We’d known the family for over a decade—the daughter babysat our kids for many years—so it was a devastating shock. But my shock quickly turned to anger when I learned how long and hard the family had struggled to get their son adequate mental healthcare treatment here in Iowa. At that time, Iowa only had 2 psychiatric beds per 100,000 residents, and two of the state’s four mental health facilities had been abruptly closed by then-Governor Terry Branstad, with no infrastructure to take their places. What that meant for my neighbors was that they were forced to care for their incredibly ill son at home, the best they could. And when he attempted suicide yet again, and the ER sent discharged him after 12 hours because there were no psychiatric beds available yet again, they were forced to bring him home and just hope for the best.
Less than a week later, in the depths of undiagnosed and undertreated schizophrenia, he killed his entire family.
Since then, I have become an outspoken advocate to improve mental healthcare in Iowa. In the process, I’ve learned a lot about mental illness, families with mentally ill loved ones, and how society treats and regards the mentally ill.
While the case of my neighbors served as one catalyst in meeting with lawmakers to demand change, it was actually a rare case, and, like these cases of mass shootings, I fear it’s given the misperception that mentally ill people are a danger to others.
Statistically, mentally ill people are the greatest risks to themselves. They’re far more likely to hurt themselves, than to hurt someone else. But the sensational cases, like the case of my neighbors, are what get the public’s attention. Not the grieving parents whose son or daughter committed suicide.
I also share your leeriness about rushing “to label everyone with mental illness as potential predators to be treated like convicted felons on parole.” And every time there’s a mass shooting and the perpetrator is identified as being mentally ill, I fear it only continues to cloud the public’s understanding about mental illness in general.
Because the vast majority of mentally ill residents in the United States—over 18% percent of our population—are not committing felonies like mass shootings. They’re most suffering from a mental illness in silence and in secret because the stigma continues.
BD: You mentioned that you are interested in writing about “dark places,” which is what I love most about The Space Between: your ability to dig deep into the muck to find tiny slivers of beauty in all the ugliness. In so many ways, that’s redemptive to me. At the very least, it’s the attempt to reach out and make art from the most disheartening of experiences. And sure, it helps me make sense of an ugly ugly world, but it also reminds me to never stop looking for humanity even in the people who seem most morally or righteously repugnant at any given time. I don’t know, maybe it’s simply selfish projection—the desire for people to see past all the self-hate I see in myself most of the time. Maybe it’s the last shreds of optimism for a pessimist. Maybe it’s like that old Modest Mouse album Good News for People who Like Bad News (or in turn, that Mountain Goats’ song “I’m doing to make it through this year if it kills me”).
What does it for you? Do you look for these same “dark places” in other works not just your own?
Is it really just the rose that grows from concrete or is there something larger to it?
KV: I love how you put it: “it’s the attempt to reach out and make art from the most disheartening of experiences.” I may tattoo that on my arm!
But it’s precisely why I write what I write, those dark places.
And yes, I’m also drawn to dark literature, and television, and movies. Not because I’m a voyeur or I’m fatalistic, or because I have a bleak world view and no hope, but because I simply want to find the rose in the concrete, as you so well put it.
I process and learn to understand the world—whether it’s ugly or beautiful or something in between—through storytelling.
BD: Okay, so we talked a little bit about “book three” already and all the writing that you’ve been doing all along. What’s the future look like for you writing- and publishing-wise? Are you somebody who’s—rain or shine—always onto the next big thing?
KV: I do have a fourth book I’m just finishing up to turn in to my agent (book 3 was never published and languishes in my computer files.) It’s loosely based on the abductions of two Des Moines paperboys in the 1980’s and explores the idea of “good people” and “bad people,” and how we assign those labels in our communities.
Once I send it back to my agent, she’ll start the nail-biting work of trying to sell it to a major publisher.
But at this point, I’ve learned to stop trying to guess my publishing future, because my publishing journey has been such a rough and unpredictable road. Despite publishing two books and stories and essays, and winning literary awards and getting my MFA, I’ve changed agents three times. Three times! I have one book that never sold (the previously mentioned book 3), and I re-wrote my second book at least a dozen times before it was actually published.
I suppose what I finally learned to do was not count on the next big thing. I don’t trust publishing, I trust writing. I can control writing.
I recently bought a bracelet with the word “grit” printed on it. And that’s what I think most defines me as a writer: grit. It’s what’s truly gotten me this far. I’ve never been the smartest person in the room, the most talented, the most connected, whatever, but goddammit I don’t give up and I’m willing to keep working, no matter how long it takes or how hard it is.
Never, ever, underestimate perseverance.